By Diane Anderson-Minshall
Originally published on Advocate.com November 15 2013 7:00 AM ET
Above: For patrons of the UpStairs Lounge, the place wasn’t just a bar. It was a theater, a place of worship, and a community center all in one; most important, it was a place for folks to call home when the rest of New Orleans wasn’t so welcoming.
When Duane Mitchell was 11 years old, he and his 8-year-old brother, Steve, loved visiting their dad, George, then a divorced beauty supply salesman in New Orleans. The Big Easy in the 1970s was a different world compared to where they lived with their mom in northeast Alabama. Thoughthe divorce was amicable, it was always hard for the boys to get enough time with their dad during the school year.
Sunday, June 24, 1973, started out like any other day for the boys, who were eager to see a Disney movie, The World’s Greatest Athlete, starring Jan-Michael Vincent as a Tarzan-like runner over a decade before his TV series, Airwolf, would make him a household name. George Mitchell dropped the boys off at the theater like he often did. Despite the recession, gas shortage, and racial tensions that dominated that summer, it was still a more innocent time. Kids could go to movie theaters alone with a handful of cash for popcorn, candy, and sodas, armed only with the admonition to stay there until their parents came back to pick them up. Dad was going to hang out wherever it is that adults hang out, with friends and his roommate, Horace, a barber. Duane gave it little thought — until the movie was over. And over again.
Duane says he and Steve watched that movie seven times and Dad just never came back. Finally, George’s landlady picked the boys up that night, and the next day a neighbor took them to the airport to fly home to Alabama, all the while not telling them the ugly truth of why Dad never returned.
How do you tell an 11-year-old that his father was burned alive, his body wrapped about his boyfriend, the two men charred and clinging to each other, lovers in life and death, while trying to escape the worst mass killing of gays in American history?
Photo: George Mitchell (left) and his boyfriend, Horace Broussard, in happier times. George initially escaped the fire but went back in to save his boyfriend; the two died together. George’s son Duane didn’t know his dad was gay but calls him a hero today.
GAY PRIDE IN THE ’70S
It was the swelteringly humid last day of gay pride in the South’s most tolerant city and the fourth anniversary of New York’s Stonewall Riots, an action thought unnecessary in New Orleans. As Clayton Delery, author of the upcoming book Nineteen Minutes of Hell, told The Huffington Post‘s Gay Voices, “Things on the surface weren’t as bad as they had been in New York in 1969. It had been several years since there had been a mass raid of a bar or a gathering place. Gay people lived in relative peace. So, in some ways, people were comfortable.”
At right: Pianist George Matyi wasn’t a regular performer at the UpStairs Lounge, but the night of the fire he took the gig as a favor to a friend. He left behind a daughter and two sons who only recently learned the truth of his death.
But that night and ensuing weeks would prove the city was anything but comfortable with gays.
The UpStairs Lounge was hopping on Sundays. There was a beer bust each week, and $1 admission got youunlimited free pitchers of beer. The jukebox rotated everything from rock star Elvis Presley to opera star Enrico Caruso. Cocktail pianist George Stephen Matyi, whose regular gig was at the nearby Marriott, was there playing his signature mix of show tunes and ragtime, filling in for a friend, and possibly leading bar patrons on a sing-along to one of their favorite anthems, the Brotherhood of Man’s 1970 hit, “United We Stand.”
Phil Esteve opened the bar nearly three years earlier on Halloween with help from a friend, bartender Buddy Rasmussen, according to author Johnny Townsend, the only person to fully document the tragedy with survivor input in his book Let the Faggots Burn. Townsend writes that because the club was outside the gay area of the French Quarter, the men worked extra hard to draw people in with dancing, singing, and live piano by popular cocktail lounge musician David Gary. The place had red wallpaper and almost-girly curtains, creating a sanctuary that was both homier than modern bars and more welcoming than many of the patrons’ homes. There was an extra space in the bar, a theater of sorts, where they staged “nelly plays” and musicals. Esteve also let members of the Metropolitan Community Church, the only LGBT-affirming Christian church in the nation, use the space.
At left: Bartender Buddy Rasmussen (right, with a friend) led 20 people to safety but inadvertently locked the door behind them, closing off the only escape route.
It was a happy place for the members of MCC, the mainline Protestant church founded by Rev. Troy Perry in Los Angeles in 1968. As the denomination spread nationwide, fledgling MCC congregations formed in places like New Orleans where religion was a cornerstone of community life. Though the Christian worshippers were as devout as any flock in the South, a church run by gay, bi, and transgender people wasn’t wholeheartedly welcome in the local community. In fact, the UpStairs Lounge had served as its temporary place of worship for months because the church had been set ablaze three times, including, according to Townsend, a fire that destroyed its headquarters January 27, 1973.
But Esteve and bartender Rasmussen liked having churchgoers at the lounge. They added to the friendly environment of the club, a place where at least two patrons, brothers Jim and Eddie Warren, felt comfortable enough to bring their mother, Inez.
Above: Rodger Nunez, the main suspect in the mass killing, pictured in life and in death.
On Sunday June 24, 1973, more than 100 people attended the MCC service, and dozens stuck around to plan an upcoming fundraiser for what then was called Crippled Children’s Hospital. Esteves gave them all free beer. It was a night like any other. Oh sure, there were vagabonds, says filmmaker Royd Anderson, whose documentary The UpStairs Lounge Fire details that night and the aftermath. But there were also doctors, poets, actors, intellectuals, and hustlers.
At left: Duane Mitchell (left) looks at photos of his dad, George, with filmmaker Royd Anderson. Duane was 11 years old at the time of George’s death.
One of those miscreants was Rodger Nunez, a 26-year-old hustler who often became aggressive and mouthy when he was drunk. This night Nunez began to harass one of the regulars, Michael Scarborough, through an adjacent stall in the bathroom. Who knows why Nunez was acting out then? There was a glory hole in the restroom, but Scarborough didn’t want anything to do with what Nunez had to offer. When the altercation turned physical, Scarborough gave the guy a right hook to the jaw, and when that didn’t stop thim, he complained to Rasmussen, who sent Nunez packing. As he was escorted out, Nunez spouted off a threat of revenge typical of someone being kicked out after a bar fight. The hothead was posturing, the patrons probably thought; good riddance.
At 7:52 p.m. the doorbell, located down a stairwell at the first-floor entrance to the second-floor bar, bean to ring. Rasmussen assumed it was a taxi driver, as it usually was, so he sent a regular named Luther Boggs down to open the door. It had been more than a year since the last gay bar raid, but you could never be sure, hence the added security. Boggs probably had no idea what hit him. He was dead instantly.
A flash of fuel hit the landing and then a fireball swept up the stairwell into the bar, flames quickly engulfing the place. More than 60 people were still there, and the fire spread so quickly panic was unavoidable. The oxygen from the door had created a backdraft that swept the fire along the hallway blocking the main entrance, and it spread along the walls quickly. Those curtains, flocked wallpaper, and, even the lone poster of the famous Burt Reynolds Cosmopolitan centerfold that had been tacked up were all gone in seconds. There was no emergency exit sign. People clamored to get out, some pulling their clothing over their mouths in hopes of breathing through the smoke. Glass shattered everywhere as patrons tried to escape through the windows; few were skinny enough to do so, because the windows all had 14-inch security bars.
At right: MCC pastor Bill Larson, trapped in the window bars, where he remained for hours during the investigation. He was promoted to reverend posthumously.
The pastor of MCC, Bill Larson, was caught in the bars, the upper half of his body stretching for an impossible escape as he burning alive, his agonizing wails heard by onlookers on the street. “Oh, God, no,” he screamed as horrified onlookers watched the man die.
Harold Bartholomew was driving past the bar with his kids when they noticed flames shooting out of the building. He rushed to help but was useless. He told Anderson, “People were at the window cooking — that’s the only way to describe it,” pieces of flesh literally landing on the sidewalk below in a scene so terrible “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
“Bartender Buddy Rasmussen led about 20 people to safety through a back door behind a stage,” Anderson says. “But investigators found he unintentionally trapped the remaining bar patrons when he locked the fire escape door to prevent the fire from spreading.”
George Mitchell, 11-year-old Duane’s dad, was the MCC’s assistant pastor then. He was one of the few people who managed to escape the fire, but when he realized his boyfriend, Louis Horace Broussard, was still trapped inside he rushed in to rescue him. The two were found dead, bodies wrapped around each other, together forever, a gruesomely romantic scene.
Above: Victims of the UpStairs Lounge fire on June 24, 1973
Firefighters — including Terry Gilbert, a rookie only two weeks on the job — arrived quickly and had the fire contained within 16 minutes. No matter, though. They discovered 28 dead bodies piled up in grotesque mounds atop each other at the bathroom door, the fire escape door, and the windows, any place they could have hoped to escape. Four more people would die either en route to or at the hospital. In all, 32 people were killed that day, and though a few might have been straight, like that pre-PFLAG mom and the friendly substitute pianist, this tragedy still remains worst mass murder of LGBT people in U.S. history.
The grisly fire was just the beginning of the tragedy that would affect New Orleans’s LGBT community for years to come. All of which raises the question: Why have so few people even heard about this?
“Louisiana does a pretty good job of keeping its tragedies a secret,” says Anderson, who became an expert on the killings when he spent six years filming his award-winning documentary The UpStairs Lounge Fire, which aired this summer on television in New Orleans and continues to tour festivals and universities. Next up is a November 21 showing at New Orleans’s Loyola University and then a collegiate screening tour that’ll take Anderson to Penn State, Louisiana State University, Yale, and Princeton.
The Cuban-American filmmaker has produced documentaries about several forgotten Louisiana tragedies: the 1976 Luling Ferry disaster (the worst ferry disaster in U.S. history, with 77 fatalities), the 1977 Continental Grain Elevator explosion (the deadliest grain dust explosion of the modern era, with 36 fatalities), the 1982 Pan Am Flight 759 crash (the worst aircraft crash in Louisiana history and the fifth worst in U.S. history, with 153 fatalities). The UpStairs Lounge fire fits among them: It remains the deadliest fire in New Orleans history.
At left: Filmmaker Robert L. Camina in front of the plaque memorializing the UpStairs Lounge massacre.
“All of these tragedies, in addition to the UpStairs Lounge fire, aren’t in textbooks,” he says. “Plus, a lot of LGBT history is not that well publicized in the Bayou State. There’s a small plaque on the sidewalk outside of the former door of the UpStairs, commemorating the victims. If you’re not looking down when you’re walking, you won’t even notice it. Thousands of tourists step on it every day and don’t realize it’s there.”
Anderson learned about the fire as a kid. His dad, a French Quarter tour guide, would take Anderson on long walks in the Quarter and he would point out the building and tell us the story.
“Being a social studies middle school teacher, I thought it was imperative to remember this forgotten tragedy and lost history,” he says.
The teacher-turned-filmmaker is not alone. Gay author Townsend, who wrote about the tragedy two decades ago, was able to talk with many survivors of the fire, no easy feat, says Anderson, who admits getting people to talk about it today is difficult.
“Most of them didn’t want to get in front of the camera and talk, due to mental strife,” Anderson says. “Also, many folks from that generation don’t want to be known to be gay to the public; the peer pressure is still evident today.”
Toni Pizanie, who authors a column called Sapphos Psalm for Ambush, the local gay paper, wasn’t at the UpStairs Lounge that night but says it happened while she was still in the closet and it made an impact on her. “I refused to attend the memorials,” she writes. “I told gay acquaintances, I didn’t know anyone that died. Why attend? The truth is that I was frightened. There was my great job as department head of accounting for a national firm. And, I was purchasing my first house. I didn’t want my being a lesbian to mess up my future.”
In 1998 she helped organize the 25th anniversary memorial. She had come out by then. But 1998 was a far cry from 1973.
“Sadly, the gay community was used to being ostracized. It was a way of life back then,” says Anderson of the atmosphere after the fire. “The early 1970s were dripping with homophobia. Homosexuality was removed from the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in December of 1973 — six months after the UpStairs Lounge fire. Louisiana had a Crime Against Nature statue passed in 1974, making sexual acts between gay couples illegal.”
It was amid this atmosphere that LGBT people in the city had to grieve and bury their dead, something that became difficult in the days after the tragedy.
Rev. Troy Perry flew in from Los Angeles, reeling from the fact that the fire had decimated the local congregation of his church. He was joined by Morris Kight from the Los Angeles Gay Community Services Center, Morty Manford from New York’s Gay Activists Alliance, and two other MCC leaders, John Gill and Paul Breton. Their appearance in the city marked the first time national gay leaders gathered to mourn a tragedy, something that could have been galvanizing or healing.
They were turned away by every church in the city, however, and finding a place to hold memorial services was a unexpected battle.
“I was shocked at the disproportionate reaction by the city government,” says Robert L. Camina, writer and director of the upcoming feature filmUpstairs Inferno. “The city declared days of mourning for victims of other mass tragedies in the city. It shocked me that despite the magnitude of the fire, it was largely ignored. The city didn’t declare a day of mourning. They were silent. I was also shocked at the religious response. Some said the response revealed the moral bankruptcy of churches. I can’t imagine a church, much less several churches, turning away mourners or victims. I was also sickened by the callous nature in which the press covered the fire, if they covered it at all.”
Indeed, as Perry and others searched for a church to hold services for the 32 victims, the LGBT community looked to local politicians, the mayor, religious officials, and civic leaders to at least recognize the tragedy. None did. The CBS Evening News was the only national mainstream news outlet to cover the story (The Advocate’s following issue featured the tragedy on the cover, with reporting from New Orleans).
