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BOOKS 45 years ago, talking UpStairs tragedy with Robert W. Fieseler
by Owen Keehnen
2018-07-18

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On June 24, 1973, an act of arson claimed the lives of 32 people at the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans. In his new book, Tinderbox, author and historian Robert W. Fieseler has painstakingly researched the blaze.

In the book, we get to know the victims, giving a deeply personal face to the tragedy. In addition, Fieseler explains the importance of the UpStairs Lounge to New Orleans gay life at the time, the events surrounding the blaze, the bungled/apathetic investigation, and the lives of the survivors. The impact of the fire is also examined as well as the socio-political ripples the fire sent through the gay community nationwide.

Recently I had the chance to chat with Fieseler about the UpStairs Lounge fire and why this 45-year-old tragedy still resonates today.

Windy City Times: The UpStairs Lounge fire has been the subject of two previous books and a documentary film. How did you want Tinderbox to differ in its approach to the tragedy?

Robert Fieseler: You're right in that there have been several very worthy tellings of the tragedy. Aware of these, I wanted to focus directly on the socio-political context that surrounded the UpStairs Lounge fire, locally and nationally. As it turns out, this untapped terrain is virtually the whole story. There is essentially no way to understand this fire, except with an activist slant, if one doesn't account for the 1970s society that created the conditions for this tragedy to occur. In order to appreciate public attitudes towards homosexuality in 1973, when the fire occurred, you'd have to not only flip today's scale of homosexual tolerance but then also break it.

Seven out of 10 Americans, when polling companies even bothered to ask about something so obvious, believed homosexuality to be "always wrong." Why? Because homosexual sex was a crime in all but five states, including Louisiana, and punishable with mandatory prison sentences. The American Psychiatric Association still categorized homosexuality as a sexual deviancy disorder; to much of medical science, homosexuality remained a dangerous illness. In New Orleans, a "live and let live" community with a unique relationship to the vices, homosexuals had been permitted to occupy a semi-closeted niche where, so long as the sexual behavior remained undeclared, individuals could dabble without being arrested. Speaking word of these activities, however, provoked violent reprisals, often from the same police members who ordinarily came calling to gay bars for payoffs. To the wider public, all this was "normal" behavior.

When you look at New Orleans' large homosexual community in 1973, between 60,000 and 100,000 in a city of 600,000, you see a kind of pressure cooker building among a population deeply in denial. A "closeted" gay underworld had served the Big Easy so well that the radical openness of the gay rights movement had not yet reached the city's borders. Thus, when a gay bar exploded in a ball of flame, killing 32 innocents, a mask was ripped away, and people were forced to contend with a shocking reality they had been trained to suppress: the fact that a large gay community existed beside them, in their midst. This out-of-ordinary circumstance exposed widespread bias because, though the fire was the deadliest mass killing of homosexuals at the time and the deadliest fire on record in New Orleans history, individuals struggled to find what would ordinarily be a very natural sympathy for the dead.

WCT: There's so much information in the book. I was especially impressed with all the personal information you gathered about the lives of the people at the UpStairs Lounge on the night of June 24th, 1973. What were your primary methods of research?

RF: For me, it was incredible to realize that archival documents and maps, plus a Venn-diagram of overlapping interviews and testimony from 1973, permitted a near-minute by minute account of what happened to real people inside the UpStairs Lounge at those critical moments. I wanted to honor the survivors and witnesses by spelling out exactly what happened as flames surged around them, especially in light of hearing from several survivors how people told them that their experiences didn't matter. In their lives and in the stream of history, their experiences mattered a great deal.

So I try to follow the Studs Terkel method of reporting, in that I delve deeply into historical background but I also rely heavily on interview. I want to know what people have to say and then map what people have to say, at the same time and in the same space, against each other. When I interview, taking another cue from Studs, I give the interviewee the wheel. That means they speak to me when they want to, where they want to, if they want to. I'm on their timetable, which can be stressful when a book deadline looms, but it also means that, when they talk, they're sharing the story they need to express rather than the story they think I want to hear.

For Tinderbox, that meant sometimes playing an email or a text message dance for three years before a fire survivor sat down to speak. And I had many magical, multi-hour-long conversations with survivors that were worth the wait. I would not trade these interviews for the world. And if a survivor decided that he couldn't share his experiences, well that said something profound to me, too, about the level of trauma. Some admitted that they could not relive those moments when fire surged through the front door of their favorite bar as if launched from a flamethrower. Some could not find it in themselves to describe their friends and lovers burning to death. And I understand why. I do. Reliving a pain they can't change is no catharsis.

WCT: The fire resulted in a nationwide response from the gay community in 1973. I know Chicago had fundraisers at the time. This really was the impetus for a lot of the political organizing of gay liberation. What forms did that take?

RF: In a matter of hours, national leaders of the early "Gay Liberation" movement became alerted to the emergency in New Orleans. Men like a then-infamous gay Christian pastor named Reverend Troy Perry in Los Angeles and a Gay Activist Alliance leader named Morty Manford in New York City. Overnight, they coordinated travel plans, and several were on the ground in New Orleans the next morning—tending to the survivors, nurturing a fractured gay-friendly church that had lost a third of its membership in the blaze and alerting wives, sons, nieces and other assorted family members of the deceased. Ash was still billowing from the destroyed UpStairs Lounge when some of them arrived. These leaders made a headquarters in the hotel across the street.

It was an unprecedented moment in that Gay Liberation, for the first time, descended from multiple cities and both coasts to manage a gay crisis. Within days, this response team of leaders dubbed themselves the New Orleans Emergency Task Force and founded a memorial fund so that gays and lesbians across the country could donate funds for the victims. About $17,000 ended up being raised, a large sum for a time, and the famous gay publication The Advocate signed on with the effort and agreed to receive the checks. Additionally, concerned citizens from Miami to Seattle donated enough blood for the burn victims through the American Red Cross to raise the question of whether a "blood credit" existed for other gay crises several years later.

