Townsend, Johnny. “Let the Faggots Burn: The Upstairs Lounge Fire”, Booklocker, 2011.
Finally a Book
I have often wondered why no one has ever written a book about the Upstairs fire of 1973. It is certainly an important event in the history of gay America. It was my surprise when I was surfing the net last week to find out that one had indeed been written (recently) and written by a friend, Johnny Townsend. He sent me a copy and I relived that horrible day when 32 people lost their lives when an arsonist set fire to the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans on the day Gay Pride was being celebrated in the city. In 1973 I was no longer in New Orleans, having already moved to Israel but friends sent me reports and of course, I had known several of the dead.
Townsend brings the entire story back to life and it is not a pretty tale but it is certainly an important event. Reading the foreword of the book, I learned Townsend actually wrote the book in 1989 and when he moved from New Orleans to Seattle, he left the manuscript in New Orleans at the Historic New Orleans Collection and another copy was left in the One Archives in Los Angeles. It was his idea that it would be available for those who would do further research but he ultimately decided to make it available to the present reading public and we are so lucky that he did. If you have read any of my reviews of Townsend’s work, you know that I feel that he is an excellent writer. But up until now I have only reviewed his fiction so I was anxious to see how he did with a true story even though much of his fiction is based on his own life experiences. I am glad to say that he is indeed an excellent writer and this story reads like fiction probably because it is such a horrible event that we do not want to believe that it really happened. Townsend tells us in the foreword that it was his plan to write a book that was to be for “popular” (his word) reading so he did not include footnotes but there is quite an extensive bibliography. The fact that there are no footnotes does not take away from what is written—it just makes it a bit more difficult for those who want to learn more about what happened.
In short, it was on June 24, 1973 that an arsonist set fire to the entrance of the Upstairs Lounge, a well known gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans and what followed was devastating. In that blazing inferno, 32 lives were lost and that included about a third of the membership of the New Orleans Metropolitan Community Church. The pastor of the church burned to his death as he was halfway out of a second story window as he tried to get to freedom. A mother who went to the bar with her two gay sons burned to death with them and another man who had helped a friend get out was found burned to death next to the fire escape. Other deaths were just as hard to read about and the entire catastrophe changed the entire New Orleans LGBT community and the city as well—but for just a short period. The repercussions created a sense of fear and dread in a city where the gay population was an integral part of New Orleans life.
Let us not forget what the mood of America was like in 1973. Even though the French Quarter of New Orleans was known for its bohemian way of life, homophobia raged in America so much so that families would not claim the bodies and churches refused to bury the dead on “hallowed” ground.
This, for me, was a hard book to read because so many of the names mentioned were people that I knew. Townsend has done a brilliant job in telling the story and the amount of research that he did is absolutely amazing.
Even with the state of fear and dread after the fire, Townsend says that nothing changed as a result of it. I was at the ceremony when a plague was placed in the sidewalk (yes, in the sidewalk where people could actually walk on it) in front of what had once been the Upstairs and the idea was to hint that the fire had been one of the events that brought about a gay rights revolution in New Orleans— but that did not happen. New Orleans is the queen city of the South (and I do not use the word “queen” as gay argot does). There is a laissez-faire attitude there of not disturbing the status quo of live and let live— “don’t bother me and I won’t bother you”. New Orleanians do not think about the fire and the only ones who were concerned about it are those older gay people who lost friends. I would even venture to say that many members of today’s New Orleans gay community don’t even know that it ever happened.
We really do not know what happened that day as Townsend explains to us in his afterword. There is a great deal of misinformation and most of what we have is based upon what people remember and we are all aware of what happens to memory. There are two documentaries about the fire and a master’s thesis and I understand an upcoming book by Clayton Delery. But the people are gone as are others who were alive then but have passed on or moved away or have just chosen to not remember that horrible event. So we have Townsend’s book and for me that is what I will have to deal with. We are just very, very lucky that he is such a good writer.
- Posted in: GLBT non-fiction