Crime
2 min

Largest mass murder of gay people in US occurred 40 years ago

The UpStairs Lounge fire in New Orleans that occurred June 24, 1973, and which claimed the lives of 32 people, most of them gay, is the subject of a new documentary to be screened this summer. 

Recognized as the largest massacre of gay people in American history, the fire started around 8pm, when bar patron Luther Boggs went to open the door for someone who had been "insistently" ringing its bell, Terry Firma writes on patheos.com.

Firma notes in his piece that there was a smell of lighter fluid, followed by the explosion of a ball of fire that travelled up and into the bar.

Firma adds, "The ensuing 15 minutes were the most horrific that any of the 65 or so customers had ever endured — full of flames, smoke, panic, breaking glass, and screams." 

The bar's patrons, many of them members of the gay Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), had gathered there on the last day of the Pride weekend and the fourth anniversary of Stonewall.  

MCC assistant pastor George “Mitch” Mitchell, who had got out of the burning building, went back in to rescue his boyfriend, Louis Broussard. Both Mitchell and Broussard died in the fire and were found "clinging together," Firma writes.

While some people managed to force their way through metal bars on the windows, others didn't make it. One of those stuck was Reverend Bill Larson, who died as he tried to get through the window frame. Among the dead were a mother, Inez Warren, and her two gay sons, Eddie and Jim.

No one was charged with the crime, although a Rodger Dale Nunez, described as an "itinerant troublemaker," repeatedly said he was responsible, Firma notes. Nunez committed suicide in 1974.

Compounding the tragic loss of life was the reaction of the media organizations of the day, the reported foot-dragging of the police and the rebuke of an Episcopalian reverend who dared to hold a service for the victims.

Firma writes, "The few respectable news organizations that deigned to cover the tragedy made little of the fact that the majority of the victims had been gay, while talk-radio hosts tended to take a jocular or sneering tone: 'What do we bury them in? Fruit jars,' sniggered one, on the air, only a day after the massacre. Other, smaller disasters resulted in City Hall press conferences or statements of condolence from the governor, but no civil authorities publicly spoke out about the fire, other than to mumble about needed improvements to the city’s fire code."

Check out a trailer for Royd Anderson's documentary about the deadly fire.