Washington, D.C. High School Principal Comes Out as Gay During School’s Pride Day
June 4, 2014 by Maureen McCarty, HRC Associate Director of Digital Media
“I want to say publicly for the first time because of your leadership, care and support that I am a proud gay man who just happens to be the principal of Wilson High School,” Cahall said.
The student body, assembled together for the lunchtime event, broke out in a loud cheer.
With Mayor Vincent C Gray and the District’s first openly gay councilmember David Catania by his side, Cahall explained it was his students that inspired him to take this brave step forward.
“I want to say publicly for the first time because of your leadership, care and support that I am a proud gay man who just happens to be the principal of Wilson High School,” Cahall said.
Reportedly shaking while delivering his speech, Cahall said that he felt he had to keep his sexual orientation a secret for his entire life.
“I just turned 50 … I’m tired for hiding,” he said.
Cahall has since seen an outpouring of support since his announcement, including tweets from Muriel Bowser and Councilmember David Grosso.
The ‘two-spirit’ people of indigenous North Americans
This week’s guest editor, Antony Hegarty, is a fan of the book The Spirit and the Flesh. He asked its author, Walter L Williams, to write a feature for guardian.co.uk/music on the ‘two-spirit’ tradition in Native American culture
We-Wa, a Zuni two-spirit, weaving
Native Americans have often held intersex, androgynous people, feminine males and masculine females in high respect. The most common term to define such persons today is to refer to them as “two-spirit” people, but in the past feminine males were sometimes referred to as “berdache” by early French explorers in North America, who adapted a Persian word “bardaj”, meaning an intimate male friend. Because these androgynous males were commonly married to a masculine man, or had sex with men, and the masculine females had feminine women as wives, the term berdache had a clear homosexual connotation. Both the Spanish settlers in Latin America and the English colonists in North America condemned them as “sodomites”.
Rather than emphasising the homosexuality of these persons, however, many Native Americans focused on their spiritual gifts. American Indian traditionalists, even today, tend to see a person’s basic character as a reflection of their spirit. Since everything that exists is thought to come from the spirit world, androgynous or transgender persons are seen as doubly blessed, having both the spirit of a man and the spirit of a woman. Thus, they are honoured for having two spirits, and are seen as more spiritually gifted than the typical masculine male or feminine female.
Therefore, many Native American religions, rather than stigmatising such persons, often looked to them as religious leaders and teachers. Quite similar religious traditions existed among the native peoples of Siberia and many parts of Central and southeast Asia. Since the ancestors of Native Americans migrated from Siberia over 20,000 years ago, and since reports of highly respected androgynous persons have been noted among indigenous Americans from Alaska to Chile, androgyny seems to be quite ancient among humans.
Rather than the physical body, Native Americans emphasised a person’s “spirit”, or character, as being most important. Instead of seeing two-spirit persons as transsexuals who try to make themselves into “the opposite sex”, it is more accurate to understand them as individuals who take on a gender status that is different from both men and women. This alternative gender status offers a range of possibilities, from slightly effeminate males or masculine females, to androgynous or transgender persons, to those who completely cross-dress and act as the other gender. The emphasis of Native Americans is not to force every person into one box, but to allow for the reality of diversity in gender and sexual identities.
Most of the evidence for respectful two-spirit traditions is focused on the native peoples of the Plains, the Great Lakes, the Southwest, and California. With over a thousand vastly different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, it is important not to overgeneralise for the indigenous peoples of North America. Some documentary sources suggest that a minority of societies treated two-spirit persons disrespectfully, by kidding them or discouraging children from taking on a two-spirit role. However, many of the documents that report negative reactions are themselves suspect, and should be evaluated critically in light of the preponderance of evidence that suggests a respectful attitude. Some European commentators, from early frontier explorers to modern anthropologists, also were influenced by their own homophobic prejudices to distort native attitudes.
