Up Stairs Lounge fire largest mass murder of gay people in US history

More than 40 years before 49 people killed in a shooting bloodbath at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the Up Stairs Lounge arson in New Orleans was the largest mass murder of gay people in U.S. history.

Robert Camina’s documentary “Upstairs Inferno” (which is available for home viewing from Camina’s website ) chronicles the important role the bar played for the New Orleans LGBTQ community and spotlights several of its patrons. Fire survivors also share their poignant memories of the horrific night.

Up Stairs Lounge fire

“This is a story that needs to be told,” Camina says during an interview from New Orleans, where the film was screened for the 45th anniversary of the arson attack. “It’s an important part of gay history and U.S. history. The fire deserves to be on the timeline of significant events in gay history.”

On June 24, 1973, the French Quarter gay bar was crowded with dozens of people enjoying the Sunday beer bust. But at 7:52 p.m., the bar became a crematorium. The doorbell, located at the bottom of a staircase at the first-floor entrance to the second-floor bar, began buzzing.

When the door was opened, a fireball swept up the staircase and engulfed the bar.

Up Stairs Lounge Fire

In this early 1970s photo, a crowd of people enjoy time at the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Photo: “Upstairs Inferno.”

28 people burned to death

When the inferno was extinguished 17 minutes later, firefighters found the bodies of 28 people who had burned to death in the arson attack; 15 people also were injured. Four more people died in the days that followed the fire.

The Up Stairs Lounge blaze remains the deadliest fire in New Orleans history.

In an interview with Q Voice News, Camina, 45, talks about learning about the Up Stairs Lounge fire, bringing dignity and honor to the survivors and victims, and why New Orleans’ officials and religious community leaders turned their backs on the survivors and victims’ families.

Here are some excerpts.

The deadly blaze

“After my first film, ‘Raid of the Rainbow Lounge,’ came out in 2012, someone reached out to me and said, Have you  ever heard of the Up Stairs fire? He said it was the largest gay massacre in U.S. history,” Camina says. “I was shocked. I didn’t know, and that it wasn’t part of our gay history.” (This communication took place four years before the Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12, 2016, which became the largest mass murder of LGBTQ people in U.S. history.)

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Giving people dignity and honor

“I asked around, and nobody had heard of it. I thought it has to be told now by the people who were there. Time is running out. Not a lot of the survivors are left. I wanted to give the people the dignity that they didn’t receive 40 years ago. I wanted to honor their family and friends.”

Up Stairs Lounge Fire

This photo shows the Up Stairs Lounge engulfed in fire on June 24, 1973. At the time, it was the largest mass murder of gay people in the United States. Photo: “Upstairs Inferno.”

Why the story has been unknown

“From talking with survivors and members of the New Orleans’ gay community, I got the impression that people were embarrassed and ashamed. It didn’t spawn a revolution,” Camina says. “It wasn’t long afterward that an indifference appeared in the gay community. This was 1973.” (In January 1973, being gay had just been declassified as a mental health disorder.)

“Some people were embarrassed because the prime suspect was a member of our community,” Camina says. “There was no official closure. It’s painful for people to talk about. It did get front page coverage, but it soon started to fade into the newspaper and then it disappeared. To this day, the Up Stairs fire is the most deadly fire in New Orleans history.”

Victims, survivors ignored

“The mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana didn’t acknowledge it,” Camina says. “The Catholic archbishop ignored it. He could have made a statement of condolences. People look to religion for solace. It was incredibly sad.

“Some churches wouldn’t hold funerals for people. They weren’t there for the families,” Camina says. “I can’t imagine the hurt and how lost they felt when their churches turned them away. The reaction by the religious community, mayor, and the state, that level of callousness, does surprise me.”

Friends couldn’t grieve

“Part of the tragedy of the Up Stairs Lounge arson is friends could not openly grieve because people would ask, Why are you grieving for gay people?,” Camina says. “They would out themselves. They had to keep it bottled up, which makes it exponentially worse.”

Preserving the story

“Some people I approached to interview didn’t want to talk about it because it brings up many painful memories,” Camina says. “Some of the people in the film were originally apprehensive, but then realized the story needs to be told. They aren’t getting any younger. When they pass away so will the memories of the people who died. They wanted to preserve the memories of the people who perished.

“I wanted to preserve the story,” Camina says. “I can’t honor the victims without telling the story. I wanted to give these human beings the dignity they were denied 45 years ago.”

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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