Thursday, June 20, 2013

Remembering the UpStairs Lounge Fire: "Deadliest Attack on LGBT People in U.S. History"

At her Jesus in Love blog, Kittredge Cherry remembers the fire at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans on 24 June 1973 that killed 32 people. UpStairs was a gay bar. The fire was caused by arson. Someone who has never been identified deliberately set the bar on fire. Claude Summers provides a good summary of the story for the glbtq encyclopedia site.

As Kittredge notes, a dramatic musical by Wayne Self focusing on the story--"Upstairs"--will premier tonight in New Orleans. I was living in New Orleans at the time the fire occurred. I had spent the previous year, my first year out of college, teaching at a Catholic school in the city. Steve and I were living in a community with several other young men doing ministry among the poorest of the poor, under the sponsorship of the chaplaincy office at Loyola, where several of us had been students or were still students in 1973.

Because we didn't have a television or take a newspaper, I have no recollection at all of the fire. What I learned about it, I learned some years down the road, when I had come to terms with the fact that I was gay and had come out of the closet. 

In that later period of my life, I met several people who told me hair-raising stories which confirm what Kittredge has to say about the fire, that almost all "churches refused to do funerals for the dead, and four bodies went unclaimed." I met Rev. Bill Richardson, an Episcopal priest who was closeted at the time of the fire, though he was out of the closet when I met him in the latter part of the 1980s. As the Wikipedia account of the story notes, Bill was the only minister of any mainline church in New Orleans who dared to hold a memorial service for the fire's victims. He was punished by the Episcopal bishop of the diocese, Iverson Noland, for doing so.

As Claude Summers's account notes, many of the victims of the fire belonged to the Metropolitan Community Church, which had held services in UpStairs Lounge, and whose pastors Rev. Bill Larson and Rev. George Mitchell were among those burned to death in the fire. MCC's founder Rev. Troy Perry came to New Orleans after the fire and finally convinced St. Mark's United Methodist Church in the French Quarter to permit him to hold a memorial service for the fire's victims in that church's sanctuary.

I have met people who knew people who died in the fire. They confirm what these various accounts say about the shameful refusal of almost every church in the city to permit funerals for those killed in this fire.

I thought of all of this recently when the Commonweal blog site* held a discussion of the obligation of Christians to bury the dead, in response to the controversy about the burial of the body of the Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev. As Martha Mullen of Richmond, Virginia, said when she chose to help Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors in Worcester, Massachusetts, to find a burial place for Tsarnaev's body, the protests some people held outside the funeral home, and the insistence of some people that the body not be buried, show us America at its worst.

As Wesley Lowery notes in the article to which I've just linked, Mullen has a degree from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and cited her religious beliefs as she assisted the funeral home to find a burial place for Tsarnaev's body. I wonder where those religious beliefs were when one church after another in New Orleans, a heavily Catholic city, refused burial to the gay men burned to death in the summer of 1973. As Clayton Delery notes for the Louisiana Folklife Center, though New Orleans was some 47% Catholic at the time of the fire and quite a few of those who died in the fire were Catholic, priests throughout the city denied Catholic burial to these fire victims.

And it was widely believed then and continues to be believed, as Delery states, that the order to deny burial to the Catholic victims of the fire came directly from Archbishop Philip Hannan, who, asked to comment on this report, refused to do so. As Delery also notes, though the media claimed, insofar as it would even mention this story at the time, that queers didn't carry accurate self-identification cards (and you'll hear Bruce Hall make this claim in the CBS clip above), and this claim was used as an excuse to cover for the refusal of many churches to bury the victims, this was a bogus claim.

Read Delery's article on how the community, the local media, and the Catholic pastoral leaders of New Orleans responded to the fire--if you dare to wade through its stomach-turning testimony--and you may begin to understand why many LGBT Americans regard the Catholic church as conspicuously unfriendly to LGBT people.

*The site appears to be down as I post this piece.

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