Guernica Magazine

Robert Fieseler: Speaking Their Names

The author of "Tinderbox" on the untold story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire, which until the Orlando shooting was the worst mass killing of gays in history. The post Robert Fieseler: Speaking Their Names appeared first on Guernica.
Cover image: Liveright

On the evening of June 24, 1973, an arsonist sparked a fire in the Up Stairs Lounge, a popular gay bar in New Orleans. In just three minutes, the fire claimed the lives of 32 victims, and injured many others. It was the worst mass killing of gays in history until the 2016 massacre at a popular gay club in Orlando, Florida, which claimed 49 lives. Yet very few have ever heard of the Up Stairs Lounge fire.   

In Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation, author Robert Fieseler offers a deeply reported, harrowing account of the fire, along with rich descriptions of the social and political context that highlights why this tragedy was lost from history. It’s an illuminating read that captures the plight of gay men in a society that was bent on hiding, even smothering, them.

Fieseler has a gift for deftly sketching scenes and characters. It’s a talent that bursts forth on the page, as if pent up from his years working in corporate advertising, which he left a few years ago to study at Columbia University’s School of Journalism (I met Fieseler in a class there). His reporting impressed a couple of his professors, who encouraged him to consider writing a book on this topic. Once he began researching the Up Stairs Lounge fire, he began to develop something like a sense of duty, as well:

“I worried that my being a homosexual and a formerly closeted person meant that if I wrote this book, I was doing it because I had some kind of score to settle with my own past. But I wanted to look at it as clear-eyed as possible from the context of the time period of a different America, and to understand that different America as best as I could to respect it. Not just what happened in the Up Stairs Lounge, but why. I wanted to delve deeply into that context, and to try to find multiple different dimensions to every aspect of this story.”

I spoke with Fieseler over the phone from his home in Boston

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