Book review: Tinderbox, by Robert W. Fieseler

Fieseler, Robert W. Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation. Liveright Publishing Corporation. $26.95. HC. 9781631491641

Cover of the book Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation, depicting firefighters putting out the fire at that nightclub.

For all its libertine reputation, it wasn’t easy to be yourself as a gay man in New Orleans in 1973. One of the places that made it easier was an upstairs bar known as the Up Stairs Lounge. The bar was frequented mostly by working class gay men, and the efforts of bar manager Buddy Rasmussen ensured that it was a home for these folks and their friends. It even served as the location for the local Metropolitan Community Church services for a time, and many of the MCC congregants made their way there on Sunday afternoons for the $1 bottomless “beer bust” drink special.

It was a safe place, or as safe as one could be, which meant that on June 24th, 1973 when an arsonist started the fire that burned 32 individuals alive and injured many others, the heart was cut out of New Orleans’ gay culture.

The author relates the story of the disastrous fire, its aftermath, and the long-term effects on gay liberation in this beautifully written and often devastating book. He teases out the many threads and, with the benefit of hindsight, situates the Up Stairs Lounge in terms of the burgeoning national gay movement as well as in local politics. Fieseler also effectively conveys the long-term trauma experienced by survivors of the fire, who were either outed as gay through seeking treatment for their injuries, or had to hide their grief during the aftermath lest others learn that they were there and put two and two together. For many of these men and many in the greater New Orleans LGBT community, it was decades before they were able to fully, publicly mourn their loss.

This is an important book when it comes to understanding the history of LGBT liberation, both nationally and on a local scale in New Orleans. Highly recommended for all library collections, particularly public libraries where there is interested in true crime and LGBT issues.

Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney



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