Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation – Robert W. Fieseler

36236137._UY630_SR1200,630_When I saw the cover of this book, I had to stop for a second to see if I could pull up something from my memory about the Up Stairs Lounge.  Satisfied that I had no prior knowledge of the incident described, I decided to buy the book and learn something new.  On June 24, 1973, the people of New Orleans awoke to a typically early summer day.  But by the time the sun set that day, the entire city was on edge and the patrons of the Up Stairs Lounge, an LGTB friendly establishment, found themselves in hell on earth.  Sometime that afternoon, an arsonist intentionally set fire to the building and within minutes, patrons were engulfed by flames and smoke.  The deliberate act claimed more than thirty lives with some victims perishing in grisly manners at the scene. Others met their ends while admitted to the hospital and the survivors were forced to confront mental and physical scars from one the deadliest days in New Orleans history.  And the Metropolitan Community Church, which was friendly to the LGBT community, lost one-third of its membership.   Author Robert W. Fieseler revisits that dark day in which the LGBT community New Orleans changed forever. 

I initially had the thought that there was an antagonist with bias against the LGBT community. Surprisingly, that is not the case and the true story behind the act of arson will leave readers speechless.  After a biographical sketch of the central characters in the story, we arrived at the lounge on afternoon of June 24th.   The mood inside the lounge is typical but a chance encounter between two patrons sets in motion a chain of events that no one wanted, or thought would ever happen.  And the lounge’s reputation as a hangout for LBGT individuals later played a crucial role in the investigation that followed.  The attitudes towards the LGBT community and the crusaders against lifestyles they deemed “unworthy” served as impediments to an investigation that would have been handled differently if the patrons had different sexual preferences.  Further, it may be shocking to some that even in the party City of New Orleans, there was a time when being LGBT was extremely dangerous.   The author pays close attention to these factors as he tells the tragic tale about an incident that should have never taken place. 

A sub-story in the book exist in the form of a good discussion regarding New Orleans social attitudes in the 1960s and 1970s.  At the time, New Orleans was home to a wide range of characters and one had his life changed permanently due to the actions of former New Orleans District Attorney James C. Garrison (1921-1992).  During his investigation into the murder of President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), Garrison and focused on several well-known New Orleanians whom he believed were deeply involved in the plot to murder the president. Among these figures was businessman Clay Shaw (1913-1974) who plays a vital role in the story and is also one of its tragic figures even though he was not at the lounge.  Shaw’s homosexuality is critical to the story and shows the risks associated with coming out of the closet.   Fieseler does not go into the Garrison investigation in full detail but does show enough to explain the flaws in it.  And while Shaw did admit to doing domestic work for the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”),  he was never convicted by any court for being part of a conspiracy to murder John F. Kennedy.  

Shaw’s experience reveals another factor in the flawed investigation that followed.   Patrons who either left before the fire, escaped with injuries, or walked away unharmed sometimes had a hard decision to make as authorities searched for the truth.  The choice was not as easy as some may think and came down to a simple dilemma:  help authorities and let it be known that you frequent the lounge or remain quiet and protect your secret life.   Each person placed in this position struggles with their actions and decisions which compounds the tragedy playing out.  Their lives were permanently changed yet some still could not bring themselves to face the reality before them.  And the emergence of anti-LGBT crusaders such as Anita Bryant only added fuel to an already burning fire.  The implications for the Up Stairs Lounge investigation became vividly clear to those who once called it home. 

I mentioned earlier that there was in fact an arsonist.  His story is equally tragic and leaves us with many “what if” questions.  But what is clear is that he was highly disturbed and struggling with his own life at the time of the incident and in the wake of the tragedy.  His name was not known to those outside of a small group of people at the lounge, but his actions were earth shattering and revealed many dark secrets that had been carefully hidden from public view.  Survivors of the Up Stairs Lounge fire were forced to move on in life but none will ever forget that day. They will recall with sadness an era in which simply being LGBT could result in death and legislation was in effect that made life for that community unbearable at times.  Society has come a long way, yet we still have further to travel.  The story of this tragedy by Robert Fieseler should remain with us as a reminder of the dark sides of human nature and the difficulties that come with being LGBT.  

