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  LGBT HISTORY MONTH

Out Of The Past: 32 Killed In Horrific Firebombing of Gay Bar (1973)

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.

By:           Daniel Villarreal
On:           Oct 1, 2011
Tagged: , , , ,

  • 58 Comments
    • David
      David

      I thought I knew a lot of LGBT history. I had no idea. Thanks for posting.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 5:29 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Ganondorf
      Ganondorf

      Deadliest? We can admit that this was a bloody page in a bloody history book sans the histrionics. Maybe you can’t, which wouldn’t be at all surprising.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 5:35 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Please
      Please

      @Ganondorf

      What would be the deadliest gay massacre then?

      Jun 24, 2011 at 5:44 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Steve
      Steve

      It’s stories like this that make me believe Queerty’s revival was for a reason.

      Thank you, for teaching me something new, and bringing to light an event which would have otherwise remained in the dark.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 5:51 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Wow
      Wow

      I have never heard this story. This occurred just a few months after I was born in neighboring Texas. So much more disgusting how this was reported on. Thanks for this post.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 6:00 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • christopher di spirito
      christopher di spirito

      Wow. I never heard this before now. Thanks, Queerty for sharing this piece of history.

      Keep up the informative work.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 6:05 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • TomMc
      TomMc

      Hadn’t heard of it either. Thanks for teaching me something new – albeit a disturbing and saddening story – too Queerty.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 6:05 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • JKB
      JKB

      I’ll join the others in commending Queerty on this story. I was unaware as well.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 6:17 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Phytos
      Phytos

      Thanks, this is more of the sort of reporting that Queerty needs.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 6:33 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Jeffree
      Jeffree

      Nice work Queerty / Daniel V! Add my name to the list of people who didn’t know about this tragedy.

      Thanks for the reminder that there are places here in the US —& worldwide— where this same scenario could happen again. As hatred seems to be running high against LGBT folks, we can’t assume “that was then, this is now.”

      Jun 24, 2011 at 6:57 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • PLAINTOM
      PLAINTOM

      I must admit my ignorance regarding this story. Good job!

      Jun 24, 2011 at 7:16 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Aedan
      Aedan

      @Please

      Actually he’d be technically correct if this article meant biggest massacre in the world and not just the USA. If it’s just the US they are talking about then Queerty is right. If they are talking about the world then they are wrong. The Holocaust (I know godwins law and all that- but this is more a fact) had the potential to murder hundred of gay and lesbian women in just one use of their gas rooms or firing squads. And homosexuals were on their most wanted list so its very likely that it happened often.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 7:54 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Aedan
      Aedan

      Oh! And thank you Queerty for sharing this tragedy. Worst or not it’s a horrible bit of history that should not be forgotten. At the very least to remember the loss of those poor people.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 7:59 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Mr. Enemabag Jones
      Mr. Enemabag Jones

      I must agree with everyone here–I had never heard this story before.

      And when anti-gay people ask why gay history should be taught in schools, tell them about this story.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 8:25 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • paulcanning
    • TMikel
      TMikel

      I am ashamed to say that I had never heard of this tragedy. We may have come some distance from 1973 but there are still those who would cheerfully kill us if they could get away with it. It is the shame of our country, going back to the 1600s, that minorities and those who are different are often persecuted. We should ever be reminded of such events – Never Again should be our motto.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 8:40 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Sebizzar
      Sebizzar

      I’m going to cry :’( Thanks for the story, i never heard about it either & it’s very very messed up how the media handled it. But thankfully things are somewhat better…

      Jun 24, 2011 at 8:54 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Shannon1981
      Shannon1981

      Thanks for making me aware of a piece of our history I knew nothing about.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 9:03 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • hyhybt
      hyhybt

      Thank you for a mostly-unknown story that shouldn’t be forgotten.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 9:18 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • SteveC
      SteveC

      I’d never heard of this story either.

      Totally horrible.

      Though I do take issue with the last sentence of this article which says ‘May God rest their souls.’

      The christian ‘god’ is a stinking, bigotted asshole. I want nothing to do with that ‘god’ thing.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 9:29 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • lemon-lime
      lemon-lime

      I was not aware of this story either. What a tragic story.

      @SteveC: You do realize that the majority of the dead were there because they were supporting a Christian church for gay people, right?

      Way to show respect for the dead, you stinking bigoted asshole. People like you really piss me off. Your bigoted, hateful anti-religious spew is just as insulting as the filth people like the Westboro Baptist Church spout.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 9:59 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • joshua
      joshua

      I concur. I had no idea about this. Thank you for reminding us of our history.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 10:42 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Jim Hlavac
      Jim Hlavac

      Given the fact that all the commentators had no idea this had ever happened, I am glad I brought this story to the attention of Queerty — it is one of the most unknown parts of American gay history. Even gay groups like to forget it, or don’t know — for it’s so horrible. However, I know some of the people who survived, personally, because I lived in New Orleans (and nearby now.) That the massacre happened on Pride weekend is all the more poignant. That NY state, where I was born, is about to pass gay marriage this very night is all the more heart wrenching, for the dead did not get to see this shining moment.

