Post Stonewall activism in the gay community ushered in an era of liberation that would result in a social shift toward increased visibility and acceptance. One of the most critical victories was the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders in 1973. Franklin Kameny, one of the leaders of the homophile movement of the early 60’s remarked, “in one fell swoop 15 million gay people were cured.” But in addition to being “cured” of mental illness gay people were also finding more and more establishments operating openly for the community. Gay bars and clubs began to shed decades old standards of discretion and subterfuge, no longer operating underground, run by unsavory characters exploiting the community. Eventually, patrons wouldn’t have to face the stigma of public morals enforcement through police raids and shutdowns. Gay places of congregation were, in many major cities, less and less targeted by law enforcement. The right to socialize was an early, unofficial victory in the fight for equality.
Yet in some jurisdictions the restrictions of the recent past remained de facto realities despite the reduced scrutiny of law enforcement. Old biases were not easily shed and many gay neighborhoods and establishments remained strictly on the periphery of mainstream consciousness. New Orleans in 1973 was one of those places that barely acknowledged the gay underbelly that thrived in the shadow of its more famous hedonistic haunts.
Robert Fieseler’s Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation plots the story of gay New Orleans in the early seventies against the emerging liberation movement. The background and details of the Up Stairs Lounge fire are full of complexities. The setting, in one of the most tolerant, brash and flamboyant port cities of the 20th century is tempered by the realization that most gays in New Orleans at the time were living a double life. The popular slogan heralded at the time by gay activists, “out of the closet and into the streets” was apparently not a realistic option in Louisiana. Many victims of the fire were deeply religious congregants of a local gay church, yet a great deal of their neighbors believed what happened to them was punishment by God for their lifestyle. The lounge itself was a favorite hangout and safe haven but also a deadly firetrap with numerous unenforced fire code violations. Most disappointingly, the tragedy functioned briefly as a catalyst for the greater liberation movement, but like the hidden lives of its victims and survivors, was quickly brushed aside and buried by politics and conservative social agendas.
Extracted from archival records, personal correspondence, previously published articles, works of art and films as well as hours of personal interviews, Fieseler reveals the various tales of the bar’s patrons with skillful attention to detail. Immediately, despite being decades removed, characters such as Bill Larson, the magnanimous pastor of the fledgling Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) or Buddy Rasmussen, the Up Stairs Lounge manager and bartender who courageously saved more than twenty lives but lost his lover Adam during the blaze, vividly come to life along with the stories of a dozen other men and women. The heinous crime of arson is of course magnified by the loss of life due to the firestorm that engulfed the bar during “beer bust,” its busiest Sunday evening hours. At a time when safety and sense of “place” have become so important in the LGBTQ community, the detailed description of the Up Stairs is at once familiar and surprising. Larson’s MCC Church, theater groups and drag shows all shared the bar’s theater at one time or another. Couples exchanged vows in ceremonies in a back room while revelers crowded the grand piano and crooned along to jazz standards. A real sense of community had been forged at the Up Stairs after Phil Esteve, its gay owner opened it only a few years earlier. All of which only makes the terror and desperation Fieseler describes, as patrons grappled with a series of worst-case scenarios, more gruesome and chilling. The heart wrenching blow by blow of the horror is never gratuitous despite being graphic. It feels necessary to confront the harshest of realities about this tragedy fueled by homophobia and dereliction and perpetrated by a likely sociopath.
Through the life stories portrayed in Tinderbox, a snapshot of post-Stonewall New Orleans is developed. This once obscure tragedy may now be seen as one of the pivotal moments of the LGBTQ rights movement as much for the failures in its aftermath as the prejudices that precipitated it. The reclaimed history in Tinderbox and its very personal stories, represent a reckoning with the past. Among the other iconic incidents of LGBTQ history, such as those that occurred at New York’s Stonewall Inn, Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles, Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco and more recently, the tragedy at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, the Up Stairs Lounge is another essential chapter in the struggle for equality. With the addition of Fieseler’s thorough research, the Up Stairs Lounge continues to establish its place in our collective memory. The powerful, sobering narrative of Tinderbox urges us to never forget.
Christopher Gioia is a public historian focusing on LGBTQ history. Click here to view further research.