feature • history
Forgotten Tragedy Before Pulse, there was the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans
n New Orleans’ French Quarter, countless people walk the intersection of Iberville Street and Chartres Street, perhaps to grab a drink at The Jimani, a bite at the Backspace Bar & Kitchen, or breakfast at Daisy Dukes. The site of the Upstairs Lounge fire. Photo by Christiana Lilly.
But look down, and a bronze plaque is embedded in the brick sidewalk, one with a flame and the names of 32 perished souls. Beneath a neon sign reading Dixie Divas, it sits at the feet of a burgundy door that houses the story of the UpStairs Lounge. It was June 24, 1973, nearly four years to the day of the infamous raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, when a gathering of LGBT people and their allies were laughing over drinks. By the end of the night, 29 were dead and another three would later die from their injuries. The next day, The Times-Picayune devoted its front page to the fire, headlined “29 KILLED IN QUARTER BLAZE” and printed a photo of onlookers in front of the charred building, as well as a portrait of a man in horror as he took in the damage. “I was 11 years old and I saw the front page of the newspaper,” remembers Johnny Townsend. “There was that picture of Rusty Quinton on the front cover looking up in horror at the bar. The expression on his face really struck me deeply.” To this day, no one has been arrested for the fire, and until recently, the tragedy disappeared into history. Townsend didn’t know the UpStairs Lounge was a gay bar until he came out. He was curious to learn more, and found that the newspapers didn’t print too much on the incident — even a lecture on New Orleans’ devastating fires left out the tragedy. “It killed more people than any other fire [in New Orleans], including the two that almost wiped out the city altogether,” he said. People recommended he speak to one person after another who was there that night, motivating him to write his book, “Let the Faggots Burn.” It took more than two decades before he found a publisher who thought it was a story worth telling. Filmmaker Robert Camina learned about the fire after he completed his documentary on the Rainbow Room raid, an incident eerily similar to that at Stonewall. As he looked into the fire, he decided to make a film and released “Upstairs Inferno” in 2015. It took three years of poring over records buried in archives, interviews, and multiple trips to New Orleans to complete the documentary. “It is as significant as Stonewall and Harvey Milk and other benchmark moments - Johnny Townsend of LGBT history, yet no Author one talks about it, no one
“I was 11 years old and I saw the front page of the newspaper. There was that picture of Rusty Quinton on the front cover looking up in horror at the bar. The expression on his face really struck me deeply.”