      Whether Nunez set the fire is completely unknown — that the police tried to blame a gay man — hustler or not — was just part of the “queers are dangerous” meme then (and now) in place in our nation. The Fire Dept in New Orleans said gasoline, supposedly Nunez said lighter fluid — there’s a difference – and no store sells enough lighter fluid to do what that fire did. The reports of a taxi showing up without a passenger — and Nunez did not drive a taxi — is also a question that needs to be answered – this story is not complete.

      And @SteveC — sir, God is on my side – even if organized religions are mostly not. Religion and God have often naught to do with each other. I often tell hetero sites: “God put gay people here as a test of heterosexual’s decency, and you have often failed miserably. And we have overcome.”

      And this being Pride weekend, and me here in NYC for the festivities — let me say this — I’m not “proud” I’m gay — I’m proud I survived the onslaught against us. That’s where our pride lays — in surviving the onslaught.

      Reporting this story on the anniversary does not spoil my Pride weekend, it strengthens my resolve to never tolerate the nonsense against us ever again.

      And yes, God bless the dead, and each and every one of us.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 10:56 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Jim Hlavac
      Jim Hlavac

      and NY State just passed gay marriage — hallelujah! So happiness and joy with remembrance of tragedy — a novelist could not have penned the last 24 hours of this confluence of events.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 11:26 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • redball
      redball

      “I’m not “proud” I’m gay — I’m proud I survived the onslaught against us. That’s where our pride lays — in surviving the onslaught.”

      That’s a beautiful way to put it, Jim!

      Jun 24, 2011 at 11:55 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • ChpInNlr
      ChpInNlr

      Add me to the list of people that had never heared about this, thank you for posting.

      Jun 24, 2011 at 11:56 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Mark
      Mark

      @Ganondorf: I think they were referring to the United States. The deadliest would probably be the Holocaust but I’m uncertain of that.

      Jun 25, 2011 at 12:19 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • jeff4justice
      jeff4justice

      One good thing about this story was that at least there was some MCC love going on their and that they had a place to meet and socialize.

      There’s still places even in CA with pretty decent suburb populations that have nothing to offer LGBT folk.

      Jun 25, 2011 at 12:26 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • greenmusic23f
      greenmusic23f

      How wonderful that New York legislature PASSED the marriage bill on this anniversary! Something good for the day!

      Jun 25, 2011 at 12:56 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Ray
      Ray

      This happened right after I was born. I live about 3 hours away in Mississippi. I’ve been to New Orleans many times but I’ve never heard the story either. So much of our history is lost.

      Jun 25, 2011 at 1:04 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Right Wingers Are Socioptahs (John From England)
      Right Wingers Are Socioptahs (John From England)

      I cant believe so many people didn’t know this? Im English and I make it my business to know about ANY history that affects me….

      But then Queerty commenters are not politically inclined like Towleroad or JMG, so I guess good stuff!

      Jun 25, 2011 at 1:21 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Gloominusd
      Gloominusd

      I had never heard of this either…what a HORRIBLE and sad story. This story literally made me cry. Why must humans be so cruel to each other? I just do not understand. And the jokes that were made about this tradegy?!?! Positively sickening!! I hope there will come a time when being gay, lesbian, bi, or transgender will NOT be an issue or a reason to put down, bully or kill for.

      Jun 25, 2011 at 1:25 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Jeffree
      Jeffree

      @John from England: Nothing quite like feeling superior & rubbing it in so “lovingly”, is there? lol.

      Weak egos are best nurtured with such shallow displays of condescension. Greater minds content themselves with gratitude for the education they have received, and so they act graciously toward those without such privilege.

      Ptah-ptah for now.

      Jun 25, 2011 at 2:38 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • edfu
      edfu

      You should also write about the 1977 fire at the Everard Baths in New York City–nine dead.

      Jun 25, 2011 at 3:12 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Mike in Asheville
      Mike in Asheville

      @Ganondorf: @Please: @Aedan: @Mark:

      This story is indeed sad; and no comparison to other events diminishes the awfulness that happened that night in New Orleans.

      In terms of “deadliest”, though, to me, as I attended so many funerals, AIDS by far is the life taker. In the worst and most difficult years, 1993-1995, during those 1095 days, over 100 gay men died EACH AND EVERY DAY totaling more than 109,500 gay men. (Over 500,000 gay men have died of HIV/AIDS in the US.)

      During the Holocaust, an estimated 10,000+ gay men perished.

