In TIME article, Professor Downs recounts largest known massacre of gays in U.S. history

History Professor James Downs
History Professor James Downs

As many Americans celebrate the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, a TIME magazine story by History Professor chronicles a little-known event in American history that illustrates just how far the national gay rights movement has advanced in 40 years.

“The Horror Upstairs,” published in TIME’s July 1 issue, chronicles a June 24, 1973, fire at the Upstairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter, that killed 32 patrons. The article grew out of research Downs is doing for a forthcoming book, “More Than Just Sex: The Untold Stories of Gay Liberation.”

In the TIME article, Downs writes that at least 65 people were inside the bar when the door buzzer sounded. One of the bar’s regular customers opened the door, and a ball of fire burst through and quickly spread. About half of the customers were able to escape, but 32 perished in the bar, including some who died while trying to escape through narrow window openings and whose bodies were left there for hours as police investigated the crime.

The fire received little newspaper coverage, Downs says, and neither the mayor nor the governor made any public comments about it.

“The scale of the tragedy was immense: it remains the deadliest fire ever in New Orleans and is believed to be the largest killing of gay people in U.S. history. And yet it is little discussed, barely acknowledged by the city or seen as a milestone in the gay-rights movement,” Downs writes in TIME.

With the 40th anniversary of the fire approaching, Downs contacted TIME about publishing the story. “I wanted a mainstream audience to learn about this major tragedy,” he explains. “It was a footnote in the history of gay liberation, but it remained completely absent from major textbooks in U.S. history.”

During his research, Downs met a number of community organizers and scholars in New Orleans who helped him locate crucial sources. In that process, he also learned how the gay community in New Orleans desperately wanted the story of the fire to be told to a national audience.

“I hope people will read the article and learn about how many gay people struggled throughout the seventies. We have inherited this notion that gay liberation, which unfolded during the sexual revolution, was just a big party. The more research I do, the more I have uncovered that was hardly the case,” he says.

Downs’ book, “More Than Just Sex: The Untold Stories of Gay Liberation,” will be released in 2014 by Basic Books. “It tells the history of the Upstairs Lounge fire,” he says, “and it also provides a larger analysis of the major turning points in gay history from the 1970s that often get scant attention — namely the rise of the gay religious movement, the expansion of gay print culture and the emergence of gay intellectuals.”

July 3, 2013