The Upstairs Lounge Fire


Fire Tragedy Spawns Activism

No Mardi Gras Magic

Gay Community Surfaces in Tragedy of N.O. Fire

National Leaders Help City’s Awareness by Joan Treadway (First of a Series)

There is a submerged subculture in New Orleans which the city for some time has tried to suppress, then ignored and now is being forced to acknowledge as its own—for better or for worse—largely as a result of one tragedy.

That tragedy was a fire in a French Quarter bar two and one half months ago which claimed 32 lives and altered an unknown number of other lives. The bar was publicly identified as a homosexual hangout also frequented by heterosexuals.

From this point on, people across the country and New Orleanians themselves were confronted with the fact that the city has an active homosexual community which does not magically appear on Mardi Gras, but which exists year-round.

 The community itself gained a greater degree of self-awareness and began to surface amidst the general population. Acting as catalysts in this process were nationally-known gay liberation leaders who arrived in the city soon after the fire.

Morty Manford, a prime mover in the Gay Activists Alliance in New York, commented here, “One person said to me ‘Have you heard all the thuds this week? All the closet doors are falling (referring to the “coming  out” of hidden homosexuals).’”

Many homosexuals who have stopped hiding are members of the New Orleans Gay  People’s Coalition which was formed after the fire. One such person is Chris Gamble, 27, who has been in this city for over two years.

“I think there was a pretty dramatic change after the fire,” he said. “Before, everyone was in a little world of complacency. The attitude was ‘They don’t hassle us too much.’ I don’t feel this is enough.”

Homosexuals across the country are having problems existing from day to day, Gamble said.  Their problems include lack of job security, the threat of blackmail and of physical violence simply because they are gay, he said.

These problems exist in New Orleans, he said, “but they are not as bad as other cities. The general French Quarter life lends itself to a more live-and-let-live attitude that is found in other cities of comparable size.”

The Quarter is the local center for homosexuals, though a lot of gay couples buy subdivision homes, said another Coalition leader, Lucien Baril, also the newly appointed worship coordinator for the Metropolitan Community Church.

Baril took over the church June 25, one day after the fire in which the last minister died.  The Coalition was begun, he said, because shortly after the fire the basic need for solidarity and unity in the gay community became evident.    

The “powers that be,” he said, seemed to ignore the tragedy, even though so many lives were lost.  The attitude which came across to the homosexual community , he said, was that those who died were “just a bunch of faggots.”

The Coalition was started as a “consciousness-raising group to help people get over the depression of feeling ‘Well, I’m gay; I’m not worth anything,’ and to help realize themselves as human beings,” he said.

The organization is also in the process of setting up to what amounts to separate social services for local homosexuals, he said. The Coalition’s health committee has already opened a homosexual venereal disease clinic at 1150 N. Rampart St.

Manford observed, “Gay people get venereal disease as much as non-gays, and often, they feel intimidated going in a public clinic. They don’t know the doctor’s attitude or if their records will get back to their families or employers.”

Baril said another Coalition committee is in the process of training Coalition volunteers to provide counseling services to any homosexuals who want to talk out their problems. This project will include establishment of a switchboard.

The aim of the counseling won’t be to “convert” people from homosexuality to heterosexuality, Baril stressed. “Conversion from basic homosexuality is conceivable, but it’s not likely to happen, and so we will help people adjust,” he said.

A third subdivision of the Coalition, its media committee, is providing yet another means of communication between homosexuals here—the printed word—in the form of a newspaper called the New Orleans Causeway.

“Hopefully, job placement and housing services will also eventually be provided by the Coalition,” Baril said. He judged these problems “serious” in this city. “I know of persons who’ve lost or haven’t gotten jobs because they’re gay,” he said.

Also, he added, “It’s quite difficult for a gay couple to get housing here.” Such problems were recently presented to the city’s Human Relations Committee by the Coalition. The Committee responded by setting up a task force to investigate.

A Coalition spokesman urged the HRC to “get people to see that homosexuals are not just freaks they see on the street but people they work with and respect.” If adopted, this policy would be a far cry from city policy of 15 years ago.

In 1958, councilmen, civic leaders and police officers conferred at City Hall on the best method of reducing homosexuals in the French Quarter. Participants expressed a need for “a drive against the deviates.”     

The first in a series of newspaper stories notes the emergence of the Gay People’s Coalition and heightened visibility and activism in the New Orleans gay community following the fire.

Source: The Times-Picayune, September 11, 1973

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