Friday, June 21, 2013

More on the UpStairs Lounge Fire in New Orleans: Refusal to Bury the Dead, Failure to Speak Out Against Prejudice

That UpStairs Lounge fire in New Orleans that killed 32 people about which I spoke yesterday: it was on 24 June 1973. As the anniversary of this event approaches, I want to continue remembering this event with an excerpt from an article about the fire and the response of the churches to which I linked yesterday--Wayne Delery's account, which is available online at the website of the Louisiana Folklife Center at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches.

Delery frames his story of how New Orleans Catholic archbishop Philip M. Hannan did nothing at all to respond to the death by arson of 32 people at UpStairs by noting how Hannan had responded to a fire the previous November in the Rault building in the city's central business district, in which 6 people died. The day after that fire, Hannan issued a press release offering his condolences and asking that all Catholic churches offer special prayers for the victims of the Rault fire.

And then the following January, a few months before the fire at the UpStairs Lounge, when a shootout involving the police and a former Black Panther resulted in the death of 8 people in New Orleans, Hannan himself celebrated the funeral Mass of three policemen killed in this event, and spent hours at Charity Hospital sitting with the families of victims of the shootout.

But in June 1973, when 32 people died as a result of the arson at a gay bar in New Orleans, Hannan was curiously silent. And Catholic priests throughout the city refused burial to Catholics killed in that fire--at Hannan's orders, it was believed then and continues to be believed by many people in New Orleans.

As Delery notes, the disdain shown for those killed in the UpStairs Lounge fire (29 died that night, and 3 later of injuries from the fire) was hardly confined to Archbishop Hannan. It ran throughout the heavily Catholic city--where any word of Hannan to challenge the disdain could have had strong influence. It was reflected in bogus media reports that people weren't being buried because their bodies couldn't be identified, since queers carry false "identification papers." The disdain was reflected in the almost total blackout of media coverage of this major event.

As Delery notes, even those who were at the lounge and survived the fire, or who saw something of what happened, were afraid to speak openly to the police or the media, due to the hostility of the local community, of family, friends, and employers. Delery says that some survivors of the fire or those who lost loved ones in the fire reported afterwards that one of the hardest things about the experience was having to go to their workplaces the following day, where they could not be out of the closet without severe reprisal, and having to say nothing about what they had lived through or about their loss.

Delery writes:

This was more caution than paranoia. Citizens of New Orleans were not overrunning Charity Hospital, volunteering to give blood. Instead, the UpStairs fire became an occasion to vent blatant homophobia. One gay man, for example, went to a government office the very next day to conduct some personal business. The clerk waiting on him perceived he was gay, and with a look of hatred on her face, she said, "You should have died in that fire!" (Townsend "Miss Fury" 1). Other people were less confrontational, but were circulating jokes that revealed a great deal of deep-seated bigotry. One of them was:  
Q: What major tragedy happened in New Orleans on June 24? 
A: That only 30 faggots died—not more!

Sins of omission, sins of commission: the refusal to bury the dead, the failure to speak out, as Rev. Alan Chambers said when he apologized to members of the gay community two evenings ago, stating, "I am sorry I didn’t stand up to people publicly 'on my side' who called you names like sodomite — or worse." As I wrote yesterday, given the history of events like the UpStairs Lounge fire and the response of church leaders to it, an event that occurred in my own lifetime, is it any wonder that many LGBT people today regard the churches (notably, Catholics and Mormons) as hostile to us? 

I also stated yesterday, in the posting to which the penultimate link points, that a major liberal Catholic newspaper in the U.S., the National Catholic Reporter, has failed to censor commenters using the term "sodomite" to refer to gay folks, while NCR told me it censored some comments I made about the new media guru of Cardinal Dolan because they were unfair to the GOP.

In the interest of being scrupulously fair to NCR, I want to report something that I observed at the NCR website yesterday, something that happened there after I posted my Bilgrimage remarks: in response to an article by Sarah Pulliam Bailey about how Exodus International is closing its doors and how Alan Chambers apologized to the gay community for the harm that he and Exodus have done to gay people, a commenter, Satan Wins, logged in and threw around the term "sodomite" as an anti-gay slur.

If you look at the thread following Bailey's article, you'll see that a comment has now been deleted. It was that comment. You'll also see that Mr. Satan Wins has now made further comments talking about sodomy, but not using the term "sodomite." 

I'm grateful to NCR for exercising vigilance about the use of a term that is as laden with prejudice and maleficent as any of the terms once casually used to slam other minority groups, which are no longer permitted in public discourse. Click on Satan Wins's username to see his Disqus profile, and you'll find he freely uses the term "sodomite" to slam LGBT human beings at various Catholic sites--when he can get away with it.

P.S. Don't miss Annika Halvari's stunning account of the 1913 "Italian Hall" incident in Calumet, Michigan, in which 73 people, including 59 children, most of them from Finnish mining families whose male members were on strike, were crushed to death in a stampede when someone yelled "Fire!" in a crowded Christmas party--and there was no fire. Reading Annika's amazing, well-written story sent chills up my arms and spine.

No comments: