A New Orleans Gay Bar Inferno Killed 32. Roy Reed Was First to Report the Truth.

Jack Thornell/APRoy Reed, a New Orleans journalist who died in 2017, is probably best remembered for his Civil Rights-era reporting in The New York Times. This included a 1965 attack by state troopers on unarmed marchers at Selma, Alabama, at the Edmund Pettus bridge.Reed bravely reported in his front-page Times article about the ensuing violence, called Bloody Sunday. He also wrote of white troopers that tore through a column of Negro protestors with tear gas nightsticks, nightsticks, and whips.Roy Reed's report on Bloody Sunday at Selma by Roy Reed would stir sympathy for Black Freedom causes, and speed up political passage of 1965 Voting Rights Act. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., would be joining the Selma-to Montgomery marches along with John Lewis. The journalistic contributions of Reed to queer history are, however, largely unknown by Americans. It is so obscure that Reeds highly regarded New York Times obituary did not mention it.32 people were killed in the UpStairs Lounge fire. Its legacy haunts black gay New Orleans.Reed, like Selma would write the ultimate breaking news story about the assault on another marginalized group.Roy Reed received a call from New York City's Times Annex, in the late hours of Sunday June 24, 1973. It was two blocks away from St. Charles Avenue that alerted him to his home in Uptown New Orleans. His national night editor informed him that there was a fatal fire in downtown. There were multiple victims.Reed drove his car toward a second-story, smoldering bar at the French Quarter's edge. Reed saw a crowd of drunken spectators standing in front of a scorched canopy with the cursive words Up Stairs. There were more than 100 firefighters and police officers who were removing hoses from the bombed-out building and taking down bodies.Continue the storyIt was the Up Stairs Lounge Fire, which would result in 32 deaths. First, you feel the burning smell of flesh. This was Reed's first interview for Tinderbox: Tinderbox, a nonfiction book about the Up Stairs Lounge fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation. Then, you see the man looking out the window with an expression of horror.Reverend Bill Larson was the pastor of the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church. Reed arrived at the scene well after the emergency was over, but he witnessed Larson's death pose. Authorities would not allow the body to hang outside the building for several hours.He suppressed his natural shock and jumped into action. The veteran reporter interviewed Buddy Rasmussen, gay Up Stairs Lounge bartender, and put together a story about a blue-collar gay haven that was incinerated using lighter fluid. A lot of reporters back then would have shunned the idea of interviewing an openly gay man. Reed continued to press on, sensing the danger of explosive anger.He recalled the incident decades later. The few minutes of uncontrollable rage that they unleashed when they lit the fire were recalled by historians decades later. Rodger Dale Nunez was a disturbed sex worker who was overheard by his fellow patrons threatening to set the fire. He was then forcibly expelled by bar staff a few minutes before the fire started. It has been proven that Reed's spur-of the-moment conclusion that this conflagration was intentionally set off, and that his anger ignited the match, is correct.Reed made efficient use of the 30 minutes he had at the site. He even spoke with a photographer who was allowed into the upstairs bar to photograph the bodies. Reed ran to his typewriter in an effort to meet the 10:30 p.m. deadline to cover next day's coverage. He cried as he outlined a story while rushing to the Times downtown offices at Carondelet Street.He kept seeing the burned man at the window in his mind. He was reminded of Selma's bridge scene where horses charged the crowd amid the teargas. Reed said in the interview that it was then that Reed realized that the editor had given him the assignment to report on the fire. Reed knew that the editor would not have given him the assignment.Readers and newsrooms of that era would feel almost universal disgust when discussing the topic of sexual deviances. No leading newspaper in the country would publish the radical term Gay without inserting it in patronizing quotes marks. The New York Times did not change its style guide to allow Gay until 1987.Queer behavior of any kind was generally avoided by the media unless it was mentioned to exonerate an anti-queer attacker. In the Times 1969 coverage on the Stonewall Riot the headlines lamented 4 Policemen Hurt in Village Raid while the story focused on the hundreds of young men who were going on a rampage and whom innocent policemen were forced to confront.The 1966 Comptons Cafeteria Riot was not covered by the San Francisco Chronicle. This uprising of Gender Minorities forcibly repelled police from a Tenderloin neighborhood restaurant. The 1954 Miami Herald's coverage of the murder by handsome Eastern Air Lines steward William T. Simpson did not mention Simpsons sexuality, except for the 19-year old Youth who admitted to shooting and killing Simpson.Roy Reed was a white married Arkansawyer who is heterosexual and self-confessed hick-talking Arkansawyer. It's remarkable that Roy Reed did not have such common prejudices in 1973. Reed knew that he was bound by his journalistic duty to report a clear fact. This unambiguous fact was so controversial it offended his editors in New York. The Up Stairs Lounge bar offered homosexual patrons. Reed said that it was a fact that could indicate motive in the case of a crime.Reed met his deadline. Reed met his deadline. His front-page story of 700 words in The New York Times entitled Flash Fire in New Orleans Kills At Least Thirty-Two In Bar would be the only report to provide information to the public about the tragedy. Other market publications did not acknowledge or conceal the fact that the Up Stairs Lounge was set on fire and that gay men were killed.John