Photo credit: Ryan Leitner
On June 24, 1973, an arsonist lit a fire that destroyed a gay bar in New Orleans called the Up Stairs Lounge. Though the blaze would burn for less than 20 minutes, it claimed 32 lives and injured 15 others. This was the deadliest fire on record in New Orleans history, and the largest mass murder of homosexuals in U.S. history until the 2016 massacre at Pulse, yet the fire received just a few days of national media attention. At the time, homosexuality carried great stigma, and several newspapers declined to even print the word “homosexual” in relation to the burned-out bar.
Prior to the tragedy, most of the would-be victims of the Up Stairs Lounge had lived and loved in careful secrecy, nearly invisible in a Creole society that regularly partook of the vices — prostitution, drugs, “sodomy,” etc. — but publicly denied their existence. The relative secrecy of these 32 victims, sadly, made the gravity of their deaths easier to ignore, and no one was ever arrested or charged for the intentional crime that killed them. Here’s how many of the Up Stairs Lounge patrons concealed their lives before the historic fire wiped them away:
1. Hiding at Work
No laws existed in New Orleans, or most other American cities for that matter, to safeguard the employment rights of homosexuals in 1973. At the time, common sense in business culture dictated that an employer should summarily fire any confirmed “sex criminal.” This happened to Up Stairs Lounge patron Henry Kubicki in 1972, when he was reported with a lover and then marched out of Davison’s Department Store in Atlanta the next day.
Thus, most of the Up Stairs Lounge regulars took great efforts to conceal their lifestyles from bosses and coworkers in New Orleans. For example, fire survivor Stewart Butler lived an orgiastic gay existence at nighttime, but worked a day job as a quiet engineering draftsman. Likewise, Up Stairs Lounge patron Henry Kubick was a busboy, and Up Stairs Lounge survivor Steven Duplantis maintained his “straight face” as an Air Force serviceman.
2. Embracing Euphemism
Creole code had relegated homosexuality, that phenomenon of gentlemen who prefer gentlemen and ladies who prefer ladies, into a semi-closeted niche for centuries, and the behavior could be tolerated so long as it was never publicly expressed or named. Alas, to speak the H-word incited violent reprisals from the authorities, and so many gay men used the terms “confirmed bachelor” or “longtime companions.”
Among high society, an “Uptown Marriage” signified two male lovers who maintained separate families while being sexually committed to each other. “Gay” was beyond the pale for this era, as it implied that homosexuals experienced happiness. The preferred terms, when the behavior had to be acknowledged in New Orleans, was “queers” or “fruits,” epithets also used by hidden gays when one of their own was being scapegoated.
3. Choosing an Alias
In an era when legal authorities criminalized homosexuality through sodomy laws, with a minimum two-year prison sentence per conviction in Louisiana, in addition to local ordinances restricting housing, work, and public accommodations for “sex deviates,” some gay men abandoned their birth names.
The assumption of a nickname or alias in New Orleans provided enough plausible deniability to protect a job, house, or family in the event of an arrest for a dreaded “crime against nature.” For example, Up Stairs patron Bill Larson, who was also the pastor of the gay-affirming Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) of New Orleans, had been born William Roscoe Lairson. His change of name lent an added degree of anonymity to his sexual behavior and ensured that news of an arrest in New Orleans would not drift back to his conservative family members in Ohio.
Similarly, Up Stairs Lounge patron Guy Andersen became Guy “Anderson” and Richard Green, more dramatically, became Lucien Baril.
4. Accepting Religion’s Cure
Many internally conflicted homosexuals of faith believed that God could erase their aberrant impulses. They engaged in increasingly spectacular religious gestures in the hopes that their public displays of piousness would result in a personal miracle. Some gay men, in a predominantly Catholic city like New Orleans, joined the priesthood and became so-called “queens of the cloth.”
Others, such as Up Stairs Lounge patrons Bill Larson, Mitch Mitchell, and Bud Matyi, married women anticipating that the intercession of the divine in holy matrimony would effectively render them heterosexual. Though each of these marriages resulted in children, they all predictably ended in divorce. Up Stairs Lounge arson suspect Roger Dale Nunez also married a woman in an attempt to rectify his life. He confessed his homosexuality to his bride on their wedding night, in May 1974.
5. Seeking Dangerous Treatment
As of June 1973, the American Psychiatric Association continued to list homosexuality as a sexual deviancy disorder in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual
. Many homosexual men feared the unscrupulous psychologist or psychiatrist who would lure them into confessing their sexual behaviors and then imprison them in a mental institution. For decades, homosexual Americans in physicians' care had been subjected to a range of incapacitating treatments, such as frontal lobe lobotomies, or made into human test subjects.
Dr. Robert Heath, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Tulane University in New Orleans, notably drilled electrodes into the skulls of homosexual patients and published the results in studies. Dr. Heath attempted to build a Pavlovian association between direct brain stimulation and female pornography, which culminated in several observed attempts at intercourse between his patients and female prostitutes. In a likely coincidence, Up Stairs Lounge arson suspect Roger Dale Nunez sought treatment at several of the state mental facilities where Heath was an attending physician.
6. Becoming a Radical
More flagrantly “out” members of Up Stairs Lounge society, such as bartender Buddy Rasmussen or owner Phil Esteve, were deeply radical in that they made their sexuality understood to coworkers and family. Most of the city’s 60,000 homosexuals kept their private lives compartmentalized, quiet and separate.
More broadly, a 1969 poll published by Time
magazine revealed that 63 percent of Americans considered homosexuals to be “harmful to the American way of life.” A 1973 poll by the National Opinion Research Center said that 7 out of 10 Americans believed homosexuality to be “always wrong.” Thus, being openly homosexual in 1973 meant being perceived as a subversive and a member of the underworld.
Gay Liberation politics, or the early LGBT+ movement birthed out of the Stonewall Rebellion in New York City, had yet to take root in 1973 New Orleans. An effort to start a Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in town and meet the police chief ended when the GLF succeeded in brokering a détente with police to end “crime against nature” arrests. However, no newspapers would publish their victory.
7. Becoming a “Criminal”
To be arrested for a “crime against nature” in New Orleans created a double indemnity because the arrestee’s name would then be published in the crime section of The Times-Picayune
, the local newspaper of record. Some gay men reportedly chose suicide rather than appear in these dreaded pages and become pariahs. Others, like Up Stairs Lounge patron John Golding Sr., a married father of three, had no choice but to weather the appearances.
In one instance, the Picayune
listed Golding for a “crime against nature nol prossed
,” meaning that the charge was
not prosecuted due to lack of evidence, a circumstance that did not exempt him from a public shaming. Golding was the blue-collar breadwinner of his family, after all, and though he might be fired or worse for his sexual habits, his wife and children still depended upon him financially. Tragically, Golding was among the victims of the 1973 blaze.
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Robert W. Fieseler
is a recipient of the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship and the Lynton Fellowship in Book Writing. A writer for The Big Roundtable
, and elsewhere, he lives in Boston. Tinderbox
is his first book.