Two-spirit people were respected by native societies not only due to religious attitudes, but also because of practical concerns. Because their gender roles involved a mixture of both masculine and feminine traits, two-spirit persons could do both the work of men and of women. They were often considered to be hard workers and artistically gifted, of great value to their extended families and community. Among some groups, such as the Navajo, a family was believed to be economically benefited by having a “nadleh” (literally translated as “one who is transformed”) androgynous person as a relative. Two-spirit persons assisted their siblings’ children and took care of elderly relatives, and often served as adoptive parents for homeless children.
A feminine male who preferred to do women’s work (gathering wild plants or farming domestic plants) was logically expected to marry a masculine male, who did men’s work (hunting and warfare). Because a family needed both plant foods and meat, a masculine female hunter, in turn, usually married a feminine female, to provide these complementary gender roles for economic survival. The gender-conforming spouse of two-spirit people did not see themselves as “homosexual” or as anything other than “normal”.
In the 20th-century, as homophobic European Christian influences increased among many Native Americans, respect for same-sex love and for androgynous persons greatly declined. Two-spirit people were often forced, either by government officials, Christian missionaries or their own community, to conform to standard gender roles. Some, who could not conform, either went underground or committed suicide. With the imposition of Euro-American marriage laws, same-sex marriages between two-spirit people and their spouses were no longer legally recognised. But with the revitalisation of Native American “red power” cultural pride since the 60s, and the rise of gay and lesbian liberation movements at the same time, a new respect for androgyny started slowly re-emerging among American Indian people.
Because of this tradition of respect, in the 90s many gay and lesbian Native American activists in the United States and Canada rejected the French word berdache in favour of the term two-spirit people to describe themselves. Many non-American Indians have incorporated knowledge of Native American two-spirit traditions into their increasing acceptance of same-sex love, androgyny and transgender diversity. Native American same-sex marriages have been used as a model for legalising same-sex marriages, and the spiritual gifts of androgynous persons have started to become more recognised.
By Jase Peeples
Originally published on Advocate.com October 10 2013 8:00 AM ET
Most people have an idea of what a color guard is — those people who dance around the football field spinning flags, rifles, and sabers alongside the marching band. But ask the average person to tell you what a winter guard is and expect to receive a confused look in reply. At its roots, a winter guard is a color guard that performs a program set to prerecorded music indoors and competes against other groups doing the same during the winter months of the year. But winter guard isn’t just a group of people spinning equipment under the fluorescent lights of a gymnasium for an average of five minutes. In truth, it’s something much, much more.
Growing up in the tractor-plowed fields of California’s Central Valley meant I was rarely exposed to the arts as a young boy. In fact, aside from the few hours of MTV I secretly watched each day after school before my strict Pentecostal Christian parents came home from work, the performing arts were an alien activity. In our small town, boys played sports, watched wrestling on Saturday mornings, and dreamed of driving monster trucks. They didn’t spend hours at a time in the library reading books, idolize Debbie Gibson, or obsess over Jem and the Holograms, as I did. And they absolutely never, ever, under any circumstances, danced.
So when I watched the high school color guard perform its winter program in front of my eighth-grade class for the first time during an assembly, a whole new world opened up before my eyes. I stared in awe as both boys and girls, who were dressed in dramatic costumes, appeared to float effortlessly across the floor. Flags rippled through the air in perfect synchronization whileHeaven and Hell by Vangelis blared over the gym speakers above. By the time their performance ended I was absolutely giddy with the knowledge that groups like this not only existed, but that one could be found at the very high school I would be attending. There was no question — I absolutely had to join.
However, it was only after making the final cut at the audition that summer that I learned the winter guard spent the fall months as the color guard, performing parades and field shows alongside the marching band. By September of my freshman year I found myself in a blue spandex jumpsuit topped with gold sequins, dodging spitballs and homophobic slurs hurled by the crowd as I performed with my flag-spinning teammates at football games. It was embarrassing. Not because of the finger-pointing and name-calling that seemed to come from every teenager within a 20-mile radius each time I slipped into to my costume, but because I had witnessed the creative marvel a winter guard could be — and this was not that.
