UpStairs Lounge, Pulse Nightclub, and 941 Saloon – Intersections of Racial Justice, Trauma, and Identity

In the summer of 2020, a group of activists protested the racist dress code of a local LGBTQ owned bar and restaurant called the 941 Saloon. It was a situation that required a response because this racist dress code disproportionately impacted QTPOC.With the closure of so many LGBTQ owned bars and restaurants, finding a comfortable space is more difficult.

So I applauded the resistance. What took me aback was discovering that activists had duct taped the bar doors shut to hang their signs on the front of the business.

My mind went instantly to two events – the massacre at Pulse in 2016  and the UpStairs Lounge fire in 1973 New Orleans.  48 people, mostly BIPOC queer folx, died at Pulse and scores more were injured. 32 people died at the UpStairs Lounge, 29 within the first few minutes. 

The main barroom of the UpStairs Lounge following the flash fire that killed 32 people. (Times-Picayune photo by G.E. Arnold)

I urge you to do some Googling and learn more about both tragedies. Even the way the media covered the incidents is almost like they were from a different world. But you may have to dig deep to realize that the UpStairs Lounge was an integrated (mostly) gay men’s bar. And, of course, the victim of the Pulse massacre were mostly Latinx queer folx.

The experiences and identities of the victims, the patrons and survivors, and the murderers does matter when we try to understand how someone could commit such an atrocity.

The arsonist who is presumed to have  murdered 32 gay men and women was himself a gay man. The domestic terrorist who murdered 48 human beings at Pulse apparently spent time at the bar and is often assumed to have been queer. True or not, we’ll never know.

Just before 8 p.m., the doorbell rang, usually a sign a taxi had arrived on the street below. The bell kept ringing, though no one had called for a cab. When the door was opened to investigate, a fireball burst into the room and the inferno quickly spread.

“The ceiling tiles caught fire, the wallpaper caught fire, it just took over,” remembers Rosenthal, who was seated by the bar at the time. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen was able to lead Rosenthal and about 15 others to safety through a back door that led to the roof, then down to the street.

It’s still not clear how, but the door through which the group escaped became locked, trapping the rest of the patrons. A few managed to squeeze through the burglar bars that blocked the windows. Larson became stuck in one window, burning to death in full view of the people below who were powerless to help.

No one died at the 941 Saloon. I’ve lost track of the criminal charges and court outcomes. I don’t even know if the dress code changed as it should have. Because all I can think about is the abject terror of being duct taped into a building

Yes, there was a backdoor and yes, the duct tape could probably have been broken by heavy force. But both Pulse and the UpStairs Lounge teach us that seconds matter in a tragedy. Use duct tape to put the signs on the doors or sides of the building, but don’t interfere with the function of the doors themselves.  That’s like blocking a fire exit.  (h/t A on that sentence) I’ve scrutinized many photos over the past months. I’ve spoken with participants who admitted they used duct tape. I understand that it even came up in preliminary hearings. It happened. You can dismiss this, but I know it to be true.

The Beast

Let me be clear – I think everyone was wrong here, but there are different degrees. The saloon owners should not have put the dress code in place and certainly should have immediately engaged people when the racial overtones became known. They could have prevented the situation and their failure to do so brings home the tragedies of anti-Blackness and white supremacy in our regional LGBTQIA+ community. They owe a great amends to QTPOC.

But the protestors, that’s hard for me. I think they crossed a line. As a survivor of chronic trauma, I couldn’t trust any of those folks again to be mindful of my own safety or to respond proportionally when it comes to direct actions. I have no compunction about hurting the feelings of Bill Peduto’s neighbors or the people drinking in a bar during a march to defend my existence. I know that most violence stems from state sources .I know that most of the activists I know move for ambulances and when an emergency need arises. I know strong action is necessary to continure resisting white supremacy culture. But, still, I worry about the trauma survivors, the most fragile and sometimes the most likely to show up to take a stand for justice.

This happened last summer. But I’m still feeling trauma symptoms when I think about this action.

And I agree it is my duty and yours to actively call out white supremacy embedded in our LGBTQ community. We failed to address this racist dress code and look what happened. That scares me, too. Racial tension is so incendiary in the LGBTQ community that I probably kick at least one person a day out of FB groups I moderate, specifically because of their anti-Black comments.

I may not say this most artfully, but it is sincere. We are not a community who learns from our history.

I hesitated to write this because I didn’t want to stir up trouble for myself. Critiquing a queer direct action can open Pandora’s box. Then I saw the news about the condo in Miami, including the update that 159 people are still missing. We know what that means – some possible salvation, but mostly devastation. And I remembered that being courageous requires saying the right thing even when its to your own community. And how nothing is going to actually change until we all begin acting differently, especially when it comes to community accountability.

The potential to be taped into a building without my consent simply because I am at the wrong place at the wrong time, that’s gnawed at me for months now. The thought takes me back to the worst moments of my life. Maybe I’m drawing the wrong conclusions. I’ve talked about it with several community leaders and none of them had real answers for me beyond “it is just duct tape” – the literal symbol of forceful violence against others, remember the No H8 campaign? the bound wrists of countless victims of sexual assault? Have you ever had duct tape across your mouth without your consent? Or binding your wrists?

I’m worried for our community. I’m already apprehensive about encountering anti-vaxxers and Trumpers if we go to a restaurant. I’m anxious that might happen to you. I’m appalled that the Saloon owners didn’t take the concerns seriously in 2020. I’m worried for those charged with crimes in this incident ending up with jail time. That’s not going to accomplish anything.

A reality in which we pit the hundreds of years of racial injustice against the legacy of blocking people into a space without their consent … that’s just not an okay decision to make. I agree with the content of these signs in the image below, but I don’t agree with their character. We can do better.

Protest Saloon Dress Code
NATE SMALLWOOD, Tribune Review


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