By Dwayne Kinney, Digital Editor
40 years ago today 32 people died in a New Orleans gay bar. It was the largest LGBT massacre in American history. The bar was called UpStairs Lounge and had also served as the temporary home of New Orleans’ Metropolitan Community Church (MCC).
It was a sweltering night on June 24, 1973 in New Orleans. Gays throughout the city were celebrating the fourth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and the end of Pride Weekend in New Orleans. However, their celebration looked very different from what we are accustomed to today. There was no Pride parade in New Orleans that year. There were no gay flags hanging in the streets of the French Quarter. Instead there was widespread homophobia, rampant discrimination, and hateful violence for gays living out and proud.
The French Quarter had nearly two dozen gay bars at the time; however, gay life was almost entirely underground and talked about in hushed tones. The threat of violence was something that followed gays of this era on a daily basis. Metropolitan Community Churches in both Nashville and Los Angeles had been torched by arsonists earlier that year.
The UpStairs Lounge was on the second story of a building located at 141 Chartres Street. Entering the bar from the street meant climbing a flight of stairs that ended at a heavy metal door that remained locked. To get in, gay patrons would ring a buzzer.
On the night of June 24th the buzzer sounded at 7:56 p.m. signalling that a cab had arrived downstairs. According to survivors no one had ordered a cab; however, to see who the cab was waiting on someone opened the door.
Immediately the intense smell of Ronsonol lighter fluid filled the UpStairs Lounge. Someone had saturated the stairwell with the highly flammable liquid. Before anyone had a chance to react a fireball erupted up the stairwell and into the UpStairs Lounge.
There was no such thing as a clearly marked exit back in these days. Patrons were left to scramble for their lives as the heat from the fire and poisonous fumes roared closer. UpStairs Lounge’s bartender, Buddy Rasmussen, helped 15 men escape from the fire. One of the men who made it to safety was George Mitchell, the assistant pastor at MCC. When he realized that his partner, Louis Broussard, had not escaped with him he immediately ran back into the burning flames. Mitchell managed to find Broussard in the chaotic inferno; however, they were unable to escape the building before being consumed by the fire. The two men burned alive as they held each other tightly in their final moments.
Other gay patrons tried to flee through the windows. Several windows were boarded up to maintain privacy and others were covered with iron bars 14’’ apart. A few men were able to squeeze through the bars to safety. MCC’s Reverend Bill Larson tried to escape through the window and got stuck. Helpless and wedged between the bars he was burned to death. His body remained in the window for nearly 24 hours after the fire was extinguished.
The story received very little press coverage. At first, news reports did not mention that the UpStairs Lounge was a gay bar. However, when the newspaper finally reported the sexual orientation of the victims it did so alongside bigoted quotes. In the newspaper a local cab driver said, “I hope the fire burned their dresses off.” A woman was quoted saying, “The Lord had something to do with this.”
However, the most insulting comments came from radio hosts who asked, “What will they bury the queers in.” They responded with, “Fruit jars.”
Three bodies were never identified and were buried in unmarked graves at Potter’s Field. The City of New Orleans denied requests from the MCC who wanted to give the three men a proper burial.
Media coverage of the 1973 UpStairs Lounge Massacre:
A new documentary entitled “The UpStairs Lounge Fire” will air tonight at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. on select Cox Communications channels: