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50 years ago: The deadly gay-bar massacre you probably never heard about

By Lee Cleveland - June 25, 2023

In the annals of LGBTQ+ history, a tragic event unfolded 50 years ago that left an indelible mark on the community. The fire at the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans on June 24, 1973, stands as a somber reminder of the challenges and persecution faced by queer individuals in the 20th century.

This harrowing incident, which claimed the lives of 32 people, remains (arguably) the deadliest attack on the LGBTQ+ community in U.S. history. (It’s disputed as to whether the 2016 shooting massacre at Pulse in Orlando, a gay club, which resulted in the death of 49 people, was a direct attack on the LGBTQ community).

The Up Stairs Lounge: A Gathering Place for the Community
Nestled in the vibrant city of New Orleans, the Up Stairs Lounge served as a haven for the LGBTQ+ community, particularly gay men and lesbians. It was a welcoming space where individuals from all walks of life could come together, find solace, and embrace their true identities.

The bar was known for its popular Sunday beer bust, where patrons could enjoy affordable pitchers of beer from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. The sense of camaraderie and the lively atmosphere drew more than 100 people during these bustling evenings.

The Night of Tragedy
On that fateful evening of June 24, an act of arson forever altered the course of history.

An unidentified arsonist targeted the Up Stairs Lounge, igniting a devastating fire that engulfed the entrance and rapidly spread throughout the establishment.

As flames consumed the stairway leading to the bar, panic and chaos ensued. The patrons found themselves trapped, faced with the horrifying reality of imminent danger.

A Catastrophic Inferno
Survivors vividly recall the nightmarish sequence of events that unfolded within the Up Stairs Lounge. The fire, initially confined to the stairwell, unleashed a torrent of flames and billowing smoke as soon as the bar’s door was opened. Witnesses likened the catastrophic surge of fire to a “fireball shot from a cannon,” describing the scene as one of unparalleled horror.

Amidst the pandemonium, a heroic bartender named Buddy Rasmussen managed to guide some patrons to safety through a secret door, providing a glimmer of hope amidst the tragedy.

Unspeakable Loss and Lingering Pain
Despite the valiant efforts of a few, the toll of the fire was staggering. Twenty-nine people lost their lives that night, while three others succumbed to their injuries in the following days.

Among the victims, a significant number were military veterans, highlighting the shared experiences and struggles faced by those who had served their country.

The echoes of their screams and the sheer devastation inflicted on the LGBTQ+ community remain etched in the memories of survivors and the wider collective consciousness.

Shadows of Neglect and a Long Journey Towards Recognition
In the aftermath of the Up Stairs Lounge fire, the response from both local authorities and society at large was marked by a pervasive sense of apathy and indifference. The tragedy failed to receive the attention it deserved, and the queer identity of the space seemed to diminish its significance in the eyes of the public.

Moreover, despite the apprehension of a prime suspect by Buddy Rasmussen himself, the police’s lack of thorough investigation perpetuated the erasure of the victims’ existence from the annals of history.

Honoring the Memory and Demanding Justice

Over the years, efforts to shed light on the Up Stairs Lounge fire and ensure justice for the victims have gained momentum. The 50th-anniversary event held on June 24-25 served as a poignant reminder of the tragedy that unfolded five decades ago. Organized by dedicated individuals, including Frank Perez, the event aimed to bring awareness to the fire and commemorate those who lost their lives.

One significant step towards acknowledgment and reconciliation came in the form of an official apology issued by the city of New Orleans.

This apology served as a recognition of the city’s past failures and an acknowledgment of the need for healing and progress.

However, the journey towards justice and remembrance does not end there.

Unmarked Graves and Unresolved Issues
While strides have been made in raising awareness about the Up Stairs Lounge fire, there are still unresolved issues that demand attention. Three victims of the fire were buried in unmarked graves, symbolizing the neglect and disregard they faced even in death. Among these victims was Ferris LeBlanc, a brave WWII veteran who fought in significant battles. Shockingly, it was not until 2015 that LeBlanc’s family discovered his fate.

Since then, LeBlanc’s family has been tirelessly advocating for his body to be exhumed and properly recognized. Their journey is a testament to the ongoing struggle for justice and the enduring impact of the fire. The quest for resolution serves as a reminder of the challenges LGBTQ+ individuals faced and continue to face in their pursuit of equality and acceptance.

Remembering the Past, Advocating for the Future
As we reflect on the Up Stairs Lounge fire and its lasting impact, it is crucial to consider the broader issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community. The tragic events of that night underscore the importance of continuing to fight for equality, understanding, and respect for all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The anniversary of the Up Stairs Lounge fire serves as a poignant reminder to remain vigilant in the ongoing struggle for LGBTQ+ rights. It compels us to confront the systemic biases and discrimination that persist and to work towards a more inclusive and accepting society.

Let us continue to raise awareness, demand justice, and champion the rights and dignity of all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.