New Orleans did it quietly this year. Proudly, reverently and in the rain. A few of us had wondered, as the June 24 anniversary approached, if there were going to be any observances of the historic Up Stairs Lounge fire.
Those of us who’d helped plan last year’s 45th anniversary events – Frank Perez as liaison with the Historic New Orleans Collection and Reverend Cory Sparks with St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, most prominently – had been spent by the Herculean effort (Pastor Cory once half-joked, “This almost killed me”); they hoped the torch could be passed and lifted by a new crop of citizen leaders.
Yet, with nothing on the calendar as of June 23, it seemed the torch would drop and clatter. Had New Orleans accidentally, again, forgotten the deadliest fire on record in its history, this time not due to any kind of animus but in the banal way that the blur of days can erase the past and mangle intentions?
Then a last-minute call to gather was sounded by the Crescent City Leathermen, who donated funds for a flower-setting on a ceremonial spray that were matched by the Lords of Leather and the Renegade Bears of New Orleans. They named the event “Remembering the Upstairs Lounge Fire,” no doubt in homage to Skylar Fein’s famed art exhibition.
Suddenly, true to the style of this city, it was a community affair. Frank Perez called me that afternoon with instructions to turn up at the monument on Iberville Street at 8:15 a.m. that Monday. So there and then the faithful gathered—at an unholy hour at the beginning of what is our unholy workweek.
Leather daddies and bears and BDSM fanatics with broad chests and bigger hearts stood vigil above the plaque near the historic entrance to the bar. A long metal dumpster, from a nearby construction job, blocked the sight of us from passing cars.
Oh, what a tapestry is our community. Looking at the dozen or so attendees, some arrayed in vests and assorted leather accouterments but most of them dressed in work getups of dress pants and collared shirts, it struck me that the right people had arrived. The right folk were here to remember and commune with the memories of those who’d perished in different times.
For this was a crowd emblematic of the Up Stairs Lounge patrons: Men expected at work on a Monday. The Up Stairs Lounge crowd had not been a tony clique, by any measure. They were a ragtag assemblage of hustlers, musicians, non-ordained ministers and the occasional dentist—wage earners who couldn’t take the day off, even if they were sick. Together, they formed a chosen brotherhood in that second-story oasis. All became semi-closeted radicals through their very presence in such an establishment.
All had the guts to risk job and house and family while treading up those 13 wooden steps past the door at 604 Iberville Street, men of faith and hope who, in the face of existential dangers, found a reason to sing United We Stand by the Brotherhood of Man around a white baby grand piano. The gay-affirming MCC of New Orleans, in fact, had gathered in “fellowship” at the Up Stairs Lounge that fateful Sunday for a spur-of-moment celebration because someone had donated an air conditioner to their place of worship. They lost one-third of their congregation, including pastor Bill Larson and Deacon Mitch Mitchell, to the flames. So many voices were silenced through an unimaginable crime.
This spur-of-the-moment memorial, therefore, emulated the spirit of those departed in a way no one could plan. Another set of men, who showed up for one another, had shown up for them.
And indeed, one could imagine the Up Stairs Lounge crowd laughing side by side and fitting in better with today’s leather daddies and renegade bears than any fabulous queen swiping left on Grindr or tittering in a mansion on St. Charles Avenue. Brawny, beautiful men like the Lords of Leather in full attire are queer echoes of Up Stairs Lounge survivors such as Rusty Quinton, the ironworker who wore mesh t-shirts, or Buddy Rasmussen, the former 7-11 attendant turned Navy serviceman turned bartender who wore the occasional wrestling singlet. (Though the Up Stairs Lounge was not a “leather bar,” by any stretch, it often celebrated the hyper-masculine.)
These men, through their presence that Monday, stood as heirs to the Up Stairs Lounge culture, a legacy that resurfaced through time and tears. It did not perish.
These were my thoughts as we pressed in behind a dumpster to hear the service. Switchy Kyle, of Crescent City Leathermen, read out the names of the 32 victims—a recitation once forbidden to local ears.
It began to rain. From beneath an umbrella, pastor Lonnie Cheramie of the MCC of New Orleans then led a prayer of benediction. And the song United We Stand, anthem of the ruined Up Stairs bar (a place that can no longer be), rang out from a tiny set of speakers down Iberville Street.