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                                                                                                       

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

 

The Mayor Of Castro Street – Randy Shilts

harveyOn November 27, 1978, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot and killed by former Supervisor Dan White. The New York born Milk had relocated to San Francisco, taking up residence in the Castro section.  He and lover Scott Smith opened Castro Camera before Milk set his eyes on politics.  After several tries, he was finally elected as a City Supervisor and in the process became the first openly gay man to serve in public office in San Francisco.  His efforts at City Hall and community activism earned him the nickname “The Mayor of Castro Street“.  In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in Milk and in 2008, director Gus Van Sant took the reigns in the biopic about Milk starring Hollywood veteran Sean Penn in the leading role.  It was an incredible performance and one of Penn’s best.  However, there was much more to Harvey Milk than we saw on the silver screen.  Randy Shilts, author of And the Band Played On, looks back on Milk’s life in this definitive biography of the late activist.

It is critical to remember that Milk died at only forty-eight years of age.  In less than five decades, he went from a former sailor working for the Great American Insurance Company to the face of the gay rights movement in San Francisco.  The native of Woodmere, New York had done something that was unheard of at a time in which the LGBT community was in a fierce struggle to protect their very lives.  The Stonewall riots in 1969 and Proposition 6 by then Senator John Briggs, became defining moments in the movement for equality.   As homosexuality became more scrutinized and in some cases accepted, thousands of young men flocked to San Francisco where they were able to live openly without fear of persecution.   But even there, the fight continued against a brutal police department and the political establishment that had no use of time for what many called “the others”.  In Milk, the movement found its voice but as he said himself he was not the candidate, the movement was the candidate.  But he did have the vision, determination and skill to inspire the invaluable feeling of hope. Shilts did a masterful job of telling Milk’s story and it is evidently clear how and why he became the “Mayor of Castro Street”.   But the story is not all happiness and even the darkest moments in his life are re-told as they were showing the disarray and tragedy that composed Milk’s private life.  And from the moment he became a political figure, the threat of death was never far away.  But through it all, Harvey continued to push forward until he finally achieve the goal that had eluded him several times. And at the time of his death, he had come to assert substantial influence in San Francisco politics.

Dan White was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. The light sentence triggered the ” White Night Riots”, after a jury apparently believed White’s “Twinkie” defense.  In 1984, after serving the five years, White committed suicide at the age of thirty-nine.  The trial, conviction and the riots are covered by Shilts and at times caused me to shake my head in disbelief.  I do believe that had Mayor Moscone been the only one killed, White would have received a much harsher sentence.  He lives on in infamy as the murderer of two politicians who had the promise and skill to change the course of history for the City of San Francisco.  Shilts provides an inside view of the political climate that existed at the time and the uphill battle Harvey faced as he broken into politics.

In the film Milk, we come to learn about two of Harvey’s lovers, Scott Smith and Jack Lira.  What the film did not show, were Harvey’s other love interests which were an integral part of his life story.  I do not hold anything against Gus Van Sant for 90 minutes is not nearly enough to cover any person’s life in full detail. And such is the beauty of a good book.  Shilts was always one to present a complete picture and he does not disappoint here. The book picks up speed from the beginning and never slows down.   I think it is to be expected that the worst moment is Moscone and Milk’s murders.  By the time I reached the trial of Dan White, I fully came to understand the legacy of Harvey Milk.   For those who want to know his complete life story, this is the book for you.  And I also recommend that you watch Rob Epstein’s incredible documentary  The Times of Harvey Milk’.

ISBN-10: 0312560850
ISBN-13: 978-0312560850