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{April 8, 2013}   {Review} Let the Faggots Burn: The Upstairs Lounge Fire by Johnny Townsend

14548906From Goodreads: On Gay Pride Day in 1973, someone set the entrance to a French Quarter gay bar on fire. In the terrible inferno that followed, thirty-two people lost their lives, including a third of the local congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church, their pastor burning to death halfway out a second-story window as he tried to claw his way to freedom. A mother who’d gone to the bar with her two gay sons died alongside them. A man who’d helped his friend escape first was found dead near the fire escape. Two children waited outside of a movie theater across town for a father and step-father who would never pick them up. During this era of rampant homophobia, several families refused to claim the bodies, and many churches refused to bury the dead. Author Johnny Townsend pored through old records and tracked down survivors of the fire and relatives and friends of those killed to compile this fascinating account of a forgotten moment in gay history.

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One of the deadliest crimes against the LGBT population in American history occurred on June 24, 1973, an event that, at the time, was widely swept under the rug, hushed, and forgotten. Thirty-two people—husbands, wives, friends, lovers, sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters—died that day in the Upstairs Lounge Fire, a fire that quickly cut off the only stairwell exit and trapped the 60+ patrons celebrating in the gay bar that day.  Townsend’s novel is a history of sorts, giving a voice to the many that died in the fire, though it is untraditional in that Townsend has limited records to show his research.  Many of his interview dates and times went undocumented, and thus, the novel cannot be classified as a “true history,” though he does provide a bibliography for further research for inquiring minds.  As Townsend states in his forward, he wrote much of this novel in 1989-90, a time before the internet, and as an English major, focused more so on telling the story than documenting his sources.  Thus, this novel, while historic, is more of a memorial commemorating the lives that were lost that day.

Let the Faggots Burn is told in a series of vignettes, shedding background information on the bar, it’s patrons, survivors, media attention (or lack thereof), and the response of the world at large.  It was a time when homophobia was rampant and, in light of the massacre, many wanted to forget, refusing even to claim the bodies of their loved ones through dread of stigma.  It’s a very sad account, but it also gives life to the patrons’ memories, those that no longer have a voice, those that should be heard.

Townsend begins with the fire, then spends many vignettes familiarizing readers with each individual patron that died.  While this writing style leaves the chapters unconnected, in a way, it also brings everything together as most of the chapters all lead up to the events of the fire.  To break up the sole focus on the victims, though, interspersed are chapters that focus on the before and after as well, such as how the bar got its start, what happened to unidentified bodies, the injured, the lawsuit that followed, the churches response, and the survivors.  While some of it reads as a history text-book, much of the novel is written in a “story-like” fashion, allowing reads to connect with the characters and events as they unfold.  It is impossible not to feel anger, sadness, horror, and even terror as Townsend paints the portraits of the people who lost their lives and those who lost their loved ones in this fateful, awful event, and I, for one, hope the world never forgets.  Three and a half stars.

3.5 stars

I received a copy of this novel from the author in exchange for an honest review.

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