Tuesday, November 29

The Deadly Gay Bar Fire That Time Forgot

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Outside of your local haunts, where does your mind go when you think of notable gay bars?

The historic Stonewall Inn? The legendary Abbey in Los Angeles? The tragic specter of Pulse in Orlando? The fictionalized ridiculousness of The Birdcage?

Rarely does the the Up Stairs Lounge of New Orleans make it onto the list.

And yet before the shooting at Pulse in 2016, the Up Stairs Lounge was the site of the largest mass murder of LGBTQ+ people in U.S. history when arson claimed the lives of 32 people on June 24, 1973. Still, most people have never even heard of this monumental tragedy.

“The Up Stairs Lounge became an obscure event that was minimized not just nationally, but locally in New Orleans, by the straight community and the closeted gay community who desperately wanted this event not to matter and not to change business in the city,” explains Robert W. Fieseler, author of Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation. 

In advance of his virtual appearances at Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library on September 15 and Columbus’ Gramercy Books on October 7, we chatted with Fieseler about his remarkable book and truly important research into a fire no one seems to remember.

Tinderbox actually was released two years ago, yet interest with the Up Stairs Lounge seems to keep growing.
The audience for this book still keeps organically gravitating towards it. I’ve been waiting for the invitations to speak about The Up Stairs Lounge to stop which would tell me that I need to stop and more fully move on to my next project. That’s naturally how this happens for authors. But that’s not how it went for me. I have something like 15 speaking gigs this fall.

What is it like when someone like Pete Buttigieg endorses the book?
I flipped out. I was hoping he would do it for a long time because his book has the same publisher and editor as Tinderbox and I had known he had a copy of the galley for a long time. He’s the kind of guy you just know would be the most well-read person in the briefing room. But, yeah, I was in Kentucky because a loved one of mine had just had an emergency surgery, so I was emotionally exhausted. Then I get a random Instagram direct message from a fellow author who I don’t really talk to socially, so I ignored it for a day. And then I eventually clicked on the video and it took me a day to believe that [Buttigieg] talked about my book. The first gay man who had ever run for the presidency mentioned the Up Stairs Lounge. It was such a profound moment. If you had the camera on me, you would have seen me Oprah-level crying.

When you do these speaking gigs, besides getting people to buy the book–which they should definitely do–what do you want them to know about the Up Stairs Lounge?
First, I want them to acknowledge that the Up Stairs Lounge existed and have a basic knowledge of this historical event. The second thing I want people to understand is the context of the 20th century closet and to fathom the degree to which the closet was an institution of great corruption and great violence. The last thing I want is for people to allow the Up Stairs Lounge to enter a side door into the human heart and to rattle people’s preconceived notions. We all cling so profoundly to our religion, to our class, to whatever our letter is in our LGBTQ acronym, to race, to caste, to so many characteristics. And we use our membership in these to do harm to one another. I want the Up Stairs Lounge story to shatter that practice.

We talk so much about the importance of gay bars, especially now that they are limited during COVID. Having done so much research into this one gay bar, what words do you have to offer about their place in society?
Gay bars are vital oases that are disappearing and they’re meccas still where individuals who want to seek out others like themselves, be part of a community, or pick up a trick can engage in a more human way than a phone app. They’re still a flawed place. There are pitfalls. I’m not saying there are not gay bars that are creepy. But gay bars provide an important atmosphere where you can walk into a room, and be queer, and not be a minority. Spaces like that are profound from the perspective of a social education. They’re important from the perspective of heterosexism and heteronormativity to see and imagine how the other 5% lives and what it might be like to not be represented in a room besides oneself.

So many of our gay spaces are still so segregated by race, by gender, by other characteristics used to divide, but the Up Stairs Lounge seemed to be able to overcome that to be a true community meeting place. How did they do that?
The Up Stairs Lounge was egalitarian and apolitical. They had a lot of social traditions that were built around being welcoming. If anyone tried to stand up and give a political speech, no one would know what they were talking about. This was a place where people hadn’t even heard of Stonewall. It was a very unique oasis. I think it has to do with culture set up by the management. There was genuine effort paid to a “come one come all” environment where conversation was the most important thing. People didn’t care what your identifier was as long as you could come gab with us.

[Bartender] Buddy Rasmussen had a microphone and a speaker system by the bar. When people would arrive, he would announce people’s name like he was Ed McMahon. There was legitimate energy paid to making it into a community gathering place.

There were rules of the road that were pretty strict there that allowed it to be a melting pot. For example, there was no tea room sex permitted. This wasn’t the place for a casual hookup in the corner. It was a place that was considered to be safe for children. Gay parents and straight parents would bring their kids there because Buddy would stock milk and juice underneath the bar.

If a regular wanted to do any type of event at The Up Stairs Lounge, the management was down and it was free. If the patrons wanted to sing show-tunes all night, the management allowed it. If there were drag queens who wanted to do charity performances, they would do it. They even allowed amateur theatre performances. This was a place of yes. And a very controlling management would have squashed that culture completely.

Also, the idea of “Don’t be racist” seems simple, but the Up Stairs Lounge was not a place where any type of bigotry or discourtesy was tolerated. If you were welcomed into that group, it was a “buddies for life” situation. Reggie Adams,  a black gay man, was not welcomed into the Bourbon Street gay bars, but was accepted into the Up Stairs Lounge and was always going to be, from his first day there until the bar burned. That’s how deep the ties of loyalty work.

Your book highlights that there are likely so many LGBTQ+ stories that have yet to be told. What encouragement do you have for other writers to find these stories and tell them?
Believe in the power of reporting. There are almost always shreds of information still out there, even if authorities of the day tried to squash the event or erase it. The act of asking, the act of investigating, the act of digging will always unearth material.

I almost have a blind faith in the power of reporting. If you approach a queer event without symbolic attachments and can let go of your queer activism for a second and examine the event without the bias of today, there will almost be something new to discover.

So please go out and do it. The constellation of queer events especially in the 50s, 60s and 70s, is still very sparse. In queer history we rely on big events. But you could see it as a duty to find those precursors. Reviving the memory of them will restore dignity and honor to those who were present. 🔥

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About Author

Ken Schneck is the Editor of The Buckeye Flame. He received the 2021 Sarah Pettit Memorial Award for the LGBTQ Journalist of the Year from the NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. He is the author of "Seriously, What Am I Doing Here? The Adventures of a Wondering and Wandering Gay Jew" (2017), "LGBTQ Cleveland" (2018), "LGBTQ Columbus" (2019), and "LGBTQ Cincinnati" (2020). In his spare time, he is a professor of education at Baldwin Wallace University.

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