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.
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.
Four of the victims’ bodies were never identified; some thought their families were too embarrassed to come forward and claim them. (They were buried in paupers’ graves.) Of the city’s public officials not one made a statement about the fire and only one religious leader, Episcopalian Reverend William Richardson, held a memorial service.
Sometime during the investigation, police picked up a troubled hustler named Roger Nunez, who had been tossed from the Lounge earlier that day for starting a fight. There were allegations that, after being ejected, Nunez went to Walgreens, purchased lighter fluid, doused the stairs and then set the bar aflame. Nunez was questioned about the crime but went into convulsions and was taken to the hospital. While there, he escaped.
One year later, Nunez killed himself. Five days after, a friend told an investigator that Nunez had drunkly admitted several times that he had started the fire.
Though the main tragedy was the terrible loss of life that night, the city’s response further dishonored the victims by keeping their deaths unacknowledged.
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.
May God rest their souls.