Robert W. Fieseler’s “Tinderbox”

March 3rd, 2019  |  Published in Winter 2019

Gay Liberation in America is generally thought to have begun with the Stonewall Inn protests in New York City’s Greenwich Village in 1969.  Homosexuality was, at that time, still considered a psychiatric disease by the so-called helping professions in America, and gay and lesbian people marginalized to a kind of status of non-people, a hidden and mostly/often closeted group of  people whose sexuality/sexual identities were considered morbid, devious, illegal.  Institutions such as The Catholic Church were long on record as considering homosexuality to be a sin (I assume venal); the entire political and religious hierarchies of this country were anti-gay.

I distinctly remember watching the Stonewall protests on television; an image of a drag queen hitting a cop with her high heel has always remained with me as a symbol of powerless people finally rising up to stop being harassed by police, raided by them, dragged to jail and the like.  Probably every large city in America had a subculture of gay bars, gathering places for gay and/or lesbian people, which were more than bars; they were safe spaces, almost like substitute churches, but the owners of these bars frequently had to bribe the local police regularly simply to be left alone.

Robert W. Fieseler has just published “Tinderbox”, the evolving story of gay liberation in the City of New Orleans, which I had wrongly assumed to have been a more open and tolerant city , given its nickname of “The Big Easy”, its near orgiastic Mardi Gras and the like; it seemed like The French Quarter would’ve been a haven for people like gays, but after I read Fieseler’s brilliant, beautifully written and researched book, a different story of life for gay people in New Orleans has been documented. Let me state up front that “Tinderbox” is one of the very finest pieces of research about this topic to have been written anywhere since Martin Duberman’s original book about Stonewall.

Fiseseler focuses on the main event, as he sees it, the fire in the gay “Up Stairs Lounge”, on the fringe of the French Quarter, in 1973.  Fieseler’s astonishing research recreates the very people who were in that bar on the evening when it was torched with the loss of thirty people by fire by the time the evening ended. The book uses the budding Metropolitan Community Church and its early religious leaders (no other church in New Orleans would allow homosexuals into its halls) as a key structuring device of his book, so that leaders of this very small church originally met at The Up Stairs Lounge, proving the overlap in gay life in New Orleans between the bar and the church. Fieseler does not shy away from recreating specific relationships between men who were regulars at The Lounge, particularly for the Sunday Beer Fest; a lot of charitable shows also occurred at The Up Stairs Lounge, which was thus a center of mostly blue collar gay life in New Orleans. Since “Tinderbox” is, in the last analysis, a history of Gay Liberation in New Orleans, the roles of Lounge and MCC and their overlap are critical to an understanding of this evolution.

The fire was clearly set by a disgruntled hustler who happened to have been present the night of the fire and who was evicted for unacceptable behavior. (Fieseler’s descriptions of how fires travel is also fascinating). However, the long story of how the police and fire departments, either through hatred of homosexuals, general incompetence and/or indifference, handled (or didn’t) the fire, constitutes a large part of the book, as the interactions with authorities in New Orleans are the groundwork for what became gay liberation in that city.  Church officials, particularly in the Catholic Church, ranted their hatred towards gay people after the fire; only one church would even allow funeral ceremonies for the victims of this fire within its hallowed halls.  City officials evade and turn away and avoid.  The buddings of a national gay liberation movement in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, also appear in this book, as a small group of national gay leaders began to emerge nationally at around the same time as this New Orleans fire. (Fieseler’s research from the time of the fire to the time of the emergence of these leaders forms the core of the book).

Robert Fieseler is also a first-rate journalist. His tone throughout the book stops short of overt anger; his lightness of touch describing the failure to address issues dealing with gay people at all makes the book that much more effective, so as we read about the sheer indifference and/or hatred of gay people by authorities in New Orleans, his underwritten tone is thus highly successful.  New Orleans seemed to have had a tacit “agreement” regarding gay people (Fieseler notes that the press in that city never would use the word “homosexual” or “gay” in print or on television at that time).  Gays were to remain entirely in the closet, leading double lives; the greatest fear was to have a gay person’s name in the newspaper after  a bar was raided, so many gay men were prone to slight alterations in their identities/names.  Power, of course, rested entirely with the authorities, and how gay leaders emerged out of the fire, phoenix-like, to eventually demand and receive some measure of acceptance as people is really what Fieseler’s book is about. It took many years after the fire for some semblance of equity to emerge in New Orleans, but because of this horrid, tragic fire, leaders did emerge, and the slow process of “normalizing” relationships between gay and lesbian men and women in New Orleans becomes a true national empowerment story.  “Tinderbox” is an astonishingly fine book, clear as can be, incredibly well researched, from a new talent (the book’s just been nominated for an Edgar Award) whose style alone makes him destined to be a great American writer/journalist.  This book is a must read for those interested in how marginalized gays and lesbians demanded to get out of the darkness/closets into the light of everyday life.

–Daniel Brown

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