Gay Leaders Plan Aid for Victims of Bar Fire
Local, National Groups Launch Fund Drive by Vincent Lee
Not all of the 29 killed when a flash fire swept through a French Quarter bar Sunday night were homosexuals, but the gay movement leaders assembling here are making no distinctions in their efforts to help bury the dead.
The same holds true for the many injured, whom the local and national gay movements are attempting to help by launching a national campaign to defray medical costs many cannot afford, a national homosexual church leader said Tuesday.
Troy Perry, founder of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UF-MCC), a gay religious order with 36 chapters across the nation, stressed that 13 of the injured are still hospitalized, six still in critical condition and in need of blood.
Perry was one of the UFMCC clergymen who conducted a memorial service for the men and woman who died in the fire that turned the Up Stairs Lounge at 604 Iberville into an inferno in a matter of minutes.
He and four other national and local homosexual movement leaders conducted a press conference Tuesday at the Marriott Hotel.
The others were Morty Manford, a representative of the Gay Activists Alliance in New York; John Gill, southeastern district coordinator of the UF-MCC, Atlanta; Morris Kight, president of the Gay Community Services Center , Los Angeles, and reputed founder of the Gay Liberation Front; and Lucien Baril, newly appointed worship coordinator for the Church of New Orleans.
William Larson, minister of the New Orleans church, was killed in the fire, along with some 30 percent of the church’s membership. Baril said there 30-35 members before the blaze claimed 10. He said the lounge was used at times for the church meetings because of insufficient space elsewhere.
All emphasized how the tragedy showed the unity of the gay community. “We have unified over the years, but it takes a tragedy of this nature for that to be seen by the public,” said Baril.
He said a social worker at Charity Hospital remarked that “in all her years of social work, she had never seen such mobilization and organization in the face of tragedy.”
Kight called the fire “the worst single tragedy to befall the gay community since Nazi Germany.”
Perry stressed, however that not all the lounge patrons killed or injured were homosexuals. Many were heterosexuals who came for the free beer between 5 and 7 p.m., as well as the “all-you-can-eat” food for $1, he said.
The horror in Iberville followed in a matter of hours a “gay pride” demonstration by 17,000 in New York City and thousands more in other major cities of the country, said Manford.
He said this celebration has been an annual occurrence since the “Stonewall Riot” in 1969 when gays clashed with New York City police at a gay bar. “That is generally recognized as the single most important incident precipitating the emergence of the Gay Liberation Movement,” he said.
But the atmosphere of celebration in all parts of the country was quickly turned to horror and disbelief as the news of the Up Stairs disaster spread across the country, said Manford.
Although it had not been officially confirmed Tuesday night, Preston Davis, UFMCC New Orleans organized who attended the press conference, said it was fairly certain from the survivors’ accounts that it was the UFMCC minister trapped in the window.
Davis said he only missed being there because he overslept. “It was only the second time I ever missed the beer bust.”
He added that from the accounts he had heard, Larson was struck on the head by a falling air conditioning unit as he struggled to get through the window bars. “He probably didn’t feel the pain of the fire,” he said.
None of the men would contend that the fire was actually the work of an arsonist. “We feel it is incumbent on us to depend on the New Orleans police to decide that,” said Kight.
Perry said he could not “comprehend that anyone contemplated murdering so many people.” If it was arson, Perry said he could not believe the person who started the fire ever imagined the devastating results.
The all stressed that they are not in New Orleans to help solve the tragedy, but to help those who need it. Perry said the UFMCC will observe a day of mourning on Sunday and urged other churches to toll their bells.Perry said The Advocate, the most widely read publication of the gay community, is acting as the collection center for emergency fund donations, and that blood can be donated locally at the Red Cross Center or Charity.