The haunting legacy of 1973’s deadly UpStairs Lounge fire
On the hot, muggy night of June 24, 1973, 32 people were killed in a fire in the UpStairs Lounge at 141 Chartres St. Arson was suspected in the blaze that swept up the staircase to the second-story bar, but no one was ever charged. Until June 2016, when 49 people perished at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., the fire had been recognized as the largest mass killing of gay people in American history.
Because of the stigma associated with homosexuality then, some victims’ ashes went unclaimed because their relatives refused to step forward. Attitudes toward gay men and lesbians have changed markedly in the decades since the fire, and the law has backed them up, most notably in the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Perhaps nowhere is the change in attitudes more obvious in New Orleans than at the Southern Decadence Weekend, an out-and-proud party held annually right before Labor Day, and which has become a major economic boost for the city.
- Despite the death toll, local, state and church officials were silent about the loss of life in the fire. That included Archbishop Philip M. Hannan, who did not issue a statement. On the 40th anniversary of the fire, Archbishop Gregory Aymond apologized for the church’s silence.
- One suspect was Rodger Nunez, who had been thrown out of the bar earlier in the evening after getting into a fight. As he left, people said they heard him threaten to burn the place down, but Nunez told police he knew nothing about the fire. He committed suicide in November 1974.
- Identification of the dead was difficult, police said, because many men had carried fake ID cards to shield them from being outed in news reports if clubs were raided.
- A small sidewalk plaque near the Chartres-Iberville intersection commemorates the fire and its victims.
- Mourners at a service for fire victims at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church were offered the option of leaving by a side exit to avoid media attention. Instead, many chose to exit through the front door.
The UpStairs fire would eventually become a symbolic rallying point for New Orleans’ gay community determined to move forward from the darker days when it was forced to exist in the shadows. More than 40 years after the fire, gay-pride rainbow flags are everyday sights, especially in the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny, and politicians court gay and lesbian voters.