Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation

June 22nd, 2018 by cmcneil · No Comments · Reviews

By Denise Conejo

Written by  Robert W. Fieseler

Read by Paul Heitsch

Did you know that:

1) On June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire to the Up Stairs Lounge, a much-beloved hangout spot for the gay community of New Orleans.

2) 31 men and 1 woman died.

3) This was the largest mass murder of gay folks until the 2016 Orlando Pulse attack.

And yet, the fire was taken lightly by all major newspapers and radio outlets. Despite the magnitude of the fire, government officials made no comments on the deaths of these 32 individuals. The media minimized the fact that the victims were LGBT patrons because at the time they couldn’t grapple with talking about people who weren’t supposed to exist. Essentially, it seemed that the Up Stairs Lounge fire “had disappeared willfully, hushed by a nation not ready to look.” (Preface, xix)

Robert Fieseler’s timely-written book, Tinderbox: The Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation, (narrated by Paul Heitsch) is an unprecedented reclamation of a forgotten piece of LGBTQA+ history. A history that Fieseler asks us to remember as being essential in propelling the Gay liberation movement. This book is a call to our humanity. This book is required reading.

A proverbial coming out of the closet, Tinderbox does much more than give readers and listeners an unfolding of this tragic event, but also serves as an exposé of our nation’s intolerance towards the gay community and their indifference in times of tragedy involving gay folks. Fieseler weaves a nuanced narrative that reflects the New Orleans subterranean gay culture of 1973, which was a community of men and women still very much in the closet. Terrified of losing everything they’d worked for—careers, families, and relationships—being outed was a fear realized for the victims and survivors of the fire when friends, families, and co-workers learned of their whereabouts that night.

Told as an intimate portrait of the 32 lives lost, Tinderbox is made more intimate by Paul Heitsch’s reading of the book. At times it was difficult to discern whether I was listening to Heitsch’s raw and genuine emotions coming through or rather a well thought out performance meant to reflect and carry the gravity of the events being described. In other words, the narration was flawlessly executed. Paul Heitsch transforms the audiobook into the moment of silence that the remaining friends and families of the victims have been asking for and were never given; especially for the survivors who lost their loved ones and closest friends that night. At the very start of the first chapter, Fieseler asks “what does it mean to remember?” I would argue that remembering humanizes and recognizes those often left within the margins of history. In celebration of Pride month, why not remember.

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