Revisiting a Deadly Arson Attack on a New Orleans Gay Bar on Its 42nd Anniversary

The fire that killed 32 people at the Upstairs lounge has been largely forgotten, but documentarian Robert Camina wants to make us remember.

|
Jun 25 2015, 3:35pm

Forty-two years ago, on June 24, 1973, an arson attack killed 32 people at a gay bar in New Orleans. Though sometimes referred to as "the deadliest attack on LGBT people in US history," the fire is often forgotten.

But documentarian Robert Camina wants to make us remember. His film, Upstairs Inferno, just premiered last night in New Orleans on the anniversary of the tragic blaze.

While no evidence has ever been found that the murder was motivated by hatred or overt homophobia—in fact, the most likely suspect was a gay man named Roger Nunez who had recently been thrown out of the Upstairs Lounge—Camina says that the New Orleans authorities were slow to respond to it because of bias against the victims.

On VICE News: The Satanic Temple Is Suing Missouri Over Its Abortion Law

VICE called up Camina to talk about the film and to try and understand why such a horrific crime remains an obscure chapter in gay history.

VICE: What brought you to this topic?
Robert Camina: One of my executive producers is from Louisiana. He began to tell me about the Upstairs fire and I was shocked because I thought I knew my gay history, and I knew nothing about this. It's as poignant as the Stonewall Inn raid, but it's not part of our LGBT narrative. So I felt compelled to tell the story. I committed and I started production of the film, and then the 30th anniversary happened in 2013 and it sort of grew off that. TIME Magazine covered the fire and more people came forward that knew people. So that's how I started the film and nearly three years later we're premiering it tonight on the 42nd anniversary of the fire.

For those who don't know, what happened that night?
On June 24, 1973, someone deliberately set fire to a gay bar in the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana. Thirty-two people were killed in that fire. Three people were not identified. Those three people's bodies—plus one other—were never claimed, and they were buried in the New Orleans public cemetery.

And what was the community's reaction?
The reactions by the church were horrifying: Most churches closed their doors for funerals. They refused to have funerals just because of the place where these people died. [They weren't necessarily gay] they just died in a gay bar. It was difficult for people to grieve publicly because, in 1973, you could lose your job, you could lose your house, you could be outed, if you said, "I knew somebody that was killed in a gay bar." Well, why? Are you gay?

And you think that was a factor in the muted reaction?
I know that had that happened at a straight bar, with affluent people, you know there would have been an arrest. There would have been a public outcry. The mayor would have had a national day of mourning.

Can you tell me about the church that features into the story?
The Metropolitan Community Church was a gay-affirming Christian church and they had just formed a chapter in New Orleans. And after church, they often went to the Upstairs, and one-third of the congregation was killed in the fire, including the pastor and the associate pastor. So it was extremely devastating to the MCC as a whole, as well as the gay community in New Orleans.

So after the fire, what did the investigation find?
The New Orleans Police Department did do not a very thorough job of the investigation. They pretty much dropped it after a few months. Fire marshal investigators pursued it for quite a while after the police stopped. They identified a primary suspect and ultimately concluded that this suspect was the probable arsonist. He committed suicide a year after the fire and so they were never able to file any charges. But to say that the New Orleans Police Department's investigation was lacking is probably an understatement.

What about other officials?
Even though it still remains the deadliest fire in New Orleans history, the mayor at the time did not acknowledge the fire, the deaths. Neither did Governor Edwards or Archbishop Hannan—he didn't even acknowledge the devastation.

What was your approach as a filmmaker?
It's gruesome—there's no way around it—but I didn't want it to just be a stagnant exposition of facts. Tracking down the survivors wasn't the easiest thing to do. It is forty years later and many have passed away. Some people are still in a lot of pain and they don't want to talk about it on camera. But I wanted to make sure and comfort everybody that I wasn't out to exploit what happened to them and their friends.

How did you do that?
It's not like something where I could go up and go, "Hi, my name is Robert Camina and I'm going to interview you about this traumatic event." You have to build a relationship with them and I'm happy to call them my friends now. I've grown to love them and their families and they're a part of my extended family now.

For more information aboutUpstairs Inferno, go to the film's website.

Thumbnail from a scan of The Times Picayune .

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

More VICE
Vice Channels