“This was before the 24-hour news cycle and the advent of social media,” says Wayne Self, writer and director of the musical about the killing, Upstairs, which made its debut in New Orleans last summer. “Today, there is simply more airtime to fill. I talked to people who had actually covered the fire and the sense I got was that they wanted the coverage to be on par with any coverage of any fire, which was a fair-minded approach. But that approach failed [to take] into account the social ramifications and the larger context of this particular fire. Of course, this early in the LGBT movement, I think it’s understandable that the media would seek fairness in coverage over a social context that was barely visible to anyone.”
New Orleans local media covered the story on day one without mentioning that the lounge was a gay bar. When that fact was discovered, the reporting turned ugly at times.
One local radio jockey joked, “What will they bury the ashes of queers in? Fruit jars.” The joke was retold countless times around “respectable” offices in the city. The newspapers printed quotes from ordinary citizens riddled with homophobia, including “I hope the fire burned their dress off” and “The Lord had something to do with this.”
Police say they did their jobs, but even at the time the chief detective on the case, Henry Morris, told the local States-Item newspaper there wasn’t a lot of hope for identifying the victims, saying, “We don’t even know these papers belonged to the people we found them on. Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.”
It was true some gay men did carry false identification at the time — that way, if they were arrested their real names wouldn’t go on the public record, something that would get you fired — but almost all the victims were identified in the following weeks.
At left: Author Johnny Townsend (left, with filmmaker Royd Anderson) wrote about the fire 20 years ago. Because of the age of many survivors, Townsend is thought to have been the last person to really record many of the survivors’ stories.
And they were mourned. While Baptist, Catholic, and Lutheran congregations refused to allow memorials to be held in their churches, a closeted gay rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Father Bill Richardson, allowed a small prayer service be held there. It nearly cost him his job, as the local bishop forbade him to hold further services for these (mostly) gay victims. Eventually, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church allowed an official memorial service, which attracted about 250 people, though many LGBT people were too afraid to attend.
“From what I’ve been told by people who lived through the horror, the aftermath of the fire was very difficult,” says Camina. “Friends of the victims and community members could not grieve openly. They would risk outing themselves. Not only could they lose their job and their home, they could lose their family. Their thoughts were, Look what happened to these victims. If a parent could abandon their child even in death, what will my family do to me? The list of the victims expands far beyond those who were in the bar that tragic night. The fear it generated caused many people to stay in the closet, permanently altering their lives. The extent of indirect pain and damage caused by the fire is immeasurable.”
Self says, “The New Orleans gay community, though it was growing in numbers and political awareness, was not ready to turn this into a Stonewall moment. The tragedy was too swift, deadly, and profound to have it spun immediately into activism.”
Like others, Self argues that straight New Orleans had come to a “quiet acceptance of homosexuality as just another sin in Sin City, but was not yet ready to see LGBT people move from the back room to the streets.”
That is perhaps why civic leaders remained mum.
“The deplorable actions of the local politicians at the time was disgusting,” Anderson says. “Gov. Edwin Edwards and New Orleans mayor Moon Landrieu made no statement of public sympathy for the victims. They chose politics over what was right.”
Self concurs: “The government’s silence was more problematic [than the media’s].” He says that Clay Delery’s upcoming historical book about the fire and its aftermath, The UpStairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar, June 24, 1973 (McFarland Publishing, 2014), “carefully compares state and local government reactions to the UpStairs Lounge Fire with their reactions to other fires or similar disasters that occurred that same summer. It’s a pretty damning portrait of a city government that had no interest in mourning the loss of its LGBT citizens. That has certainly changed. The city was a great ally in memorializing the victims this year, in conjunction with New Orleans Pride and with us.”
THE REVOLUTION THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN
Camina, whose Upstairs Inferno film is set for release on the festival circuit in 2014, first learned about the tragedy while working as a music director for the Metropolitan Community Church.
“I was reading MCC founder Troy Perry’s book Don’t Be Afraid Anymore,” Camina recalls. “His book is pretty critical of the community’s response — not just the government, but also the gay community. When you’re from a place like Louisiana, your first instinct is to defend it against critics. So my first reaction was disbelief, not that the fire had happened, but that the community had reacted the way it did, and that I had never heard about it. So I started to read and to research. It wasn’t until later that I started to feel a real sadness and a real drive to create something expressive around this tragedy.”
Camina, whose first film was the award-winning Raid of the Rainbow Lounge, raised money for Upstairs Inferno with the help of a Kickstarter campaign and began the emotional task of talking to survivors, families of victims, historians, local politicians, and other experts. He got a boost by the fire’s 40th anniversary memorial services, held in the city last June. So did Anderson, who spent six years on his documentary; Delery, whose book is eagerly awaited; and Self, the man behind the musical Upstairs, which was perhaps the most controversial of all the recent related projects.
Telling this story, rather memorializing this story of the worst mass killing of gay people in the U.S., had to be told through theater, says Self.
At right: Scenes from the musical tragedy Upstairs, which opened to rave reviews, even though many in New Orleans had concerns about the tragedy being turned into musical theater.
“Theater has a separate function that has to do with activism, re-creation, and catharsis,” he says. “Theater incarnates. It brings ideas into a very present, fleshy, intimate reality, without the distance of film or the analysis of history. For that reason, this project, premiering as it did on the 40th anniversary of the fire, became equal parts theater, community activism, and memorial. Some people said they felt like they were watching history. Others said they felt like they could finally say goodbye. We had the children of victims there. The friends of victims. We had survivors there, in that small venue, watching us re-create the night of the fire. It was humbling and frightening and deeply rewarding. And it’s something only theater can do.”
Many locals were angry to hear of Self’s musical, many expecting some exploitive light theater piece like The Sound of Music. Once they saw the almost-operatic musical tragedy he created, people changed their minds.
“People contacted me with blunt questions about why I want to bring this old tragedy up at all,” he says. “In the face of such a stunning, graphic, and potentially politically outrageous loss of life, I think there is an understandable impulse to forget it and move along. To people with this impulse, any art or scholarship around the fire is seen as exploitative or morbid or insensitive. One longtime member of the gay community in New Orleans swore he’d be there opening night and would stand up and stop the show as soon as it was disrespectful. I’m told he left in tears at the end.”
Perhaps that’s because “Upstairs isn’t like most musical theater; it’s a requiem with dialogue. It’s a passion play set to music, and the music is organic to the setting.” After all, he says, New Orleans is one of the most musical cities in the world, and the UpStairs Lounge was a cabaret bar — plus one of the victims was a classical pianist who had been featured on national television and another was a local jazz pianist.
THE PROBLEM WITH RECOVERY
Bouncing back from a tragedy like this isn’t easy for anyone. Although most of the victims were identified (four remained unnamed), some victims were never claimed by family members, generally out of shame and stigma, and buried in unmarked pauper’s graves. Some of the survivors had repercussions in their lives after local newspapers published their names, essentially outing them to their families and employers. According to Timemagazine’s Elizabeth Dias, one man, who later died of his injuries, was fired from his teaching job while he was still in the hospital, and others “had to go to work on Monday morning” — the very next day — as if “nothing happened.”