It was only two months later, after the leaves surrounding the high school stadium had turned from green to a mosaic of yellow, orange, and brown, that I discovered the true heart of a color guard. As we came out to perform our field show for the final time that season, one of the football players from our own school broke our carefully maintained ranks, grabbed my left arm, and snarled, “Are you a fag?”
“Leave me alone!” I shouted, trying my best to press forward, but the meathead only tightened his grip.
Suddenly a flag swung into my field of view, connecting with the side of the aggressive athlete’s helmeted head. I turned to see my friend and teammate Emily, who was holding the other end of the pole. “So what if he is,” she growled. “We have a show to perform and you haven’t won a game all season.” As we continued marching onto the field she shouted over her shoulder, “Worry about yourself, asshole!” while the football player stared on in stunned silence. By the time the band began to play, tears had started to fall from my eyes. Not because I was bothered by the jock — as an effeminate boy, I had dealt with more than my fair share of bullies since the earliest days of grade school — but because Emily’s comment marked the first time I’d heard someone treat my sexuality as a nonissue. Though I had accepted the fact I was gay by the time I was 12 years old, I’d never told another person. Never thought anyone would accept that part of me. Until that point, homosexuality was something I was taught to despise, something people burned in hell for, not something others rushed to defend with the blunt end of a flagpole.
Later that night I came out to Emily, and I laughed when she simply responded with, “I know – and that’s awesome.” In the months that followed we left the football field behind to compete on the winter guard floor, and I soon began to discover my own athletic ability — something I was convinced I could never possess after I spent a year playing on a youth soccer team when I was 10 years old. I may not have been able to dribble a ball with skill, but I could leap, turn, and spin a mean rifle, and that instilled a sense of confidence in me I’d never known. Winter guard provided a safe space throughout my high school years where I was not only accepted by my peers for who I was, I was allowed to grow and become a vital part of something bigger than myself.
After graduation, it was my guard instructors Robert and Nicole who encouraged me to audition for the Blue Devils, an Independent World Class winter guard that competed at the highest levels of the activity. It was there I was able to meet and form friendships with gay men my age for the first time, many of whom I remain close with today. Over the three years I spent as a member of the Blue Devils, we accomplished many things I never dreamed I would be a part of. We traveled across the country, performed in front of crowds made up of thousands of cheering fans, and won three consecutive World Championship titles.
Many of the people I bonded with through my experience of spinning flags, rifles, and sabers have been far more than friends throughout my life — they have been my family. They were the ones who took me in at 19 when my father kicked me out of the house after I came out to him. They were the ones who encouraged me when I decided to return to college at 30 to earn my writing degree, and they are always among the first to congratulate me for even the smallest accomplishments.
Though I haven’t performed in a winter guard since 1997, it continues to enrich my life today. For more than 15 years I’ve remained involved in the activity as an instructor and show designer, where my color guard family has grown to include many wonderful people who were once my students. I’ve learned there’s no substitute for the joy that comes from being a part of that moment when a young person achieves something they once believed impossible. I’ve also had the of honor seeing hundreds of kids over the years blossom into beautiful young adults, capable of tackling any challenge life throws at them because they were given an outlet that allowed them to shine. But of course I know firsthand the lifelong impact a loving, accepting environment can have on a teenager. It started the day my first instructors taught me how to spin a flag — and it hasn’t stopped yet.
JASE PEEPLES is The Advocate’s entertainment editor and the director of the Homestead High School color guard in Cupertino, CA. He lives in San Francisco with his partner. Follow him on Twitter @JasePeeples
Years ago, as a younger gay man, I remember walking by Common Language Bookstore. At the time it was a new store, owned and operated by two women, Kate and Kelly. I saw a book in the window, “Dancing on Tisha B’av”, by a newly published author, Lev Raphael. I was drawn to the cover because the designer of the book had successfully created an intriguing and even alluring cover. I made several visits to the store before I finally bought the book. I had been unconvinced that I would relate to the book, as it was clearly about the Jewish gay experience, and even more specifically the perspective of a child of holocaust survivors.
