NEW ORLEANS — On Sunday June 24, 1973, dozens of patrons had gathered at the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans, when an arsonist set fire to the building. Within minutes, the flames engulfed the bar, killing 32 patrons. Now, author Robert W. Fieseler has come out with a new book Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation, that details the fire and its aftermath:
Writing the book
As a gay man, Fieseler said he thought he knew a lot about the gay liberation movement but then in 2013, his journalism professor—who was from the New Orleans area—told him about the fire: “I was fascinated and compelled. I thought that this was this inherently important history.”
On a personal level, writing the book was also a way to reconnect with a relative whose death had been an important turning point in Fieseler’s life, a gay man who had died of AIDS when Fieseler was 13. Attending his funeral was “life-changing” for Fieseler as he went from feeling that he was entirely alone to understanding that there were other gay men like him.
The life of a bar
Fieseler describes in the book how the Up Stairs Lounge had a family-like atmosphere in some ways where manager Buddy Rasmussen ran a tight ship: no hustling of patrons, no sloppy drunks and no drug use. The bar’s customers often put on theatrical performances, sometimes written by the wife of a customs agent who frequented the bar. Fieseler writes the Lounge became “an oasis where regular customers felt safe, less a hook-up space than a hangout where friends and lovers could exhale and be themselves.”
The fire’s aftermath
The fire was front-page news, but only briefly. There was no public outpouring of grief and no rushing of top political figures to the scene. In the aftermath, survivors and friends of those who perished worried they might be accidentally revealed as being gay.
No one was ever arrested for the blaze, although Fieseler writes about how investigators keyed into one main suspect in the fire—a disgruntled bar patron who’d been kicked out earlier in the day and had been heard threatening to burn the place down. It wasn’t until 2003 that a plaque commemorating the fire’s victims was laid.
New Orleans was a conflicted place for the gay community at the time of the fire, Fieseler says. In some ways, the city was a haven for the gay community where people could be themselves. But there were also raids on gay bars, harassment, and discrimination: “An individual who was quiet and who was closeted gay, could find companionship, could find love and joy, could have a job, could have a house, so long as this individual never spoke the dreaded H. word.”
Pulse Nightclub shooting
About halfway into Fieseler’s four-year book writing process, a gunman killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The June 2016 shooting eclipsed the Up Stairs Lounge fire as the single-biggest loss of life for the LGBTQ community, but also re-focused attention on the New Orleans fire, Fieseler said. Posts and stories about the New Orleans fire began appearing on social media as the Pulse nightclub shooting was discussed. Fieseler said the heightened attention on the 1973 fire gave him greater emotional urgency as a “piece of history I was writing about truly spoke to the present moment.”
It also spurred many people who had been reluctant to speak about the fire to come forward.
“Their reticence was replaced with urgency,” he said. “In the context of the Pulse nightclub shooting, they thought that telling their story and bearing witness might do a greater good.”
Religion and the gay community
A recurring topic in the book is the connection between the Metropolitan Community Church and the lounge. The MCC is a nationwide church started in 1968 to minister to gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people.
For a time, the MCC’s New Orleans branch held services in the lounge and about a third of the fire victims were members of the church including the pastor. Troy Perry, who founded the church, came to New Orleans quickly after the fire to assist. Fieseler wanted to explore these connections in the book:
“For me, really the idea of queer faith was so compelling because I’d never really heard of it before or heard it explored in an in-depth way as it related to early gay liberation culture. And especially as I delved into the early history of gay liberation movements, it’s virtually impossible to talk about that movement … without also addressing how important these queer religious organizations were at the time,” Fieseler said.