SUNDAY’s mass murder in Orlando, Fla., was, among other grim superlatives, the worst instance of anti-gay violence in American history. But it was also far from the first. In fact, mass violence and the history of gay liberation go hand in hand.
Until the weekend’s horrific shooting, the largest massacre of gay people was an arson attack on a bar in New Orleans on June 24, 1973. Like the community that gathered at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, L.G.B.T. people had piled into the UpStairs Lounge on the edge of the French Quarter for a happy hour to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Most of the patrons left after the celebration ended, but congregants of the local chapter of the Metropolitan Community Church, a national gay religious organization, remained.
Just before 8 p.m., someone, or possibly a group of people, stopped at the entrance to the stairwell to the UpStairs Lounge, which was on the second floor of a building that had a straight bar on the first floor and a flophouse on the third. They doused the stairwell with lighter fluid, as well as the steps leading to the second floor, and then lit it. Then they rang the doorbell. When one of the patrons opened the locked door, fire exploded into the room. Within seconds, it spread through the bar, the power went out and the room filled with black smoke. The windows were barricaded and the congregants could not find their way to an exit in the back of the bar.
Thirty-two people died, and many others were injured. Many of the people who died were unidentifiable, not only because the fire scorched their bodies, but also because, despite the celebration of gay liberation, many gay men were not out of the closet and used fake IDs and aliases in gay bars. Even their families didn’t know they were there.
The UpStairs Lounge was not the only target of mass violence during the height of gay liberation in the 1970s. Arsonists set fire to gay churches in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Nashville and San Francisco in 1973 and 1974. Six months before the fire at the UpStairs Lounge, on Jan. 27, 1973, a fire broke out at the “Mother Church” of the M.C.C., in Los Angeles, where a gay Jewish group met for services.
Though no other attack came close to the death toll at the UpStairs Lounge, the attacks collectively set off an undercurrent of fear among the L.G.B.T. community in the 1970s: that our bars, which have been the sites of our political liberation, the focal point of our community, and even our places of worship, have also been the visible targets of violence and hatred committed against us.
That fear has subsided somewhat over the last generation, to the point where for many gays, something like the Orlando shooting might have seemed almost unthinkable, until it happened. But instead, it is a reminder that anti-gay violence has never been about individual acts against individuals, but an attack against the very idea that L.G.B.T. people should be free to express and enjoy themselves in public.
In the coming weeks, the news media will likely center on the culprit and his motivations in Orlando. This happened in New Orleans as well in 1973. The police and fire department spent months investigating the case, interviewing the survivors and even flying across the country to California to arrest a suspect. The emphasis on the culprit unwittingly overshadowed the story of the victims. And yet over 40 years later, no one has ever been charged for the arson, and the history of those who died in the fire soon became forgotten.
As it becomes increasingly likely that Omar Mateen, the suspected gunman in Orlando, was motivated by an extremist ideology, we likewise run the risk of forgetting the L.G.B.T. victims of this most recent attack as well. Some may have not been out to their families and their sexual orientation will be revealed to them only in the morgue. Others fell dead next to a friend or a stranger. Others likely went to the Pulse nightclub alone and found hope in the promise of a gay bar on a Saturday night, where they might find a friend and a community to call their own.
Fortunately, the anti-gay attacks of the 1970s did not prevent L.G.B.T. people from meeting and marching, nor did it stop them from gathering at bars and clubs to enjoy themselves. There was too much at stake. We can only hope that the same thing happens today, and that we remember that, despite progress, there is still much at stake. The sites of our liberation must not become the targets of our oppression.
Jim Downs is an Andrew W. Mellon New Directions Fellow at Harvard University, an associate professor of history at Connecticut College and the author of “Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation.”