I read the book and fell in love with the stories and the storytelling. I realized the reason to read the book was because, as with all great storytellers, the themes of the stories are universal. By reading Lev’s words, I enriched my own world.
Stories are how cultures grow and flourish. We learn from stories told by our parents. Religions are shaped by the stories they tell.
As gay men and women, our stories form our culture. Many historians dispute the notion that Stonewall was the beginning of the gay civil rights movement, pointing to the courageous work of men and women like Del Martin and Frank Kameny. Though those pioneers set the stage for the gay movement, it was the story of Stonewall which gave rise to a popular civil rights movement. Against the backdrop of the funeral of Judy Garland, drag queens, the lowest caste of gay society in New York at the time, fought back against the oppression of the NYPD. Thousands joined them in their struggle, and held the police at bay for three days. That is a worthy creation story for a civil rights movement.
Through our history of civil rights, response to the AIDS crisis, bullying by the religious right, and victories in the courts and ballot box, it is our culture which gives us the compass to move forward. In Christopher Bram’s book “Eminent Outlaws” he even argues that the group of post-World War II gay and lesbian authors shaped American culture, not just LGBT culture.
Lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual authors give shape and meaning to our experience. When “Rubyfruit Jungle” by Rita Mae Brown or “Stone Butch Blues” by Leslie Feinberg were first published they were trangressive. Though much has changed in the LGBT world in the intervening years, they remain fresh and inspirational. I love putting “Rubyfruit Jungle” into the hands of a young queer who has never heard of the book, and seeing that same young queer a few days later excited by the brilliant storytelling.
I believe we need to nurture our culture. As a culture withers and dies, so does its society. For many years the LGBT bookstore served the community: as a de facto community center, a safe space for our community, a political organizing point, a fundraising center for our organizations, and more. For all of that, I believe one of the most important functions was as a place for authors to find their audience.
Author events at Common Language bring together author, bookstore, reader, and even publisher. The publishing world is in turmoil. LGBT bookstores, which used to number in the hundreds are now down to about a dozen nationwide. And yet authors are still writing and readers are still looking for the next good book. LGBT bookstores, no matter how they evolve, must continue to be a vital part of that equation. Amazon.com doesn’t really care what you read, as long as you buy it from them. LGBT bookstores exist in order to help authors and audiences find each other. In an era when even some libraries are forced to bow to political pressure and censor what material is available, independent LGBT bookstores remain a vital part of our culture.
We are painfully aware that we do not live in a post-gay world. This is especially true in Michigan. We do have many outstanding LGBT writers in the state. Whether you celebrate the stories of Laurie Salzler, Kage Alan, Jackie Nacht, Lev Raphael, or the many others featured in this issue, all of them have in common the experience of the richness and diversity of our LGBT culture. We need them as much as they need us.
Keith Orr is co-owner of Common Language bookstore and \aut\Bar in Ann Arbor, 317 Braun Ct, Ann Arbor, MI 48104.
On the night of Nov. 20, 2001, a conversation held over Instant Messenger changed our lives forever. Our 12-year-old son messaged me in my office from the computer in his bedroom.
Ryan says: can i tell u something
Mom says: Yes I am listening
Ryan says: well i don’t know how to say this really but, well……, i can’t keep lying to you about myself. I have been hiding this for too long and i sorta have to tell u now. By now u probably have an idea of what i am about to say.
Ryan says: I am gay
Ryan says: i can’t believe i just told you
Mom says: Are you joking?
Ryan says: no
Ryan says: i thought you would understand because of uncle don
Mom says: of course I would
Mom says: but what makes you think you are?
Ryan says: i know i am
Ryan says: i don’t like hannah
Ryan says: it’s just a cover-up
Mom says: but that doesn’t make you gay…
Ryan says: i know
Ryan says: but u don’t understand
Ryan says: i am gay
Mom says: tell me more
Ryan says: it’s just the way i am and it’s something i know
Ryan says: u r not a lesbian and u know that. it is the same thing
Mom says: what do you mean?
