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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Monday, June 13, 2016

entry arrow8:25 AM | Orlando, 2016. New Orleans, 1973.

As the news unfolds about the terror that has consumed Orlando, Florida [The New York Times keeps a comprehensive live update, and the official news story is here] -- at around 2 AM and lasting until 5 AM yesterday, a gun man took to a gay club named Pulse and shot 50 people dead as of the last count, and injured 53 more -- I thought about the massacre at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans in 1973, and realised that while many things have changed since then, the same kind of murderous homophobic terror can erupt at any given moment, and the years hence have made no difference.

At least, for the Orlando shootings, there has been police response, there has been mourning and calls for condolences, and there has been an accounting of the victims complete with faces. The President of the United States has issued a statement and called it a devastating “act of terror.” He continued: “Today as Americans, we grieve the brutal murder and horrific massacre of dozens of innocent people. We pray for the families who are grasping for answers with broken hearts.” [More here.]

There was only silence in 1973.

That year, on the 24th of June, 32 people died in an arson attack on a gay bar located on the second floor of a 3-storey building in the French Quarter of New Orleans in Louisiana. The official cause is still listed as of "undetermined origin," and it has come down in history as the deadliest arson attack in the United States, and, until the Orlando shooting last night, the biggest killing spree targeting the LGBT. Elizabeth Dias writes in Time Magazine:

From the outside, the Upstairs didn’t look much different from the other gay bars on a particularly seedy stretch of Iberville Street. But up 13 steps on the second floor was a refuge: three adjoining rooms, decorated with red wallpaper and frilly curtains, where people could laugh, love, even worship without fear. The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a national Christian denomination founded to serve gays and lesbians, often held services in the bar’s back-room theater. At other times the space was used for the elaborately costumed drag cabaret performances that regulars called 'nelly dramas.' 'It was my safe haven,' says [Francis] Dufrene, [a regular].

The beer bust on June 24, 1973, was typically festive. A pianist from the nearby Marriott played Broadway and ragtime tunes as patrons sang along. Dufrene was there, as usual, this time on a first date with Eddie Hosea Warren, a 'husky country boy' he met at a hamburger joint near the Upstairs. Warren’s brother James and mother Inez came with him. Duane George Mitchell, an associate pastor at the MCC known for his Queen Victoria impersonation, and his partner Louis Horace Broussard stopped by after dropping Mitchell’s sons off at a movie. The bust prices ended at 7, but at least 65 people were still hanging around nearly an hour later when the door buzzer went off. It kept ringing, even though no one had ordered a taxi. The bartender sent a regular to check it out. When he opened the door, a fireball burst through as if shot from a flamethrower.

An updraft sucked the fire in, and within seconds the walls were aflame. Panic erupted inside. The bartender, Douglas 'Buddy' Rasmussen, called for people to follow him and led at least 20 of them to safety through a back exit and onto adjoining rooftops–before closing the door behind them when he didn’t see anyone else coming to prevent the fire from spreading. Many raced to jump out of the three large windows that were covered by metal bars. Dufrene was one of the few who squeezed through, body on fire.

'The small people seemed to get through the window, but the bigger people just couldn’t get out,' a survivor told the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

One of those trapped was the MCC’s pastor, Bill Larson, who struggled to push an air-conditioning unit through the window to escape. His head, torso and one arm made it halfway out before the glass pane above collapsed, trapping his body. In the street below, his friends heard him scream, 'Oh, God, no!' as flames consumed him. His body was left in the window for hours, with his watch, stopped at a few minutes after 8, a haunting relic.

And then it was over.

[More here.]

The other singular shocking thing about the massacre, beside the body count, was the widespread indifference to the attack.

After the news spread, the jokes began. According to the Time story, a radio host asked on air, “What do we bury them in?” and the punchline was: “Fruit jars.” The police dragged their feet identifying the remains, maintaining that most of the victims carried counterfeit identity cards, and that the place itself was reputed to have crawled with thieves and low-lifes. Several families refused to claim victims' bodies out of shame. One survivor was fired from his teaching job once his whereabouts in the bar was made public knowledge, and once the papers published the list of victims, it became a virtual outing. Some other survivors had to go back to work on Monday pretending they knew nothing. Churches closed their doors upon request of memorials -- and one Episcopal Church that did dare have a prayer service received dozens of angry phone calls and letters of protest. The mayor and the governor declined to issue statements of condolence, even though a month earlier they did so for two far-less deadlier fires. The investigation that followed went cold soon after.

Robert L. Camina, director of Upstairs Inferno (2015), the documentary about the fire, said in 2013: “I was shocked at the disproportionate reaction by the city government. The city declared days of mourning for victims of other mass tragedies in the city. It shocked me that despite the magnitude of the fire, it was largely ignored."

And today, the Upstairs Lounge has become a forgotten affair, barely even acknowledged as a sad milestone in the gay rights movement.

Forty-three years later, a similar horror comes -- and I'm kinda glad people are taking notice, are making statements of condolences. But it won't bring back the fifty now dead who just wanted to go out for a night of fun, among friends who loved them for who they were, in a place that was supposed to be a safe haven for people of their kind. But some homophobe decided they deserved no such haven, and opened fire on them.

We may live in a culture of increasing tolerance and enlightenment but there are still people out there who still insist on their own fanaticism, and sometimes it turns deadly.

May we always remember the Upstairs Lounge and now Pulse.

[Related: The Daily Beast reports that L.A. cops have stopped an armed man headed to gay pride parade. The Huffington Post says the Orlando massacre is a reminder of the dangers LGBT People live with every day.]


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