ASIN : B076MD2285                                                                                                       

An Archive of Hope: Harvey Milk’s Speeches and Writings – Harvey Milk, Jason Edward Black, Charles E. Morris and Frank M. Robinson

20190119_180840This past November marked forty years since the assassination of Harvey Bernard Milk (1930-1948), who is recognized as being the first openly gay politician to hold office in the United States. The 2008 film Milk, starring Sean Penn, brought Milk’s life back into public light, where public interest has continued to increase. In the City of San Francisco, he is revered as one of its greatest citizens and the Castro neighborhood where he operated his camera store and conducted his political campaigns, pays homage to him with a bar named in his honor. Throughout the streets of the Castro, his image can be found throughout and on occasion, tourists might be fortunate enough to encounter someone who knew Milk personally.   On a visit to San Francisco a year ago, I did not have this fortune, but I did visit 575 Castro, the former site of his store which now serves as the base for the Human Rights Campaign.  Standing in the middle of the floor felt surreal as the realization settled in that this was where Milk lived and worked nearly forty years prior.  In the upstairs window at the front of the apartment where Milk lived, there is a full size image of him looking down at the street. It is as nostalgic as can possibly be. As I walked the Castro, I began to think, what if he were alive today?   What would he think of progress made by the LGBTQ community?  I think he would be proud but not satisfied, continuing to push for further advancement and acceptance of LGBTQ men and women  in society.

Sadly there are many young gay men and women who still have yet to learn about Milk’s life and contributions to the gay rights movement.  But fortunately for them and us, he left behind scores of speeches and writings devoted to the cause he wholeheartedly believed in.  Part of this collection of speeches and writings contained herein, are  appropriately titled An Archive of Hope, which brings the past alive as Harvey takes center stage in his own words.  Frank M. Robinson (1926-2014), was a speechwriter for Milk and had a cameo in the 2008 film where he plays himself.  He provides a foreword for the book, which he wrote in 2012, that is a testament to Milk’s legacy and some of the best writing I have ever read.  It is not hard to see why Milk solicited his assistance in creating the speeches that would help define his legacy.  On June 30, 2014, Robinson died at his home in San Francisco following a decline in health, due in part to heart problems.  His death was confirmed by friend and fellow activist Danny Nicoletta.

Milk’s brilliance cannot be overstated and it is on full display in the book.  The writings that are included are taken from newspapers that Milk contributed to, letters he wrote, sometimes to editors, and highlights from his most famous speeches.  The book follows a chronological order and at the beginning of each section, the authors provide a back story to the writing at hand.  It serves as a compliment to Milk’s words and helps the reader to follow along as Harvey challenges the establishment while throwing himself into the political arena as he runs for City Supervisor.  And although he lost the first few races, his popularity increased exponentially and all in San Francisco knew that Milk was here to stay.  What I found the most attractive in the book was Harvey’s foresight into the future.  It is with profound sadness that I can say that many of his predictions about San Francisco have come true. His words were prophetic and had his vision for San Francisco come to fruition,  the course of Californian politics would have undoubtedly taken a different course.

Reading Milk’s writings was a pleasure in itself.  His ability to analyze and critique the system was beyond precise and his words are still relevant today.  And while he did run for office, he was never a true politician.  In his view, they were all hypocrites and for Harvey, there was no way he could join that club.  Perhaps he was too driven, honest and outspoken for politics. Regardless,  he never wavered in his dedication to the movement which he rightfully called the candidate in his tape recorded will.  But as much as he railed against the persecution of the LGBTQ community, he also criticized the same community for its failures as well.  His words of advice for the gay community can applied today as they were in the past.  As Harvey believed, everyone, whether gay or straight, had a role to play in the movement.  And that movement found itself on a collision course with the evangelical right, determined by any and all means to take away the rights of the LGBTQ community.   They would find their icons in singer Anita Bryant and former Senator John Briggs. The advancement of California Proposition 6, also called the Briggs initiative, resulted in call to arms in the gay community and as Harvey points out, the forces mobilized in response to Anita Bryant’s crusade against homosexuals.  I had hoped to see more of the transcripts of the debates between Milk and Briggs included but as the authors point out, many were not recorded and others  suffered from sub par sound.  But from the small section that is included, it is clear that Harvey had mastered the art of politics without becoming a politician.  At his core, he was an activist or even more plainly stated, a humanist.

