June 24 marks a very somber day in the history of LGBTQ+ Americans — it is the anniversary of the Upstairs Lounge fire, an arson attack that occurred in 1973 and which was the deadliest attack on a U.S. gay bar until 2016.
The Upstairs Lounge was on the second floor of the three story building at 141 Chartres Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was the final night of Pride weekend and, at the time of the attack, some 60 people were still inside the Upstairs Lounge listening to the piano music of David Gary at an event hosted by the Metropolitan Community Church.
At 7:56 pm, the buzzer on the front door went off. Luther Boggs went to answer the door, only to find the front stairwell completely aflame. Buddy Ramussen, an Air Force veteran and the bartender there that night, led twenty people out the back exit to the roof of a neighboring building where they could escape. However, somehow, their escape route locked behind them trapping everyone else inside. A handful tried to escape by squeezing out of the barred windows. MCC Reverend Bill Larson died clinging to those bars, and his body was visible from the street below for hours afterwards. The MCC’s assistant pastor Duane George “Mitch” Mitchell had escaped, but returned to try to rescue his boyfriend Louis Horace Broussard — they died holding onto each other.
Firefighters had difficulty reaching the scene because of pedestrians and car traffic. One fire truck crashed into a taxi. Once they arrived, they quickly brought the fire under control quickly. 28 people died in the fire, one died enroute to the hospital, and three more died later due to injuries sustained in the blaze. Fifteen were injured but survived.
The only suspect in the arson attack was a man named Rodger Dale Nunez, who had been kicked out of the bar earlier in the night for fighting with a customer. A witness claimed to have seen him in the area of the bar twenty minutes before the fire, but police determined that the witness was unreliable. Nunez also suffered from mental illness, and was placed in psychiatric custody after his arrest. He escaped, however, and was never picked up by police again despite being quite visible in the French Quarter. A friend later told investigators that Nunez confessed to the arson at least four times, before taking his own life in November of 1974.
Despite the magnitude of the attack, it was all but ignored. The media made no mention of the LGBT status of the victims, and neither the city nor state government ever made a statement on the attack — despite having declared days of mourning for smaller tragedies. Worse still, the victims — and many of the survivors — had been outed. Churches refused to have funerals, some of the survivors lost their jobs. Some of the victims’ families refused to claim the bodies. On June 25, Father Bill Richardson of St. George’s Episcopal Church held a small, private prayer service for the victims — he was the only member of the city’s clergy who was willing to do so. 80 people attended the service, and he received over 100 complaints about it from parishioners and was officially rebuked by his superior in the church.
On July 1, MCC founder Troy Perry — who flew from L.A. — held a memorial service for the victims. Reporters waited outside, eager to expose the grieving and mostly closeted members LGBTQ+ community of New Orleans to the public. Although a side exit was offered, none took that option. Every person who attended the service exited together in a show of solidarity. In 2003, the city of New Orleans installed a (small) plaque in the sidewalk at the location of the fire to memorialize the victims.
Three of those victims — white males — were never identified. The burial costs of these three were paid for anonymously, and they were buried along with Ferris LeBlanc in a mass grave in a cemetery reserved for the poor. LeBlanc’s immediate family only learned of his death in 2015. The cemetery he is buried in is massive and unkept and there is not a map, so his family has yet to see his grave.
(Adapted from this Facebook post.)