At right: Mourners gathered outside the bar for the 40th anniversary memorial last June.
Some say police bungled the investigation, or worse, didn’t bother to investigate much because it was a “queer bar.” Local officials disagree; at one point 50 officers were assigned to the case. Either way, a suspect was never caught or punished, though Rodger Nunez, that hustler who was booted that night, drunkenly confessed to friends on more than one occasion that he started the fire. There was even some circumstantial evidence that pointed in his direction.
As he was booted from the building, Nunez shouted a threat, though the exact wording has been reported different ways over the years, so knowing exactly what he said is difficult to ascertain. This year Time magazine reported that he said he would “burn this place down” while the local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, reported that he said, “I’ll come back and burn you all out.” Either way, most agree that Nunez had threatened the patrons and bartender Rasmussen, who fingered Nunez from his hospital bed the next day.
Police knew early on this was a case of arson, started with a small can of lighter fluid that was probably purchased from the nearby Walgreens moments before the fireball shot into the building. The Walgreens clerk could tell police the buyer was a gay man who seemed distraught, but couldn’t identify him clearly. Nunez’s alcohol abuse continued unabated after the fire. When he was drunk he would talk about the killing, the fire. Sober he’d deny it. A year after the UpStairs Lounge fire claimed 32 lives and ruined countless others, it claimed yet one more: Rodger Nunez killed himself.
Camino says that from the people he’s interviewed, it’s clear that some gay people “were embarrassed or ashamed” in the days after the fire. “The fire did not launch a revolution, and the little activism that was spawned from the tragedy fizzled out very quickly. Also, you have families that didn’t claim their dead children. As a collective community, that is shameful and embarrassing. You also have a prime suspect who is a member of the LGBT community. Evidence points to the fact that this horrific crime was committed by one of our own. Furthermore, there isn’t any official closure. Police weren’t able to charge anyone with the crime. While the evidence points to Nunez committing the crime, there is no justice. Lastly, I think few people know about the story because it is still too painful for people to talk about.”
Indeed, Duane Mitchell, now a grown man in Rainsville, Ark., who calls his dad a “hero” for going back in to save his partner, says the fact that no one has ever been charged with the killing makes this a tragedy without closure for many of the families of the dead — and no doubt for the few living survivors.
At left: George Mitchell dressed up as Queen Victoria, in happier times.
“It was very emotional, sitting across from this gentleman who experienced such immense trauma as a child,” says Anderson, who showed Duane photos of his father he’d never seen before, including one of him dressed as Queen Victoria.
“Duane called his dad a hero — that was so poignant to me,” Anderson says. “A son acknowledging his father’s last selfless act, in a time when too many people turned their backs and walked away.”
If the lovers entwined, dying in a blaze together doesn’t gut-punch you, it’s the stories of the victims’ children, many who didn’t know what had happened to their fathers until recently. TinaMarie Matyi lost her dad, Buddy (George) Stephen Matyi, that affable and handsome piano player.
“I just recently found out the whole truth about what happened to my own dad,” Matyi wrote on Back2Stonewall. “He was asked to play by one of his friends. It really upset me on how someone can kill someone. My dad was trying to provide for his family and be a part of his friends. Was he gay? I don’t know and if he was I really don’t care. This jerk took away my dad. My dad had two sons and myself. We have lost our dad, my grandmother lost a son, and my mom lost her husband. I pray every night that nothing like this happens to my son because he is gay and I could not be prouder.”
Thanks to the anniversary media coverage, people like Matyi are connecting with others like Mary Mihalyfi, who lost her favorite uncle, Glenn R. Green, in the fire. Skylar Fein’s haunting art installation, Remember the Upstairs Lounge, which was acquired by the New Orleans Museum of Art this year, riveted people with a 90-piece exhibition that included a reproduction of the bar and faux artifacts, along with photographs and video about the tragedy. It helped others grieve in public, something no one could do in 1973.
An episode of Ghost Hunters on Syfy even tried to connect the living with the dead by visiting the bar, now named Jimini Lounge. All the recent media attention has combined with work by New Orleans’s LGBT community, which hosted an anniversary memorial in June, to increase the visibility of the fire far beyond the recognition it ever got in 1973.
The stigma and horror of it all, says Self, surely held folks back in 1973.
“Shame cuts both ways, and shame is an important theme throughout the play,” Self says. “Were the unidentified victims a lesson for gays and their families on the perils of the closet? Or did the reaction of some of the more hateful people in the community only serve to make people feel even more ashamed? The community as a whole was victimized and abused by the fire and its aftermath. The emotion surrounding the fire, these 40 years later, is a testament to the fire’s impact on the city.”
Even each of these men — Self, Anderson, Camina — who have worked on these projects surrounding the UpStairs Lounge massacre have been profoundly affected, with a sort of creative PTSD that may never go away.
“I think a lingering issue that is rarely talked about is the mystery surrounding the unknown victims,” Camino says. “These men went missing and no one claimed them? I can’t wrap my head around it. It’s unfathomable. I grieve for the unidentified victims of the fire. I don’t believe they have found peace yet. I am shocked and sickened that the families never claimed them and that their bodies were dumped into a pauper’s grave.”
At left: Upstairs writer-composer Wayne Self says the story of the fire will never leave him.
Looking into people’s eyes as they experience pain and anguish did not come easy, Camino says. “When I stood outside the bar on the morning of June 25, I stared at the building and tried to imagine what it must have been like 40 years ago, the morning after the fire. I imagined the smell of soot and death in air and the suffocating amount of grief. I got chills. When I returned to New Orleans in September, the site was no less chilling. My tour through the bar was equally as emotional. I stood at the second-story window and peered down the fire escape to the pavement below. This was one of the last sights people saw before they died. I stood next to the infamous window: the one which Reverend Larson got wedged in and was burned alive. I was standing in the footprints where these people died. It was heart-wrenching. We walked through the rear exit door where Buddy led the few survivors to the roof. We were walking in their footsteps. It was surreal. You can’t help but cry.”
For Anderson, six years of his life devoted to documenting this story, the tragedy still lingers. “There was one photo of a dead patron deceased underneath a couple ofbarstools, with his T-shirt pulled up, showing his stomach,” he recalls. “He probably was using the shirt to cover his mouth from the smoke. The look on his soot-covered face was awful. It’s a disturbing photo, one that can’t be erased from my memory.”
Making the musical Upstairs was a challenge unlike anything he’s ever faced says Self, a former GLAAD media spokesman as well as a playwright and composer: “I’m still affected by it, to the extent that I’m not yet working on anything else. In order to treat the topic fairly and sensitively, I had to face the victims head-on and try to know them as best as I could.”
At right: Varla Jean Merman was excited to join the cast of Upstairs, the musical.
His play doesn’t trade in the morbidity of the night, as would be so easy to do, but the people, the victims, the horror is there in the subtext. As with Camino, his ride is just beginning. The musical will be playing in conjunction with Acadiana Pride in Lafayette, La., next June, the city’s inaugural Pride festival.
