Out In America
On June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire to the Upstairs Lounge, a bar popular with New Orleans’s gay community. 32 people perished in the fire, which garnered little sympathy among public officials and the media. New Orleans’ mayor, Moon Landrieu, refused to cancel his vacation in response to the fire. Radio announcers wondered if the victims’ bodies would be buried “in fruit jars.” In the face of a growing backlash against the emerging gay rights movement, few Americans outside the gay community deemed the tragedy worth mourning.
Things are different this year. Moon Landrieu’s son, Mitch Landrieu, the current mayor of New Orleans, is planning a memorial to commemorate the forty-third anniversary of the fire. And in the wake of this week’s mass shooting in Orlando, the 1973 fire sheds light on the long history of violence against LGBTQ communities.
BackStory reached sociologist Doug Meyer to delve deeper into this history. Meyer teaches in the University of Virginia’s Women, Gender and Sexuality department. He is also the author of Violence against Queer People: Race, Class, Gender, and the Persistence of Anti-LGBT Discrimination.
Q: When did Americans begin to define people in terms of their sexual orientation, and why did this start?
A: The words and identities of “heterosexual” and “homosexual” were first used in the late 1800’s by scientists, albeit in a different way than we now think of them, but the identities didn’t crystallize and become part of common knowledge until the 1900’s. The binary of heterosexual/homosexual, where these identities were viewed as opposites, didn’t fully crystallize until the mid-1900’s, after World War II. The identities were first used largely as a way to stigmatize people who were viewed as “abnormal.”
Q: Has it always been dangerous for people to be visibly “out” in terms of their sexuality?
A: This separation of gender and sexuality is part of what developed with the identities, so prior to the 1900’s people would not have looked at someone’s gender performance as indicative of what they do sexually speaking. Sexuality was only looked at through the lens of behavior.
Q: How has the LGBTQ community responded to violence and discrimination throughout history?
A: There have been LGBTQ people who have resisted their stigmatization for as long as these identities have been around. The history of organized LGBTQ activism in the U.S. began in some ways with the homophile movement, and continued after Stonewall, with the gay liberation movement. Discrimination was particularly prevalent during the 1950’s and 1960’s, but was less pronounced prior to this time. In the 50’s and 60’s, LBGTQ people were routinely fired from jobs, forced to undergo conversion therapy, and harassed by the police at bars.
Q: Would you consider this kind of violence against the LGBTQ community that we’re talking about domestic terrorism, and if so, why?
A: I’m not sure I would use the phrase domestic terrorism just because that phrase seems to be used disproportionately when the perpetrator of the act is Muslim, and not in many other cases. So, violence against queer people undoubtedly provokes fear in the lives of many LGBTQ people, but I’m not sure it’s helpful to further the use of that phrase.
Q: What can we learn from the history of violence against LGBTQ communities and what does it say, if anything, about homophobia in America?
A: Contextualizing specific historical contexts of violence against LGBT communities helps us see the deep prevalence of homophobia in American culture. Certainly, the acts are not comparable or the same but, violence against LGBTQ people in bars and nightclubs has historically been condoned by governments and practiced by police forces. So, in that way, since it was committed by an American, this shooting [in Orlando] is consistent with a broader history of homophobia in America.
For more on guns in America, listen to “Straight Shot.”
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist