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Every American should know about the largest mass murder of gay people in US history

Duane George “Mitch” Mitchell (left), 31, a beauty supply salesman and assistant pastor at the LGBTQ-friendly Metropolitan Community Church, died going back into the fire to save his partner, Louis Horace Broussard (right).
Duane George “Mitch” Mitchell (left), 31, a beauty supply salesman and assistant pastor at the LGBTQ-friendly Metropolitan Community Church, died going back into the fire to save his partner, Louis Horace Broussard (right).
Johnny Townsend/LGBT Religious Archives Network

You've probably heard of New York City's Stonewall Inn, famous for its role in the LGBTQ rights movement and a newly designated landmark. What most Americans have never heard of is the story of the largest killing of gay people, all men, in US history.

Four years after the Stonewall Uprising, on June 24, 1973, 32 people were killed at the Upstairs Lounge in New Orleans, Louisiana. The building wasn't up to code; many guests were unable to escape to safety after an arsonist set the building on fire. The initial police report described a "possible arson."

Since the fire started in the entrance and blocked the fire escape on the second floor, it was impossible for lounge guests to safely escape. Graphic created by Dan Swenson, NOLA.com/Times-Picayune

Many others survived, some led to safety by a bartender.

Media reaction to the mass killing at Upstairs Lounge reflected society's views on homosexuality

In this video from the coverage, CBS described the building as "a hangout of homosexuals":

As Elizabeth Dias and Jim Downs shared in a 2013 must-read essay in Time magazine:

The Jokes began almost immediately. The Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the MCC, flew in the morning after the fire and remembers a radio host asking on air, "What do we bury them in?" The punch line: "Fruit jars." The police department's chief of detectives reinforced the homophobic climate when he told reporters that identifying the bodies would be tough because many patrons carried fake identification and "some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar."

Despite the city's reputation for tolerance, there were consequences to being gay there in 1973. One victim, a teacher, was fired while in critical care at Charity Hospital after his school learned that he had been at the bar. He died days later from burns.

No convictions were made; the site is recognized by the National Park Service as a "place of loss."