On June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire to the Upstairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Dozens of people lost their lives that night, but the event isn’t widely-known about. This week, we sit down with Ryan Prechter, a visiting lecturer in Georgia State University’s History Department. Ryan studies queer history in the south, particularly in New Orleans. We revisit the tragedy with Ryan to better understand why it happened and how it relates to where we are now.
The Upstairs Lounge was situated in the heart of the French quarter in an unassuming spot, as gay-friendly bars were at the time. June 24, 1973, a Sunday, the Upstairs Lounge hosted an all-day drinking event. The bar got crowded and the crowd got intoxicated. Patrons reported a man in the restroom for “bothering” people, declining to go into specifics, and he was removed from the bar. A while later, someone incessantly rang the bar’s doorbell, usually a signal that a patron’s ride had arrived to escort them home. But that night, there wasn’t a car waiting. On the other side of the bar’s main entrance were flames.
A bartender was able to get some people to safety through the emergency exit in the back, but the bar itself was a fire hazard. As the fire department tried to quell the flames, it became apparent that there were still several people inside the building, trapped behind bar-covered windows. Those on the street could only watch. Thirty-two people died. In the aftermath, the Times-Picayune likened the scene to Hitler’s incinerators on its front page. Nobody in the city could figure out if that many people had died from fire in New Orleans before. No one was ever arrested or charged for the fire, but the man who was booted from the Upstairs Lounge is widely believed to be the arsonist.
The fire at the Upstairs Lounge is an important moment in gay history, but many people, gay or not, don’t know about it. Ryan heard about it for the first time shortly after the 40th anniversary in 2013. He wondered how he’d never known about the incident even though he’d spent a good amount of time in gay spaces and around gay people in the French Quarter. “The fact that I didn’t know about this, I knew other people must not know about this as well,” he says.
The Stonewall protests in New York City galvanized gay people and gay rights’ activism. The fire at the Upstairs Lounge did neither of those things for New Orleans. Gay liberation groups and safe spaces existed, but “radical politicization had not found its way to New Orleans,” Ryan says. Additionally, the anti-gay sentiments that caused Stonewall weren’t to blame for the events at the Upstairs Lounge — the person who set the fire was likely a gay man — and the shame of homosexuality persisted. Many people didn’t claim their gay relatives’ remains to lay them to rest.
Ryan attributes the more recent revisiting of the Upstairs Lounge by historians and scholars to a collective desire to bring justice to the situation after the 40th anniversary in 2013. He cites Skylar Fein's work, "Remember the Upstairs Lounge" as an important node in the memorialization. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, son of the mayor at the time of the event, memorialized the fire at the Upstairs Lounge almost as if to make good since his father decided not to return from vacation after the tragedy in 1973. The Archdiocese of New Orleans, which largely ignored the fire at the Upstairs Lounge, released an apology. Today, the door that led to the Upstairs Lounge remains. The plaque that commemorates the fire is as unassuming as the bar once was, a bit of history hidden in plain sight that largely goes unnoticed.
We'd like to thank Ryan for sitting down with us to talk about this event. The Huffington Post collected images of the Upstairs Lounge before the fire. You can see them here. The View Upstairs (an off-broadway musical about the Upstairs Lounge) by Max Vernon just closed in May. Learn more about the show here.