Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Observations on Queer History 6.25

Lately I've been reading a lot of gay history, not the easiest subject considering most of it was hidden. While I spend another morning waiting for SCOTUS to announce the fate of the dreams of millions of Americans I thought I would give you a short history lesson.

UpStairs Lounge
from the collection of Johnny Townsend
Forty years ago there was a gay bar at the corner of Iberville and Chartres Street in New Orleans. It was called the UpStairs Lounge.

June 24, 1973 was a Sunday, the final day of one of the first Pride weekends, and the fourth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Not that there was an open Pride celebration in New Orleans. Gay life in the city was lived deeply underground and most gay bars in the city were located in derelict waterfront buildings to keep it that way. On that Sunday night sixty people were celebrating in the bar when somebody soaked the stairwell with lighter fluid, lit it, and rang the buzzer. Thirty two people died in the ensuing fire storm, the largest murder of LGBT people in American history. The second floor bar had no emergency exit and the windows were barred to keep people from falling, some were later found burned to death pressed against the bars. Many of the survivors owed their lives to the bartender who led them to the roof through a back exit until it was blocked by flames. Nobody was ever charged with what was never considered an outright hate crime so it is a bit lost in American history.

To me what is most important historically is what happened after the fire. At the time New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu and the Governor of Louisiana had no comment. Two days after the fire the story disappeared from the local headlines, something that would have been unimaginable had the victims been straight. Many churches in the city (Catholic, Episcopal, Baptist and Lutheran) refused to allow memorial services in the facilities or allow the dead to be buried in their cemeteries. The refusal to allow burial in Catholic cemeteries reportedly came from Archbishop Philip Hannan himself but he never publicly commented on the fire. The dead were gays after all and deserved what they got. Some remains weren't claimed by 'embarrassed' family members and three of the dead were never identified at all. Many gay men in the city carried false papers in case they were arrested in one of the frequent NOPD perversion sweeps.

A few days after the fire a New Orleans detective, Henry Morris, was quoted in the New Orleans States-Item. "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."

But looking back, horrific as it was, the UpStairs fire marked a turning point as important for New Orleans as the Stonewall Riots were to New York. On July 1st, a week after the fire, a memorial service was finally held at St. Mark's Methodist Church in the French Quarter. After the service the 300 attendees had the option of leaving through a side door to avoid the cameras of the media and police. For the first time in city history most choose to walk out the front door.

That happened in America just forty years ago.

notes - One of the attendees at the St. Mark's memorial service was Louisiana's Methodist bishop, Finis Crutchfield, who would die of AIDS fourteen years later at age 70. Eventually New Orleans became the first city in the South in extend full civil rights to gay city employees.