      While “massacre” connotes a singular event, I think both HIV/AIDS and the Holocaust can, and in this case should, be included as the great number of deaths were overtly caused by government action.

      Lastly, for those who don’t know, in the late 1970s, there were several arson sprees against the gay community in San Francisco resulting in the deaths of several gay business owners and patrons and the destruction of more than a dozen businesses.

      Jun 25, 2011 at 10:37 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Ganondorf
      Ganondorf

      @Mike in Asheville:

      And that’s what I could use to sustain my point. However, the title didn’t initially include the word ‘gay’ (a simple error), and wounded knee immediately came to mind, along with many, many other examples (as a country born and reared in an ocean of blood). This was awful, and I had heard of it before, and have seen the photos. Anyway, regardless, I think that competitive suffering subtracts from tragedy and, in relevant cases, the evil that resulted in it.

      Jun 25, 2011 at 1:45 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Tommy Shepherd
      Tommy Shepherd

      I didn’t know about this either, but it reminds me of a similar fire that took place in London in 1994 at the Dream City sex cinema which killed 11 people. A homeless man who had had a fight with the doorman started the fire. Terrifying. http://gactupdate.wordpress.com/info/dream-city/

      Jun 26, 2011 at 6:51 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Tired Old Queen at the Queerty
      Tired Old Queen at the Queerty

      I was a child visiting my grandfather in the French Quarter at the time, and everyone was talking about it. It was just up the street from the Cathedral as I recall, toward Canal.

      Jun 26, 2011 at 1:29 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • MattGMD
      MattGMD

      Thanks for posting.

      Jun 26, 2011 at 6:15 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • tazz602
      tazz602

      I was 10 years old when this happened and I never heard of it until now. Thank you Queerty for keeping us and the younger generations aware of our history and the good and bad things that have helped bring us to where we are today. We have to make sure the younger generations and the ones coming up know our stories, struggles and the hard times most of us did and some of us still endure.

      My quesiton is this – why did the bartender not save more people out the secret back door? Now if people panicked and he had no way to get everone’s attention to leave with him I can understand – but my first quesiton is since there was a way out how come more people weren’t “shown the door” – so to speak. Has there ever been an interview with him or the people that did escape on the rooftops and get more details?

      Jun 27, 2011 at 9:54 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Wes
      Wes

      There is now a book, “Let the Faggots Burn”, by Johnny Townsend, available on Amazon and is an e-book as well.

      Sep 3, 2011 at 2:06 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Michael
      Michael

      Ugh disgusting and heartbreaking.I had never actually heard about this until now.I had no idea this had even happened years ago.

      Coward who took his life should have gotten the death penalty instead.Its sad how even now there are people just as sick if not MORE sick as that guy who caused all these innocent souls to die.

      In 1998, New Orleans Councilman Troy Carter lead a jazz funeral to the site of the blaze where mourners laid a memorial plaque at the foot of the building and placed flowers commemorating each of the 32 dead.

      Thats touching and good to know that out of a horrific tragedy comes some beacon of hope and love.

      Initial newspaper reports left out any mention of homosexuality and delighted in grisly details about the fire workers “knee-deep in bodies… stacked up like pancakes” and “literally cooked together.” One paper quoted a cab driver who said, “I hope the fire burned their dresses off,” while radio talk-show hosts joked, “What will they bury the ashes of queers in? Fruit jars.” National television networks covered the fire for one night and never mentioned it again.

      ^^^^These people however whether alive or dead now should always live in shame talk about disgusting.Takes a person with no heart humanity or soul to say sick and heartless crap like that after such a horrific and tragic event like this was.

      Oct 1, 2011 at 11:24 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Little Kiwi
      Little Kiwi

      I’d never heard of this event before, and I’m frankly stunned that it’s not more well known. This is an event that should be talked about A LOT – a direct attack on us, and (in this culture of Bullshit Terrorist Fears) a wake-up call that there is indeed homegrown terrorism plaguing the continent, and the enemy is not some amorphous Muslim. The enemy is blind prejudiced hatred.

      Thank you, Queerty, for bringing this story back into attention for those of us who had not previously known of it. This is a story that needs to be be kept alive.

      Oct 1, 2011 at 12:33 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Paul
      Paul

      I am I 50 year old gay man who grew up in New Orleans; I recall this horrific event vividly. I was 12 years old and I remember what people said and didn’t say….like it was yesterday. I remember being terrified by the implied message of what had happened: THIS is what happens to those kinds of people and the rest of the world just laughs. What I’d forgotten was the number of deaths from the fire…higher than I’d recalled…but nonetheless a terrifying story for a little gay boy in the making. Thanks for keeping this dark piece of history from going unnoticed.

