Those still in the first bar, many of them tipsy from
two hours of the afternoon's beer bust, panicked and
rushed the Chartres Street windows, chasing the light,
some of them spilling out into the street, but most of
them crushed against each other in sixteen minutes of
It took the Fire Department—headquartered at
Central Station just two blocks away-less than two
minutes to reach the scene, just two minutes more to
hit four-alarm status with the disaster, and just twelve
minutes more to put the blaze "under control" (meaning contained, with no more chance of spread). The
bodies were neither seen nor suspected until after it
was all over.
* * *
There come, of course, the inevitable questions of
"why?" The answers ranged from the irresponsible
to the fatalistic to the deeply angry.
Channel 8 News Director Alec Gifford went on
the air Monday night with his answer, the media's
worst indiscretion since Gifford's own performance
at the Howard Johnson's tragedy: a "vigilante" group
had anonymously phoned him, he said, to declare
"war" on the local gay community. The callers named themselves after a cheap movie, Black Mamma,
White Mamma, Gifford said, declaring that they were
seeking revenge for prior homosexual attacks upon
their persons and that they had maps of their future
The Police Department immediately repudiated
Gifford's "scoop" the following day, but as of then
they offered no new clues of their own.
Meanwhile, Lawrence Raybourne-a sometime Iberville Street bartender and practicing astrologer—had
quickly computed a "chart" on the ill-fated bar, seeking his answers there. "I've never seen a chart this
strongly afflicted," he said afterwards, pointing out
the way the planets were grouped at right angles into
four corners of the 12-sectioned circle. Raybourne
said that dangers involving fire, death, and destruction
were indieated-and suggested that the rape-murder
at LSUNO and new violence in Northern Ireland
How The Media Saw it
How did the local news media handle the first
major tragedy involving New Orleans' usually unmentionable homosexual community?
Though more deaths were involved in this tragedy
than in the Rault Center fire and the Howard Johnson's fire and shootout, local coverage was comparatively subdued-except for an occasional outburst of
tasteless sensationalism. Initial accounts avoided the
word "homosexual" altogether. But by Monday morning Channel 6 was calling the bar a hangout for homosexuals, and by Monday afternoon the States-hem
had identified the Up Stairs as a hangout for "thieves"
and homosexuals. With almost 24 hours to prepare
the story (and gay staff members who should know
better), the States-Item's indiscretion was inexcusable.
The police official quoted in the States-Item saying
that homosexuals carry no identification later, apologized to gay community leaders, saying he meant that
the "transient" lifestyles of many of the bar's patrons
might make identification difficult. (As identification
on those bodies was also burned beyond recognition,
the entire issue was spurious.)
For all the uproar, the States-Item's attention span
had lapsed by Wednesday, when the story stayed off
page 1 until the "final"; the reped LSUNO coed's funeral and biography received their maudlin play while
the 29 df^rd gays were merely stacked in unknown.lists.
The story was front oagc in the Times-Picayune and
Daily Record for three straight days, and banner DR
headlines for two. All editorials discussed only fire laws.
The television media's worst reporting job was
Alec Gifford's discredited "scoop" Monday night
about an alleged terrorist plot. Had Gifford checked
out his crank call before broadcasting it, he might
have found at least one serious flaw in the claim that
his callers were victims of homosexual "attacks."
Any prison authority, for example, could have told
Gifford that gay people usually are the victims of
those attacks rather than the perpetrators. Strong
social disapproval of homosexuality-defined by psychiatrists as "homophobia"—usually sanctions such
anti-homosexual attacks. Had Gifford been seriously
interested in any alleged conspiracies, he might have
probed the coincidence that the fourth Sunday in
June (this year the 23rd) is the traditional anniversary of the Christopher Street riots in New York City
that started the Gay Liberation Movement.
Television also failed the local community in the
announcements of the hastily-planned memorial
services for the victims Monday night at St. George's
Episcopal Church. After the Metropolitan Community Church insisted that television cameras not be permitted at the service in order to protect mourners'
privacy, the local channels apparently decided to ignore the services completely.
By Tuesday, coverage of the disaster had begun
to regain some measure of balance and composure
again. For the fn«. time, the word "gay" came into
use, in a T-V sidebar story. And, curiously enough,
the two most sympathetic accounts of the week
emerged from the only two women reporters assigned to the story. Sharon SwindalPs account of a visit
to the headquarters of the Metropolitan Community
Church in the Tuesday Daily Record sought an honest explanation of gay community fears of media
and community misrepresentation and misinterpretation. WWL's Rosemary James, whose Monday interviews had made her the least-feared daily media person at the gay leaders' Tuesday press conference,
went on the air Tuesday night with a story quietly
emphasizing the purely ordinary and common mortality of those who died at the Up Stairs and reporting
for the first time the crippled children's benefit-
planned there for June 30-that now will not be held.
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accompanied on guitar. Vito Rus-
so, the MX. and Jean DeVente,
the Lesbian 'Grand Marshall' of
the parade, introduced the various
acts, along with assorted announcements in-between.
At this point, there was quite
a lot of commotion on stage. Some
kind of tussle was going on behind the huge amplifiers. Itseems
that Sylvia, a well-known trans
vestite from STAR, (StreetTrans-
vestites Action Revolution) was
trying to get to the microphone.
She was stopped by parade mar-
shails and sent back into the audience. The show went on, but
not without another interruption
from Sylvia, this time trying to
scaie the front of the stage, only
to be beaten back by marshalls,
all of whom you must understand,
were gay. By this time a large
portion of the audience knew something was wrong, and wanted to
know what it was.
Well, I wanted to know too.
I left my front row seat, and made
my way around to the side of
the stage. As I was doing this,
more entertainment was being
quickly brought on stage to keep
things going. During the performance of this group, Sylvia
tried twice again, unsuccessfully
tried twice again, unsuccessfully
to reach the microphone. The
audience was beginning to stir.
Shortly after the group finished, the MC decided to clue people
in on what was going on. "It
seems," he said, "that Sylvia,
a member of STAR, was objecting
that there were no transvestites
on stage to represent them."
"quite the contrary," Vito said,
"for right here on our stage we
have the beautiful Bebe Scarpi."
Bebe stood up for a bow. She
certainly was lovely, very pretty,
and very quiet.
The audience, though a bit confused^ quieted down and the show
went on. Suddently, Sylvia was
on stage, fighting furiously with
the Grand Marshall, still trying
to get to the microphone. Now,
from all over the park came shouts
of "Let her speak!" along with,
"Who's that freak?" "Is it a boy
Once again, Sylvia was defeated
and the show went on, amidst the
bedlam from the audience. Looking around, I noticed Sylvia hadn't
given up. Hair disheveled, jumpsuit torn, she was organizing a
"flying-wedge" of people from
STAR, to push their way up the
stage-side vamp. Parade marshalls, were sitting up and down
the whole Length of the ramp,
and were very surprised when the
It looked as if Sylvia might
succeed in her climb, but, in a
flash, like Zevs atop Mount Olympus, the Grand Marshall appeared
at the head of the ramp, pointing
her finger and bellowing, "STAY!"
And stay they did, The marshalls linked arms and beat back
More music. More interruptions from Sylvia. More people
from the audience screaming for
her to be heard. Little squables
breaking out everywhere. People
taking sides. Another fight near
the stage ramp. This time a
few people really hurt, kicked
and beaten on the ground. It was
everything I could do to protect
myself. I was in a state of shock.
All I could keep shouting to the
people fighting was, "You're all
gay! You're all gay! Stop!"
Finally, having no other choice,
the officials on stage announced