He’s in talks with various theaters around the country to have them produce and present the play and he’s fundraising to put on a national tour. It’s the love of the people of New Orleans, their desire to see this story come alive, that has kept him going.
“It’s not often that you get to work on a project that has such political, social, and emotional resonance with people,” he says. “This is the sort of work that a lot of us got into theatre to do, but rarely get to do. It fulfills that promise, and allows us to share something with a whole community.”
The show focuses tightly on the night of the fire and its relatively immediate aftermath. The themes are broad and relevant to the LGBT experience today: pride, shame, alienation, acceptance, forgiveness, rage, religion, family, survival, and death. The fire and its victims speak to us today because their experience presages our own experience with family struggles, with spiritual struggles, with AIDS, with a long, slow march from shame to acceptance to public celebration of our relationships — a march that saw a lot of losses along the way. Yes, the mayors and religious leaders would comment today, and nearly all of those comments would be supportive and kind. And we owe it to those who didn’t live in these conditions to remember them and celebrate their contributions.
Camino looks forward to 2014 but knows he’ll never stop thinking about 1973.
“The story and the victims will always be a part of me,” he says. “These people are more than statistics and more than plot points. The people that were there were sons, dads, brothers, uncles, moms, sisters. I will never leave them behind. I want to do all I can to help educate future leaders and find a way to turn this tragedy into teachable moments. We should never allow ourselves to forget them — again.”
Editor’s note: The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Religious Archives Network has a comprehensive digital exhibit on the UpStairs Lounge fire with personal essays, old photos and media clippings, and excerpts from Townsend’s compendium.
 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wayne-self/UpStairs -lounge-fire_b_2567541.html
 http:// http://www.upstairsmusical.com
Usui Sensei 1865 – 1926
Mikao Usui was the originator of what we today call Reiki. He was born on August 15th 1865 in the village of ‘Taniai-mura’ in the Yamagata district of Gifu prefecture Kyoto.
Mikao Usui probably came from a wealthy family as at that time only children from wealthy families could get a good education.
As a child he studied in a Tendai Buddhist monastery school entering at an early age. He was also a student of different martial arts. His memorial states that he was a talented hard working student, he liked to read and his knowledge of medicine, psychology, fortune telling and theology of religions around the world, including the Kyoten (Buddhist Bible) was vast. He married and his wife’s name was Sadako, they had a son (born 1907) and daughter.
Usui sensei studied and traveled to western countries and China several times, this was encouraged during the Meiji Era and later, to learn and study western ways.
During his life Miako Usui held many different professions such as public servant, office worker, industrialist, reporter, politician’s secretary, missionary, supervisor of convicts. He also worked as a private secretary to a politician Shimpei Goto, who was Secretary of the Railroad, Postmaster General and Secretary of the Interior and State.
At some point in his life he became a Tendai Buddhist Monk/Priest (what we in the west call a lay priest). On several occasions he took a form of meditation lasting 21 days. On his memorial it says that at one time this took place on Mount Kurama (Horse Saddle Mountain). This is where he is supposed to have been given the inspiration for his system of healing – Reiki. It is very likely that he incorporated ideas and knowledge about healing from other system, both spiritual and physical, like Chinese Medicine, other Eastern healing systems like Chi Gong, the Japanese equivalent Kiko, acupuncture and others.
Mikao Usui found that the healing techniques contained within his spiritul system worked well on various ailments. In April 1922 he opened his first school/clinic in Harajuku Tokyo. Usui had a small manual which is now translated into English and published by Western Reiki Master living in Japan, Frank Arjava Petter, under the title “The Original Reiki Handbook of Dr Mikao Usui”
Mikao Usui’s skills as a healer and teacher must have been very good and his fame spread very quickly throughout Japan. This was a time of great change in Japan, opening up to the West and changes both in government and religion. His teachings became popular among the older people who saw them as a return to old ideals and spiritual practices.
His school/clinic was formed not just for the spiritual teachings but it was also a way for people to obtain healing. As people in general at this time in Japans history were very poor, healing sessions were very cheap or free. According to Japanese history articles, healing and other similar practices at that time would be given for a minimal cost or more likely for free.
Reiki students seem to have worked with the teacher as a sort of payment (a small monetary fee might also have been involved).
The Usui teachings included teaching people how to heal themselves (a very central point still in Reiki of today). Healing would be given to them, then they were taught how to heal themselves.
In 1923 on the 1st of September an earthquake shook Tokyo and Yokohama, measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale. The epicenter was 50 miles from Tokyo. Over 140,000 deaths were reported. The majority were killed in the fires started by the earthquake. It was the greatest natural disaster in Japanese history. Mikao Usui and his students started to give healing in the area and the demand and need for Reiki was enormous and as a result of his work he became even more famous.
In 1925 Usui had become so busy that he had to open a new larger school outside Tokyo in Nakano. As he traveled widely his senior students would continue with his work when he was away from his school/clinic.
Dr Mikao Usui passed away on March 9th 1926 at the age of 62. He is buried in Saihoji Temple in Suginami-Ku, Tokyo. Later his students created and erected a large memorial stone next to his grave describing his life and work. Much of the new information about Usui Sensei comes from the translation of this memorial.
Three levels of teachings
Usui Sensei’s techings were divided into 6 levels, Shoden (4 levels), Okuden (2 levels) and Shinpi-den. The beginning level student (Shoden) had to work hard at increasing their own spirituality before being able to move on to the Okuden (inner teachings) level. Not many students reached the next level of Shinpi-den – Mystery/secret teachings.
It is reported that he had taught his system of healing to well over 2000 persons, and what we in the West call Reiki Masters (no such title existed in Japan at the time) to 15 – 17 persons.
~ An Archetypally True Story ~
Claimed to be a 200-year-old prophecy by an old Cree woman named Eyes of Fire.
Lelanie Stone relates the following story that her grandmother told her when she was a young girl.
There was an old lady, from the “Cree” tribe, named “Eyes of Fire”, who prophesied that one day, because of the white man’s or Yo-ne-gis’ greed, there would come a time, when the fish would die in the streams, the birds would fall from the air, the waters would be blackened, and the trees would no longer be. Mankind as we would know it would all but cease to exist.
There would come a time when the “keepers of the legend, stories, culture rituals, and myths, and all the Ancient Tribal Customs” would be needed to restore us to health. They would be mankind’s key to survival, they would be known as the “Warriors of the Rainbow”. There would come a day of awakening when all the peoples of all the tribes would form a New World of Justice, Peace, Freedom and recognition of the Great Spirit.
The “Warriors of the Rainbow” would spread these messages and teach all peoples of the Earth or “Elohi”. They would teach them how to live the “Way of the Great Spirit”. They would tell them of how the world today has turned away from the Great Spirit and that is why our Earth is “Sick”.
