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Commentary: On Orlando, and the Upstairs Lounge


America's deadliest mass shooting. The worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. It's easy to quantify last week's shootings inside an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, which claimed the lives of 49 (as of press time) innocent people. It's much more difficult to make sense of the tragedy.

  The night of the shooting, hundreds of New Orleanians held a candlelight vigil along the Mississippi riverfront. The following day, St. Anna's Church on Esplanade Avenue held an overflow service to honor the victims. Last week, Gov. John Bel Edwards and Mayor Mitch Landrieu expressed formal sympathies, and the Louisiana Legislature held a "moment of unity" and sang "Amazing Grace." The Superdome, the Smoothie King Center and other downtown buildings were lighted in rainbow colors to honor those slain by a man whose name does not bear repeating.

  Most of last week's victims weren't even born in the 1970s. It's instructive to compare public response to this mass murder in a gay nightclub to a similar tragedy — the 1973 fire at the UpStairs Lounge in the French Quarter, which killed 32 people, some of whom were never identified. A fire in a stairwell (allegedly set deliberately by an angry patron) trapped dozens on the second story of a building at the corner of Iberville and Chartres streets.

  Back then, there were no public statements of solidarity by Gov. Edwin Edwards or New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu, father of the current mayor. People joked about burying the corpses in "fruit jars." Perhaps most shocking, many churches refused to hold services for the dead. St. George's Episcopal Church and St. Mark's United Methodist Church held memorials — which, as hard as it is to believe today, were acts of defiance. Equally defiant were those who attended the memorials to grieve openly.

  "Families refused to claim the bodies because they didn't want anyone to know they had a family member who was gay," Johnny Townsend, who wrote a book about the event, told Gambit in 2013. "People who were grieving the loss of friends, even lovers, couldn't tell anyone at work because they'd be fired. There was all this terrible anguish that had to stay hidden."

  One of the reporters on the scene of the UpStairs Lounge fire was a then-teenaged Clancy DuBos, now Gambit's political editor and co-owner. He saw the bodies on the scene and followed ambulances to Charity Hospital's ER, where doctors raced to save as many lives as they could. In a 2013 essay marking the 40th anniversary of the fire, DuBos wrote: "It did not take long to see the indifference — or even the hostility — that many New Orleanians showed toward that community in the immediate aftermath of the fire. That indifference, that hostility, belied the city's reputation for tolerance and hospitability."

  While reactions to the Orlando massacre indicate progress has been made, we still have a long way to go in accepting the equality of all citizens.

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