When news of the Pulse nightclub shooting hit in 2016, several media outlets referred to a devastating predecessor: The Up Stairs Lounge fire of 1973. In Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation (Liveright Publishing , $26.95), Robert Fieseler reveals the true story of the fire that devastated the gay community of New Orleans and ignited a national movement.
A longstanding haven for an underground blue collar gay scene and members of the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), the Up Stairs Lounge protected its patrons from a New Orleans that was—despite a flamboyant reputation—dismissive of gay rights at best. Run since 1970 by the beloved, openly “out” Buddy Rasmussen, the Lounge was famous for its routine Sunday “Beer Busts” following MCC services. On Sunday, June 24, 1973, as crowds on both coasts marched in memory of Stonewall, a vengeful hustler set fire to the Lounge, trapping its patrons in a horrific inferno.
In a landmark feat of historical detection undertaken during a year and a half spent in New Orleans, journalist Robert W. Fieseler here recovers the firsthand testimonies of survivors, witnesses, and relatives; through Fieseler’s interviews, it becomes painfully clear that it is only now, decades later, that these survivors feel willing to claim this story—a story that no one dared touch for so long.
For even more horrifying than the fire itself was the reaction (or lack thereof) that followed. Neither Mayor Moon Landrieu nor Governor Edwin Edwards offered a statement of sympathy for the 32 victims and their families; news coverage shied away from describing the Lounge as a gay hangout (Roy Reed’s report for New York Times was the sole exception), and the New Orleans Police Department investigation was eventually abandoned due to carelessness and disinterest. When local news coverage did hit, a full list of those affected by the fire were effectively “outed.” Some survivors lost their jobs and were forced to flee to other cities, while many victims’ families felt reluctant to claim the bodies of their loved ones.
But while things stayed mum in New Orleans, an ad-hoc national support network descended on the city to institute a national fund-raising operation through the help of gay activist groups, religious networks, and relief organizations. As Fieseler traces so movingly in these pages, this was the first national campaign of its kind, effectively uniting the Gay Liberation in a very public appeal. At least 46 cities across the country observed a national day of mourning for victims on Sunday, July 1, 1973. Still—national media, from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times, refused to cover these observances.
In Tinderbox, Fieseler embraces the untouchable, memorializing these forgotten victims with the humanity and respect they so deserve.