      Oct 1, 2011 at 1:08 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Michael
      Michael [Different person #1 using similar name]

      Did they ever catch those responsible for this tragedy? Thank you for my Gay History lesson. I am grateful to Queerty for opening my eyes to more the just the pretty boys and fluff stories. Keep the history coming. It is important to honor our history….good and bad.

      Oct 1, 2011 at 2:30 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Ray
      Ray

      @Michael: The cops caught him. He had a seizure. They took him to the hospital and the hospital just let him walk. The cops never looked for him again. He confessed while drunk to people several times. He was still hanging out in the French Quarter. The cops wouldn’t even call it arson because a bunch of them couldn’t start a fire with the type of lighter fluid found ad the scene, old wood similar to the wood in the building and matches or a lighter. Obviously they tried real hard when they couldn’t start a fire with fire.

      Oct 1, 2011 at 2:33 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Ray
      Ray

      @Wes: Thanks for the tip on the book. I just ordered it. I tried to find a book on the fire back in June when Queerty first ran this article. I have read everything I could find on Google about the fire.

      Oct 1, 2011 at 2:39 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Mark
      Mark

      I do remember when this happened though it had slipped my mind.

      Lest we forget though the Holocaust – granted the gays who died there were not from this country, but still.

      Oct 1, 2011 at 5:03 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Little Kiwi
      Little Kiwi

      and let’s also remember that the gay people who were liberated from the death camps were then imprisoned by the allied forces for being gay.

      freedom from a death camp became imprisonment if you were gay.

      Oct 1, 2011 at 5:11 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • william
      william

      @SteveC: No, God is not at fault here. Some of his “followers” are. People who hate always tarnish those who do not.
      The phrase God rest their souls is appropriate.

      Oct 2, 2011 at 12:22 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Mikey
      Mikey

      @Ganondorf: Way to trivialize the lives of more than 30 gay men who were guilty of nothing more than having a drink with friends. It may not be the most egregious example of violence against gays but does that mean it doesn’t count?

      Jackass.

      Oct 2, 2011 at 3:59 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Ted
      Ted

      I already knew about this story because it was mentioned in my history textbook last year. Shows that SOME progress is being made on the reporting of gay history.

      Oct 2, 2011 at 10:51 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • ricky rocky
      ricky rocky

      @Please: The deadliest gay massacre must be the complete early mishandling of the AIDS epidemic by President Reagan our country’s Angel of Death.

      Oct 3, 2011 at 1:30 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Pitou
      Pitou

      @ricky rocky: Mmm.. Good one! That IS the deadliest Gay massacre in this country, and thanks to the Angel of Death’s inaction at the start, and inaction or very little by most leaders to follow, it’s transformed into a national massacre spanning ALL demographics. Ahhh.. America.

      Oct 3, 2011 at 6:01 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Elliott
      Elliott

      That was the summer of my discovery and acting upon my gay nature that God gave me. I knew that I was different but finally met my first gay man and asked him to help me find out what it was all about. My parents were in New Orleans that very weekend of the fire. I had told them after the fire that I loved men and was gay. My parents told me that “those people in the bar got exactly what God wanted for them for doing what they were doing upstairs in that gay bar & that He would burn me either here or later in hell. I left my parent’s home that evening stunned and did not see them again until their funerals in 1983 (stepmother) & 1987 (father). I’m happy, love God & have been in a very loving relationship for 33 years this coming April 2012 with the same man. I have often thought of those that died that day so many years ago & how they gave so much to help me be the happy person that I have become. They will never be forgotten in my life. R.I.P.

      Oct 3, 2011 at 6:25 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Elliott
      Elliott

      I also remember reading about it in The Advocate week after week, then suddenly nothing more. I remember fundraiser events for those that suffered from burns. Whatever became of them? I would love to meet and thank them face-to-face.

      Oct 3, 2011 at 6:40 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Dave
      Dave

      Thanks for this post. I had never heard of this. That is an astonishing death toll. I wonder if this couldn’t be pursued today. There is no statute of limitation on murder.

      For those who are trying call AIDS a “massacre” by the govt.: be careful of your demagogic arguments. If the govt. is guilty of a “massacre” because it was slow to react for the first several years, then the men who actually infected others – not only during those years but in every year since – would bear much greater guilt. Moreover, even if the US govt. had leaped into action after the very first reports in 1981, it would not have been able to save any of those who died in the 80s. What would have saved them is to not have been infected in the first place. But that would have required the gay male urban subculture of that era to place human life above sexual pleasure.

      Oct 7, 2011 at 2:39 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • CarolAnne
      CarolAnne

      I followed a link to this story. How very tragic, all those deaths, and no justice ever received. Thank you for sharing the story, I am sad things like this have been swept under the rug. May we all become more enlightened.

      Mar 7, 2012 at 9:57 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·

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