The Metropolitan Community Church congregation was seated under a triangle of lights, their pink and blue colors falling softly on the heads of the congregation as they looked toward the Rev. Lonnie Cheramie last Sunday (June 18). A rainbow banner beside him read, “God’s Love is Fully Inclusive.”
The Metropolitan Community Church of New Orleans held its first service in May of 1971, as a place of worship for those who had been previously excluded from religious communities, mainly members of the LGBTQ+ community. Over 50 years, the MCC of New Orleans has survived and persevered through countless tragedies: the AIDS crisis, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the coronavirus pandemic and the loss of a former pastor.
One of the most devastating tragedies to the MCC community was the loss of several members of the congregation in the UpStairs Lounge fire on June 24, 1973.
Cheramie stood before the congregation, in all black, a dark green stole draped over his shoulders, and his hands clasped.
“Next weekend is the 50th anniversary of the UpStairs Lounge fire,” he said. “It was on June 24, 50 years ago, in 1973 when an angry patron set fire to the bar stairwell.” The pastor went on to describe the fire that claimed the lives of 32 people including one-third of the MCC congregation.
The UpStairs Lounge fire was the deadliest fire in New Orleans history. But, until the mid-1990s the fire had been largely ignored, despite the scale of the tragedy and its devastating effect on the New Orleans LGBTQ+ community. Early coverage of the fire devoted little space to the victims and their stories, or to the investigation into the circumstances of the tragedy that remains unsolved.
However, authors and historians, friends and family of the victims and the MCC community have persisted in preserving the memory of the lounge and acknowledging its significance for the LGBTQ+ movements in New Orleans that followed.
Now, on its 50th anniversary, the tragedy at the UpStairs Lounge will be commemorated in song, plays, artwork, panels, processions and a church service at St. Mark’s United Methodist on Sunday.
1970s New Orleans LGBTQ+ community
New Orleans in the 1970s was home to a rich and long-standing LGBTQ+ community. Gay clubs, operating under the radar, could be found along Bourbon Street, including Café Lafitte in Exile. The club opened in 1933 and is known as the oldest gay bar in the United States.
But in a city that remained hostile to gay life and where hiding one’s sexuality was a necessity, the lines of racism and classism were held as firmly in the gay bars as any other place in New Orleans. Robert Fieseler, author of “Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the UpStairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation” described the borders and boundaries of the New Orleans gay community in the 1970s, and the gay elite, namely white gay men who were situated firmly at the top of the hierarchy on Bourbon Street.
“Second down the rung would be Rampart Street on the border of the quarter, which would be more of a dive-type atmosphere,” Fieseler said. “The Black gay bars were on Iberville.”
Nearer the river, by Decatur Street, Fieseler describes the bars where sailors and passersby would go to find sex work services and momentary lovers.
The UpStairs Lounge was on Iberville and Chartres streets. In the New Orleans world of racial segregation, and where gender minorities were excluded from the gay community, the lounge was unusual. Authors who have documented the lounge, describe the bar as home to working-class gay people. It was a place that also welcomed Black patrons, trans women and those who were most marginalized in the LGBTQ+ community. The UpStairs Lounge was somewhere to find friends, lovers and family.
Fieseler described the lounge as a kind of “gay Cheers,” where the faces were familiar and where bartender Buddy Rasmussen knew patrons’ names and introduced them to each other. He pointed to a couple, introduced by Rasmussen, who fell in love and formed a lifelong relationship. There was a song, Fieseler noted, that UStairs Lounge patrons sang together over the piano with a refrain of “United We Stand!”
The lounge was also host to Metropolitan Community Church.
“MCC actually did services there for a period of time when we were looking for a home,” Cheramie told his congregation last Sunday, recalling the enduring relationship between the MCC and the place the bar held in the community. “Oftentimes on Sundays after church service the community would go together to the UpStairs Lounge.”
A bar might seem an unlikely place of worship, but the sense of community and the “come one come all” attitude at the UpStairs Lounge would grow to form a movement for LGBTQ+ liberation in New Orleans, one that continues to be relevant and important today.
“We know what it means to have laws against us,” Cheramie said during his sermon.
The statement might have applied to 1973, or to a resurgence of more recent legislation targeting the LGBTQ+ community, such as the Given Name Act, and the Stop Harming Our Kids Act passed this year in the Louisiana Legislature, forbidding the use of chosen names and pronouns, and gender-affirming care for trans children.
“Governors and legislatures will come after you. And that’s what they’re doing. We see it in our world today,” Cheramie said in his sermon.
Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the UpStairs Lounge fire
The tragedy of 50 years ago is now seen as a turning point for the LGBTQ+ community in New Orleans.
On July 1, 1979, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church on Rampart Street, hosted a memorial service in memory of the victims of the UpStairs Lounge fire. Fieseler described the moment at which members of the LGBTQ+ community stepped out of St. Mark’s to cameras, unashamed of their identities and unwilling to hide, “ready to out themselves to the world, come what may.”
St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, the Historic New Orleans Collection and the New Orleans Marriott are hosting the UpStairs Lounge 50th Anniversary Commemoration Weekend with a service Saturday at St. Mark’s, a jazz funeral procession to the site of the UpStairs Lounge, followed by a weekend of commemorative art and discussions.
The events are in honor of those who perished in the UpStairs Lounge: Joseph Henry Adams; Reginald Adams; Guy O. Anderson; Joe William Bailey; Luther Thomas Boggs; Louis Horace Broussard; Herbert Cooley; Donald Walter Dunbar; Adam; Roland Fontenot; David Stuart Gary; Horace Getchell; John Thomas Golding Sr.; Gerald Hoyt Gordon; Glenn Richard Green; James Walls Hambrick; Kenneth Paul Harrington; William R. Larson; Ferris LeBlanc; Robert Lumpkin; Leon Richard Maples; George Stephen Matyi; Clarence Joseph McCloskey Jr.; Duane George Mitchell; Larry Stratton; Willie Inez Warren; Eddie Hosea Warren; James Curtis Warren; Dr. Perry Lane Waters Jr.; Douglas Maxwell Williams and the three victims who were unable to be identified but are nevertheless remembered.
more from verite
Help inform our coverage as we build a newsroom for and by the people of New Orleans:
Please take a few minutes to share your thoughts with us by answering each question.