Upstairs Inferno: The LGBT Community’s Tragic History



TA: Sarah Carneiro

Jesse Mayo





Upstairs Inferno is a documentary style film depicting the events of the 1973 LGBT massacre that took place in a gay bar called the Upstairs in New Orleans, Louisiana. The film aims to share the stories of the survivors of this tragic incidence. As an audience, we are introduced to many different people that were involved in the tragedy. Some were there themselves while others had friends, family, or lovers die in the fire. The bar itself was heavily involved with the Metropolitan Community Church – this became complicated as many church members were injured or killed in the blaze. The tragedy was not over when the fire went out – for many it continued on into their personal lives. Many were required to act as if they hadn’t heard about the fire in order to protect their identities. When members of the LGBT community wanted to hold a memorial service for those who passed in the fire, they were turned down by many churches and almost had to give up hope. The fire permanently altered the lives of those involved and for many, this documentary was the first opportunity to talk about the event.

In a historical context, it is important to discuss tragic events such as this one. In the case of the Upstairs fire, the arsonist was never arrested or tried. With this knowledge, we are able to draw an important comparison between this tragedy and that of the Orlando shooting of 2016. The shooter in this case ended his own life, but the investigation did not stop there. His wife was later arrested and charged with aiding and abetting as well as obstruction of justice. This is an important comparison to make as it demonstrates how times have changed and evolved in reaction to anti-LGBT hate crimes.

From an intersectional viewpoint, Upstair Inferno is an interesting film. The people featured in the documentary are predominantly white, Christian, men. While this is not surprising considering where the tragedy took place – Louisiana – it raises the question of whether there were people of other identities present or not. There is one black person mentioned, although he is simply the deceased lover of one of the victims featured in the documentary. Otherwise, the only other person of colour mentioned is the bishop of a church who allows the community to hold their memorial service in his church. Other than this, it is not mentioned specifically how this tragedy may have differently affected the people of colour involved or what role they played. This is interesting because near the beginning of the documentary, it is mentioned how the owner of the bar wanted it to be a safe space for not just the LGBT community, but other marginalized groups as the 70’s in New Orleans was a high time for racial discrimination.

In terms of gender, the people featured in the documentary are almost all men. This is important to acknowledge because the Upstairs was intended to be a bar not just for gay men, but also local lesbians. The website for the documentary even cites that it is an “incredibly important chapter in gay and lesbian history”. The audience once again is left to wonder whether women were present at all and if so, were they simply left out of the documentary? Why? 

       The representation of the men in this documentary is atypical of the way men are usually portrayed in the media. In Gender and Popular Culture (2012), it is outlined that men typically hold powerful roles and are majorly masculine. However, in Upstairs Inferno, many of the men are seen breaking down in tears as they recall the tragic events of what happened in 1973. The documentary uses this abnormality to effect the audience – the shock of seeing men in such a vulnerable state helps to drive in the point of the creators of the film. It helps the audience understand how tragic the event truly was and how it affected all of those involved.

The film itself acts as a critique of the way life was in 1973 New Orleans. There are many instances in the documentary where the audience gets a glimpse into the regular life of an LGBT-identified person in New Orleans. The city at the time was overtly homophobic, which stunted the healing of many people who were affected by the tragedy. After the tragedy, the mayor of the town refused to acknowledge what had happened and did not release a statement. Many of the people involved in the tragedy were forced to hide their involvement for their own safety. Those who did not keep it a secret faced consequences such as job losses, public ridicule, fear and disapproving families. Analyzing the effects of this 1973 tragedy is important as we are able to see how we have grown in some ways in terms of accepting difference, and how we have failed in other ways. In many ways, the Upstairs arson in similar to other tragedies the LGBT community has faced in more recent years.

In conclusion, Upstairs Inferno is an important historical documentary that provides the audience an insight into LGBT history and how it has shaped how to community operates today.


Word Count: 861

Works Cited
Milestone, Katie, and Anneke Meyer. Gender and Popular Culture. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012. Print.
“Upstairs Inferno.” Upstairs Inferno. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.

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