Ryan says: i am just gay
Ryan says: i am that
Mom says: I love you no matter what
Ryan says: i am white not black
Ryan says: i know
Ryan says: i am a boy not a girl
Ryan says: i am attracted to boys not girls
Ryan says: u know that about yourself and i know this
Mom says: what about what God thinks about acting on these desires?
Ryan says: i know
Mom says: thank you for telling me
Ryan says: and i am very confused about that right now
Mom says: I love you more for being honest
Ryan says: i know
Ryan says: thanx
We were completely shocked. Not that we didn’t know and love gay people; my only brother had come out to us several years before, and we adored him. But Ryan? He was unafraid of anything, tough as nails and all boy. We had not seen this coming, and the emotion that overwhelmed us, kept us awake at night and, sadly, influenced all our reactions over the next six years was fear.
We said all the things that we thought loving Christian parents who believed the Bible, the Word of God, should say:
We love you. We will always love you. And this is hard. Really hard. But we know what God says about this, so you are going to have to make some really difficult choices.
We love you. We couldn’t love you more. But there are other men who have faced this same struggle, and God has worked in them to change their desires. We’ll get you their books; you can listen to their testimonies. And we will trust God with this.
We love you. We are so glad you are our son. But you are young, and your sexual orientation is still developing. The feelings you’ve had for other guys don’t make you gay. So please don’t tell anyone that you are gay. You don’t know who you are yet. Your identity is not that you are gay; it is that you are a child of God.
We love you. Nothing will change that. But if you are going to follow Jesus, holiness is your only option. You are going to have to choose to follow Jesus, no matter what. And since you know what the Bible says, and since you want to follow God, embracing your sexuality is not an option.
We thought we understood the magnitude of the sacrifice that we — and God — were asking for. And this sacrifice, we knew, would lead to an abundant life, perfect peace and eternal rewards. Ryan had always felt intensely drawn to spiritual things; He desired to please God above all else. So, for the first six years, he tried to choose Jesus. Like so many others before him, he pleaded with God to help him be attracted to girls. He memorized Scripture, met with his youth pastor weekly, enthusiastically participated in all the church youth group events and Bible Studies and got baptized. He read all the books that claimed to know where his gay feelings came from, dove into counseling to further discover the whys of his unwanted attraction to other guys, worked through painful conflict resolution with my husband and me and built strong friendships with other guys — straight guys — just like the reparative therapy experts advised. He even came out to his entire youth group, giving his testimony of how God had rescued him from the traps of the enemy, and sharing, by memory, verse after verse that God had used to draw Ryan to Him.
But nothing changed. God didn’t answer his prayer, or ours, though we were all believing with faith that the God of the Universe, the God for whom nothing is impossible, could easily make Ryan straight. But He did not.
Though our hearts may have been good (we truly thought what we were doing was loving), we did not even give Ryan a chance to wrestle with God, to figure out what he believed God was telling him through scripture about his sexuality. We had believed firmly in giving each of our four children the space to question Christianity, to decide for themselves if they wanted to follow Jesus, to truly own their own faith. But we were too afraid to give Ryan that room when it came to his sexuality, for fear that he’d make the wrong choice.
Basically, we told our son that he had to choose between Jesus and his sexuality. We forced him to make a choice between God and being a sexual person. Choosing God, practically, meant living a lifetime condemned to being alone. He would never have the chance to fall in love, have his first kiss, hold hands, share intimacy and companionship or experience romance.
And so, just before his 18th birthday, Ryan, depressed, suicidal, disillusioned and convinced that he would never be able to be loved by God, made a new choice. He decided to throw out his Bible and his faith at the same time and try searching for what he desperately wanted — peace — another way. And the way he chose to try first was drugs.
We had unintentionally taught Ryan to hate his sexuality. And since sexuality cannot be separated from the self, we had taught Ryan to hate himself. So as he began to use drugs, he did so with a recklessness and a lack of caution for his own safety that was alarming to everyone who knew him.
