Flames shot through the crowded Up Stairs Lounge as bartender Buddy Rasmussen opened the front door to see who had been ringing the downstairs buzzer. Someone had lit the popular bar’s stairwell carpet on fire, and it burned its way up the wooden stairs into the bar, quickly igniting the lounge’s red wallpaper, curtains, and posters of Burt Reynolds naked on a bearskin rug and Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz wearing his seven gold medals, a star-spangled Speedo, and a smile.
Some patrons saw the blaze and ran for the nearest exits or down the stairwell, emerging with their clothes on fire as neighbors raced to pour pitchers of water onto them. Rasmussen began tapping patrons on the shoulder to follow him toward the fire exit at the back of the bar, but many were too shocked by the exploding blaze to move.
The June 24, 1973, conflagration, likely set by a sex worker ejected from the New Orleans bar earlier that night, killed 32 people and injured at least 15 others.
Yet the reaction to the catastrophe hardly matched the immense suffering the fire caused, and the tragedy was compounded by multiple denials: Public officials refused to issue statements about the fire, and Catholic churches refused to hold funeral services for the victims, whom they saw as unrepentant sinners. The media only reported on the fire briefly or not at all, and some families refused to claim their relatives’ bodies because they didn’t want to acknowledge that they were gay. Three of the victims ended up buried in unmarked graves — two remain unidentified.
To this day, the arson remains unsolved.
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Hate crimes reverberate through communities, intimidating an entire class of people. The Up Stairs Lounge had been a safe space in the gay-friendly, tourist-heavy French Quarter. But as bar patrons feared a similar attack on other gathering spots, still others worried that police might start raiding gay bars more often and arresting more men in the name of public safety. Bar owners believed talking too much about the fire could hurt business. And locals just wanted to move on from the horror.
As a result, to this day, even many queer New Orleanians aren’t aware of the most devastating fire in their city’s history, the deadliest massacre of gay men in the U.S. before the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.
This year, half a century later, there’s considerable important work being done to ensure that the arson and its aftermath are remembered and the deaths memorialized. For the tragedy’s anniversary, a group of community activists, religious leaders, and queer historians partnered with the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana and the Historic New Orleans Collection to organize a weekend of commemorative events at the end of June.
The weekend, attended by LGBTQ Nation, featured discussions with religious leaders and activists who lent a hand in the fire’s aftermath, artists who have made documentaries and theatrical works based on the event, church leaders concerned with the tragedy’s spiritual legacy, and podcasters and archivists dedicated to preserving its terrible memory. The weekend events also included art exhibitions, film screenings, a memorial service, and a “second line” jazz funeral through the city’s streets to the now defunct bar’s front entrance.
Their work is especially important considering the current backlash against remembering the atrocities America has committed against its most vulnerable communities. Extreme right-wingers are busy denying our guilt over slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the effect these traumas have on minority communities to this day.
But those committed to preserving history aren’t just making artworks and public speeches about the tragedy; they’re also working to ensure that the victims and their families finally get the recognition and empathy they deserve for their loss.
The fire occurred when New Orleans author Johnny Townsend was only 11 years old. Though he saw horrific photos of the aftermath on TV news at the time, as he grew up, he could find little background on what happened. So in 1989 — 16 years after the fire — he began tracking down the bar’s survivors and former patrons with the help of Rasmussen, the lounge’s surviving bartender.
Through interviews and research, Townsend published the first historical account of what happened as well as profiles for each victim in his 2011 book Let the Faggots Burn. The amateur historian struggled to find a publisher, so he eventually published it himself via BookLocker.com. After the 333-page book was released, a son of one of the fire’s victims approached him after Townsend spoke publicly about the book and said that all he had ever known of his father was what his mother had told him: “Your father was a drunk, and he died at a bar.”
Townsend’s book had given his dad back to him. Today, the historical amnesia is finally being addressed. There are three books about the fire — including Clayton Delery-Edwards’ comprehensive 2014 account, The Up Stairs Lounge Arson, and Robert W. Fieseler’s 2018 nonfiction narrative, Tinderbox.
Three documentaries have been made about the arson, with a fourth in production, as well as one play, a stage musical, four unproduced screenplays, a dance piece, various podcasts, and a permanent art installation.
One of the documentaries, a 2013 short by Royd Anderson, helped the estranged family of World War II veteran Ferris LeBlanc realize that he was one of three “unidentified white males” who perished in the blaze. The city buried his corpse in an unmarked plot within Resthaven Memorial Park, a potter’s field located near the city’s northeastern coast.
Anderson is now working on a documentary called Saving Ferris and pressuring government officials to exhume LeBlanc and give him the proper military burial that he deserved.
Max Vernon’s 2017 stage musical, The View UpStairs, depicts a snarky gay fashionista millennial who buys the dilapidated Up Stairs Lounge to launch his flagship store but is then magically transported to 1973, just before the fire. Despite its tragic content, it has been seen by over 100,000 people — Off-Broadway, in multiple U.S. cities, as well as in England and Australia — and has been translated into Japanese and seen by 20,000 theatergoers. Drag legend RuPaul called the musical “fantastic.”
None of these things would’ve been possible without Townsend’s first book. Delery-Edwards and Fieseler agreed on this point as the three book authors spoke at an opening-night panel during the 50th-anniversary commemorative weekend.
Fieseler said that people still contact him regularly with new information about the fire. At speaking engagements, attendees will often approach him, tears in their eyes, to confess their estrangement from their own queer family members.
“It can change minds,” Fieseler said of the history. “It can melt hearts when they learn the inhumanity of how these people were treated.”
Many of the weekend panelists said they wanted to ensure that the history is never forgotten and that it never happens again — but it already is happening again.
Eleven states have laws censoring discussions of LGBTQ+ issues in public school classrooms. Thirty-three states have banned LGBTQ+-inclusive books from schools and public libraries, according to the free speech organization PEN America. Meanwhile, recent reports show that the LGBTQ+ community has increasingly been targeted by legislation banning drag shows and gender-affirming care, as well as by hate speech, threats, and violence from white supremacist, neo-fascist, parental rights, and Christian nationalist groups.
“New Orleans is renowned internationally for being a welcoming, open city,” City Council Vice President J.P. Morell told attendees at the opening reception of the 50th anniversary commemoration. “And part of us continuing to promote that narrative requires us to acknowledge a time when we were not an open, welcoming city.”
Morell spearheaded an official apology from the city, delivered in 2022, for its “botched and callous response” to the arson. He said that the city and media had made an “active effort” to bury the massacre and shield the politically powerful from any guilt for neglecting its victims. That same year, Louisiana state Rep. Alonzo Knox (D) passed a resolution apologizing for the state’s response.
A growing community has emerged to preserve the arson’s memory and counter those who wish to keep it buried. To understand what drives them, one must first know a little about the bar, the community it created, and the fire that ravaged both.
“When I try to explain [the arson] to people not in the queer community,” Morell told the reception attendees, “I tell them the Up Stairs Lounge is like the  Tulsa Massacre for those in the African American community … The fact that we didn’t know about it as a country tells you how successful the government and the media can be in erasing history if we don’t fight for it.”
How a refuge turned into a deadly nightmare
Gay life during the early 1970s was nothing like today. The American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality a mental illness, the best-known depiction across America was the hillbilly rape scene from the film Deliverance, and some closeted men got married and had children just to avoid persecution.
While some of New Orleans’ queer community joined invite-only dinner clubs and Mardi Gras krewes to socialize privately, others frequented public cruising spots and bars. In the late-night hours, police would sometimes raid these establishments, beating up and arresting patrons on vague “obscenities” charges for actions as simple as hugging. Arrestees had their names published in the newspaper, resulting in firings, divorces, and even taking their own lives.
In 1970, gay entrepreneur Philip Esteve opened the Up Stairs Lounge and hired Rasmussen, a friendly man who had been dishonorably discharged from the military for being gay.
The bar didn’t get much business when it first opened, but then Rasmussen had the idea for a Sunday evening Beer Bust from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. when customers could pay $1 for all-you-can-drink beer. He figured, accurately, that Beer Bust customers would become bar regulars.
As the crowds grew, the lounge became a refuge for its patrons, some of whom were out among gay friends but closeted at work. The bar held annual parties for Mardi Gras and Halloween and also community fundraisers for children’s hospitals and other causes. On a small stage, patrons performed plays and lighthearted “Nellydramas” where men played women’s roles, and the audience threw popcorn at cartoonish villains.
The bar also hired a pianist to play singalongs. At the end of every Beer Bust, he’d play the 1970 Brotherhood of Man song “United We Stand,” and patrons would sing together: “There’s nowhere in the world that I would rather be / Than with you my love / And there’s nothing in the world that I would rather see / Than your smile my love / For united we stand / Divided we fall / And if our backs should ever be against the wall / We’ll be together, together, you and I.”
The bar also hosted Sunday morning services for the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a gay-affirming church started in Los Angeles in 1968. William “Bill” Larson, New Orleans’ MCC minister, temporarily held Sunday services in the bar’s intimate theater. Even after moving the gatherings into his own home, church members still patronized the bar after services, often staying for the Beer Bust.
According to accounts in the aforementioned books and an ABC News feature about the arson, during one Beer Bust on June 24, 1973, 26-year-old sex worker Roger Dale Nunez was reportedly sexually harassing patrons. One patron punched him, and the bartender threw him out. But before leaving, Nunez allegedly said, “I’m gonna burn you all out!”
It’s believed that Nunez then went to a nearby Walgreens, purchased a 7-ounce canister of Ronsonol lighter fluid, emptied it onto the bar entrance’s bottom steps, and ignited it. The small fire quickly blazed up the carpeted stairway and swept into the bar, engulfing its wallpaper, window drapes, wood paneling, posters, and decorations.
Rasmussen, who received fire training in the military, helped 22 people safely exit from a fire door behind the stage, but others were too intoxicated or stunned to follow. Some of the 42 people who remained in the bar escaped through another fire door; others ran down the fiery stairwell and emerged downstairs severely burned.
Twelve escaped by miraculously squeezing through the 10-inch gaps in the metal safety bars guarding the lounge’s large floor-to-ceiling windows. One such person was Rusty Quinton, a man who would soon after be photographed while looking at the fiery bar and crying, “My friends are up there!”
Others weren’t so lucky. Larson, the MCC pastor, squeezed his head and arm through the bars before catching flame and burning alive. Some people feared the windows’ 12-foot drop to the sidewalk and blocked others from escaping through them.
Though firefighters extinguished the blaze barely 20 minutes after it began, when they entered the bar, they discovered that nearly 17 corpses had piled atop one another while trying to escape through the windows. Firefighters vomited from the stench and cried at the horrific sights. Larson’s charred corpse remained visible in the window for nearly four hours before being removed.
Fifteen injured survivors went to Charity Hospital, forcing it to prematurely open its new burn unit. Three of those admitted died from their injuries.
One survivor with burned hands asked for help dialing his boyfriend on a pay phone. When his lover answered, he looked at the floor and said, “Hello, David? Listen, I’ve had a sort of accident. Yes … Please come quick. Please come. I hurt.”
Heroes from the ashes
Throughout history, some haven’t considered the fire a hate crime because it was committed by someone from the LGBTQ+ community. But, as one commemoration panelist, Metropolitan Community Church minister Paul Breton, said, the real hate crime happened afterward with the inhuman response of the city, state, and church.
The indignities began almost immediately. As journalists arrived at the scene, Rasmussen found Nunez in the crowd and dragged him to a police officer for arrest. The cop, possibly more concerned with crowd control, told Rasmussen to move along. The officer’s negligence characterized the police’s handling of the case. While investigators often use victims’ clothing, jewelry, birthmarks, and IDs to identify the dead, the fire had rendered them unidentifiable. Police officials told reporters from then newspaper The States-Item that they had trouble identifying people because “some thieves hung out” at the bar, and it was “not uncommon for homosexuals to carry false identification.”
Police concluded their investigation about two months later without ever questioning or arresting Nunez. The fire marshal’s more thorough investigation subjected Nunez to a psychological stress evaluation (PSE) that detected dishonesty in Nunez’s denials. PSEs, however, are subjective and often inadmissible as court evidence.
Nunez drunkenly confessed to three people — his lover, a nun, and a drag queen — that he had started the fire, only to deny it when sober. None of them told the police. The drag queen, Miss Fury, said Nunez confessed to her on Christmas Eve 1973 that “He’d only meant to cause a little fire and smoke. He’d only meant to scare everybody. He didn’t realize the whole place would go up in flames.” The 27-year-old arsonist died by suicide on November 15, 1974, by overdosing on beer and painkillers.
Even though the fire marshal concluded that Nunez was guilty, the Orleans Parish District Attorney refused to sign off on the conclusion. With no fingerprints on the lighter fluid can, witnesses to the fire setting, or confession, there was no proof and no conviction — the case remains officially unsolved to this day.
The local paper, The Times-Picayune, printed the names of the deceased and the survivors, outing some of them. Closeted survivors who avoided the press still couldn’t mention the tragedy at their workplaces. According to Delery-Edwards’ and Townsend’s research, tasteless jokes began circulating among New Orleans locals about “flaming queens,” how the dead homos should be buried in fruit jars, and how the real tragedy was that more f**gots didn’t die.