The “Warriors of the Rainbow” would show the peoples that this “Ancient Being” (the Great Spirit), is full of love and understanding, and teach them how to make the “Earth or Elohi” beautiful again. These Warriors would give the people principles or rules to follow to make their path right with the world. These principles would be those of the Ancient Tribes. The Warriors of the Rainbow would teach the people of the ancient practices of Unity, Love and Understanding. They would teach of Harmony among people in all four comers of the Earth.
Like the Ancient Tribes, they would teach the peoples how to pray to the Great Spirit with love that flows like the beautiful mountain stream, and flows along the path to the ocean of life. Once again, they would be able to feel joy in solitude and in councils. They would be free of petty jealousies and love all mankind as their brothers, regardless of color, race or religion. They would feel happiness enter their hearts, and become as one with the entire human race. Their hearts would be pure and radiate warmth, understanding and respect for all mankind, Nature, and the Great Spirit. They would once again fill their minds, hearts, souls, and deeds with the purest of thoughts. They would seek the beauty of the Master of Life – the Great Spirit! They would find strength and beauty in prayer and the solitudes of life.
Their children would once again be able to run free and enjoy the treasures of Nature and Mother Earth. Free from the fears of toxins and destruction, wrought by the Yo-ne-gi and his practices of greed. The rivers would again run clear, the forests be abundant and beautiful, the animals and birds would be replenished. The powers of the plants and animals would again be respected and conservation of all that is beautiful would become a way of life.
The poor, sick and needy would be cared for by their brothers and sisters of the Earth. These practices would again become a part of their daily lives.
The leaders of the people would be chosen in the old way – not by their political party, or who could speak the loudest, boast the most, or by name calling or mud slinging, but by those whose actions spoke the loudest. Those who demonstrated their love, wisdom, and courage and those who showed that they could and did work for the good of all, would be chosen as the leaders or Chiefs. They would be chosen by their “quality” and not the amount of money they had obtained. Like the thoughtful and devoted “Ancient Chiefs”, they would understand the people with love, and see that their young were educated with the love and wisdom of their surroundings. They would show them that miracles can be accomplished to heal this world of its ills, and restore it to health and beauty.
The tasks of these “Warriors of the Rainbow” are many and great. There will be terrifying mountains of ignorance to conquer and they shall find prejudice and hatred. They must be dedicated, unwavering in their strength, and strong of heart. They will find willing hearts and minds that will follow them on this road of returning “Mother Earth” to beauty and plenty – once more.
The day will come, it is not far away. The day that we shall see how we owe our very existence to the people of all tribes that have maintained their culture and heritage. Those that have kept the rituals, stories, legends, and myths alive. It will be with this knowledge, the knowledge that they have preserved, that we shall once again return to “harmony” with Nature, Mother Earth, and mankind. It will be with this knowledge that we shall find our “Key to our Survival”.
This is the story of the “Warriors of the Rainbow” and this is my reason for protecting the culture, heritage, and knowledge of my ancestors. I know that the day “Eyes of Fire” spoke of – will come! I want my children and grandchildren to be prepared to accept this task.The task of being one of the……..”Warriors of the Rainbow”.
Sexual orientation and homosexuality
Since 1975, the American Psychological Association has called on psychologists to take the lead in removing the stigma of mental illness that has long been associated with lesbian, gay, and bisexual orientations. The discipline of psychology is concerned with the well-being of people and groups and therefore with threats to that well-being. The prejudice and discrimination that people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual regularly experience have been shown to have negative psychological effects. This information is designed to provide accurate information for those who want to better understand sexual orientation and the impact of prejudice and discrimination on those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
What is sexual orientation?
Sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes. Sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions. Research over several decades has demonstrated that sexual orientation ranges along a continuum, from exclusive attraction to the other sex to exclusive attraction to the same sex. However, sexual orientation is usually discussed in terms of three categories: heterosexual (having emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions to members of the other sex), gay/lesbian (having emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions to members of one’s own sex), and bisexual (having emotional, romantic, or sexual attractions to both men and women). This range of behaviors and attractions has been described in various cultures and nations throughout the world. Many cultures use identity labels to describe people who express these attractions. In the United States the most frequent labels are lesbians (women attracted to women), gay men (men attracted to men), and bisexual people (men or women attracted to both sexes). However, some people may use different labels or none at all.
Sexual orientation is distinct from other components of sex and gender, including biological sex (the anatomical, physiological, and genetic characteristics associated with being male or female), gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female),* and social gender role (the cultural norms that define feminine and masculine behavior).
Sexual orientation is commonly discussed as if it were solely a characteristic of an individual, like biological sex, gender identity, or age. This perspective is incomplete because sexual orientation is defined in terms of relationships with others. People express their sexual orientation through behaviors with others, including such simple actions as holding hands or kissing. Thus, sexual orientation is closely tied to the intimate personal relationships that meet deeply felt needs for love, attachment, and intimacy. In addition to sexual behaviors, these bonds include nonsexual physical affection between partners, shared goals and values, mutual support, and ongoing commitment. Therefore, sexual orientation is not merely a personal characteristic within an individual. Rather, one’s sexual orientation defines the group of people in which one is likely to find the satisfying and fulfilling romantic relationships that are an essential component of personal identity for many people.
How do people know if they are lesbian, gay, or bisexual?
According to current scientific and professional understanding, the core attractions that form the basis for adult sexual orientation typically emerge between middle childhood and early adolescence. These patterns of emotional, romantic, and sexual attraction may arise without any prior sexual experience. People can be celibate and still know their sexual orientation-–be it lesbian, gay, bisexual, or heterosexual.
Different lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have very different experiences regarding their sexual orientation. Some people know that they are lesbian, gay, or bisexual for a long time before they actually pursue relationships with other people. Some people engage in sexual activity (with same-sex and/or other-sex partners) before assigning a clear label to their sexual orientation. Prejudice and discrimination make it difficult for many people to come to terms with their sexual orientation identities, so claiming a lesbian, gay, or bisexual identity may be a slow process.
What causes a person to have a particular sexual orientation?
There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.
What role do prejudice and discrimination play in the lives of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people?
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in the United States encounter extensive prejudice, discrimination, and violence because of their sexual orientation. Intense prejudice against lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people was widespread throughout much of the 20th century. Public opinion studies over the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s routinely showed that, among large segments of the public, lesbian, gay, and bisexual people were the target of strongly held negative attitudes. More recently, public opinion has increasingly opposed sexual orientation discrimination, but expressions of hostility toward lesbians and gay men remain common in contemporary American society. Prejudice against bisexuals appears to exist at comparable levels. In fact, bisexual individuals may face discrimination from some lesbian and gay people as well as from heterosexual people.
Sexual orientation discrimination takes many forms. Severe antigay prejudice is reflected in the high rate of harassment and violence directed toward lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals in American society. Numerous surveys indicate that verbal harassment and abuse are nearly universal experiences among lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Also, discrimination against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in employment and housing appears to remain widespread. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is another area in which prejudice and discrimination against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have had negative effects. Early in the pandemic, the assumption that HIV/AIDS was a “gay disease” contributed to the delay in addressing the massive social upheaval that AIDS would generate. Gay and bisexual men have been disproportionately affected by this disease. The association of HIV/AIDS with gay and bisexual men and the inaccurate belief that some people held that all gay and bisexual men were infected served to further stigmatize lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.
