Post submitted by Diane Martin, HRC Religion and Faith intern

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the deadliest fire in the history of New Orleans and perhaps the greatest mass murder of LGBT persons in the history of the United States, and yet, very few people are aware of it.

In 1973, the UpStairs Lounge was a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, which served as a regular Sunday meeting spot for drinks, socializing, and worship. The recently founded Metropolitan Community Church, the nation’s first gay church, used the UpStairs Lounge as its temporary home and the bar was often described as a refuge for the LGBT community and for MCC in New Orleans, where gay life and culture remained largely underground. 

On June 24 of that year, the last Sunday of the month and the final day of Pride weekend, a group of over 60 gay men and members of MCC gathered for their weekly meeting when an unidentified person set fire to the only staircase and exit.  The whole bar went up in flames, killing a total of 32 men.  The fire made headlines in local newspapers the following day and then quickly disappeared from the media. Neither the mayor nor the governor spoke out regarding the incident. Local religious leaders remained mostly silent, except for one congregation, which finally agreed to hold a memorial service over a week later. No one was ever prosecuted and the details of the night were quickly wiped from the radar and forgotten.

As we look forward and continue to make progress in achieving equal rights for all persons no matter their sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, or race, it is important to look back and remember the otherwise forgotten tragedies. 

The massacre at UpStairs Lounge in 1973 helped launch a new gay religious movement and gave a voice to the LGBT community in New Orleans. While in 1973 the Metropolitan Community Church was the only LGBT friendly church in the country and met secretly in a bar, today the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Unitarian Universalists all ordain gay clergy.

Today, exactly forty years later, we are anticipating the Supreme Court’s ruling on two same-sex marriage cases; established anti-LGBT groups are taking steps to apologize to the LGBT community; and we have witnessed an unprecedented number of religious groups participating in LGBT pride events across the country.  It is easy to point to events like the Stonewall riots and the upcoming Supreme Court cases as landmarks in the LGBT equality movement, but it is also important to recognize and remember the lives lost and the little-known events, including the massacre at the UpStairs lounge, that have gotten us to the point.   To read more about the history of the fire in the UpStairs lounge see the thoughtful piece in Time Magazine.

Filed under: Religion & Faith, Community

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