Friday, August 9, 2013

Cloud of Witnesses: The Rev. Bill Richardson & UpStairs Lounge Victims

On June 22nd, Integrity New Orleans held a memorial service at St. George's Episcopal Church in that city, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a fire at the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in the French Quarter which also served as the home of the local Metropolitan Community Church, a protestant denomination founded specifically to minister to the LGBT community. 

Thirty-two people were killed in the fire, three of whom were never identified. The bar was located on the second floor.  Air Force veteran and bartender Buddy Rasmussen was able to help some patrons escape, but many were trapped by locked doors and barred windows, including the Rev. Bill Larson, pastor of the MCC congregation; his assistant, the Rev. George Mitchell; and Mitchell's boyfriend, Louis Broussard.

A man named Rodger Dale Nunez, who had a history of causing trouble and was ejected from the bar earlier that night, reputedly confessed to a number of people that he started the fire, and was even seen purchasing incendiary materials on the security camera of a local drug store.  Nunez was never charged, and committed suicide the following year.

The Rev. William P. Richardson
Especially remembered at the service, celebrated by the Rev. Richard Easterling, was the Rev. William P. "Bill" Richardson.  Richardson, who was rector of St. George's from 1953-1976, held a similar service the in the days after the fire, in defiance of his own bishop (the Right Rev. Iveson Noland) and other clergy who refused to permit their churches to be used or provide any other pastoral response.  City leaders also did little to acknowledge the event, the largest targeted killing of gay people in the nation's history.  Richardson died in October of 2007 at the age of 98.

In a letter to Integrity, Richardson recalled the conversation with Noland: "'Bill, this is the Bishop. Have you read the morning paper?' I said, 'Yes, Bishop, I have.' 'Is it true that the service was at St. George's Episcopal Church?' 'Yes, Bishop, it was.' 'Why didn't they have it in their own church?' he asked. I replied, 'For the simple reason their own small church holds about 18 persons. Without any publicity we had over 80 present.' 'What am I to say when people call my office?' I replied, 'You can say anything you wish, Bishop, but do you think Jesus would have kept these people out of His church?'"

"Father Richardson saw to it that a memorial service was held for the grieving families and members of the gay community who were not held to very high public esteem at the time," recalls Integrity New Orleans member Billy Soileau.  "Protesters had lined and blocked the entrance, holding 2 x 4's and threatening mourners, and Fr. Bill went out and escorted each attendee personally through the disdainful crowd." 

While much attention is focused on the Stonewall Riots, Soileau recalls life in New Orleans was little different. "We had already experienced harassment along the lines of Stonewall when -- in 1962 -- a private gay Mardi Gras Ball was raided, many were arrested, and publicly exposed in the Times Picayune. Many were fired from their jobs and had their careers ruined, and several suicides also resulted."

"The tragic deaths in the fire lit a spark to begin the movement on the local scene toward equality and justice for LGTB persons," wrote June Butler on her popular blog Wounded Bird, which she maintains under the pen name Grandmère Mimi. "Fr. Bill Richardson's courage in agreeing to hold the memorial service at St George's placed the Episcopal Church squarely in its midst.  Many, even those within the movement, are not aware of this pivotal event in the history of the struggle for gay rights."

At the service Lynn Koppel, a parishioner at St. George's, recalled another occasion when Richardson did not waver from his pastoral ministry.  As Soileau tells it, "He went into a really rough neighborhood to an institution of ill repute to ask to see a young man whom had left his family due to their lack of acceptance." Approached by the boy's father, Richardson located the young man and reassured him that his family did love him, convincing him to return home.

The responses to subsequent anniversaries of the fire are indicative of the shift in public opinion in the intervening 40 years. In 1998, 300 people attended the 25th anniversary service held by the MCC, and exited the church to face TV cameras without feat.  This year, the sitting Roman Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans, the Most Rev. Gregory Michael Aymond expressed regret in an interview with Time over the actions of his predecessor, the Most Rev. Philip Hannan, and other clergy.

A documentary, called simply The UpStairs Lounge Fire, was also released this year.  The building, at the corner of Chartres and Iberville Streets, is still there, with the still-damaged upper level unused.  It now hosts a nightclub called the Jimani Lounge on its ground floor, which acknowledges the building's tragic history on its web site.

"Fr. Richardson was married and a father of two children and his family was adored by many," recalls Soileau.  "He recounted to me that this experience sparked his continued lifelong support of the gay community for equality locally, as well as within the Episcopal Church. It was simply the right thing to do. Born on Groundhog Day, he certainly emanated brightly until his departure from this life, when he was nearing the 100 year mark."

May he and the victims of the UpStairs Lounge, rest in peace and rise in glory.

Integrity Stakeholders' Council Chair Christian Paolino compiled this article with the generous contributions of Billy Soileau and June Butler


Unknown said...

We can not often enough be reminded of our courageous, prophetic forebears in the slow march toward justice and inclusion in the Church.

Unknown said...

We can not often enough be reminded of the courage and prophetic wisdom of our forebears in the slow march toward justice and inclusion in our churches.