Life

New Evidence Shows That During the 1973 UpStairs Lounge Arson, Gays Had to Take Rescue Efforts Into Their Own Hands

A view inside the UpStairs bar following a flash fire.
A view inside of the UpStairs Lounge, following a flash fire that left 32 dead and 15 injured, on June 25, 1973.*
Jack Thornell/AP

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

In a funeral home on the edge of the French Quarter, 12-year-old Patrick Schoen refused to accept his cousin’s dare to look inside the body bags that were lined up in the carriageway of the family business. His cousin was an embalmer, and the funeral home had received dozens of anonymous bodies of men who had died in an arson attack on a gay bar, the UpStairs Lounge, in New Orleans on June 24, 1973. Before the Orlando mass shooting in 2016, it had been the largest massacre of gay people in U.S. history, leaving 32 dead and 15 injured.

The history of this massacre has only been recently documented. I first came across details of it in 2006 when reading through brittle copies of 1970s newspapers at the William Way Community Center in Philadelphia, the only place that held gay sources in the city. I remember seeing a headline about a “blaze” in New Orleans that reporters compared to the Holocaust; but in 2006, there were no books at the Philadelphia Public Library about it, nor were there articles in the scholarly databases at Princeton, where I was teaching. In fact, in 2006, Google was in its infancy, and it produced no hits.

I continued, however, to read through surviving copies of the Advocate, the largest gay newspaper in the 1970s, and pieced together the chronology of the massacre, trying to understand why it had been forgotten. I soon realized that the chilling mortality rates that the HIV/AIDS epidemic caused in the early 1980s overshadowed the UpStairs Lounge massacre. Also, as I continued reading through gay newspapers, I found many other alarming examples of anti-gay violence. In the span of a less than a year, headlines in the Body Politic, a popular gay newspaper, read “Thugs Terrorize Parks,” “Three Murders Unsolved,” and “All Faggots Should be Castrated.” The attack on the UpStairs Lounge was absolutely horrific, but in the 1970s, it ranked as yet another example of the violence that undermined the decade of so-called liberation.

In 2013, for the 40th anniversary of the massacre, I published an article in Time magazine in order to draw public attention to this forgotten tragedy. Based on a decade of research, I then expanded on the history of the fire and placed it in the context of the larger history of the 1970s in my book, Stand by Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation.

I recently, however, uncovered new evidence about the fire that settles some long-standing debates. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, members of the gay community accused the Fire Department of not responding immediately and refusing to touch the bodies of many of the victims. Since the most comprehensive reports of the arson attack come from the pens of the police and fire authorities, there is little empirical evidence to corroborate gay people’s accusations.

While the stigma of gay bodies as diseased took flight at the height of the HIV epidemic, many people nonetheless believed gay people were sick and aberrant in New Orleans in 1973. Funeral homes, in fact, refused to bury the bodies of gay men, and all the churches in the city initially denied gay peoples’ requests to hold a memorial service for the victims. Even victims’ family members refused to bury their children or organize funerals for them.

But there was one notable exception: Patrick Schoen’s family owned the largest funeral home in the city, and the chief investigator for the coroner’s office asked his family to take care of the victims. I recently discovered this when I spoke to Patrick, who is now the managing partner of his family’s business, at a gay bar in New Orleans. The Jacob Schoen & Son Funeral Home, which was established in 1850, lived up to their motto, “The highest standard of funeral services regardless of financial services.”

As a seventh-grader, Patrick later took the bus from his family’s funeral home to the cemeteries and placed flowers on the victims’ graves. According to Patrick, many of the men could not initially be identified because they threw their wallets into the fire before they died in order to hide their identities.

In a dark twist of irony, hours before the arson attack, patrons at the UpStairs Lounge were celebrating the fourth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising; but even in New Orleans, which served as a gay mecca for many LGBTQ people across the South, many still chose to be in the closet. And they believed it was still dangerous to tell their story. One of the survivors, Buddy Rasmussen—who heroically led a group of gay men out of a backdoor to a roof and then across a number of buildings before climbing down to the street to safety—refuses to talk to reporters or scholars about the fire to this day.

As a result of this silence, there have been many questions that remain unanswered. Today, 45 years after the fire, no one has still been charged with the crime. There have been rumors about possible culprits, but no one has been convicted.

There is also slim evidence that validates the complaint that the authorities left many to die in the burning building. Till now, this conclusion was largely drawn from a New Orleans Times-Picayune image of Rev. William Larson, whose body was left protruding from the second-floor window after burning to death. Larson had led the gay congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church in prayer and song moments before the attack on the UpStairs Lounge, which also served as a church—another piece of history that had initially remained unreported.

While giving a lecture on the history of the fire, I showed a popular image of the rescue and realized that verification of the authorities’ indifference was staring me in the face. The image featured an interracial group of men carrying a gurney carrying a wounded gay man. It reveals how gay men were actually doing the work of first responders. It is unclear how the men first retrieved the gurney from the ambulance or even assembled into a group to help the victims. But it is evident that they had to take matters into their own hands. The photograph shows a police officer in the background apparently doing nothing.

This June marks the 45th anniversary of the massacre, but many other questions remain about the men who threw their wallets into a fire that claimed their lives. What were their lives like before the fire? Were they intimidated or inspired when they walked into a gay bar? What did Stonewall mean to them?

Those are not the only stories to uncover. Some of those who survived oscillated in and out of news coverage. It is likely that after they escaped, they never looked back, refused to tell their story, and were not officially counted among the survivors.

And what did the massacre mean to a younger generation of gay people? Did they grow up haunted by the UpStairs Lounge fire? Were they on their guard every time they walked into a gay bar? Patrick Schoen remembers the night of the UpStairs Lounge fire vividly. “This was very difficult for me,” he told me, “I had an inkling that I was gay … I will never forget [the] smell of the dead bodies.” Patrick Schoen has taken pride in how his family had lived up to their motto, but what about other people in New Orleans? Do they remember this as a holocaust or do they remember the jokes that compared the victims to dead fruit flies at the bottom of jar?

The story of the UpStairs Lounge Fire can be a parable for Pride. It reminds us of the violence that has continually stalked our liberation: Despite the stereotypes that portray gay pride as just a party, it’s also a time to take heart in our ability to continue on as a people in the wake of such tragedy. But even as we move forward, we must find the courage to tell our stories and to record our history.

Correction, June 22, 2018: The photo caption originally misstated the number of people who died in the UpStairs Lounge fire. The correct number is 32, not 29.