Embedded in brick near the intersection of Iberville and Chartres street in New Orleans’ French Quarter, right outside of what is now known as the Jimani Lounge, there is a small plaque engraved with more than 30 names, a few of whom are known to history only as “unidentified white male.”
Placed there in 2003, three decades after the Upstairs Lounge Fire, it is one of the only memorializations of an event that until this weekend was considered the largest slaying of gay people in United States history. Largely ignored at the time by local press and government officials and lazily investigated by New Orleans’ police department, the arson at the Upstairs Lounge has until recently been nearly absent from the canonized struggles for LGBT equality in the United States. It has been covered only intermittently as a “little-known history” in the mainstream press.
Since a gunman opened fire on Orlando’s Pulse club during a Latinx music night early Sunday morning, politicians have been swift to make statements of condolence—in many cases, and particularly from the Republican side, early Twitter posts and press statements have been oddly vague, framing the tragedy as an assault against the American people at large rather than a specific attack on queer people of color. Trump, in a characteristic rant, claimed the only words that mattered were “radical Islamic terrorism.” Rubio’s first statements simply called out “all Floridians and all Americans.” “Sympathies” and “prayers” have been extended to the families of those who lost their lives by lawmakers who have historically opposed civil rights for LGBT Americans.
Hours after the shooting, Jimmy LaSalvia, a Republican strategist and founder of GoProud, a now-defunct pro-gay conservative organization, told the Washington Post the party’s response was indicative of the way “they ignore and reject the reality that LGBT are part of life in America today.” In the wave of the Charleston shooting, he said, “GOP politicians there fell all over themselves to take down the Confederate flag.” He doubts it will be the same for Orlando, that Republican lawmakers will find even the most basic gestures of symbolic solidarity with the LGBT community. (Or even, if early statements are any indication, to call what happened a hate crime.) It’s an erasure of the event’s true nature that’s particularly tone-deaf given what we know about the shooting, but it’s also a willful ignorance that’s happened before.
In the early ‘70s there were a handful of gay bars in New Orleans, but by many accounts the Upstairs Lounge was a particular fixture in the community. Three red-wallpapered rooms with a cabaret stage and a piano, it sat at the top of a narrow stairwell in the French Quarter and hosted performances and meetings as well as the $1 all-you-can-eat buffet and beer bust that drew more than a hundred regulars on the night it was set ablaze. If gay bars and underground discos of that time have been compared to churches for a community desperately in need of refuge, the spiritual nature of the Upstairs Lounge was even more overt—the bar’s back-room theater hosted congregants of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a national Christian church founded in LA in 1986 to minister to the gay and lesbian community.
On that Sunday evening in June of 1973, just four years after Stonewall, more than sixty people were installed in the bar a few minutes before eight o’clock when a buzzer typically reserved for taxi pick-ups rang. A regular was sent to open the door; eyewitnesses recalled the bar door opening and a fireball exploding into the room. Some thirty people managed to flee and hop from roof to roof, but narrow windows trapped many in the small bar. By the time firefighters arrived and contained the blaze, twenty-nine people had been killed, many identifiable only through dental records.
An MCC pastor, Bill Larson, was trapped halfway out the window, his body left there for hours as survivors watched from the street. Three more would die from burns sustained in the Upstairs Lounge fire, including a teacher who was fired while in critical care once his school learned where he had been injured. Later, a child of the deceased would tell TIME Magazine he didn’t even know his father was gay. “A lot of people didn’t even claim their relatives,” he said. “I guess they were so ashamed of it.”
The city’s response to the fire—the largest in New Orleans history—didn’t do much to assuage that sense of shame. The day after the fire, local newspapers ran tabloid-style stories focusing on the gruesome details of the fire. “It was impossible to tell that the mass stacked up against the windows had once been human,” reads an article in the State-Times. National papers barely covered the story.
And while many of the news outlets that did follow the arson erased the bar’s status as a fixture in the gay community by omission, the ones that did take that angle did so dismissively. A CBS TV news report quotes police as telling a reporter that “the bar is a hangout for homosexuals; homosexuals frequently carry false identification papers, making positive identification of the victims nearly impossible.” In his exhaustive book on the fire and its aftermath, The Upstairs Lounge Arson, New Orleans native Clayton Delery-Edwards, upon interviewing a number of people involved in the scene during that time, found that nearly all considered that idea preposterous—the only people carrying false IDs would have been underage.
At the time of the Upstairs Lounge arson, the city’s mayor, Moon Landrieu (father of New Orlean’s current mayor) was out of town, as he had been during the Rault Center fire a year earlier, a skyscraper fire that killed six people. In the case of the Rault Center tragedy, Landrieu went out of his way to hold a remote press conference and called for citywide mourning; in the days following the Upstairs Lounge fire he was notably silent, as were the governor Louisiana and the Catholic archbishop, both of whom had also extended their thoughts to the families of victims of earlier fires.
“Some thieves hung out there,” Major Henry Morris, New Orleans police chief at the time, was quoted as saying. “You know, it was a queer bar.” That the statement was later claimed as a misattribute likely says more about its inference of prejudice than anything else, particularly as no one was ever arrested in such a clear-cut case of arson.
All 32 deaths in the Upstairs Lounge fire were ultimately classified as “accidental fire fatalities,” despite the presence of a can of lighter fluid found close to the scene—and a disgruntled patron ejected earlier that night who had been reportedly heard shouting he’d “burn this place down.” Roger Nunez, the primary suspect, was never arrested. When questioned by the police some time later he denied being at the Upstairs Lounge that night. A nearby Walgreens store clerk remembered selling the lighter fluid shortly before the arson, yet could not describe the suspect. The case was closed officially some years later.
For a religious community in mourning, the aftermath of the Upstairs Lounge Fire was devastating—it took a week to find a church that would hold a memorial service for the victims. The Reverend Troy Perry, founder of the MCC, recalls hearing jokes about burying the dead in “fruit jars” on the radio the day he flew to Louisiana; Baptist churches hung up on him, an Episcopal church received so many calls and letters of protest after it held a prayer service it declined to host the memorial. Eventually, a Methodist church did open its doors, but the struggle to find legitimacy in a city that was at the time 47% Catholic weighed heavily on a community shattered by the arson.
The reaction today will likely look different than it did in 1973—even Rubio, ostensibly under pressure, stated later on Sunday that “common sense tells you [the gunman] targeted the gay community.” But the silence on the part of other members of his party points to a perhaps more insidious kind of bigotry, one that prefers not to look at the Orlando shooting head-on. Even though it’s no longer acceptable in most circles to openly shun the deaths of LGBT people, it’s still uncomfortable for religious lawmakers to call a mass shooting in a prominent gay club what it is—their favored tactics are typically to smooth over dogmatic and violent positions with statements about moral choice and religious freedom.
But that the Upstairs Lounge fire is so regularly dug up as a semi-obscure history is a testament to the effectiveness of such erasure when it comes to what we, as a country, remember. It took the archdiocese nearly four decades to apologize for refusing to acknowledge what happened that night in the French Quarter. “In retrospect … we should have been in solidarity with the victims,” wrote the New Orleans Archbishop in a letter to TIME Magazine after their story on the tragedy. “The church does not condone violence and hatred. If we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize.”