The passage below is an excerpt from Robert W. Fieseler’s recently released book chronicling a heinous act of arson that resulted in the death of thirty-one men and one woman on June 24, 1973, at The Up Stairs Lounge — a gay bar in New Orleans. By turns sedulous and creative, Fieseler’s narrative conjures the institutional and interpersonal anti-gay prejudice that dominated the city’s response to the tragedy at the time — a city disregarding of survivors needs, families of the dead too ashamed to claim and publicly mourn their lost ones, and the Catholic church denying proper burial rights to the victims represent some of the acts of prejudice that arose out of the aftermath of the mass murder. While Fieseler bravely faces the dark dimensions of humanity, his narrative also celebrates the impassioned activism that followed the fire, which was so essential to the emergence of a fledgling gay movement.
Friday Through Sunday, June 30–July 1, 1973
The sincere proposal for a “sidewalk funeral” to honor the victims of New Orleans’ deadliest fire proved to be unnecessary when someone asked Reverend Troy Perry — then, the most recognizable homosexual in America — if he had tried St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, an ultraliberal French Quarter congregation.
Standing on the edge of the Vieux Carré, with its notable cream-colored tower, St. Mark’s had long housed a ministry eager to support social causes. In 1960, when six-year-old Ruby Bridges became one of the first black children in the American South to attend an all-white school — New Orleans’s own William Frantz Elementary School — Reverend Lloyd “Andy” Foreman of St. Mark’s had bravely crossed racial lines and brought his own daughter, Pamela, to school as Bridges’ classmate. In retaliation, members of the White Citizens Council had heckled Reverend Foreman as a “nigger-lover” and vandalized his church by climbing onto the bell tower and tarring the building in creosote.
By 1973, St. Mark’s had a black clergyman named Reverend Edward Kennedy, whom Troy Perry approached with his request to host a memorial for the dozens of men who’d burned to death at a gay bar called the Up Stairs Lounge. Kennedy was impressed. Seeing similarities between Perry’s gay Christians and black Americans seeking equality, Kennedy approved the use of the church, which he said could easily seat several hundred mourners. The St. Mark’s board of elders, composed of five white women, also lent their support, which flouted decrees in their church’s Book of Discipline declaring homosexuality to be “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Perry notified media of the plans and printed three thousand flyers to advertise the event. The leaflet proclaimed a National Day of Mourning that Sunday “in memory of the New Orleans Fire Victims,” with an ecumenical service taking place at 2:00 p.m. According to Paul Breton, so as not to embarrass anyone, “because not all of the deceased were gay, and because the committee was opposed to the labeling process that had taken place,” the delegation printed these announcements without any mention of homosexuality.
Eager to spread the word, Perry and Breton headed down Bourbon Street with several stacks of flyers. Gay-friendly businesses refused to post them for fear of being firebombed. Walking into Café Lafitte in Exile, Perry handed leaflets to several “A-gays” before John Meyers entered the establishment and saw who was present. “I did go up to Troy Perry and confront him,” recalled Meyers, “and say what he was doing was not helpful and was just going to raise a lot of problems for local gays.”
Perry listened incredulously, having heard the same argument from gay businessmen. “He wasn’t exactly cordial, but he heard me out and was very strong in his disagreement with me,” said Meyers. “I recall telling him personally that I thought that he was doing that more for himself and his church than for the city of New Orleans, that he knew nothing about New Orleans.”
Thus, despite attempts to thwart Perry’s service, Stewart Butler, Ricky Everett, and Henry Kubicki were among the 250 people who sat in polished pews at St. Mark’s Methodist Church on Rampart Street on Sunday, July 1 — one week, to the day, from the inferno. This was the largest public gathering for a gay cause in the city’s history. St. Mark’s looked to be filling up, although “it wasn’t packed,” according to Paul Killgore, who attended with his boyfriend.
The mood was solemn. Several bouquets of flowers — including an arrangement of pink and aquamarine carnations — had been donated by a French Quarter vendor. “It was quiet, it was orderly, it was respectful,” remembered Killgore, who readily admits that he and many others came curious to see Troy Perry, the famous preacher: “To me, he was a celebrity.” Stewart Butler agreed with Killgore’s assessment: “They had a star attraction, Troy Perry,” Stewart recalled.
As organ music played, Stewart draped his arm over Alfred Doolittle’s shoulders — a radical gesture in a religious setting. Ricky Everett, still in a haze, sat in front with the national celebrants. Henry Kubicki took his place hurriedly in one of the back rows. He couldn’t see or hear much due to sensory impairments, but he did his best to follow along. “Because I had profound hearing loss,” recalled Henry, “I was there, but yet I wasn’t there.” Even though he and Ricky were just a few rows apart, there was no way that Henry could distinguish his missing best friend among the blurry shapes. Ricky did not seek him out.
Steven Duplantis remained in Texas, despite Stewart Butler’s entreaties for him to return and give a statement to police. They both knew that Steven could never do so, that he could never divulge what he’d heard from Roger Nunez. Buddy Rasmussen remained sequestered: he didn’t wish to attend any spectacle, even one that commemorated Adam’s death. Regarding Buddy, Lucien Baril told The Advocate, “He wanted no special recognition.” In spite of his saving so many patrons, he resisted efforts to label him as a hero.
