June 24, 2022 marked the 49th anniversary of what was considered the deadliest anti-LGBTQ attack until the Pulse shooting in June of 2016, and the deadliest fire in New Orleans history: The UpStairs Lounge arson attack of 1973.
At the time, The UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans’ French Quarter served as one of the main LGBTQ safe spaces in the city. That all changed on June 24, 1973 when the infamous UpStairs Lounge arson attack took place. The fire, which was believed to have been started by a disgruntled and mentally troubled patron named Roger Nunez who was kicked out of the bar earlier that night, claimed the lives of 32 people, and injured another 15. Nunez, who was a gay man himself, was reported to have drunkenly admitted to the crime numerous times before committing suicide the following year.
Because the attacker was believed to be a member of the LGBTQ community, some struggle to properly consider it an LGBTQ hate crime. However, the reaction to the fire from the public and government officials serves as a truly sad reflection of the homophobia at the time. After Nunez was identified by the bartender, Buddy Rasmussen, police refused to question him, and the fire was virtually ignored and made light of by the public or the press. No politician had anything to say about the tragedy, and the Archbishop of Louisiana, Iveson B. Noland forbade Catholic funerals to be held for the victims. In addition to this, many of the victims’ bodies remained unidentified and refused by families who were ashamed and believed themselves to be disgraced.
On June 23, 2022, during its regular meeting, the New Orleans City Council posthumously recognized the 32 victims of the 1973 arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge. Resolution R-22-308 “breaks the precedence of silence set by the City of New Orleans and allows for loved ones of survivors and victims to heal from past traumas.”
“The city we are today is not the city we were then,” Councilmember JP Morrell stated. “The City of New Orleans’ lack of response to the deadliest fire in our history has kept individuals from mourning their loved ones, but today we took a step in the right direction.”
Morrell goes on to discuss that four men who died in the fire have been identified, including a World War 2 veteran, Ferris LeBlanc, who never received a proper veteran memorial. “Moving forward, my office will be working with the family of Ferris LeBlanc, a WWII veteran who died in the fire, to exhume his remains and properly memorialize him with full military honors. There’s still so much left to do to adequately recognize the tragedy of the UpStairs Lounge arson attack, but today was a good start.”
The Advocate says that LeBlanc, who was honorably discharged from the military, should have received a military funeral for his service. Instead, he was buried in a potter’s field alongside three other unidentified young men who died in the blaze. LeBlanc was 50 at the time of his murder. His family was never notified of his death or burial.
“He split up with his partner and he was basically sleeping on the couch and working and then just one night never came home,” Skip Bailey, LeBlanc’s nephew, told Oxygen. “We’ve always wondered all these years, where did he go?”
“The council has promised to get to the bottom of this issue and do everything they can to help us bring an end to this story,” LeBlanc’s family wrote in a statement to ABC News. “We are cautiously optimistic for this renewed interest and are hopeful it will end in a positive resolution.”
The presentation to the Council was led by UpStairs Lounge historian and author of Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the UpStairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation, Robert Fieseler; Clancy DuBos, who covered the tragedy as an 18-year-old intern at the Times-Picayune; and local LGBTQ+ historian Frank Perez. Following the presentation, the resolution was presented to 90-year-old Rose Little, whose brother Clarence McCloskey also died in the fire.
SOURCES: New Orleans City Council and The Advocate