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.