In the Windy City, there was great activism and several mass meetings about the fire. The Chicago Gay Crusader made the UpStairs Lounge a top story, and an organization called Up North held a benefit that raised $1,500 for the national memorial fund.

WCT: Thirty-two people died in the blaze. That's a HUGE story. What was the newspaper coverage at the time in the gay versus the straight press?

RF: The UpStairs Lounge was a disaster of such scope that it automatically became national news, reported by the famous civil rights reporter Roy Reed for The New York Times, and even international news in London, Paris and Australia. When it became clear who perished in the fire, however, and that the establishment had served homosexuals, all of those headlines dried up. The fire happened on a Sunday night, but Roy Reed's brave stories for the Times were over by the next Tuesday. Television news desks, at first eager to broadcast such a visceral story of fire and corpses, displayed the same behavior and offered no follow-ups to the fire, though several news desks had reported that the bar's destruction looked like intentional arson.

On the other hand, the national gay press and alternative weeklies, the "radical presses" of the times, reported the UpStairs Lounge faithfully for months. Loyal readers of these small publications, such as The Advocate in Los Angeles and Gay Community News in Boston, followed happenings in New Orleans closely. In New Orleans, only an alt-weekly called the Vieux Carré Courier, edited by a well-known gay French Quarter activist named Bill Rushton, took the risk of holding the spotlight on the fire and ensuing investigation. And it was a risk. Most local readers, by July, were eager to hustle past a tragedy that made them so uncomfortable.

WCT: Something fascinating in Tinderbox was how gay liberation sort of skipped New Orleans all together and many antiquated views about homosexuality were still in play in 1973—so much so that city officials could lose their jobs if they were known to associate with [gay people]. Even the gay community in New Orleans was not thrilled by the nationwide attention of the fire. They didn't want liberation and gay leaders like Reverend Perry coming to town. Is that an accurate statement?

RF: Yes, as much as New Orleans has a long tradition of embracing the "outsider" in its revelry, it also shuns the individual who appears to be trying to change what makes that great city so special and unique. Reverend Troy Perry, by 1973, was the most recognizable homosexual in America—one of the few gays who could weather the controversy of having his name and face appear in print or on television.

When Perry came to New Orleans, he brought with him all of the ideas of Gay Liberation, including a propensity towards radical activism and open expression of his sexual difference, and that clashed greatly with the Creole code of private fun and the compartmentalization of sexual quirks. As a result, many owners of gay businesses or closeted members of high society referred to Perry, with his press conferences and references to Gay Pride, as a "fairy carpetbagger."

WCT: The investigation of the crime was horribly botched. Do you think it was incompetence by the police or just plain apathy because it was a gay bar and the lives lost were gay people?

RF: I would say some combination of apathy and revulsion made the investigation less than thorough. A long trial, involving homosexual witnesses, would have been perceived as an embarrassment for the city. Remember also, NOPD detectives had no training as to how to associate with New Orleans' gay underworld other than to arrest or intimidate its then-criminal members. I've spoken to several members of law enforcement who've looked into this case recently, and they just don't understand how the primary suspect, Rodger Dale Nunez, was never arrested or tried when the evidence against him was so compelling. Criminologists look for motive, means and opportunity to establish probable cause for an assailant committing a crime.

Nunez had motive: being violently ejected from the UpStairs Lounge earlier in the night screaming, "I'm going to burn you all out. Nunez had means: someone matching his description walked angrily into a nearby Walgreens and purchased a certain size and brand of lighter fluid. Lastly, Nunez had opportunity: minutes after the Walgreens purchase, that same size and brand of lighter fluid was emptied in the front staircase of the UpStairs Lounge. Afterwards, witnesses describe Nunez as wondering around the street looking "filthy, covered in black," as if covered in soot.

WCT: Interesting that the arsonist turned out to be an angry drunk gay man. I always thought it was a hate crime. Is that a common misconception people have about the tragedy?

RF: Yes, certainly, but you have to remember that there was no such legal reality or even common use of the term "hate crime" in 1973. "Gay" was still a new and controversial word, unprintable in newspapers. But, even by contemporary standards, the UpStairs Lounge fire was not a hate crime. It was most likely gay-on-gay crime—an angry, internally conflicted person who took revenge on a rival gay clique that did not accept him. That's what makes the event so disturbing and honest and also inherently compelling. Homosexuality was so deeply suppressed in those years that many homosexual individuals had yet to perceive other individuals like themselves as forming any sort of "community."

WCT: What resonates most today about this 45-year-old tragedy?

RF: The UpStairs Lounge is unique in that it mostly became revived in the twenty-first century, decades after the event. It's strange that just one year after the UpStairs Lounge, no major memorials would be held in New Orleans, but now there are memorials and public observances held for every significant anniversary. The twentieth century, when homosexuality was still criminalized, did not treat the UpStairs Lounge as kindly.

I think the tragedy speaks strongly to the present moment because we have reached a distance from its trauma and gruesomeness, and that distance permits us to see what really happened: men with an innate characteristic were forced to live invisibly or be punished; those invisible men were then murdered in their favorite bar; lastly, that mass killing of invisibles was unceremoniously wiped from the slate.

I cannot think of an event that speaks more to the perils of "the closet" and why it failed and fails our citizens. The UpStairs Lounge reminds us that the societal closet, that broad conspiracy to turn away from a characteristic that will manifest in a small percentage of babies born every day, is nonfunctioning in that makes moral monsters out of otherwise law-abiding citizens. Even in historic New Orleans, it was an institution of great violence and great corruption.


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