No book about Milk would be complete without his campaigns to become a City Supervisor which finally resulted in victory in November, 1977 after several failed attempts. The book follows these campaigns and includes the text of his speeches following his history win.  Harvey realized his work was far from over and continued to push forward until he succeeded with the successful vote of the gay rights ordinance that was opposed by only one Supervisor, Dan White, the man would later murder him.  A year before his untimely death, Milk tape recorded his will, the full text of which is included in the book.  And those words truly define the vision and goal that Milk had for the movement.  The Mayor of Castro Street had arrived and had he lived, I believe he would have gone on to accomplish even greater things for the gay community and the State of California. Right now we find ourselves as nation, in the midst of a turbulent political climate where individuals rights are sometimes still under attack.  Wounds of division and a short memory can combine to produce a society in which no one moves forward and we continue to make the same mistakes of generations prior.  Whether you are heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, contained within the pages of this book truly is an archive of hope.

ISBN-10: 0520275497
ISBN-13: 978-0520275492

Stonewall: The Riots That Changed the Gay Revolution-David Carter

20181205_225544On the nights of June 27 and June 28, 1969, riots occurred that changed the history of New York City and gave strength to the movement for equality and legal rights for gay men, lesbian women, transgender and transsexual people.  The incidents became known as the Stonewall riots, and took place in and outside of the Stonewall bar in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood. The bar is no longer there, but on those hot summer nights in 1969, the LGBT community made a stand that shocked not only the New York City P0lice Department but an entire city.  The episode stands out as one of the movement’s most powerful moments that has never been forgotten. David Carter presents to us an investigative report of what really happened during the Stonewall riots and allows us to understand why and how they came to be.

Today it is hard for some to imagine the enormous struggle faced by gay men and lesbian women in their search for equality.   Same-sex marriage and strides in all sectors of society have removed the early struggle from public awareness.  However, less than 50 years ago, a new revolution based on the civil rights movement and inspired by its fallen heroes emerged as the LGBT community stood up and said no more.  Carter exhaustive researched the riots and spoke with many of the first hand witnesses including the late Seymour Pine, a former Inspector for the New York City Police Department, whose raids on the Stonewall served as the catalyst for the riots to follow.  Pine provided invaluable insight into the raids and up until the time of his death, made it clear the he was following orders and not a personal vendetta.

The beauty is Carter’s book is his ability to take us back into time to see what it was like to be a gay man or lesbian woman in New York City at a time when harassment, imprisonment, discrimination and acts of violence occurred regularly.  The incidents that take place in the book prior to the riots are ugly and shocking but reveal the true nature of the officers who patrolled the streets and the unfavorable light in which homosexuals were placed.  Carter also introduces us to the major characters in the book, some of whom are still alive today and serve as a part of the past which we should not forget.  The youth of today will not recognize their names but to an older generation of activists, the names of Harry Hay, Dick Leitsch, Randy Wicker, Frank Kameny and Martha Shelley are among the pioneers of an exceptional movement.   Their efforts and visions paved the way for the rise of  organizations that would play a central role such as the Mattachine Society, Homosexual League of New York, Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance.

Sadly, many of the pioneers of the movement are no longer with us. The emergence of HIV and AIDS resulted in the deaths of thousands of gay men.  The gay cancer as it was known initially, claimed lives unrelentingly before Washington finally addressed the growing crisis. The epidemic served as one more major obstacle to be overcome by the LGBT community in their quest for equality.   The advancement of LGBT people today is a testament to the hard work and tireless efforts of thousands of men and women who risked their lives in the name of freedom.  Their struggle continues and as they continue to make strides and face uphill struggles, the events of Stonewall will remain fresh in the mind as a reminder of the power of resistance. Further, the events of those nights force us to examine our own actions and beliefs towards those who are different.

The village of today in New York City is a stronghold for the LGBT community.  For those who visit, it is to be understood that it is their haven and you are a visitor.  Their lifestyles are sometimes unconventional and in some cases shocking and in others, flamboyant.  But they do not ask for approval, only respect and understanding.  And if we are to forget that, then we run the risk of seeing the events of Stonewall replayed before our eyes.  This book is a good place to start for anyone seeking to understand the beginnings of the gay rights movement in New York City.

ISBN-10: 0312200250
ISBN-13: 978-0312200251