On June 24th, 1973, nearly 4 years to the day after the horrific and historic raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York City, a gay bar in New Orleans was the site of one of the deadliest events to affect the U.S. LGBT community. For 43 years, it was the “Largest Gay Mass Murder in U.S. History”.

The Up Stairs Lounge was one of a handful of gay bars in New Orleans.  Despite that, the gay community was largely closeted and underground.  This is a stark contrast to the decadent New Orleans gay scene of today.  Located on the second floor of a three story building, the Up Stairs Lounge was often used as a gathering spot for the recently formed MCC (Metropolitan Community Church) of New Orleans.  It even served as the temporary home for worship services.  On the last Sunday in June, the Up Stairs Lounge was filled with people celebrating the weekly beer bust.  Popular reports claim that revelers gathered around the piano singing songs of pride and unity.  Among them was MCC Pastor Bill Larson.

There was a single wooden staircase leading to the steel door entrance of the Up Stairs Lounge. According to reports, someone sounded the downstairs door buzzer around 8:00pm.  This often meant a taxicab had arrived.  When someone in the bar opened the steel door leading to the stairs, flames unexpectedly exploded into the room.  In a matter of seconds, the Up Stairs Lounge was consumed by the deadly inferno.  An arsonist deliberately set the stairs on fire.   One can only imagine that the arsonist set the building on fire with the intent to harm those inside.  

Panic-stricken patrons scrambled to escape the blaze.  They were met with windows that were blocked by iron bars. A few were able to squeeze through and jump two stories to the concrete below.  Some died from the injuries sustained from the jump.  

Reverend Bill Larson also tried to flee the fire through the windows.  He became wedged in-between metal bars crossing the windows, unable to escape.  Helpless onlookers could only watch in horror as he burned to death.

Many of the survivors were badly burned.  One of the Up Stairs Lounge bartenders led a group to an unmarked backdoor, saving their lives.  However, one of these patrons, an MCC Assistant Pastor, bravely rushed back into the bar to save his partner who was still trapped inside. Tragically, they never escaped and both died in the fire. According to reports, investigators discovered their bodies lying together in the rubble.

The inferno ultimately claimed 32 innocent lives, including MCC Pastor Bill Larson, Associate Pastor “Mitch” Mitchell and one-third of the MCC congregation.  Some victims were burned beyond recognition.  The coroner was forced to check dental records.  To add to the tragedy, several of the victims' bodies were never claimed  The city dumped the unclaimed bodies in mass graves at New Orleans' pauper cemetery.  Three of the 4 souls remain unidentified and unaccounted for.  

Many feel the city and law enforcement agencies dismissed the magnitude of the investigation and expressed no sense of urgency to solve the crime or clear the crime scene.

With the smell of charred building and death in the air,  New Orleans Police and Fire Departments left the wedged, lifeless body of the pastor UNCOVERED in the window.  People passing by were subjected to this grisly sight.   

The Chief Detective of the New Orleans Police Department even equated being gay to being a thief.  "We don't even know these papers belonged to the people we found them on.  Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar."

Many interpreted this dismissive and callous behavior by the New Orleans Police and Fire Departments as a deliberate message aimed at the LGBT community.  It squashed the idea that gay people were anything more than second class citizens.  

The Up Stairs Lounge fire was the deadliest event in New Orleans' history until 2005's Hurricane Katrina.  This includes the fire that burnt down the French Quarter in 1788.

Despite the massive casualties and historic significance, the tragedy was largely ignored by the national media and it quickly faded from local headlines.  In the 40 years since the tragedy, the Up Stairs Lounge story has been largely forgotten and unacknowledged, even by LGBT media.  That, in and of itself, is its own tragedy.

While the 1969 gay bar raid in NYC unified and angered a 
community into action, it appears that the tragedy at the 
Up Stairs Lounge in 1973 scared a community into silence.  
They did not rally to demand action and accountability. 

Homophobia reflective of its time reared its ugly head.  The media was incentive, using what is best described as "dehumanizing language". It's widely reported that one of the newspapers in New Orleans, The "State-Item", described the grim crime scene as: "..in one corner, workers stood knee deep in bodies...the heat had been so intense, many [victims] were cooked together...bodies stacked up like pancakes".  Other reports callously described the "mass charred flesh".  The homophobia didn't stop with the press.  One cab driver reportedly said "I hope the fire burned their dresses off".  It's rumored that talk radio hosts joked around, "what will they bury the ashes of queers in?  Fruit jars."

Adding insult to injury, most churches refused to host memorial services for the victims.  

Had this occurred at a straight club, it's fairly certain that the pubic outcry and response from government officials would have been drastically different.  

But was the arson a "hate crime"? 

You won’t find the fire described as a potential "hate crime" in the police report or news coverage of the time.

As we've come to know it, the definition of a "hate crime" (or bias-motivated crime) is one that occurs when the perpetrator of the crime intentionally targets the victim because of who the victim is."  However, the term “hate crime” didn't enter the nation’s vocabulary until the 1980s, when emerging hate groups like the Skinheads launched a wave of      bias-related crime - - long after the fatal 1973 Up Stairs Lounge fire.

While there was a suspect and several theories, no one was ever charged with the crime.  The case is officially closed. 
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Brief History: Up Stairs Lounge Fire
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