Suddenly our fear of Ryan someday having a boyfriend (a possibility that honestly terrified me) seemed trivial in contrast to our fear of Ryan’s death, especially in light of his recent rejection of Christianity and his mounting anger at God.
Ryan started with weed and beer, but in six short months was using cocaine, crack and heroin. He was hooked from the beginning, and his self-loathing and rage at God only fueled his addiction. Shortly thereafter, we lost contact with him. For the next year and a half, we didn’t know where he was or even if he was dead or alive. And during that horrific time, God had our full attention. We stopped praying for Ryan to become straight. We started praying for him to know that God loved him. We stopped praying for him to never have a boyfriend. We started praying that someday we might actually get to know his boyfriend. We even stopped praying for him to come home to us; we only wanted him to come home to God.
By the time our son called us, after 18 long months of silence, God had completely changed our perspective. Because Ryan had done some pretty terrible things while using drugs, the first thing he asked me was this:
Do you think you can ever forgive me? (I told him of course, he was already forgiven. He had always been forgiven.)
Do you think you could ever love me again? (I told him that we had never stopped loving him, not for one second. We loved him then more than we had ever loved him.)
Do you think you could ever love me with a boyfriend? (Crying, I told him that we could love him with 15 boyfriends. We just wanted him back in our lives. We just wanted to have a relationship with him again… and with his boyfriend.)
And a new journey was begun, one of healing, restoration, open communication and grace.Lots of grace. And God was present every step of the way, leading and guiding us, gently reminding us simply to love our son and leave the rest up to Him.
Over the next 10 months, we learned to truly love our son. Period. No buts. No conditions. Just because he breathes. We learned to love whomever our son loved. And it was easy. What I had been so afraid of became a blessing. The journey wasn’t without mistakes, but we had grace for each other, and the language of apology and forgiveness became a natural part of our relationship. As our son pursued recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, we pursued him. God taught us how to love him, to rejoice over him, to be proud of the man he was becoming. We were all healing, and most importantly, Ryan began to think that ifwe could forgive him and love him, then maybe God could, too.
And then Ryan made the classic mistake of a recovering addict: He got back together with his old friends, his using friends. And one evening that was supposed to simply be a night at the movies turned out to be the first time he had shot up in 10 months — and the last time. Ryan died on July 16, 2009. And we lost the ability to love our gay son, because we no longer had a gay son. What we had wished for, prayed for, hoped for — that we would nothave a gay son — came true. But not at all in the way we had envisioned.
Now, when I think back on the fear that governed all my reactions during those first six years after Ryan told us he was gay, I cringe as I realize how foolish I was. I was afraid of all the wrong things. And I grieve, not only for my oldest son, whom I will miss every day for the rest of my life, but for the mistakes I made. I grieve for what could have been, had we been walking by faith instead of by fear. Now, whenever Rob and I join our gay friends for an evening, I think about how much I would love to be visiting with Ryan and his partner over dinner. But instead, we visit Ryan’s gravestone. We celebrate anniversaries: the would-have-been birthdays and the unforgettable day of his death. We wear orange, his color. We hoard memories: pictures, clothing he wore, handwritten notes, lists of things he loved, tokens of his passions, recollections of the funny songs he invented, his Curious George and baseball blankey, anything, really, that reminds us of our beautiful boy, for that is all we have left, and there will be no new memories. We rejoice in our adult children, and in our growing family as they marry, but we ache for the one of our “gang of four” who is missing. We mark life by the days B.C. (before coma) and A.D. (after death), because we are different people now; our life was irrevocably changed in a million ways by his death. We treasure friendships with others who “get it” because they, too, have lost a child.
We weep. We seek Heaven for grace and mercy and redemption as we try not to get better but to be better. And we pray that God can somehow use our story to help other parents learn to truly love their children. Just because they breathe.
