Jun 23, 2023 - News

50 years after deadly Up Stairs Lounge fire: New Orleans LGBTQ+ community still seeks answers

Photos show two photos of the building that housed the Up Stair Lounge. One is from 1973 on the night of the deadly fire and the other is a recent photo of the French Quarter building.

(Left) The night an arsonist attacked the Up Stairs Lounge at 604 Iberville Street in 1973, killing 32 people. (Right) A recent view of the French Quarter building. Photos: Bettmann/Contributor for Getty, Deisenbe/Wikimedia Commons

New Orleans will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Up Stairs Lounge fire this weekend.

Context: The intentionally set fire at a French Quarter gay bar killed 32 people and injured 15, and was the deadliest attack on U.S. soil against the LGBTQ+ community until the Orlando Pulse nightclub mass shooting in 2016.

  • It remains the deadliest fire in New Orleans.

What's happening: A coalition of organizations spearheaded by the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana will host several public events in the French Quarter to shine a light on the tragedy.

  • The events, which run Friday through Sunday, include a jazz funeral, documentary film screenings, panel discussions, songs and other performances. (See the full program.)

Driving the news: Event organizers are seeking a formal apology from the New Orleans Police Department for actions they describe as homophobic, offensive and callous in the aftermath of the fire, Frank Perez, executive director of the LGBT+ Archives Project, tells Axios.

  • "The city did not give a damn," Perez said, saying the police didn't prioritize the investigation and were dismissive of witnesses.
  • The New Orleans City Council formally apologized last year for "the failure of the city to acknowledge what happened," Councilman JP Morrell said, according to Gambit.

State of play: Fifty years on, no arrests have been made in connection with the fire.

  • Roger Dale Nunez was identified by witnesses as a suspect, according to multiple books, documentaries and articles. He had been kicked out of the bar and threatened to return and set it on fire, Perez said.
  • Nunez died less than two years later by suicide, Perez said, and never faced charges.
  • An NOPD spokesman tells Axios the case remains open but is inactive. Anyone with information is asked to contact the cold case division at (504) 658-5300 or Crimestoppers at (504) 822-1111.
  • Police did not comment about the request for a formal apology.

Flashback: Up Stairs Lounge was on the second floor of a building at the corner of Iberville and Chartres streets.

  • It opened in 1970 and gained a reputation as a welcoming place for white gay men, in addition to Black people, drag queens, transgender people and straight allies, according to the LGBT+ Archives Project.
  • On June 24, 1973, someone lit a fire at the base of the stairs leading to the lounge. The blaze spread and killed 29 people in less than 20 minutes. Three more people died at the hospital.
  • Nearly a third of the victims were military veterans, according to the National WWII Museum, but they "would be alternately castigated or ignored in death ... due to the illegal status of homosexuality and associated stigma."

Four unclaimed or unidentified victims were buried in unmarked graves in a potter's field, and loved ones and community members are actively looking for the bodies.

  • Ferris LeBlanc, a World War II veteran, is among the missing. News of his death reached his family in 2015. They are now seeking his body so they can bury him with military honors.
  • The city's burial records have gone missing over the years, Perez says.
  • Historians now believe one of the men is Larry Norman Frost, according to the LGTB+ Archives Project. Two men remain unidentified.
Plaque on a sidewalk marking the spot where people died in the Up Stairs Lounge fire
A memorial for the Up Stairs Lounge fire is in the sidewalk at 604 Iberville Street. Photo: Carlie Kollath Wells/Axios

Zoom in: In 2003, the city embedded a memorial in the sidewalk at 604 Iberville Street. In addition to listing the names of the victims, it reads:

"At this site on June 24, 1973 in the Upstairs Lounge, these thirty-two people lost their lives in the worst fire in New Orleans. The impact went far beyond the loss of individual people, giving birth to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights movement in New Orleans."

What's next: The city has changed in the last 50 years. Mayor LaToya Cantrell recently criticized bills state lawmakers passed this session that targeted the LGBTQ+ community.

  • New Orleans now has one of the largest concentrations of LGBTQ+ people in the U.S., with 4.7% of the adult population identifying as members of the community.
  • Three large LGTBQ+ celebrations are held annually: New Orleans Pride, New Orleans Black Pride Weekend and Southern Decadence.
  • Earlier this month, the city's tourism and marketing organization, relaunched its 2019 campaign called "Everyone's Welcome Here." It offers rainbow flag stickers for businesses that pledge to be welcoming and participate in inclusivity training.

Yes, but: "The rights we've gained in the last 50 years can easily be taken away," Perez tells Axios.


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