A coalition of local organizations spearheaded by the LBGT+ Archives Project of Louisiana will present a weekend of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the tragic 1973 UpStairs Lounge fire. The events will take place in various locations in the historic French Quarter of New Orleans on June 23, 24 and 25, 2023.
In addition to the Archives Project, the other co-sponsoring organizations include The Historic New Orleans Collection, Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, Crescent City Leathermen, New Orleans & Co., St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, and the Metropolitan Community Church of New Orleans. The Marriott will serve as the host hotel for out-of-town attendees.
In 1973, the deadliest fire in New Orleans’ history occurred in a small gay bar at 604 Iberville Street in the French Quarter. The UpStairs Lounge was a refuge of love and acceptance in the New Orleans community until, in a matter of 19 minutes, it became a symbol of tragedy and rejection. Thirty-two people perished in the fire, and the New Orleans LGBT+ community was changed forever.
At the time, local police did not consider the tragedy a top priority. One officer told a reporter, “This was, after all, a queer bar.” No elected official responded publicly to the fire. Archbishop Philip Hannan denied the victims Catholic funerals. Radio commentators joked that the victims’ remains should be buried in fruit jars. The arson at the UpStairs Lounge remains officially unsolved despite being the deadliest crime against LGBT+ people in US history until the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando. In 2023, a 50th anniversary commemoration will document and share this overlooked event with the community, and honor the victims and their families.
Commemoration events will include presentations and panel discussions, a memorial service, and a second line funeral procession culminating in a candlelight service. An opening reception and informational presentation will be held at The Historic New Orleans Collection. The panel discussions and presentations will examine the event and response, a review of the many creative endeavors that have been produced to tell this gruesome story, and present-day implications of the fire. Registration opens to the public on April 15, 2023, at www.lgbtarchiveslouisiana.org.
This commemorative program is made possible through the generous support of The Historic New Orleans Collection, Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, Crescent City Leathermen, New Orleans & Co., St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, Metropolitan Community Church of New Orleans, The Faerie Playhouse family, and David Campbell.
The mission of the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana is promoting and encouraging the protection and preservation of materials that chronicle the culture and history of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community in Louisiana.
The history of the Archives Project began in 2012 with Stewart Butler, Otis Fennell and Mark Gonzales. In that year, they founded the Legacy Project with the goal of compiling oral histories. Completing one interview, the group realized that the time, logistics and money involved were overwhelming and the Legacy Project slowly dissolved. The need and desire to preserve local gay history was still strong, however, and the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana rose from the ashes of the Legacy Project.
In June 2013, a handful of dedicated people began meeting to discuss the necessary action of preserving all parts of our history and how this endeavor might be undertaken. Early on, the group decided the organization needed to provide information and resources to those also interested in local gay history. Surveying local libraries and collections for LGBT holdings was one of the organization’s first steps. Questionnaires were sent to archivists at several local institutions and several on-site visits were made to local repositories.
In October of that year, the Society of American Archivists held their national conference in New Orleans, and a few members of the group’s LGBT Roundtable met with members of the LGBT+ Archive Project of Louisiana. At a community meeting in November, the project organizers set out to gather input from the public. After many months of information-gathering, the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana adopted the mission statement found at the top of the organization’s website home page.
In June 2014, the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana was officially born at a public meeting where by-laws were adopted and officers were elected. Aiming to educate the public about the importance of preservation, the Archives Project also aims to share how individuals can safely entrust local archives with the care of the historical objects, documents and photographs they possess. This project does not intend to establish an archive of its own but rather aims to educate the public about the resources and holdings of existing archives in Louisiana.
In the last eight years, the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana has grown into a robust statewide collective that has facilitated major collection donations to institutions around the state, including The Historic New Orleans Collection, the Louisiana State Museum, the Louisiana Research Collection at Tulane University, the Amistad Research Center, the Earl K. Long Library at the University of New Orleans, the Center for Louisiana Studies, the Special Collections at Louisiana State University, the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History, and the Newcomb Archives and Vorhoff Collection. The Archives Project also serves as a resource for those researching LGBT+ history in Louisiana, including authors, documentary filmmakers, graduate students, artists, podcasters, and others.