StoryCorps 473: Upstairs, Backstreet, Pulse
The shooting at the Orlando, Florida, nightclub Pulse over this past weekend that left 49 dead and 53 wounded, while unprecedented in scale, is certainly not the first time a killer has chosen to target the LGBTQ community. Anti-LGBTQ violence has a long history in the United States, and in this special episode of the StoryCorps podcast, we look back on two other high-profile incidents.
On September 22, 2000, 53-year-old Ronald Gay entered the Backstreet Café, a gay-friendly bar in Roanoke, Virginia. According to police accounts, Gay had set out that evening in search of gay people to kill, and after seeing two men inside the Backstreet Café embrace, he pulled out a 9mm gun and began firing. Gay ended up killing Danny Overstreet and wounding six others.
One of those shot was Danny’s friend Joel Tucker who was there with his partner and friends drinking beer and playing pool. At the time, Joel was not out as a gay man and recalls in a StoryCorps interview that he regrets telling a newspaper reporter that he was at the café at the time with his girlfriend. While initially not realizing what was going on, Joel remembers seeing fire come out of the gun, and when it dawned on him that there was a man shooting at people, he screamed for everybody to get down. “It was just like seven shots, seven people. Then he just walked out the door.”
Joel (above left) came to StoryCorps with his long-time friend Gordon Blake (above right) in Hollywood, Florida, days after the Orlando massacre to share some of the emotions that flooded back to him after learning about the killings at Pulse. Gordon, who was supposed to meet up with Joel and their friends at the Backstreet Café that evening in 2000 but did not make it, joins with Joel in offering advice to the survivors:
“You have got to be strong. Don’t let something like this ruin your life because it could’ve ruined mine…This was one person who hated and I have seen hundreds of people who love. And I think love wins.”
Our second story is about a fire that tore through a gay bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter called the Upstairs Lounge on June 24, 1973. Thirty-two people were killed in the blaze and many more injured. To this day, it remains the deadliest fire in New Orleans history, and until the killings at Pulse, it was believed to be the largest single mass killing of gay people in U.S. history.
Unlike Orlando where there has been an outpouring of support for the victims, following the Upstairs Lounge fire, there was overwhelming silence from politicians, religious leaders, and the local community. And while police conducted an investigation, no one was ever arrested for the murders.
After hearing about the tragedy, Rev. Troy Perry (left), founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, a national Christian denomination dedicated to serving gays and lesbians, flew from his home in California to New Orleans to provide support. He came to StoryCorps to discuss what he saw upon his arrival.
Offering comfort and assistance to the victims in hospitals, Rev. Perry recalls speaking with one badly burned man who told him that the school he taught at had fired him after learning that he was present at the Upstairs Lounge. That man died the next day.
Not wanting to return home until he held a service, Rev. Perry remembers the difficult time he had finding a church willing to act as a host. Eventually, the St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in the French Quarter opened its doors and mourners came to fill it. When the service ended, cameras outside confronted attendees and Rev. Perry offered them a way out the back. But in a show of strength, pride, and courage, “Nobody left by the backdoor. And that’s the legacy. We never ran away.”
The initial reaction to the fire is something that New Orleans has had to come to terms with in the ensuing years. In 1998, a plaque was placed on the spot where the Upstairs Lounge once stood to mark 25 years since the fire, and in a Time Magazine piece on the 40th anniversary of the blaze, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans apologized for its silence.