Stand by Me: The Unknown Story of the Gay Church Burning in New Orleans

Friday, January 4, 2013: 9:10 AM
Bayside Ballroom A (Sheraton New Orleans)
James T. Downs, Connecticut College
“Stand by Me: The Unknown Story of the Gay Church Burning in New Orleans,” proposes to reconstruct one of the largest tragedies in the history of American civil rights: the burning of a New Orleans church, a horrific act of violence in which 32 gay men and women perished and many others were injured. After local churches had refused to allow openly gay people to worship and pray together, over sixty residents converted a dilapidated bar called The Upstairs Lounge their own church, and a vital meeting place for the gay community. On June 23, 1973, two poured the gasoline on the steps that led to the room where the worshipers had gathered. In less than four minutes, a fire exploded, engulfing The Upstairs Lounge in flames.

            Telling the story of the gay church fire in New Orleans not only uncovers a lost chapter in the history of civil rights but it also reveals fundamental insights into how violence had shaped the American psyche in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, without national media attention, the burning of the church in New Orleans never became a rallying cry for the gay liberation movement. The dearth of media coverage also led to the slow disappearance of the church burning in American cultural memory.