On June 20, 2013, at the invitation of Alan Chambers, my husband Rob and I shared an extended, unedited version of our story at the final Exodus International conference in Irvine, Calif.:
Remembering the UpStairs Lounge: The U.S.A.’s Largest LGBT Massacre Happened 40 Years Ago Today
The 24th of June in 1973 was a Sunday. For New Orleans’ gay community, it was the last day of national Pride Weekend, as well as the fourth anniversary of 1969′s Stonewall uprising. You couldn’t really have an open celebration of those events — in ’73, anti-gay slurs, discrimination, and even violence were still as common as sin — but the revelers had few concerns. They had their own gathering spots in the sweltering city, places where people tended to leave them be, including a second-floor bar on the corner of Iberville and Chartres Street called the UpStairs Lounge.
That Sunday, dozens of members of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), the nation’s first gay church, founded in Los Angeles in 1969, got together there for drinks and conversation. It seems to have been an amiable group. The atmosphere was welcoming enough that two gay brothers, Eddie and Jim Warren, even brought their mom, Inez, and proudly introduced her to the other patrons. Beer flowed. Laughter filled the room.
Just before 8:00p, the doorbell rang insistently. To answer it, you had to unlock a steel door that opened onto a flight of stairs leading down to the ground floor. BartenderBuddy Rasmussen, expecting a taxi driver, asked his friend Luther Boggs to let the man in. Perhaps Boggs, after he pulled the door open, had just enough time to smell the Ronsonol lighter fluid that the attacker of the UpStairs Lounge had sprayed on the steps. In the next instant, he found himself in unimaginable pain as the fireball exploded, pushing upward and into the bar.
The ensuing 15 minutes were the most horrific that any of the 65 or so customers had ever endured — full of flames, smoke, panic, breaking glass, and screams.
MCC assistant pastor George “Mitch” Mitchell escaped, but soon returned to try to rescue his boyfriend, Louis Broussard. Both died in the fire, their bodies clinging together in death, like a scene from the aftermath of Pompeii.
Metal bars on the UpStairs Lounge windows, meant to keep people from falling out, were just 14 inches apart; while some managed to squeeze through and jump, others got stuck. That’s how the MCC’s pastor, Rev. Bill Larson, died, screaming, “Oh, God, no!” as the flames charred his flesh. When police and firefighters surveyed and began clearing the scene, they left Larson fused to the window frame until the next morning.
This news photo is among the most indelible I’ve ever seen:
Thirty-two people lost their lives that Sunday 40 years ago — Luther Boggs, Inez Warren, and Warren’s sons among them.
Homophobia being what it was, several families declined to claim the bodies and one church after another refused to bury or memorialize the dead. Three victims were never identified or claimed, and were interred at the local potter’s field.
When the Rev. William Richardson, of St. George’s Episcopal Church, agreed to hold a small prayer service for the victims, about 80 people attended, but many more complained about Richardson to Iveson Noland, the Episcopalian bishop of New Orleans. Noland reportedly rebuked Richardson for his kindness, and the latter received volumes of hate mail.
The UpStairs Lounge arson was the deadliest fire in New Orleans history and the largest massacre of gay people ever in the U.S. Yet it didn’t make much of an impact news-wise. The few respectable news organizations that deigned to cover the tragedy made little of the fact that the majority of the victims had been gay, while talk-radio hosts tended to take a jocular or sneering tone: What do we bury them in? Fruit jars, sniggered one, on the air, only a day after the massacre.
Other, smaller disasters resulted in City Hall press conferences or statements of condolence from the governor, but no civil authorities publicly spoke out about the fire, other than to mumble about needed improvements to the city’s fire code.
Continuing this pattern of neglect, the New Orleans police department appeared lackluster about the investigation (the officers involved denied it). The detectives wouldn’t even acknowledge that it was an arson case, saying the cause of the fire was of “undetermined origin.” No one was ever charged with the crime, although an itinerant troublemaker with known mental problems, Rogder Dale Nunez, is said to have claimed responsibility multiple times. Nunez, a sometime visitor to the UpStairs Lounge, committed suicide in 1974.
Watch the trailer for Royd Anderson’s new documentary about the UpStairs Lounge:
For more information on the massacre, check out these sources: