Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Hidden history

The worst mass murder of gays in US history happened in New Orleans 40 years ago, on June 24, 1973 (June 24 is today in the USA). Until today, I’d never heard of it.

The video above is the trailer for a documentary about the tragedy, “The UpStairs Lounge Fire”. To this day, it’s uncertain who did it or why, though the most likely suspect has long been thought to be a mentally ill man who was kicked out of the bar earlier that day.

What’s beyond dispute is the horror of that arson attack, which ultimately killed 32 people and injured 15:
“…some attempted to squeeze through barred windows in order to escape. One man managed to squeeze through the 14-inch gap, only to fall to his death while burning. Reverend Bill Larson of the MCC clung to the bars of one window until he died, and his charred remains were visible to onlookers for hours afterwards. MCC assistant pastor George ‘Mitch’ Mitchell managed to escape, but then returned to attempt to rescue his boyfriend, Louis Broussard; both died in the fire, their remains showing them clinging to each other.”
The photo of Reverend Bill Larson’s body fused to the window frame is included in the film and can be viewed on the Friendly Atheist blog post about the tragedy. That post also provides details of the aftermath:
“Homophobia being what it was, several families declined to claim the bodies and one church after another refused to bury or memorialize the dead. Three victims were never identified or claimed, and were interred at the local potters field.”
An Episcopal priest, the Rev. William Richardson, agreed to hold a small memorial service, but he was rebuked for doing so by the Episcopal bishop of New Orleans. Rev. Richardson received piles of hate mail, including a hundred complaints from his own parishioners. Clearly the only person showing any Christianity whatsoever was Rev. Richardson. Two memorial services were eventually held on July 1, one in a Unitarian church (of course), and the other at a United Methodist church.

There was also a lot of secular anti-gay prejudice surrounding the tragedy, too, and also because most if the victims were gay. One radio DJ suggested that since churches wouldn’t hold funerals for victims, they could be “buried in fruit jars.” Police were accused of a lacklustre investigation (partly because no one was ever charged), something they denied. No elected state or local official of the day ever said anything about the tragedy, even though officials frequently comment on much smaller tragedies. This is especially noticeable because this fire claimed more lives than any other fire in New Orleans history.

Pride Month isn’t just about partying for its own sake: It’s also about celebrating the fact that we’ve survived all that we have—we’ve endured despite the hatred and bigotry of some people, and the indifference of far more. What we’ve endured has made us stronger and more determined to win our civil and human rights. So, we’ve succeeded, in part, not just despite our oppression, but sometimes because of it. Survival in the face of oppression ought to be celebrated, and that’s part of what Gay Pride is all about. To me, that’s ample justification for a lot of partying, too. We paid our dues.

Oppressed groups typically have hidden histories. History, it’s often said, is written by the victors, so it’s only when oppression starts to ease that some of that hidden history begins to emerge. I think that those of us who care about freedom and justice and who value our common humanity, have an obligation to help spread awareness of hidden history, especially when it relates to us personally.

The UpStairs Lounge massacre is part of the history of every American gay person. This post is one small way in which I can help bear witness. It’s my duty to do so, and to try and help ensure that history doesn’t remain hidden.

1 comment:

rogerogreen said...

I have only the vaguest recollection of the fire itself, and no knowledge of the greater context.

You know, every Black History Month, I find some hidden history to share. Sometimes I wish the Gay Pride movement did a bit more of that, but it's not my call.