Nearly 47 years ago, a fire shook the gay community in New Orleans. This week, a journalist will come to Ohio State to tell the tragic story.
Author Robert Fieseler will visit Denney Hall Friday to read from his book, “Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation.” The book won the Edgar Award in Best Fact Crime and Lambda Literary’s Award for Emerging Writers, according to Fieseler’s website. A Q&A session and book signing will follow the reading.
Fieseler’s book focuses on the 1973 arson of the Up Stairs Lounge, a New Orleans gay bar, that killed 32 people and devastated the city’s underground, blue-collar gay community. The event stood as the largest mass murder of homosexual people in U.S. history until the 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Fieseler said.
Fieseler said the event received little media attention at the time and was largely ignored until recently.
“A massacre in the past was deemed politically inconvenient due to its homosexual overtones and thus permitted to become an historic mystery, which is how it existed for decades,” Fieseler said.
Fieseler is a journalist who has spent much of his career covering marginalized communities. As a member of the LGBTQ community, he said “Tinderbox” represents both a professionally and personally rewarding opportunity.
“I’ve always longed to try to understand what the past was like for people like myself,” Fieseler said. “What did they have to fight through? What was their daily reality like? And what sacrifices did they have to make so that I could live an open life in the way that I do?”
Fieseler said he thinks that events like his upcoming reading are important in telling the stories of those who have long been silenced. He said his goal is to help people overcome victimhood and find empowerment.
Uncovering the truth behind mysterious and overlooked events such as the Up Stairs Lounge fire is essential to that empowerment, Fieseler said. He references author, anthropologist and filmmaker Zora Neale Hurston’s quote, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
Fieseler said he finds that speaking about tragedies can bring relief.
“There is nothing more exciting, nothing more fulfilling, nothing more essential, than attempting to, in present-day context, fight for your rights in America with a little bit of truth on your side,” he said.
The reading was organized with assistance from Nick White, an assistant professor of English at Ohio State who teaches creative writing and queer literature. Fieseler said he met and formed a strong bond with White at a Mississippi book festival when they were both on a queer literary panel.
“The book is talking about a queer history that has, until Robert wrote about it, not really been given its due,” White said.
White said he is grateful to LGBTQ community members who have come before him to ensure his rights and people like Fieseler, who have documented and memorialized them. White also expressed a close personal connection with the subject matter of the book.
“The reason why the book touched me so much was because I am a gay man from the South and a gay man from Mississippi, and I think about how hard, even today, it is to live out in places like Mississippi, where I’m from. It’s getting better certainly but there’s still farther we can go.”
The program is being held by the Master of Fine Arts creative writing program. Fieseler, a University of Michigan alum, said this will be the first time he sets foot on Ohio State’s campus.
The reading will take place at 4 p.m. Friday in Denney Hall Room 311. The program is free and open to the public. Books will be available for purchase.