On the evening of June 24, 1973, an arsonist sparked a fire in the Up Stairs Lounge, a popular gay bar in New Orleans. In just three minutes, the fire claimed the lives of 32 victims, and injured many others. It was the worst mass killing of gays in history until the 2016 massacre at a popular gay club in Orlando, Florida, which claimed 49 lives. Yet very few have ever heard of the Up Stairs Lounge fire.
In Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation, author Robert Fieseler offers a deeply reported, harrowing account of the fire, along with rich descriptions of the social and political context that highlights why this tragedy was lost from history. It’s an illuminating read that captures the plight of gay men in a society that was bent on hiding, even smothering, them.
Fieseler has a gift for deftly sketching scenes and characters. It’s a talent that bursts forth on the page, as if pent up from his years working in corporate advertising, which he left a few years ago to study at Columbia University’s School of Journalism (I met Fieseler in a class there). His reporting impressed a couple of his professors, who encouraged him to consider writing a book on this topic. Once he began researching the Up Stairs Lounge fire, he began to develop something like a sense of duty, as well:
“I worried that my being a homosexual and a formerly closeted person meant that if I wrote this book, I was doing it because I had some kind of score to settle with my own past. But I wanted to look at it as clear-eyed as possible from the context of the time period of a different America, and to understand that different America as best as I could to respect it. Not just what happened in the Up Stairs Lounge, but why. I wanted to delve deeply into that context, and to try to find multiple different dimensions to every aspect of this story.”
I spoke with Fieseler over the phone from his home in Boston about his book, how gay culture has changed over the decades, the psychological toll of writing about human catastrophe, and the myth that Christianity and gay culture are necessarily at odds.
—Regan Penaluna for Guernica
Guernica: Where did you get the idea for this book?
Robert Fieseler: The short story is that Nicholas Lemann and Sam Freedman, professors at the Columbia Journalism School, where I was a graduate student, brought the story to me to see if I would be interested in it, with the interesting caveat that also there was an editor they knew who was interested in the subject.
I’d never heard of it, and so I went onto YouTube, and saw the network news coverage in these videos where men were being filmed from behind their heads when they were being interviewed [to hide their faces] because they were gay, and I became fascinated immediately. I related to that on kind of a strange personal level.
Also, this was a tragic event that killed all these men, which of course I’d never heard of before, so that aspect of the history was, it was really, really palpable to me. It occurred within this closeted context, where there was this sort of concealment, and obfuscation, and furtiveness, and anonymity to this entire gay culture. I knew a little bit about that, but I’d never really explored, in depth, the history of it. There were layers to this that I instantly became fascinated with. I like stories that are counter-narrative histories, or alternative histories. I also like to write about marginalized groups. It was ringing all my bells, immediately. I don’t know if you believe in meaningful coincidences or not, so I’m not going to delve too far deeply into that, but it felt strangely like the story was calling to me, and that I thought I could bring something interesting to it.
Guernica: You mentioned you related to it on a personal level. How so?
Robert Fieseler: Part of the reason I may have been so primed to dive into a story like this was because I’m a gay person; I’m married, I live a life that many gays in the 20th century would probably find enviable. I’m out at work. I’m a godfather to my niece, even though I’m an open homosexual.
I’m almost 37 now, and I’ve been out since I was 21. So for about 16 years prior to that, I was a closeted, very depressed, gay person. I grew up in Naperville, Illinois, a conservative Christian suburb, about 10 miles from what we call the ivory tower of Wheaton College, where students even now take abstinence pledges against premarital sex, drinking, drugs, all sorts of stuff. The heart of ‘90s conservative Christiandom. Even in public schools, at a very early age, we were encouraged in health class to take virginity pledges because otherwise our marriages to women would suffer. When you’re a person who around five or six realized what he was, like myself, you’ll readily take these pledges.
