Monday, June 24, 2013

On This Day in 1973, "The Largest Killing of Gay People in U.S. History": UpStairs Lounge Fire in New Orleans

Today is the day on which the UpStairs Lounge fire about which I wrote last week took place (here and here, and don't forget Kittredge Cherry's article that sparked my interest in remembering this tragedy). Both Kathy Hughes and Chris Morley have noted in comments here that Time did an article on the UpStairs Lounge fire this week. The article, by Elizabeth Dias and Jim Downs, is behind a paywall. Here's Time's editorial summary of the article, which states,

It is believed to be the largest killing of gay people in U.S. history. Yet politicians and religious leaders were relatively silent. The powerful Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans at the time, Phillip Hannan, did not offer his support or sympathy to victims. And while all signs pointed to arson, the police investigation ran cold. No one has ever been prosecuted.

The editorial summary concludes,

Forty years later, the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans apologized for its silence in a statement to TIME: “In retrospect, if we did not release a statement we should have to be in solidarity with the victims and their families,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond said via email on June 17. “The church does not condone violence and hatred. If we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize.” In a month that anticipates a potentially landmark Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, the apology is another sign that times are changing.

As Chris says, it's impossible to read Archbishop Aymond's words as anything other than weasel words, "a master-class example of issuing a non-apology, and pretending it is a real apology." Chris points out that Aymond doesn't even note what's most shocking of all about the Catholic response to the UpStairs Lounge fire: the refusal to bury those who died as a result of this act of arson, a refusal that  has long been believed to have been orchestrated by Phillip Hannan himself.

Though the Archbishop made no public statement, he apparently made some private ones. Anecdotal reports circulated at the time, and still circulate today, indicating that he had forbidden the priests in the archdiocese from conducting Catholic funeral services for the victims, or burying them in Catholic cemeteries. It is known that some of the Catholic victims of the fire were denied Catholic services, though it remains unclear whether individual priests made the decisions, or whether they were acting upon Archbishop Hannan’s orders. Archbishop Hannan is now retired, though still active in church and community affairs. Given a recent chance to respond to this charge, he declined to comment.


I contacted Archbishop Hannan by mail in August of 2009, informing him that I was writing a book about the fire at the Up Stairs Lounge, and that I would be including mention of the anecdotal report that he had forbidden Catholic rites to the victims. I offered him a chance to offer any comments, corrections or clarifications, and said that I would include those in the book. The letter was delivered August 12, 2009. To date, I have not received a response.

Phillip Hannan died in 2011.

Aymond I know personally, and based on Steve's and my personal dealings with him, I'm not in the least surprised to find him unable to issue an apology for the behavior of priests in New Orleans in 1973 that goes beyond what Chris Morley rightly calls weasel words. He has responded to only one of several letters I have written him to tell him of my disappointment after I saw his name in 2002 among bishops who had, according to Dallas Morning News, protected priests or employees of Catholic institutions even after they knew that these folks were sexually abusing minors.

Aymond's one reply to my letters to him upbraided me for being disrespectful in telling him I was disappointed in him. He also informed me that the media get stories wrong and I didn't know the whole story. The other letter or letters I have written him about these issues (they're stored away in a file) he has simply chosen to ignore. 

As I have persistently said on this blog in recent days, it's entirely understandable that a large percentage of LGBT Americans regard the Catholic church as an institution conspicuously unfriendly to us. Steve and I have tales to tell and stories to recite about the way in which church officials trample on human rights, particularly of gay folks, and lie blatantly to employees of Catholic institutions, and the current archbishop of New Orleans plays a large role in some of those stories. We could line up quite an assembly of people we know personally, all gay, who could tell similar stories, with the same archbishop playing a central role in them, too.

The sense that the leaders of the Catholic church commonly treat those of us who are gay like human dirt is based on real-life experiences, in many cases, and on the history of events like the UpStairs Lounge fire. It's hard to come across as more disdainful of the humanity of a group of human beings than refusing to bury members of that group when a tragedy like the fire in 1973 occurs.

Chris Morley is absolutely right: Greg Aymond's apology is a non-apology, and it does nothing at all to salve wounds of people who remember what happened in New Orleans in 1973. It continues the shockingly disdainful treatment of LGBT people exhibited by his predecessor in 1973, and suggests that Catholic pastoral leaders continue remain largely unwilling and unable to reverse their longstanding penchant for treating LGBT human beings as human dirt.

The graphic, from Grandmère Mimi's Wounded Bird blog, is a list of those killed in the UpStairs Lounge fire.

No comments: