Remembering the UpStairs Lounge Fire--and Waiting for SCOTUS.

It looks like we’ll hear from SCOTUS on Thursday regarding two important gay rights cases, one concerning DOMA and the other regarding California’s Prop. 8, which bars same-sex marriage in the state. Possible and likely decisions have been amply covered.

As we wait, let’s take a minute to look backward and forward.

Today is the anniversary of the UpStairs Lounge fire in New Orleans, the biggest mass killing of LGBT people in US history. TIME magazine’s Elisabeth Dias and Jim Downs tell the story. This wasn’t (exactly) a hate crime--the likely culprit was a sometime patron of the bar. What’s sad is the community’s response.

It was about 8:00 on June 24, 1973, when an arsonist set the fire that killed 32 people in a gay bar/community center, many of them members or clergy of the Metropolitan Community Church. The fire was rapidly extinguished, but not before about half the people inside perished. It was the deadliest fire in New Orleans history, and the third fire at an MCC gathering place that year.

The press coverage was brief and minimal, and tended not to notice that the victims were gay. Radio talks shows told jokes at the victims’ expense. Most of the gay community was closeted at the time, and with good reason--police harassment of gays was commonplace, leading many to carry false I.D. to bars in case they were arrested. Three victims were never identified. At least one survivor was fired from his job while still in the hospital. Some bodies were never claimed--families were ashamed to acknowledge their horrifically “outed” relatives.

Surely the local churches would step up? Not so much. In this 47% Catholic city, the archbishop said--nothing. Catholic, Baptist and Lutheran Churches refused to hold memorial services for victims. (The current Catholic archbishop, Gregory Aymond, issued a half-apology, saying “The church does not condone violence and hatred. If we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize.” If? Did he check?) Other churches did respond. Fr. William P. Richardson, rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church, held a memorial service attended by 80 people, and was promptly censured by his bishop. Richardson’s mailbox was filled with hate mail. A local Unitarian Church also held a small memorial service.

And over at St. Mark’s United Methodist, something remarkable happened: during a memorial service led by MCC founder Rev. Troy Perry, and attended by some 250 mourners, word was spread that there was a press contingent outside, and they were assured that they could leave by a rear door. None did. The Times Picayune reported: “the mourners sang the last verse of the hymn over again and, with the existence of press cameras outside the church still in doubt, they all filed out. None was seen leaving through the rear.” We can read the story of the UpStairs Lounge fire through many lenses, but one vision that sticks with me is this--250 courageous mourners walking out of the church, despite the real risk of reprisals ranging from ridicule to much much worse. This was an important point in the history of gay civil rights, and in its way is a parallel to Stonewall, but with hymns.

That was then. And now?

Homophobia isn’t dead, any more than racism, sexism, or any of the other -ism’s that plague us. But the fact that 40 years after the UpStairs Lounge fire, the Supreme Court is about to rule on equal civil marriage rights for same-sex partners is powerful testimony to how far gay rights has come. Three quarters of Americans view same-sex marriage as inevitable, and some 62% of Catholics approve that development. An increasing number of nations and US states have legalized same-sex marriage, with IL likely to follow in the fall. If California’s Prop. 8 is upheld by the Supreme Court, same-sex marriage advocates are gearing up for a re-do in 2014, which polls show will very likely affirm same-sex marriage in this state.

Indeed, it seems to me like SCOTUS is poised to look like either the court of Plessy v. Ferguson or that of Brown v. Board of Education this week. We’ll see which they choose to be, (or indeed, if they dodge a direct up-or-down decision, which seems prudential...)

And conservatives seem already to be heading to the ramparts. More than 200 conservatives signed a defiant letter, claiming that “The Supreme Court has no authority to redefine marriage,” and promising they “will not stand by while the destruction of the institution of marriage unfolds in this nation we love.” They provide no content to this threat, beyond warning that the Court will undermine its own authority, citing approvingly a passage from Planned Parenthood v. Casey (!!), and concluding: “While there are many things we can endure, redefining marriage is so fundamental to the natural order and the true common good that this is the line we must draw and one we cannot and will not cross.” Um, OK. Not sure what they intend to do, beyond, presumably, not entering into gay unions themselves.

The American Church leadership seems to be doubling down against what looks like the tide of history. Minnesota’s bishops spent a cool million in 2012 alone opposing that state’s same-sex marriage bill, signed into law last month. Providence, RI’s Bishop Thomas Tobin called his state’s same-sex marriage law a “serious regression in the public morality of our state,” and commented that the decision marks a passage into a “post-Christian era.”

It’s still dangerous to be out and gay if you’re a teacher in a Catholic school, or if you’re a priest. Indeed, “[t]he Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large at America magazine, says there are only two or three priests in the U.S. who have said publicly that they are homosexual.” To be sure, Rev. Gary Meier is not only out, he’s also critiquing church teaching on homosexuality. Still, the silencing--de facto or explicit--of homosexual priests has the effect of rendering them invisible unless they speak up, especially in light of the Vatican’s 2005 reiteration of a ban on ordaining homosexual men. Even though the percentage of homosexual men in the priesthood is several times that of the general population, you’d never know it--it’s not unlike carrying fake i.d. into a gay bar back in the day.

Here’s my question. We all know the story of Humanae vitae, the encyclical that an overwhelming majority of Catholics simply ignore. We are now at a point when public opinion, and Catholic opinion along with it, is shifting rapidly in favor of recognizing equal civil rights for LGBT people, and this shift is especially high among the young. (That’s the same demographic who are leaving the Church in droves.) Catholic leadership has not only spoken strongly against same-sex marriage, they have done so in extraordinarily harsh terms, calling same sex marriage (and civil unions, for that matter,) “a multifaceted threat to the very fabric of society.“ Their arguments don’t leave them much wiggle room, or what Pres. Obama might call room for their thoughts to “evolve.” So what happens next? Will most Catholics receive this aspect of teaching like they did Humanae vitae? In other words, will Catholics nod, smile and privately dissent, either by word or deed? Will this teaching be another point of future revision, as with so many others? (See Noonan’s A Church That Can and Cannot Change, or Curran’s Change in Official Catholic Teaching for examples.) Will this teaching, which so strongly condemns LGBT people in relationships, be maintained and continue to be a point that drives people away?

So as we wait for word from SCOTUS, let’s also ponder the direction of the Church--the people of God--in this matter. Let us remember and pray for the victims of the UpStairs Lounge fire. Let us pray for all people who are uncomfortably closeted, that they may find their voices. Let us pray most of all that we all exercise wisdom and compassion for each other, gay, straight and everybody.

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

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