Forty Years Ago, the Worst Mass Murder of LGBT People in the U.S.

On Sunday, June 24, 1973, an arson fire engulfed the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans. The fire, apparently started by a disgruntled patron who had been tossed from the bar earlier in the day, left 32 people dead—including a pastor for the Metropolitan Community Church that had been meeting in the bar Sunday mornings.

As Diane Anderson-Mishnall explains, in a great article for the Advocate, the MCC was only at the bar because their former building had been set on fire three times.

The article includes a heartbreaking picture of pastor Bill Larson—his charred body hanging out of a window as he tried to escape the flames. He was unable to get out because the window had been barred, but the photo captures his desperate attempt to escape.

The picture is a testament to great lengths LGBT people have had to take to be able to worship both in spirit and in truth. The MCC, founded just a few short years before this tragedy, in 1968, by Rev. Troy Perry, has survived many acts of violence in its history, including a fire of “suspicious origin” that destroyed its Los Angeles headquarters in 1973.

The denomination began for the simple reason that LGBT people were not welcome in mainstream congregations—not openly, anyway.  Certainly, a large majority of music ministers in mainstream churches were serving in the closet, but not many churches were happy to have openly LGBT people in their pews, much less their pulpits.

It’s easy for us to forget, in our Will & Grace, Ellen DeGeneres, Adam Lambert world that LGBT people used to huddle together in bars and house churches, away from the cruel judgment of the world. Homosexuality was considered a sociopathic personality disorder by psychologists, and wasn’t removed from the diagnostic manual until 1973. But, LGBT people were still popularly associated with mental illness. This is the atmosphere that this MCC met in on the day this fire was set.

Forty years later, the latest data from the National Congregations Study reveals that

“Nearly three in ten U.S. congregations permit gays and lesbians in committed relationships to hold volunteer leadership positions, a major increase from the 19 percent of congregations in 2006-2007 that allowed such opportunities.”

The litany of denominations that have changed their stance toward LGBT people, not just in the pews, but in leadership roles like pastor, deacon or elder, would have blown the minds of those holding church in the bar all those years ago. Could they even imagined the doors and pulpits of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America welcoming them, not to mention the Presbyterian Church, USA, or the Episcopal Church (as a bishop, no less!)?  The United Methodist Church is lagging behind, but members continue to fight to move the church into the 21st century. Certainly, a tale like that would have made LGBT bargoers at the time spill their beer with laughter.

And yet … here we are. Church doors are opening, pulpits are welcoming and LGBT people are returning to the churches, even as many of their younger cohort walk away.

I think it’s understandable why LGBT people are flocking to both church and marriage while their heterosexual counterparts are forsaking both institutions at a growing rate. Our community has spent much of its history denied entry into both the church and marriage. Now that we have our opportunity to emerge from the shadows, to show our faces and be proud of who we are who we love, we want to try our hand at institutions that are brand new to us. 

There may be a day when church leadership and membership, as well as marriage, is old hat to us. Until then, we will relish our new found freedoms, even as we remember the pioneers who gave their lives to make it possible.