I got up every day, I would put on the outfit of the character of Bobby the heterosexual. It was like a kind of identity that I tried to live as fully as I possibly could. I pretended to like sports. When a friend’s parents, who were outspoken Republicans, told me that I laughed like a little girl, I changed my laugh. I concocted this cockamamie story about my sexual prowess with women that other male friends of mine would believe. I continued that through high school into college, to the point where I ended up in a really dire place. Sam Freedman said, when I explained this to him, that I was trying to be as bro as I could. I ended up vice president of my college fraternity.
I pushed it as far as I possibly could, where I was this act of myself. To the point where I became suicidal, and I thought I had to either die or I would have to stop acting, stop lying. I left the fraternity and spent a year trying to come out of the closet without killing myself, and eventually did. I didn’t know the term closeted, but I knew that I was suppressing a basic biological need and sense of desire. So I could understand closeted culture, even though mine paled in comparison to what existed in the 1970s.
Guernica: What was it like to be closeted in the 1970s?
Robert Fieseler: If you were homosexual, you were not out at work, to your landlord, or to your immediate family. In the event that you weren’t married and had children, you were also not out to your biological family. When you went out to engage in homosexual activity, you needed to do it carefully, in a secluded place. The reason to be discreet was because you were engaging in what was considered, and what was, according to state and local law, criminal activity.
It needed to be handled within the context of a trusted circle, knowing that anyone could rat out anyone else at a certain point, and upend the other person’s life. That sort of betrayal did happen. Let’s say you hit on someone at a bar, and they declined you. There was a practice in New Orleans called dropping a nickel, where you’d go to a pay phone—it cost a nickel back then—and you would call a person’s employer or family member, and tell them.
That’s why the Up Stairs Lounge was favorable, because it was a bar on the second floor, accessed by climbing a twisting, winding staircase that would take you up to this common room area. The whole goal was to not be seen by or heard of as having been there by people who could harm you: by a landlord who could evict you, by an employer who would fire you, by a family member who would rat you out to other family members, who could forcibly place you in a mental health facility.
Guernica: What was the Up Stairs Lounge like inside?
Robert Fieseler: It was a popular, upscale bar where blue collared gay men and their straight friends could gather in some kind of privacy and have a good time. It wasn’t really a sexy bar. It wasn’t a place you’d go for a hookup. It was more where you’d go to have drinks and sing songs. There were also very strict rules. There was no prostitution that was permitted in it. There was no tea room sex that was permitted. There was no drug use that was permitted, so it was a spot where men who had a secret could safely go and meet other discreet people like themselves. It was a gathering place where you could go, have fun, be yourself, without the fear of discovery. And from there, you could make journeys into deeper parts of the Quarter, where some of the wilder bars existed.
Guernica: What happened in the fire?
Robert Fieseler: The second floor door to the bar opens up, and the fire explodes in a burst into the bar, and then from there it’s just chaos and pandemonium. Of the 60 people that are inside the Up Stairs Lounge when the fire starts, half die. It’s confusing inside the bar, and it happens fast, and it happens after the drink special is over, so a lot of people are incredibly intoxicated.
In the first few seconds that it’s happening, nobody’s taking it seriously. I don’t know if you’ve been in an emergency situation before, but it takes a second for it to dawn on you that this is actually real. Within the first three minutes, people are able to exit or not. If not, then they die inside the bar, either from burns or from smoke asphyxiation, or from inhaling superheated air. These are very gruesome deaths, and then those who make it outside are either being treated for burns or helping out those who are severely burned, or they’re just shaking and crying with trauma, trying to process what has just happened over the course of the past three minutes. An individual with ostensibly a lover or a boyfriend three minutes before now exits the bar and realizes that he has no boyfriend, or a person who was sitting at a table with a group of friends looks around and realizes that the friends are gone.
Guernica: There was a suspected arsonist, but they were never questioned by the police. Can you give us context for how this could have happened?
