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Hamilton native was 'one of the most important queer people of the 20th century'

Bill Larson at pulpit
Posted at 5:00 AM, Jun 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-03 17:43:03-04

HAMILTON, Ohio — In 1970s New Orleans, a boy from Hamilton was living a dream some would have considered impossible at the time. Roscoe Lairson had created a new life for himself and was leading a church congregation as Rev. Bill Larson.

Larson was a rare openly gay minister, shepherding the inclusive Metropolitan Community Church congregation in the Crescent City - hundreds of miles from where he grew up in southwest Ohio.

"Having a gay pastor at the time, I think we really needed a person in the pulpit who is gay," Larson's best friend Ricky Everett told WCPO in a 2020 interview.

However, Larson is not often remembered for how he lived, but how he died: on public display, consumed by flames in the deadliest fire in New Orleans history - and the worst act of violence against the gay community until the 2016 attack at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

"The story of how he lived and how he died will serve as a tragic example for oppression in the past and as inspiration for a man who learned to live with dignity," said author and journalist Robert Fieseler.

Fieseler wrote a book about the 1973 fire at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, focused on its 32 victims. Larson's life proved the hardest to track down.

Life at the UpStairs Lounge
An undated photo shows a group enjoying the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans. Bill Larson is second from right. Photo provided.

Meanwhile, Michael Lipscomb was researching his family history and having trouble finding anything about what happened to his grand-uncle, William "Roscoe" Lairson.

Ancestry.com data connected Fieseler to Lipscomb, and the life story of the most notorious victim of the UpStairs Lounge came into view.

"When I saw that photo of Roscoe at the pulpit, I was like, yeah, that’s a Lairson," said grandnephew Lipscomb.

WCPO first profiled Larson's story and its importance in the fight for gay liberation in December 2020.

Hamilton's little-known place in LGBT history

Lairson grew up in what was then the Butler County Children's Home, worked at the Champion Paper mill, joined the Army and served in World War II's European theater. He married a woman from the Tri-State, but they separated and he moved away to begin a new life.

"It's amazing to have someone with such courage in your family," Lipscomb said.

In 2018, Lipscomb and Fieseler convinced the Department of Veterans Affairs to place a marker at the New Orleans site where Larson's remains are interred.

"He’s someone who deserves to be remembered not for the way he died but for the way he carried himself while he lived," Fieseler said.

That's why Rev. Bill Larson - Hamilton's William "Roscoe" Lairson - is one of the Tri-State's Points of Pride.

WCPO is committed to telling the stories of LGBTQ+ individuals in the Tri-State year-round. If you know someone who should be recognized as a Point of Pride, send an email to evan.millward@wcpo.com or newsdesk@wcpo.com