Up Stairs Lounge fire killed 32 gay people in 1973 New Orleans

More than 40 years before 49 people were fatally shot 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.

On June 24, 1973, the French Quarter gay bar the Up Stairs Lounge was crowded with dozens of people enjoying the Sunday beer bust. 

At 7:52 p.m., the doorbell buzzed. The doorbell was located at the bottom of a staircase at the first-floor entrance to the second-floor bar.

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

When the inferno was extinguished 17 minutes later, firefighters found the bodies of 28 people who had burned to death in the arson attack. Some of the victims tried to escape from the windows when they died.

Also, 15 people were injured.

In the days after the fire, four additional victims died.

In the weeks and months after the blaze, public officials and religious leaders ignored victims.

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The mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana didn’t even acknowledge it, and the Catholic archbishop ignored it.

Churches wouldn’t hold funerals for people. Friends and families couldn’t grieve and didn’t have closure.

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

Robert Camina’s documentary “Upstairs Inferno” 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.

In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Up Stairs Lounge fire, Q Voice News is reposting a 2018 interview with Camina, 45, who 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.

Learning about the Up Stairs Lounge fire

“After my first film, ‘Raid of the Rainbow Lounge,’ 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.”

Giving people dignity, 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.”

It didn’t spawn a gay rights revolution

“People were embarrassed and shamed. 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 was declassified as a mental health disorder.

“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.”

Officials, religious leaders ignored victims

“The mayor of New Orleans (Moon Landrieu) and the governor of Louisiana (Edwin Edwards) 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.

“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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