Robert Fieseler: There doesn’t seem to be a great amount of interest on the part of the New Orleans Police Department to find and interview him, even when they have opportunities to do so. I think the fire was perceived in 1973 as a great embarrassment for the city. It took place in a bar that wasn’t supposed to exist. Homosexuality was not a thing that was talked about in Creole culture, and specifically the presence of a gay bar so close to the French Quarter was viewed as embarrassing. This is a city increasingly reliant on the tourist dollar, and the idea that a bar burns down and kills a bunch of people is bad enough, but that it’s a gay bar it’s seen as a stain, a public relations stain. Any police investigation into the matter would continue to direct public attention toward this event that did not make the city look good.
Guernica: You write that the media also didn’t pick up on the story. Was this for similar reasons?
Robert Fieseler: The morays of Creole culture, and specifically New Orleans society, said that homosexuality could exist so long as it was in a private realm. This is an anachronistic way of putting it, but it was out of sight, out of mind—a sort of don’t ask, certainly don’t tell. Homosexual life was permitted to exist in New Orleans. It was quite populous. Estimates run anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 homosexuals in a city of 600,000 at the time, so it’s a very large closeted gay community. Fewer than a thousand were probably openly self-identifying at the time. But it was permitted to exist in this private underworld, so long as it didn’t declare itself, so long as it wasn’t discovered, so long as it wasn’t out in the open and flagrant.
Living in this uniquely closeted society, a person maintains the belief that talking about homosexuality at all is wrong because it attracts trouble. So for the media, if you gave up their game, then their reputation would be ruined.
Guernica: You also write about the general lack of sympathy for the gay men who perished in the fire. Can you say more about that?
Robert Fieseler: It took a lot of research; there isn’t a wealth of objective data about what public opinion on homosexuality was, because most values and beliefs surveys weren’t even bothering to ask this question. But I was able to find evidence that the majority of society perceived homosexuality as always wrong. Partly because homosexuality was associated closely with pedophilia, partly because it was also associated with a term called homosexual recruitment. There was the widespread belief that homosexuality existed because homosexuals recruited the vulnerable and young, usually through molestation or other non-consensual acts, and that from there, that wounded person grows older and lives as a homosexual, is a kind of molester and rapist, and then subjects someone else who is young to this behavior, which results in the phenomenon carrying itself on across generations.
There was a widespread fear of this, and there were several portrayals of this in Hollywood films. In Midnight Cowboy there’s the rape sequence, which is very terrifying, and then in Deliverance, which was the year previous to that, there’s the terrifying rape scene, male-on-male sex, portrayed as this strange and frightening intercourse performed by the wicked on the unsuspecting, capable of robbing you of your manhood. This is kind of why, through the process of criminalization, the character of the homosexual deviant had been sort of built up in the nightmares of many individuals.
I interviewed someone who said, “Americans feared a commie under their bed and a cock sucker trying to get in your bed.” Homosexuals were considered to be harmful to the American way of life, and they were this feared abstraction.
When the Up Stairs Lounge Fire happened, and people learned that this was a bar that was frequented by homosexuals, and that many of the individuals who had died were homosexual, you’re learning about this as a member of the general public without access to a person’s true name, or story, or anything else about them. You came to it through the lens of sexual deviancy. It’s hard to have sympathy for what you deem to be almost like a villain in a nightmare, or a Hollywood movie villain, perishing in this way, dying by flame.
Guernica: Why is it important to tell the story of the Up Stairs Lounge fire today?
Robert Fieseler: I wrote this as a historian, so when I pulled this all together, I really wasn’t considering how this would be positioned topically. I was trying to write a faithful account about what happened, and how this event that disappeared ended up having a legacy.
I think the story of the Up Stairs Lounge is the story about the consequences of the societal institution of the closet. What are the consequences when you criminalize and stigmatize a natural human phenomenon? You force many law-abiding citizens to live in a kind of underground, where they’re vulnerable to the criminal underworld. If an emergency strikes, all the normal safeguards of society will not be available to them, including the light of justice, including dignity towards human death rights, and anything you would afford to an ordinary person who has not been stripped of civil liberties.
