“Upstairs Inferno”: documentary account of a tragic gay bar fire in New Orleans in 1973

Upstairs Inferno” is a moving documentary, directed by Robert L. Camina, giving the history of the arson attack on the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans LA on June 24, 1973.  It resulted in 32 deaths, and until the Pulse attack in Orlando in June 2016, had been the largest mass murder of gay people in US history. There is the book “The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-Two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar”, by Clayton Delery-Edwards, as well as another book “Let the Faggots Burn: The Upstairs Lounge Fire” by Johnny Townsend; the filmmaker says he redid the resarch.

I wanted to give my reaction from the perspective of my own “second coming” at age 29.  On Sunday, January 28 1973, while living in northern New Jersey and working for Univac, I made a trip in to NYC to go to a service at Metropolitan Community Church.  I was not that impressed (I would officially “come out” three weeks later at another event in NYC), but I do remember mention of an arson attack against an MCC church.  Apparently, given the narrative of the film, this had happened in Los Angeles earlier that month.  There would be another attack in Nashville (no injuries or damage either attack) before the New Orleans attack.  I think I remember mention of the New Orleans incident at a GAANJ (Gay Activists Alliance of New Jersey) Friday night meeting that July, but did not pay that much attention to it at the time.

Metropolitan Community Church had been conducting services in the theater portion of the Lounge, although it had been moving to a small liberal Episcopal church.  The early part of the film gives valuable history of Metropolitan Community Church and Reverend Troy Perry (who used to say it was easier to come out as gay than come out as Christian).  I have neem active at MCC churches in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Washington DC (Rev. Larry Unger, who passed away from AIDS in 1993, once wrote a controversial essay, “There is no better half,” urging gay men to learn emotional self-sufficiency).

The film also says that New Orleans had experienced two other major hotel incidents, including the Mark Essex sniper attack in December 1972.  But after the Up Stairs lounge, the city police, government, and local community were deliberately indifferent to the loss of gay people.

Investigation would show that this had not been a terrorist attack, but that probably a disgruntled bar patron (Roger Dale Nunez) had tried to set a small fire in the stairwell after an argument with a patron and being tossed out.  If so, Nunez probably had no idea that the construction of the building would make it a fire trap.  He would die at his own hand a year later and was never prosecuted

So the incident, like the infamous Station Disco fire in West Warwick RI in 2003, was more the result of poor safety practices than actual malice.

The film interviews some surviving victims, and is tastefully restrained in conveying the horror of burn injuries.  As with war wounds, I would have a problem if this happened to an intimate partner because of disfigurement.  (The film relates how one many died trying to go back and rescue his lover.)  Three of the victims were never identified, and were among victims who did not get respectful memorial services.  (People used derogatory metaphors like “fruitfry”).  I say this bearing in mind my own personal uneasiness with promoting “victimization” but that’s another discussion.

The film is narrated by Christopher Rice and the closing credits, naming the victims, has impressive unaccompanied cello music, I think by Mark Kueffner.

Patheos 2013 Account of the fire is here.

This video was given by a producer at the Library of Congress showing today.

The official trailer may need Google sign on for viewing (adult).

Amazon book link.

 

Name:  “Upstairs Inferno”
Director, writer:  Robert L. Camina
Released:  2015
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Library of Congress Mary Pickford Hall free showing, LGBT library employees
Length:  96
Rating:  R
Companies: Camina
Link: FB 

(Posted: Thursday, February 16, 2017 at 7:30 PM EST)

“Following Shepard”: a curious little novel about the aftermath of the Matthew Shepard tragedy

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Author: Bob Grannan
Title, Subtitle: Following Shepard
publication date 2016
ISBN 978-069255652-0
Publication: Amazon Digital Services, 106 pages, paper, 27 chapters
Link: author

Following Shepard”, by Ohio journalist Bob Grannan, is an odd-little novella (103 pages) combining many important themes:  journalistic objectivity and ethics, with gay values, and gay bashing tragedy.

The setup is that a reporter, usually writing in first person and present tense, is enlisted by a young gay man Eirinn Galagher to track another friend, Seth McCam, leading a caravan of twelve students across the country in 1999.

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It isn’t hard to guess from the title that the novel deals with the aftermath of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in October 1998 near Laramie, Wyoming. In time, the group reproduces the tragedy, so to speak, among many more people before a little march on Washington.   It may be too much of a spoiler to reveal the consequences for the group.

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Grannan’s comments on journalism do get interesting. On p. 33, he discusses an incident in Sudan in 1993 involving a journalist reporting on a starving child and confronted with the dilemma of whether to intervene.  Another theme among several characters (including parents of the characters) is keeping personal diaries or journals in the days before online blogging was possible.  I have a sense that some people know who they are when they start, as children, start creating content that can be shown to others.

He also notes “gay values” in places:  being flabby is more acceptable among straight men (who may believe women don’t care about how they look – when they do) than among gay men.  All of this in a backdrop of the hypocrisy of Irish Catholic moralizing.  Remember how in 1986 the Vatican had penned a letter claiming that male homosexuality is still some kind of “objective disorder”.  It seems, in Catholic and other religious theology, to require a rite of psychological and religious passage to welcome the idea of dedication to raising kids (your family) for the next generation. At one point, the writer, in first person, characterizes himself (as a fictive person) as non-white and from Iran, but normally people in Iran are Caucasian.

The book was available at OurWrite DC in Washington DC August 6.

The book, curiously, has page numbers printed with odd numbered pages on the back side of a sheet, something I have never seen before,

I visited Laramie in August 1994, after spending the night in Cheyenne.  Earlier that Saturday, I had made the decision to write my first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book.

The important film for comparison is “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine” (Michele Josue), and the well known play is “The Laramie Project” (Moises Kaufman).

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Lake Marie and Snowy Mountains near Laramie, by Photomnt, public domain.

(Published: Monday, August 15, 2016 at 7 PM EDT)