Pride and Places: New Orleans City Council honors 32 queer lives lost in 1973 arson

49 years later, New Orleans’ queer community remembers the thirty-two lives lost. (Photo: Tim Reynolds)

Late on a summer evening, looking for an outlet from a world that loudly refused to accept them, the victims of the Upstairs Lounge Arson had no idea their night out would turn into anything other than a moment of social escapism. During that era, they entered that gay bar knowing full well the dangers of publicly identifying oneself as queer. Sadly, on June 24, 1973, their bravery would cost their lives.

Above the Jimani, a sports bar that remains, the Upstairs Lounge served as the popular hangout for New Orlean’s queer community and allies. Located on the second floor of a three-story building, a staircase arrived at steel doors leading patrons inside the venue. The attack happened during that year’s Pride weekend, which had recently been made a tradition in 1971.

The media made plenty of errors regarding the mass murder and very little international attention was paid. (Photo: Jimani)

At 7:56 p.m., an unidentified man rang the buzzer, which was used to indicate when a cab arrived. When the bar opened its entrance, the staircase had been set ablaze, trapping over sixty people inside. Unfortunately, the owners failed to mark the emergency exit, and the windows had been boarded up or covered with iron bars. Thirty-two people died in flames or by being stomped on amidst a desperate crowd trying to escape. The bar was often used as a gathering space for the local Metropolitan Community Church. Police discovered the pastor burned alive the next day, wedged in a window.

Rev. Bill Larson, the local MCC pastor, got stuck halfway and burned to death wedged in a window. (Photo: Jimani)

During that year, this was the third firebombing targetting the MCC Church, following attacks in Nashville and Los Angeles. The church’s Los Angeles headquarters had been destroyed five days after the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in the case of Roe v. Wade.

Until the Pulse massacre in 2016, this had been the deadliest attack on LGBTQ+ in history. But, unlike the Orlando shooting, this disappeared from headlines and press the next day. The city never charged a suspect or publicly acknowledged it as a hate crime. The investigation ended as quickly as it never truly began. Perhaps, that’s why New Orleans’ queer community made it their responsibility to spread the word of the massacre, to prevent the deaths of their friends and family from falling into oblivion.

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