When a 1972 fire at New Orleans’ Rault Center killed six people, then-Mayor Moon Landrieu, then-Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, and then-Catholic Archbishop Philip Hannan issued sympathetic statements to the victims and their families. However, after the Up Stairs Lounge fire killed 32, the officials said nothing for weeks. Hannan reportedly told local Catholic churches not to hold funerals or burials for any of the fire’s non-Catholic victims.
An appeals court blocked 19 different lawsuits suing city and state agencies for failing to inspect the bar for fire hazards for over two years before the blaze. With no one else to hold accountable, the litigants sued the bar’s owner for $80,000, a paltry sum to split among them all.
But even amid this coldness, heroes rose from the ashes.
Three MCC leaders — MCC founder Troy Perry of Los Angeles, Reverend John Gill of Atlanta, and Minister Paul Breton of Washington D.C. — quickly met in New Orleans to begin organizing memorials and press conferences, shaming the media and government for sweeping victims’ ashes under the rug.
These men helped establish The National New Orleans Memorial Fund, which raised $18,000 (worth about $125,000 today). The fund covered burial costs and aided survivors with medical bills and lost wages. It was the first-ever national fundraiser for a gay cause, and it provided a blueprint for similar fundraisers during the soon-to-come AIDS epidemic.
Breton, who is now 83, recalled the unkindness of churches that refused to host memorials for homosexuals.
“Church is not necessarily found in a community of people who adhere to a creed,” Breton said during a 50th anniversary panel about the fire’s spiritual legacy. “The Beer Bust was a church. You had people of like mind and like interest coming together every Sunday at a specified time, and they did something that people in church should do and often that people in churches don’t do — they were friends with each other.”
The three MCC leaders eventually convinced Father Bill Richardson of St. George’s Episcopal Church to host a June 25 memorial in the church’s small chapel. Only 50 people attended since it wasn’t well publicized and victims were still being identified. But afterward, 100 parishioners complained to the local bishop and demanded Richardson’s resignation.
In response, Richardson wrote a June 28 letter to congregants stating, “St. George’s is not a private club but the House of God … Would Jesus have barred these grief-stricken people from His church, or would He have welcomed them?” If congregants felt that the church should only minister to a select few, he wrote, he’d consider resigning. He never resigned, but the Episcopalian bishop of New Orleans, Iveson Nolan, told Richardson and other local Episcopal churches not to host future memorials.
A second memorial was held at St. Mark’s Methodist Church on Sunday, July 1. Its organizers printed 3,000 flyers to advertise it, and about 300 people attended, including the Methodist Bishop of Louisiana — a big deal considering the church officially sees homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The mourners then sang “United We Stand,” the same song that bar patrons sang at the end of every Beer Bust.
That same day, 46 MCC branches in the U.S. and Europe held memorial services, and several gay bars, nightclubs, and bathhouses in eight major U.S. cities also closed for an hour to commemorate the victims.
Though the organizers of the New Orleans memorial had asked the press not to attend, The Times-Picayune and the local NBC TV affiliate arrived with cameras, waiting to record departing attendees and potentially out them. Perry notified the mourners and offered a backdoor exit. But an unidentified butch lesbian reportedly shouted, “I’m not ashamed of who I am or who my friends are. I came in the front door, and I’m going out that way.”
Recounts differ on what happened next. Some say the mourners left through the front door. Some say a few exited out the back. Others say the TV cameras had already departed by the time the memorial ended. Perry told one historian it didn’t matter if the cameras were there or not — what mattered was that the gay mourners faced them.
A reckoning 50 years in the making
Contrary to widespread belief, the Up Stairs Lounge fire wasn’t New Orleans’ Stonewall moment. The fire wasn’t a victory against oppression, and it didn’t rouse the local gay community to start fighting for their rights. In fact, the LGBTQ+ community rarely discussed the fire, and some opposed the efforts of the visiting MCC ministers.
The ministers were referred to as “fairy carpetbaggers,” borrowing a post–Civil War term for Northerners who profited off of Southern suffering. Up Stairs Lounge bar owner Esteve and other local gay business owners blamed the out-of-state activists for interfering in local matters, divisively politicizing a tragedy, and attracting unwanted government attention to gay establishments and their patrons.
Though the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its diagnostic manual of mental disorders six months after the fire, it wouldn’t be until six years later that the city’s queer community would unite to oppose a force that bears an eerie resemblance to the threat LGBTQ+ people face today.