What is the psychological impact of prejudice and discrimination?
Prejudice and discrimination have social and personal impact. On the social level, prejudice and discrimination against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are reflected in the everyday stereotypes of members of these groups. These stereotypes persist even though they are not supported by evidence, and they are often used to excuse unequal treatment of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. For example, limitations on job opportunities, parenting, and relationship recognition are often justified by stereotypic assumptions about lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.
On an individual level, such prejudice and discrimination may also have negative consequences, especially if lesbian, gay, and bisexual people attempt to conceal or deny their sexual orientation. Although many lesbians and gay men learn to cope with the social stigma against homosexuality, this pattern of prejudice can have serious negative effects on health and well-being. Individuals and groups may have the impact of stigma reduced or worsened by other characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, religion, or disability. Some lesbian, gay, and bisexual people may face less of a stigma. For others, race, sex, religion, disability, or other characteristics may exacerbate the negative impact of prejudice and discrimination.
The widespread prejudice, discrimination, and violence to which lesbians and gay men are often subjected are significant mental health concerns. Sexual prejudice, sexual orientation discrimination, and antigay violence are major sources of stress for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Although social support is crucial in coping with stress, antigay attitudes and discrimination may make it difficult for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people to find such support.
Is homosexuality a mental disorder?
No, lesbian, gay, and bisexual orientations are not disorders. Research has found no inherent association between any of these sexual orientations and psychopathology. Both heterosexual behavior and homosexual behavior are normal aspects of human sexuality. Both have been documented in many different cultures and historical eras. Despite the persistence of stereotypes that portray lesbian, gay, and bisexual people as disturbed, several decades of research and clinical experience have led all mainstream medical and mental health organizations in this country to conclude that these orientations represent normal forms of human experience. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual relationships are normal forms of human bonding. Therefore, these mainstream organizations long ago abandoned classifications of homosexuality as a mental disorder.
What about therapy intended to change sexual orientation from gay to straight?
All major national mental health organizations have officially expressed concerns about therapies promoted to modify sexual orientation. To date, there has been no scientifically adequate research to show that therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation (sometimes called reparative or conversion therapy) is safe or effective. Furthermore, it seems likely that the promotion of change therapies reinforces stereotypes and contributes to a negative climate for lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons. This appears to be especially likely for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals who grow up in more conservative religious settings.
Helpful responses of a therapist treating an individual who is troubled about her or his same-sex attractions include helping that person actively cope with social prejudices against homosexuality, successfully resolve issues associated with and resulting from internal conflicts, and actively lead a happy and satisfying life. Mental health professional organizations call on their members to respect a person’s (client’s) right to self-determination; be sensitive to the client’s race, culture, ethnicity, age, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, language, and disability status when working with that client; and eliminate biases based on these factors.
What is “coming out” and why is it important?
The phrase “coming out” is used to refer to several aspects of lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons’ experiences: self-awareness of same-sex attractions; the telling of one or a few people about these attractions; widespread disclosure of same-sex attractions; and identification with the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community. Many people hesitate to come out because of the risks of meeting prejudice and discrimination. Some choose to keep their identity a secret; some choose to come out in limited circumstances; some decide to come out in very public ways.
Coming out is often an important psychological step for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Research has shown that feeling positively about one’s sexual orientation and integrating it into one’s life fosters greater well-being and mental health. This integration often involves disclosing one’s identity to others; it may also entail participating in the gay community. Being able to discuss one’s sexual orientation with others also increases the availability of social support, which is crucial to mental health and psychological well-being. Like heterosexuals, lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people benefit from being able to share their lives with and receive support from family, friends, and acquaintances. Thus, it is not surprising that lesbians and gay men who feel they must conceal their sexual orientation report more frequent mental health concerns than do lesbians and gay men who are more open; they may even have more physical health problems.
What about sexual orientation and coming out during adolescence?
Adolescence is a period when people separate from their parents and families and begin to develop autonomy. Adolescence can be a period of experimentation, and many youths may question their sexual feelings. Becoming aware of sexual feelings is a normal developmental task of adolescence. Sometimes adolescents have same-sex feelings or experiences that cause confusion about their sexual orientation. This confusion appears to decline over time, with different outcomes for different individuals.
Some adolescents desire and engage in same-sex behavior but do not identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, sometimes because of the stigma associated with a nonheterosexual orientation. Some adolescents experience continuing feelings of same-sex attraction but do not engage in any sexual activity or may engage in heterosexual behavior for varying lengths of time. Because of the stigma associated with same-sex attractions, many youths experience same-sex attraction for many years before becoming sexually active with partners of the same sex or disclosing their attractions to others.
For some young people, this process of exploring same-sex attractions leads to a lesbian, gay, or bisexual identity. For some, acknowledging this identity can bring an end to confusion. When these young people receive the support of parents and others, they are often able to live satisfying and healthy lives and move through the usual process of adolescent development. The younger a person is when she or he acknowledges a nonheterosexual identity, the fewer internal and external resources she or he is likely to have. Therefore, youths who come out early are particularly in need of support from parents and others.
Young people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual may be more likely to face certain problems, including being bullied and having negative experiences in school. These experiences are associated with negative outcomes, such as suicidal thoughts, and high-risk activities, such as unprotected sex and alcohol and drug use. On the other hand, many lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths appear to experience no greater level of health or mental health risks. Where problems occur, they are closely associated with experiences of bias and discrimination in their environments. Support from important people in the teen’s life can provide a very helpful counterpart to bias and discrimination.
Support in the family, at school, and in the broader society helps to reduce risk and encourage healthy development. Youth need caring and support, appropriately high expectations, and the encouragement to participate actively with peers. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth who do well despite stress—like all adolescents who do well despite stress—tend to be those who are socially competent, who have good problem-solving skills, who have a sense of autonomy and purpose, and who look forward to the future.
In a related vein, some young people are presumed to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual because they don’t abide by traditional gender roles (i.e., the cultural beliefs about what is appropriate “masculine” and “feminine” appearance and behavior). Whether these youths identify as heterosexual or as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, they encounter prejudice and discrimination based on the presumption that they are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. The best support for these young people is school and social climates that do not tolerate discriminatory language and behavior.
At what age should lesbian, gay, or bisexual youths come out?
There is no simple or absolute answer to this question. The risks and benefits of coming out are different for youths in different circumstances. Some young people live in families where support for their sexual orientation is clear and stable; these youths may encounter less risk in coming out, even at a young age. Young people who live in less supportive families may face more risks in coming out. All young people who come out may experience bias, discrimination, or even violence in their schools, social groups, work places, and faith communities. Supportive families, friends, and schools are important buffers against the negative impacts of these experiences.
