Upstairs Inferno Complete Essay

By Johnny Townsend:

Upstairs Inferno (2015), winner of 18 awards, tells the story of the 1973 arson at a French Quarter gay bar which killed 32 people. Director Robert Camina interviews survivors, notably Regina Adams, a trans woman whose partner died in the fire, and Rick Everett, who escaped out a back window onto the roof of an adjacent building. Duane Mitchell, the son of a man whose father died trying to save his partner, gives a heartrending account of waiting all night at a local movie theater waiting for his father to pick him up.

Camina investigates possible suspects, the most likely a gay man kicked out of the bar earlier that evening. Though the fire was started on Gay Pride weekend, the tragedy did not appear to be a targeted hate crime, just a petty act of revenge that exploded out of control. However, the reaction of the community—local politicians, the media, and religious leaders—turned what would otherwise still have been a horrific disaster into a hate crime. Religious leaders refused to bury the dead. Jokes about “the weenie roast in the French Quarter” and “burying fruits in fruit jars” ran rampant in workplaces. While most of the first responders did their jobs, a survivor overheard one at the scene saying, “It’s just faggots. Let ‘em burn.” As late as 1990, stories and memorials about the various fires throughout New Orleans history failed to mention the Upstairs Lounge, though it remains to

this day the fire with the largest death toll in the city’s history, even including two fires which wiped out most of the French Quarter.

Camina includes dozens of photos of the victims pre-disaster, as well as photos and footage of the bar during and after the fire. Because the tragedy took place during an excessively repressive time for the LGBTQ community, many survivors never talked about the incident, and much of the history has been lost. But Camina gathers together a surprising amount of information to document which was, until the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, the largest mass murder of LGBTQ folks in the country, and which will hopefully never be surpassed by future crimes.

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