News reports have labeled it the "largest LGBT massacre in American history." Yet, the UpStairs Lounge Fire, which occurred 40 years ago this week, has largely remained one of the country's more forgotten incidents.
On June 24, 1973, the UpStairs Lounge, a popular gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, was filled with revelers from the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a pro-LGBT denomination. A patron that evening was asked to respond to the incessant doorbell ringing and was greeted by a kerosene-fueled fireball that made its way up the stairwell to the bar. Patrons, lacking a main exit, scrambled to safety; some attempted to squeeze through the window's metal bars while others slid down drain pipes or escaped through another exit leading to the building's theater. One of the more disturbing images from the incident is of MCC pastor, Rev. Bill Larson, who succumbed to the fire after witnesses heard him screaming "Oh, God. No!" Emergency responders and onlookers found his body stuck in the window's metal bars.
Thirty two people died in the incident deemed by media reports as the deadliest fire in New Orleans history. There were no convictions, though the likely culprit was a troublemaking patron who was booted from the bar the night of the fire. He committed suicide a year later.
At a time of heightened homophobia, many news outlets failed to mention that the majority of victims were gay. Moreover, some family members failed to claim the victims' bodies. A marker at the site of the fire--the building has been transformed into a restaurant and bar--now commemorates the tragedy.
"This tragedy has consumed my life since I found out about it two years ago," Misti Ates, a New Orleans LGBT advocate, told The Times-Picayune during a jazz funeral procession this week. "The people who died were someone's child, brother, father, or wife. It's not just a gay event. These are real people with real lives."
For more details on the fire, read NFPA's investigation report.