Pulse nightclub shooting and tragic history of violence at LGBTQ clubs in U.S.

The Long, Tragic History of Violence at LGBTQ Clubs in America

The Long, Tragic History of Violence at LGBTQ Clubs in America

Outward
Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
June 12 2016 12:50 PM

 The Long, Tragic History of Violence at LGBTQ Bars and Clubs in America

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Firemen give first aid to survivors of the UpStairs Lounge arson attack that left 32 dead and dozens injured on June 24, 1973, in New Orleans.

AP Photo/G.E. Arnold

The mass shooting at Orlando’s LGBT nightclub Pulse, which left at least 50 dead, is only the latest chapter in a long history of violence at LGBTQ bars and clubs in America. In fact, for as long as LGBTQ people have been congregating in their own social spaces, these spaces have been the target of vicious homophobic and transphobic violence.

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers the law and LGBTQ issues.

Until the Pulse massacre, the most notorious act of violence against a gay bar was the burning of the UpStairs Lounge, a New Orleans gay bar, in 1973. An arsonist set fire to the bar, killing 32 people in less than 20 minutes. The vast majority of politicians declined to comment on the arson, and the Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans did not offer support to the victims. (The Archdiocese apologized for its silence in 2013.) Many news outlets ignored the story; some of those that did cover it mocked the victims for being gay. No one has ever been prosecuted for the crime. When asked about identifying the victims, the chief detective of the New Orleans Police Department responded, “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.”

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In 1997, “Olympic Park Bomber” Eric Robert Rudolph bombed the Otherside Lounge, a lesbian nightclub in Atlanta, later explaining that he believed “the concerted effort to legitimize the practice of homosexuality” was an “assault upon the integrity of American society.” He described homosexuality as “an aberrant sexual behavior,” and wrote that “when the attempt is made” to “recognize this behavior as being just as legitimate and normal as the natural man/woman relationship, every effort should be made, including force if necessary, to halt this effort.” In his confession, Rudolph railed against the “homosexual agenda,” including “gay marriage, homosexual adoption, hate-crime laws including gays, or the attempt to introduce a homosexual normalizing curriculum into our schools.”

Three years later, Ronald Gay opened fire on Backstreet Cafe, a gay bar in Roanoke, Virginia, killing Danny Overstreet, 43, and severely injuring six others. Gay was angry that his last name could mean “homosexual” and said God had told him to kill gay people. He called himself a “Christian Soldier working for my Lord” and testified in court that he wished he could have “killed more fags.” More recently, in 2013, Musab Mohammed Masmari set fire to Neighbours, a gay nightclub in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle, on New Year’s Eve.* Masmari had explained that he believed gay people “should be exterminated.” 

Of course, these attacks only punctuate the thousands of anti–LGBTQ hate crimes that occur in public—in schools and bathrooms and parks, on sidewalks and often in broad daylight—every year. Federal law did not explicitly criminalize anti–LGBTQ hate crimes until quite recently, as President George W. Bush had threatened to veto any legislation that outlawed hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. With President Barack Obama’s support, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act finally passed in 2009. It drew just five Republican votes in the Senate, and its fiercest opponent, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, criticized his colleagues for merely caving to “the political cause of the moment.”

*Correction, June 12, 2016: This post originally misstated the name of the Seattle nightclub to which Masmari set fire.