What is the nature of same-sex relationships?
Research indicates that many lesbians and gay men want and have committed relationships. For example, survey data indicate that between 40% and 60% of gay men and between 45% and 80% of lesbians are currently involved in a romantic relationship. Further, data from the 2000 U.S. Census indicate that of the 5.5 million couples who were living together but not married, about 1 in 9 (594,391) had partners of the same sex. Although the census data are almost certainly an underestimate of the actual number of cohabiting same-sex couples, they indicate that there are 301,026 male same-sex households and 293,365 female same-sex households in the United States.
Stereotypes about lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have persisted, even though studies have found them to be misleading. For instance, one stereotype is that the relationships of lesbians and gay men are dysfunctional and unhappy. However, studies have found same-sex and heterosexual couples to be equivalent to each other on measures of relationship satisfaction and commitment.
A second stereotype is that the relationships of lesbians, gay men and bisexual people are unstable. However, despite social hostility toward same-sex relationships, research shows that many lesbians and gay men form durable relationships. For example, survey data indicate that between 18% and 28% of gay couples and between 8% and 21% of lesbian couples have lived together 10 or more years. It is also reasonable to suggest that the stability of same-sex couples might be enhanced if partners from same-sex couples enjoyed the same levels of support and recognition for their relationships as heterosexual couples do, i.e., legal rights and responsibilities associated with marriage.
A third common misconception is that the goals and values of lesbian and gay couples are different from those of heterosexual couples. In fact, research has found that the factors that influence relationship satisfaction, commitment, and stability are remarkably similar for both same-sex cohabiting couples and heterosexual married couples.
Far less research is available on the relationship experiences of people who identify as bisexual. If these individuals are in a same-sex relationship, they are likely to face the same prejudice and discrimination that members of lesbian and gay couples face. If they are in a heterosexual relationship, their experiences may be quite similar to those of people who identify as heterosexual unless they choose to come out as bisexual; in that case, they will likely face some of the same prejudice and discrimination that lesbian and gay individuals encounter.
Can lesbians and gay men be good parents?
Many lesbians and gay men are parents; others wish to be parents. In the 2000 U.S. Census, 33% of female same-sex couple households and 22% of male same-sex couple households reported at least one child under the age of 18 living in the home. Although comparable data are not available, many single lesbians and gay men are also parents, and many same-sex couples are part-time parents to children whose primary residence is elsewhere.
As the social visibility and legal status of lesbian and gay parents have increased, some people have raised concerns about the well-being of children in these families. Most of these questions are based on negative stereotypes about lesbians and gay men. The majority of research on this topic asks whether children raised by lesbian and gay parents are at a disadvantage when compared to children reaised by heterosexual parents. The most common questions and answers to them are these:
- Do children of lesbian and gay parents have more problems with sexual identity than do children of heterosexual parents?For instance, do these children develop problems in gender identity and/or in gender role behavior? The answer from research is clear: sexual and gender identities (including gender identity, gender-role behavior, and sexual orientation) develop in much the same way among children of lesbian mothers as they do among children of heterosexual parents. Few studies are available regarding children of gay fathers.
- Do children raised by lesbian or gay parents have problems in personal development in areas other than sexual identity?For example, are the children of lesbian or gay parents more vulnerable to mental breakdown, do they have more behavior problems, or are they less psychologically healthy than other children? Again, studies of personality, self-concept, and behavior problems show few differences between children of lesbian mothers and children of heterosexual parents. Few studies are available regarding children of gay fathers.
- Are children of lesbian and gay parents likely to have problems with social relationships?For example, will they be teased or otherwise mistreated by their peers? Once more, evidence indicates that children of lesbian and gay parents have normal social relationships with their peers and adults. The picture that emerges from this research shows that children of gay and lesbian parents enjoy a social life that is typical of their age group in terms of involvement with peers, parents, family members, and friends.
- Are these children more likely to be sexually abused by a parent or by a parent’s friends or acquaintances?There is no scientific support for fears about children of lesbian or gay parents being sexually abused by their parents or their parents’ gay, lesbian, or bisexual friends or acquaintances.
In summary, social science has shown that the concerns often raised about children of lesbian and gay parents—concerns that are generally grounded in prejudice against and stereotypes about gay people—are unfounded. Overall, the research indicates that the children of lesbian and gay parents do not differ markedly from the children of heterosexual parents in their development, adjustment, or overall well-being.
What can people do to diminish prejudice and discrimination against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people?
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people who want to help reduce prejudice and discrimination can be open about their sexual orientation, even as they take necessary precautions to be as safe as possible. They can examine their own belief systems for the presence of antigay stereotypes. They can make use of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community—as well as supportive heterosexual people—for support.
Heterosexual people who wish to help reduce prejudice and discrimination can examine their own response to antigay stereotypes and prejudice. They can make a point of coming to know lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, and they can work with lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals and communities to combat prejudice and discrimination. Heterosexual individuals are often in a good position to ask other heterosexual people to consider the prejudicial or discriminatory nature of their beliefs and actions. Heterosexual allies can encourage nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation. They can work to make coming out safe. When lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people feel free to make public their sexual orientation, heterosexuals are given an opportunity to have personal contact with openly gay people and to perceive them as individuals.
Studies of prejudice, including prejudice against gay people, consistently show that prejudice declines when members of the majority group interact with members of a minority group. In keeping with this general pattern, one of the most powerful influences on heterosexuals’ acceptance of gay people is having personal contact with an openly gay person. Antigay attitudes are far less common among members of the population who have a close friend or family member who is lesbian or gay, especially if the gay person has directly come out to the heterosexual person.
Where Can I find more Information About Homosexuality?
- American Psychological Association
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns Office
750 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002
- Mental Health America (formerly the National Mental Health Association)
2000 N. Beauregard Street, 6th Floor
Alexandria, VA 22311
Main Switchboard: (703) 684-7722
Toll-free: (800) 969-6MHA (6642)
TTY: (800) 433-5959
Fax: (703) 684-5968What Does Gay Mean? How to Talk With Kids About Sexual Orientation and Prejudice
An anti-bullying program designed to improve understanding and respect for youth who are gay/lesbian/bisexual/ transgender (GLBT). Centered on an educational booklet called What Does Gay Mean? How to Talk with Kids About Sexual Orientation and Prejudice, the program encourages parents and others to communicate and share values of respect with their children.
- American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
Division of Child and Adolescent Health
141 Northwest Point Blvd.
Elk Grove Village, IL 60007
Office: (847) 228-5005
Fax: (847) 228-5097Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Teens: Facts for Teens and Their Parents
Suggested Bibliographic Citation
American Psychological Association. (2008). Answers to your questions: For a better understanding of sexual orientation and homosexuality. Washington, DC: Author. [Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/sorientation.pdf.%5D
This material may be reproduced and distributed in whole or in part without permission provided that the reproduced content includes the original bibliographic citation and the following statement is included: Copyright © 2008 American Psychological Association.