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In 1973, An Arson Killed 32 People At A Gay Bar. For Years, It Was Forgotten

A view inside the Up Stairs bar following a fire that left 32 dead and several more injured, seen on June 25, 1973. Most of the victims were found near the windows in the background.
A view inside the Up Stairs bar following a fire that left 32 dead and several more injured, seen on June 25, 1973. Most of the victims were found near the windows in the background.

Decades before the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016 that claimed 49 lives, another deadly attack on LGBTQ Americans took place.

It was 45 years ago this Sunday that one of the worst attacks on the LGBTQ community left 32 people dead.

On June 24, 1973, a fire ripped through the Up Stairs Lounge — a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The cause was arson. No one was ever charged or convicted of the crime. Much of the history was swept from memory due to homophobia.

The fire started in the stairwell, trapping people on the building's second floor, where the bar was located.

"It just happened so quickly. The flames just shot straight across the whole length of the bar," Ricky Everett, who survived the fire, told NPR's Michel Martin on All Things Considered.

People sitting at the bar were "engulfed in those flames," he says.

The heat made carpeting rise off of the floor.

Everett got out by following Buddy Rasmussen, a bartender and manager, out of a back door, which turned out to be the only escape route.

"He actually leaped over the bar and yelled, 'Follow me, follow me!' When he got alongside of me, he grabbed me by the arm — because I was just sitting there, like: This can't be happening," Everett says.

Everett says he thought his boyfriend was following him out, but turned back and the man wasn't there. So he went back inside.

At that point, the flames were "circling all around" but he felt as if he had a blanket covering him. "And all of a sudden I just had total peace and I knew it was God. So I just started walking — I walked right out the door that I came back in through."

Everett returned to safety, to find his boyfriend had also escaped the deadly fumes and flames.

There were about 60 people inside the bar when the fire started, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Patrons who tried to get out through the windows couldn't — the windows had bars on them. Everett says the bars would have come off if pulled inward, but people didn't know that at the time.

The Times-Picayune describes the city at the time as "extremely homophobic." Police would raid gay bars frequently and employment discrimination against gays was "de rigeur." Homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder.

Some people in New Orleans had cruel responses for the victims. Public officials didn't want to talk about it. Some churches didn't want to bury the victims and some families wouldn't claim them.

"People were saying all kinds of really terrible things like, 'Let the faggots burn,' you know, or something about, 'Oh, their dresses are going to be burning up.' Just stupid stuff," Everett says. "There were a lot of things that was being said."

The man suspected of starting the fire, Roger Nunez, was gay himself and had been kicked out of the bar earlier. He killed himself in 1974. Filmmaker Robert Camina, who made a documentary about the incident, told Vice that New Orleans police conducted a lackluster investigation. "They pretty much dropped it after a few months."

Everett tells NPR, "I forgave [Nunez] a long time ago. And I hope other people do, cause it kinda helps to release it and just keep going on with life."

He says talking about the fire has served as a type of therapy for him. Coverage of the event has been "opening up a big door of understanding," he says.

The Times-Picayune said the fire was "a turning point for the city's gay community." Attendees at a memorial for victims of the fire let themselves be photographed walking out of the church, rather than slip out anonymously.

"By early fall, there was increasing evidence that the tragedy had roused a cadre of gay New Orleanians in ways unthinkable just a season before," author Robert Fieseler writes in Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation .

About was six months after the deadly fire, in December 1973, the American Psychiatric Association declared homosexuality was not a mental disorder. It was a change to "a position it has held for nearly a century," The New York Times wrote at the time.

For his part, Everett says he was saved from the fire by God.

He said he was told he lived because he would "go forth and tell people — LGBT people primarily, but anybody, everybody — God loves us all so much. And he created us to be exactly who we are."

NPR's Cecilia Lei and Elizabeth Baker contributed to this story.

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James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for NPR.org and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.