The Daily Agenda for Monday, June 24
June 24th, 2013
TODAY IN HISTORY:
40 YEARS AGO: 32 Killed in Arson Fire At New Orleans Gay Bar: 1973. It was a Sunday. The UpStairs Lounge, a second floor gay bar in New Orleans’s French Quarter, had hosted members of the local Metropolitan Community Church who attended a beer bust following church services. The evening was still early, not quite eight o’clock when the bartender heard the door buzzer downstairs ring, a sound that usually meant that a cab was outside the take a patron home. When another bar employee went to check on the cab, he found instead that the staircase was engulfed in flames from a molotov cocktail that had been tossed into the entrance, and those flames were rapidly climbing the wooden staircase into the bar.
The bartender, Buddy Rasmussen, led about twenty or thirty people through an unmarked exit which led to the roof, and they were able to hop onto other buildings and make their escape. But more than thirty others in the lounge ran to the windows instead, only to discover they were barred. By the time one of the patrons managed to squeeze through the bars, his body was already in flames and he died right after landing in the street below. Another patron escaped, but when he realized his boyfriend didn’t make it out, he went back in to find him. Fire crews later discovered their burned bodies holding each other. MCC pastor Rev. Bill Larson clung to the bars at a window where he died, his body melted into the window frame. His charred body remained visible from the street below for several hours afterwards.
Twenty-nine people died that night, and three more died later from their injuries. The fire at UpStairs lounge may very well have been the worst mass murder of gays in American history, but aside from the first day’s coverage, New Orleans could barely muster a yawn. Newspaper photos of Rev. Larson’s body against the window frame came to symbolize the city’s apathy toward the tragedy. Talk radio hosts told jokes (“What will they bury the ashes of queers in? Fruit jars.”), and the press quoted on cab driver saying “I hope the fire burned their dresses off.” Not only did the New Orleans Police Department barely investigate the crime, they could hardly be bothered to identify the victims. Major Henry Morris, chief detective of the New Orleans Police Department said, “We don’t even know these papers belonged to the people we found them on. Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.” Churches refused to allow families to hold funerals on their premises. Other families refused to claim their dead sons’ bodies. Four unidentified bodies ended up being dumped in a mass grave. No one was ever charged.
Here are two news reports of the fire, a lengthy film report from CBS news, and a shorter one from NBC:
35 YEARS AGO: Sydney Police Block Pride Parade: 1978. This was supposed to be Sydney’s first Gay Pride Parade, known locally as Mardi Gras, and was planned as a night-time celebration after a morning march and commemoration of the Stonewall riots. (You can see film of the morning march taken with a super-8 camera here.) While homosexuality was still against the law in New South Wales, organizers had obtained all the necessary permits for the celebration beforehand. The evening celebration began simply, with a small crowd walking down Oxford Street on a chilly Australian winter day. The idea was to encourage people to come out from the bars and join the fun. But the crowd aroused suspicions of the police, which had gathered around the group.
By the time the small crowd, estimated at between five hundred and a thousand, reached the end of the street, the police confiscated the sound system, removed their identification badges and turned on the crowd. One participant recalled, “There was, you know, pretty serious bashing and kicking and all sort of things going on. It was a real riot.” Fifty-three marchers were arrested. One marcher recalled that while in police custody, he was beaten so badly he began to convulse on the floor.
“They took me along a long corridor in the police station through a U-shaped route into a room and then just beat the hell out of me. There were two police officers who did that – one in particular – bashing me with their fists in the head and saying ‘you’re not so smart now are you’.” Mr Murphy said he was beaten solidly until a blow to the solar plexus floored him. He was thrown into a solitary cell where he could hear protesters gathered outside chanting his name. “They tried to break my leg but fortunately the bones didn’t snap,” he said. “I was (literally) pissing my pants.”
Although most of the charges were dropped, the Sydney Morning Herald published the full names of everyone who was arrested, outing many to their family, friends and employers. Many lost their jobs. Thirty-five years later, surviving marchers are still waiting for an official police apology.
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And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?