For the last few months, I’ve been working on a media history project involving the fire at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans. The fire caused the death of 32 men and women–most of whom were gay. The death, the fire and the aftermath are often marked as the “Stonewall of New Orleans” meaning that the fire and the loss of so many from the gay community sparked the modern movement in New Orleans.
I originally read about the UpStairs Lounge arson while I was working on my master’s thesis. There was a 20-page paper, which reminded me of the many class assignments I’ve completed in the last five years, stuffed into a file box with many other New Orleans LGBT historical artifacts. The paper didn’t seem overly academic—there was no reference page or in-text citation, the byline wasn’t accompanied with an institution name, and the writing was a little rough.
But what the paper lacked in structure and “authenticism” it more than made up for in information. I used the paper to go digging for more information. To my surprise, other researchers had also cited the paper, written by Johnny Townsend, in their work. Since returning to the topic, I’ve stumbled across Townsend’s more complete work—a book title Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire.
A harsh title, but it seems to accurately encompass the thoughts and actions of many in New Orleans at the time of the fire and deaths of 32 people, who were mostly gay men.
In a short forward to the book, Townsend wrote:
I simply wanted the story to be recorded and told before too many people were lost to AIDS and age. I thought at the time that I should write the book in a “popular” fashion, and so I did not include footnotes, only a bibliography . . . I understand now that all this probably lessens the value of the material . . . I finally decided that whatever the book’s failings, I wanted it to be more widely available to scholars who might be able to write a more definitive work, and to the public, who need to know what happened that dreadful day in June of 1973.
I honestly felt as though Townsend imagined someone like me doing research with few outlets available for information. I’m not so romantic as to suggest that this was all part of some divine intervention, but as a writer you always hope that your work may mean something to someone. Townsend’s work is invaluable to the LGBT community even if there are no footnotes and it was written in a “popular” fashion. He captured history before it was lost to time.
When I defended my master’s thesis in the spring of 2011 I knew the work was far from perfect. What is that they say? A shoddy thesis is a done thesis. I’m not saying my work is shoddy just far from perfect. But one of the things that was missing was an interview with reporters who were covering the AIDS epidemic in New Orleans (at both the mainstream and gay and lesbian newspapers). A couple of weeks ago I conducted the first interview on the road to perfecting my research.
The following are highlights from my interview with John Pope, who was the AIDS beat writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune beginning in 1985.
John Pope became the AIDS beat writer for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans in the summer of 1985. Before Pope began working the beat, the newspaper relied on wire news stories and a few local written pieces, which were picked up by other, randomly assigned reporters. Pope began working for the Times-Picayune in 1980 when the newspaper merged with the city’s evening daily, the States-Item, where he was a general assignment reporter. Pope, a native of New Orleans, recounted his first AIDS assignment as well as the events that led to him covering the disease on a full-time basis.
This morning Huffington Post Gay Voice posted about gay rumors among American presidents. The blog was interesting but nothing I’d never heard before. What was the most interesting to me were some of the reader comments under the post. I know, I know the reader comments can be kooky from time to time, but I think they are sometimes more revealing than the blog post itself.
The readers’ comments let you know what the community of users or readers is thinking. The general feeling of this particular topic, gay presidents—who cares it’s no body’s business. I disagree. A lot of folks care. Just ask the percentage of LGBTQ people in the United States—they care. Better yet ask the homophobic population of this country—they care.
So why does it matter? It matters for so many reasons. A community like the LGBTQ community has a long history, in reality, but officially the community’s history is pretty short. It is pieced together using documents filled with innuendo or coded reference to sexuality. Queer people are now in a position to go back in time and claim our history.
The LGBTQ community needs a group memory to know our place in history. Queering historical figures gives us those memories and establishes our place in American history, but, more importantly, it empowers the community. Figures like Lincoln, the emancipator, the man who saved the Union, the man who may have even slayed thousands of vampires (OK so maybe not the last one), are important to LGBTQs just the same as they are important to every other American—they are part of our identity. And if those figures also happen to be queer, then our queer identity is legitimized that much more.
Do you remember the feeling you got the first time you met another gay man or lesbian? Or the first time you met someone with a similar interest as you? You almost certainly felt some sort of validation for who you are. A queer historical hero is the amplified version of that instance. A queer Lincoln inspires pride.
Maybe a person’s sexuality is no one’s business—and for most ordinary citizens I might agree. But sometimes it is our business. Sometimes we should make it our business.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story behind the queer Abraham Lincoln here are some great pieces to get you caught up. The first is from Salon. It was written in 1999 after activists Larry Kramer spoke in Wisconsin about the first gay president. This is a more current piece written around the time that the recent release of the biopic Lincoln. Finally, for a more academic look at the queering of Lincoln, this book chapter by Charles E. Morris III is incredible.
The past few weeks I’ve been working to gather as many primary newspaper sources from New Orleans regarding the UpStairs Lounge fire—a fire in a New Orleans gay bar that killed 32 on June 24, 1973.
I’ve read a lot of secondary source material about the fire, which included quotes from newspaper and television news stories about the tragedy. But sometimes seeing the coverage with your own eyes is more impactful than originally thought.
There was a passage the day after the fire in the New Orleans States-Item, which was merged with the Times-Picayune in 1980, about the bar and those killed by the arsonist. The passage features quotes and paraphrased quotes from a New Orleans lead detective as to the identities of the victims of the arson. It reads:
…Maj. Morris asked that anyone who believes relatives of theirs may have been in the fire and would have knowledge of their dental records to contact Charity Hospital.
. . . “We don’t even know if these papers belonged to the people we found them on,” Morris said. “Some thieves hung out there and you know this was a queer bar.”
. . . Another police source said it is not uncommon fro homosexuals to carry false identification, which could complicate the identification procedure.
Angus Lind, Lanny Thomas, & Walt Philbin. “13 Fire Victims are Identified.” The States-Item Monday, June 25, 1973 A-1 Col. 6
So much for compassion for the victims of a mass murder.
Click the thumbnail below to view the entire first day of coverage from the States-Item.