LaPlace, a closeted gay journalist from New Orleans, co-reported on one of the front-page stories about the fire. However, no one in John LaPlace's newsroom would risk printing such a dangerous word. The Times in London also excluded homosexuality from their story. The Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times did not mention the possible orientation of the victims in front-page reporting. Instead, they called the Up Stairs Lounge a popular spot on Sundays, hinting that it was a den of undesirables who are up to trouble on the Lords Day.Roy Reed was, at its core, a lonely reporter voice who managed to get the message across a blockade. He made a single mention of patrons sexualities. A neighboring bartender claimed that the place was frequented so deeply by homosexualstroubled Times editors that they removed the mention from the newspaper front page and buried the mention ten paragraphs into the story. This happened after a 65-page jump.Reed's Monday morning stand was a sign of a shift in local media coverage. Reed was a prominent New Orleans writer who had just broken taboos by portraying homosexuals as victims in the national newspaper.The New Orleans States-Item is an afternoon newspaper that shares ownership with the Times-Picayune. It also has a newsroom. Later that Monday, the Times-Picayune's front-page fire coverage included the word homosexuals. The New Orleans Police Department Major Henry M. Morris was quoted as saying that Up Stairs Lounge was being attacked by thieves.Both the national CBS news desk and the local affiliate WWL TV aired evening news segments that called the Up Stairs Lounge an LGBT hangout. The New Orleans Times-Picayune changed its reporting on Tuesday morning to match the States-Item. An alt-weekly called the Vieux Carr Courier in the French Quarter covered the fire only from a homosexual angle.However, the anxiety around a word that one the most renowned journalists of the 20th Century deemed crucial revealed bias in the public's perception of an international news event, reported as far as Australia and London.The Up Stairs Lounge fire, which was the deadliest in New Orleans history, and the mass killing of queer Americans in 20th-century America, was first reported by American newsreaders. They were simply unaware of the incident, which they saw as a random bar fire that had no social context, and then forgot about it.The Up Stairs Lounge was almost completely erased from the news media after the initial media wash. Reed tried to continue his coverage, but he only published one follow-up story. This alarming headline, "Arson Suspected", alarmed editors, was then forcibly ressigned to tamer material.Public officials in New Orleans tried to turn Up Stairs Lounge coverage to a discussion about the necessity of installing indoor fire sprinklers. Closeted gay constituencies resisted attempts to politicize or publicize the tragedy for fear of reprisals from the police.Although I understand that gay leaders from all walks of the country are coming to Philadelphia to help, I don't want my bar or this tragedy being used to further their cause," Phil Esteve, owner of Up Stairs Lounge, told the Philadelphia Inquirer as he stood in the bar's ruins. Esteve and other locals were not outraged when the Up Stairs Lounge investigation was closed in August by police without interviewing the chief suspect.Detectives found a lighter fluid container at the site where the fire started, but they declared it to be undetermined origin. Nunez would commit suicide almost a year later, having never been interviewed in New Orleans. Officially, the Up Stairs Lounge fire remains unsolved.Although Roy Reeds' report on Bloody Sunday at Selma would be a rally cry in support of the Civil Rights movement it was Reeds Up Stairs Lounge that was not part of the same call to action for Gay Liberation during the 1970s South. However, decades later, the Up Stairs Lounge left a lasting legacy. Queer activists in New Orleans used the tragedy to obtain anti-discrimination protections in 1991 and 1998 for their sexual orientations and gender identities.Stewart Butler, a fire survivor, was one of those activists who spoke the words Up Stairs Lounge during their 1980s and 1990s campaigns. Local coverage evolved to depict the fire as a human rights disaster, with the victims and sexualities at the center. The fire is now being covered by national publications. Today, the Up Stairs Lounge site has a permanent memorial. Queer Gen-Z activists wear tee-shirts that bear the phrase "Remember the Up Stairs Lounge."Roy Reed deserves credit for reporting on a pivotal event in queer history with accuracy, at a time and place when other publications such as the Times-Picayune wouldn't. He planted a queer truth, which is still evident in the New Orleans anniversary memorials for fire victims.Reed's coverage of the Up Stairs Lounge deserves to be celebrated alongside his work at Selma. It revealed the connective tissue between human rights movements for Black Americans and queer Americans. This was for those who suffered great loss that triggered a profound transformation. These stories are still being reported and reverberate throughout time, revealing the need for allies in our relentless struggle to achieve a better union.My conversation with Roy Reed is what I remember most. He was a person I knew, but he wasn't a polished star. And he had taken tear gas with the Selma demonstrators. He was a great person and I will always remember our conversation. Darnella Frazier, a courageous recorder who recorded the brutal murder of George Floyd, is his legacy.Every citizen who exposes truth to state-sanctioned violence is a Reeds example. How many people fail to report such violence? How many people ignore this? It is not possible to ignore the cost of violence like those in Selma and Stonewall, Minneapolis and the Up Stairs Lounge.The Daily Beast has more information.Every day, we send you the top stories. Register nowDaily Beast Membership: Beast Inside focuses on stories that are important to you. Find out more.