Troy Perry, resplendent in full clerical collar, stood at the altar alongside Reverend Kennedy of St. Mark’s. Seated close by, to the surprise of many, was Bishop Finis Crutchfield of the United Methodist Church of Louisiana, a man of serious bearing. After voicing approval for Reverend Kennedy’s decision to host the memorial service, the bishop had evidently felt the need to make a personal statement of support, and traveled to New Orleans specifically for this purpose. Perplexingly, Crutchfield was also a member (along with Archbishop Hannan and Episcopal Bishop Noland) of antigay Morality in Media of Louisiana, the group that had opposed homosexual obscenity. The bishop’s presence at the service suggested that, at least in private (and without the glare of the news), he had a more nuanced relationship with gay Christians than many assumed. “By my presence,” Crutchfield told Troy Perry, “I want every Methodist to know Reverend Kennedy is not a renegade pastor acting without permission.” No other churches in New Orleans sent a representative member of their clergy, despite invitations.
MCC of Washington, D.C., pastor Paul Breton opened the service with a solemn prayer: “Almighty God, we have come together in peace and harmony as mournful people to worship and to make a living memorial for your children.” After MCC of Atlanta pastor John Gill read from scripture, Gay Activist Alliance cofounder Morty Manford made a political speech:
Many of our sisters and brothers who died at the Upstairs bar were Gay. They know what it was like to live in a condemning society where churches called us sinners, psychiatrists called us sick, legislators called us criminals; where capitalists denounced us as subversives and communists denounced us as decadent.
Notably, Deacon Courtney Craighead did not rise to speak. It’s not clear if Courtney could or would not address the crowd. The deacon was at that point half himself, devastated by how his father had rebuked him for being at a gay bar — critiquing his very being. Lucien Baril, the interim MCC of New Orleans pastor, read a series of telegrams from churches and organizations around the country, including an unexpected message of sympathy from American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. Many joked that, because of the Baptists’ conservative reputation, this telegram might have been sent in error.
With a two-sentence message, the Louisiana State University in New Orleans’s Young Democrats became the first and only political body in the country to support the MCC’s National Day of Morning. The Young Democrats acknowledged “the national day of mourning Sunday July 1st in memory of the victims of the ‘Upstairs’ fire disaster.” The group also called for a “complete rewriting and strict enforcement of state and local fire codes.” The Louisiana Democratic National Committee — with its closeted membership — did not acknowledge this statement from their fellow party members. Yet, Tom Bradley, the new mayor of Los Angeles, sent a personal message, as did California senator Alan Cranston and John Burton, a member of the California State Assembly. These messages were, no doubt, stirred up at the request of Angelenos Troy Perry and Morris Kight. The words of these faraway politicians stood in contrast to the muteness of Mayor Moon Landrieu and Governor Edwin Edwards.
By the time Troy Perry took the pulpit, there was a palpable sense that something momentous was about to occur. He thanked Bishop Crutchfield for “having the guts to be here today,” and then expounded on a theme of gay oppression. “As long as one brother or sister in this country is oppressed, it’s our problem,” Perry preached. He declared such names like “faggots, queers, freaks” were “labels (which) will never put me down” and further advised mourners that “you can have dignity as a human being and hold your head high.” Perry related stories of men and women who had frequented the Up Stairs Lounge. “It was no den of iniquity,” he insisted. He roused the crowd with familiar memories. “The last song they ever sang was the one they always sang at the end of Sunday brunch. They all held hands and sang, ‘United We Stand.’” Perry went on to quote from that emblematic song, which patrons had once sung together, locked arm in arm. With these words — spoken rhythmically, reflectively, with reverence — the entire church broke into a powerful, communal sob.
According to witnesses like Stewart Butler, who recalled being overcome with emotion, it was a disembodied cry that echoed in the sanctuary, as if grief had taken on a voice. “There was a deep, respectful, caring emotion that was palpable,” recalled Paul Killgore.
Troy Perry then yielded the pulpit so that John Gill could lead a final hymn, but Perry rushed back in alarm. Interrupting John Gill, he advised everyone in the church that television and press cameras had set up across the street. Evidently, according to Nola Express reporter Ed Martinez, WDSU, the local NBC affiliate, was spotted “out front getting footage before the funeral.” The Advocate and the Vieux Carré Courier said that Times-Picayune cameras were also present. Gay New Orleanians, it seemed, were being surrounded by hostile parties — ready to broadcast their most private secrets.
This excerpt from Tinderbox: The Untold Story of The Up Stairs Lounge Fire And The Rise of Gay Liberation is published with permission from, and gratitude to, Liveright Publishing Corporation. To read the interview with Robert W. Fieseler click here. To read a review of Tinderbox, by Christopher Gioia, please click here.
Tinderbox: The Untold Story of The Up Stairs Lounge Fire And The Rise of Gay Liberation is available for purchase on Amazon here.
Robert W. Fieseler is a recipient of the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship and the Lynton Fellowship in Book Writing. A writer for The Big Roundtable, Narratively, and elsewhere, he lives in Boston.