Buried for decades, the Up Stairs Lounge tragedy has only recently emerged as a catalyzing event of the gay liberation movement. In revelatory detail, Robert W. Fieseler chronicles the tragic event that claimed the lives of 31 men and one woman on June 24, 1973, at a New Orleans bar, the largest mass murder of gays until 2016.
More than a tale of one heinous tragedy, Fieseler, by way of meticulous research and survivor interviews, enlarges the scope of his history to create a sadly damning account of the workings of homophobia and the closet at that time in American history. Fieseler analyzes his tale from many angles, in the process of which he succeeds in indicting the failures of many institutions ... Fieseler is especially to be commended for the masterful way he weaves the threads of his narrative into a richly provocative and compelling story ...
This is a sobering story, one that exposes unspeakable trauma, pain, and emotional shock. It is fraught with human frailty, moral weakness, evil, and bigotry. The twists and turns of fate and coincidence, the lessons of bravery and kindness, and the blatant instances of deceit and intolerance, made me lean forward and take notice ... Any good book is an awakening of sorts, and as good books go this was certainly that, but beyond that, Tinderbox was for me a moment of true epiphany and self-reckoning; primarily through its cathartic bridging of the closeted gay past, the AIDS years, the social advances of the early 2000s, and the gay present. This was a book which reaffirmed and renewed in my own heart the quest, the yearning for dignity and justice in my homeland.
The book is loving, sensitive and diligent. It is also overstuffed, unfocused and vexing. When I say Tinderbox should be taught in journalism schools, I mean it as praise and rebuke. There is smart media criticism in these pages. Fieseler examines how the tragedy was covered (or more usually ignored), tracing newsroom attitudes toward homosexuality and the euphemisms used to report on gay life ... Why does this seem like an energetic impression of a book? The anxious, frantic shifts make it feel as if he is constantly trying to please someone reading over his shoulder.
Fieseler’s fully sourced research correct[s] the record of shoddy crime work by both the New Orleans police and federal investigators ... Fieseler condenses a lot of history of The Big Easy, which wasn’t so easy for everybody and its conflicted image as a gay mecca, but otherwise was a completely oppressed community. Tinderbox paints a vivid picture of the (in)visible gay community of about 400,000 strong, but where a gay person could still be arrested for even the suspicion of being gay or their names were printed in the paper if a bar was raided, people could be fired from their jobs, and routinely barred from many professions. Fieseler does invaluable investigative reporting of the social landscape of the era and writes with sensitivity about the many victims of the fire, their lovers, their families, their survival and the profound effect it had on GLBTQ community in NOLA ... Tinderbox is a reminder that this history can never be forgotten as the backlash against GLBTQ civil rights are once again under attack.