In 1977, the leaders of seven local gay and lesbian groups organized a 2,000-person protest against hate group leader Anita Bryant — it was the city’s largest-ever gay rights demonstration. That same year, a gay and lesbian newspaper Impact began publication, and the mayor appointed gays and lesbians to his city hall committee. Throughout the 1980s, various gay political and HIV advocacy groups evolved, including the New Orleans Chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).
Despite this progress, the Up Stairs Lounge Fire remained mostly forgotten, and it was even excluded from a 1991 Louisiana State Museum exhibit about the city’s historic fires. However, on the arson’s 30th anniversary in 2003, the New Orleans MCC and others placed a bronze memorial plaque with the names of the fire’s 32 victims in front of the bar’s original entrance. By the arson’s 40th anniversary, the city’s then-mayor Mitch Landrieu (son of the mayor who had served during the fire) issued a statement formally recognizing the fire, and then Catholic Archbishop Gregory Aymond apologized for the archdiocese not issuing a statement when the blaze occurred.
Many of the fire’s survivors are dead, and the victims’ families have grown older and largely moved away. But local MCC Rev. Lonnie Cheramie, a queer group called the Crescent City Leathermen, and others have helped organize annual memorials, including a 2023 recreation of the 1973 memorial service that occurred at St. Marks.
In front of the crowded sanctuary stood 32 small black banners, each with the name of a different victim sewn in gold lettering. After the New Orleans Gay Men’s Chorus sang “United We Stand,” various leathermen, drag nuns with the Big Easy Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and others carried the banners through the French Quarter for a “second line” jazz funeral procession to the entrance of the former Up Stairs Lounge. (The street-level bar, The Jimani, has occupied the space since 1972, with building records dating back as far back as 1848.)
There, people left flowers and bouquets on the plaque as Regina Adams observed the proceedings. Her husband, Reginald “Reggie” Adams, died in the fire. When she returned to the bar after going home to retrieve her checkbook, she saw the fire and stood in the middle of Iberville Street, screaming. Every day of the following week, she laid out her husband’s work clothes as if awaiting his return. She has rarely ever attended these memorial events, one local filmmaker noted.
“We still have a lot of work left to do,” said the event’s emcee, Apostle Shelly Planellas of New Covenant Church, through a loudspeaker in front of the 32 black banners. “Seven years ago, we lost 49 lives at Pulse in Orlando. Last year, we lost five at Club Q in Colorado Springs. And we have lost countless members of our beloved trans community to bigotry and hatred. And our work does not end here. Our work and our mission do not end ever. Homophobia, transphobia, racism, misogyny, and hatred are still a part of our daily reality. There are growing numbers of people across our country who want to erase our history and our very existence. Many would say that we should never politicize a tragedy like this. Your very existence and participation today is, in fact, a political act.”
Most of the memorial’s attendees skewed older, Tim Reynolds of the Crescent City Leathermen said, because the older generation is more invested in preserving history. His group helps organize the memorials, he said, to keep the memory alive for the next generation.
In a recently released podcast about the arson, The Fire UpStairs, activist, drag performer, and RuPaul’s Drag Race alum BenDeLaCreme said that many younger queer people and allies don’t understand why gay life is so centered around bars.
“These were the spaces that [homophobic society] pushed us into,” BenDeLaCreme told the podcast’s co-creator Joey Gray. But now — with more hookup apps and civil rights — even queer spaces are disappearing, she said.
This disappearance of queer spaces makes it more urgent to convey this history, Gray said, especially at a time when bigots are fighting to actively erase it. The AIDS epidemic silenced an entire generation of queer elders from passing down our community’s legacy. Because of this, more young people have grown up in an unprecedented era of acceptance and find themselves shaken and unprepared to face the current threat to our progress, not aware of similar historical threats and actions.
“In order to fight these battles and to stand up for what’s historically our culture, you have to have some kind of a foundation, a base knowledge,” said Gray about why he started the podcast.
Another guest of Gray’s podcast — Brian Derrick, founder of the progressive political engagement site Oath — noted that the cost of LGBTQ+ progress has been paid with career sacrifices, lives, and emotional labor.
“So now we have this fight in front of us,” Derrick said. “It’s also going to be expensive, and it’s going to cost a lot of time, money, careers, and all of these massive inputs in order to again move equality forward so that the next generation doesn’t have the same fight that we have right now. So we are leaving our kids — both literal and metaphorical — in a better place.”
Additional research by Billy McEntee and Kelly Suzan Waggoner.
Empathy is the life force of our humanity, and ultimately it is the key to our recovery during the current crisis in our country.