Artist: Liz Lerman
Storyteller: Frank Perez
The UpStairs Lounge was a gay bar that occupied the second floor of a building at the corner of Chartres and Iberville Streets in the French Quarter. It was a friendly, neighborhood bar that afforded gay men a safe space to gather and enjoy each other’s company.
Despite the French Quarter’s “anything goes” reputation, gay bars were routinely raided in the early 1970s and being out of the closet was unthinkable to many in the LGBTQ community.
On Sundays, the UpStairs Lounge hosted its weekly beer bust which was attended by many members of the newly formed Metropolitan Community Church, a gay friendly denomination. The New Orleans MCC had once held worship services in the bars entertainment area before securing a place of its own.
On Sunday, June 24, 1973, a troubled young man, Roger Dale Nunez, was ejected from the bar for being belligerently drunk and harassing customers. As he was being escorted out of the bar, he angrily threatened to come back and “burn you all out.” No one thought he was serious. But he was.
About thirty minutes later, someone, presumably Nunez, set the stairwell leading to the bar on fire. Within twenty minutes, twenty-nine people were dead. Three more died from their wounds in the days that followed. In the aftermath, the bartender, Buddy Rasmussen, identifed Nunez to authorities, but the police were not interested in questioning him. No one was ever arrested and Nunez, who drunkenly admitted to starting the fire, committed suicide about a year and a half after the fire. The public reaction to the tragedy reflected the homophobia of the time. No politician had a word to say about the tragedy and the Archbishop forbade Catholic funerals for the victims. Some of the victim’s families were so ashamed that they refused to claim the bodies.