And then, that criminality’s backed up by science that calls them a psychopath, and then it’s backed up by religious leaders that call him a sinner. The lesson, or the moral, is really about the viability of the closet as a social institution—the predominant social institution for what we came to call homosexual life in the 20th century.
As much as everyone tells the story of gay liberation, or the LGBT rights movement, and thinks of it as some arc bending towards justice and freedom, really it wasn’t until the 21st century that you see openness, and you see another kind of public attitude in our society become the majority opinion about sexual minorities and sexual difference. The closet is not a viable solution to sexual difference in our society; forcing it underground, forcing someone to be obscure, or to never talking about it, or to censor themselves, when this is a human phenomenon that will manifest in every generation regardless of how you try to oppress it. It’s not just. It’s not viable. It’s not meaningful, and it encourages corruption. It encourages violence. It’s detrimental to every level of our society.
Guernica: What was it like researching and writing about this dark chapter in American history?
Robert Fieseler: People don’t talk a lot about the consequences of telling a story. There’s a certain amount of ancillary pain you take on, because you’re empathetic, you come to care for the people whose plight you were hearing about. And then also there’s this tendency as an author to think, I’m the righteous knight that’s saving them, right? But I’m not. The thing happened. It was awful. This can’t fix what already occurred. To set the pain down—I just thought, I’m going to need to go talk to a grief counselor about this. So I went and I did, for several months. It was extremely helpful.
There’s this tendency that people want to say when they become a spokesperson for an event, or when they write a book about something that’s tragic, that it’s such an honor to tell this story, right? There’s this tension in a person’s mind between, yes, it’s an honor, but also it is so painful to hear, and to have to explore.
I started wondering, why did they bring this story to me? Because they knew, or because other authors who had more experience knew, that there would be deleterious psychological consequences in their own lives if they tried it themselves? But then I looked around at other gay literature, and I see that that’s not the case. David France is a well published author, and he wrote what must have been a very psychologically painful book, How to Survive a Plague, delving into even his own personal experience of the AIDS crisis. I discovered that you have to reshape the world based on things that you’ve learned, and you have to find a way to square what you’ve learned with a reality that is palatable.
Guernica: I was surprised to read about the positive relationship between the local church and the members of the gay community who also were affiliated with the Up Stairs Lounge. Were you?
Robert Fieseler: That’s part of what drew me to the story. I was so fascinated that there were ties between a bar and this church called the Metropolitan Community Church. There’s this widespread presumption that because the majority of organized religions are anti-homosexual, that most homosexuals are anti-religion. I’ve looked up Pew studies about this, where you break down subsets of sexual minority population in the US, even now you find that the majority of gay-identifying individuals are believers in some religion. It’s not an overwhelming majority, but the fact that it exists is fascinating, and then the fact that there was this history and this lineage was surprising to me. It’s not something that’s foregrounded at all in the story of the gay rights movement,
I think there’s two interesting things here. I think one presumes that the Christian right, as it was founded, the so-called Christian right as it developed in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, is the only voice in the Christian movement when it comes to Christianity and politics. Also, I think many gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender individuals have had negative experiences with organized religion in their formative years, and I think as they grow older or become an adult, there tends to be a rejection of all of that, or at least something where one doesn’t talk about religion publicly, because there’s such a widespread distaste, and this perception that all the organized religions hate us.
It’s resulted in many of the contributions of the Metropolitan Community Church not being included in the gay rights narrative, or the wider civil rights narrative.
Guernica: At the beginning of the book you ask, “what does it mean to remember?” What do you think?
Robert Fieseler: I keep thinking about the power of memory that has a redeeming factor, as opposed to the negative aspect of memory, where it’s just myth making and nostalgia, or wishing for a better time that’s probably made up anyway. It sounds very basic, but for me, it was a profound realization at the end of the book. The last part of the last line of the book goes, “speaking at last their names.” When we speak the names of the dead, we acknowledge at a basic level their existence. They contributed something to the world that we now share.