UpStairs Lounge Research Continues to Surprise and Sadden

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.

Illuminating the Past: Interview with Reporter Covering the AIDS Beat in New Orleans During the 1980s

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.

Continue reading “Illuminating the Past: Interview with Reporter Covering the AIDS Beat in New Orleans During the 1980s”

Research Update: LGBTQ Historical Research Can Be Rewarding At Times And Down Right Chilling At Others

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.

The States-Item Day One Coverage