October is Gay History Month. All throughout the month we’ll revisit stories that shed light on lesser-known moments in LGBT history.
June 24, 1973 marked a lively summer day at The Upstairs Lounge, a second-floor gay bar in New Orleans’ Gay Triangle. The Lounge had just hosted its regular services for the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church, after which the bar held a free buffet for 125 people. By that evening, about 60 patrons were in the bar enjoyed David Gary’s piano playing and discussing the bar’s upcoming MCC fundraiser for Crippled Children’s Hospital.
At 7:56pm bartender Buddy Rasmussen heard the downstairs buzzer and asked Luther Boggs to go check the door. Normally cabbies would ring the buzzer to tell people that they had arrived to pick people up, but when Boggs went to answer the door, he found no cab driver. Instead he found the flames of a Molotov cocktail engulfing the wooden staircase and climbing towards the bar.
Rasmussen led about 20 or 30 people out through an unmarked exit, where they emerged onto the roof. The group and hopped from rooftop to rooftop until they found a way down.
But the 30 others remaining in the lounge ran confusedly to the barred windows where they tried to escape. One man managed to squeeze through the 14-inch gap between the bars and the sill—he jumped onto the street, his body engulfed in flames, and died on impact. The Reverend Bill Larson clung to the bars and slowly burned to death grasping the window frame, where his charred body remained visible for hours after.
MCC assistant pastor George “Mitch” Mitchell escaped, but when he realized that his boyfriend, Louis Broussard, was still in the bar he went back to save him. Wworkers would later find their bodies huddled together among the charred wreckage.
The fire only lasted 16 minutes but killed 29 people—and three more who died from their burns later, including Boggs, the man who had answered the door. New Orleans had never seen such a death toll from fire nor had the U.S. seen such a large attack on gays and lesbians. It remains the largest LGBT massacre in this country yet, to this day, few know of the Upstairs Lounge fire.
NOTE: The next page includes an image of a burn victim that might upset some readers.