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A book and a family tree uncover Hamilton's little-known role in gay liberation

Bill Larson at pulpit
Posted at 5:00 AM, Dec 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-21 18:37:34-05

HAMILTON — Bill Larson lived a nearly impossible dream in 1970s New Orleans: He was an openly gay minister.

His death, in the worst fire in that city's history, is tragically well documented. But, until several years ago, little was widely known about his life.

It directly ties the Tri-State to one of the most important moments in gay history.

"His life was a series of incredible trials," said author Robert Fieseler. "He – by nature of the way he lived and the way he died – has become one of the most important queer people of the 20th century."

Fieseler's book "Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation" explores the lives of those who died -- and survived -- what was for decades the deadliest crime against the gay community in the United States. The Pulse nightclub massacre in 2016 was deadlier, and drew renewed attention to the fire at the Up Stairs Lounge.

Even in New Orleans, homosexuals were viewed as criminals in the 1970s. Police raids of bars and local hangouts were regular occurrences. Men moved across the country, either spurned by their families or fleeing fear of being committed or criminalized. They changed their names, started new lives.

"The early 1970s was an era of rampant police harassment and intimidation," Fieseler said. "A gay man would be arrested for entrapment, for occupying a sidewalk while being gay, for being gay while drinking in a bar. There was all sorts of local ordinances to throw the book at a person either to bilk money out of them in the form of a bribe or to ruin them ... whereby that gay man would then be stigmatized and blacklisted."

That made Rev. Bill Larson's role as a deacon of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) even more incredible.

Bill Larson at pulpit
Rev. Bill Larson stands at a pulpit at the Metropolitan Community Church of New Orleans. Photo provided.

"The idea that you could ever be a Christian minister and out gay was an act that was just unheard of. It was impossible for that era," Fieseler said.

But that act of bravery was critical for the small but growing congregation of mostly closeted men.

"Having a gay pastor at the time, I think we really needed a person in the pulpit who is gay," said Ricky Everett, who was a member of the Metropolitan Community Church of New Orleans and Larson's best friend.

Even since the fire, Everett hasn't lost the strong faith he shared with Larson.

He'll never forget that night in late June. How could he?

June 24, 1973

After church service at the MCC's small rented space on Magazine Street, which also housed Larson's apartment, many congregants would find their way to the edge of the French Quarter.

The Up Stairs Lounge was a second-floor, working-class bar, frequented by many of the region's gay men and allies. Its weekly "beer bust" happy hour included all-you-could-drink beer for a couple of dollars and a refundable deposit on the cup. It had grown in popularity to the point the bar often filled to and above capacity.

The MCC of New Orleans met in a theater space in the back of the bar for a time in 1972, so it felt like home. It was still Sunday tradition to relax among friends in a safe space, largely hidden from a dangerous and disrespecting outside world.

"It was kind of like a gay version of 'Cheers,'" Fieseler said.

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.

Larson, Everett, and a friend visiting from Atlanta went to grab dinner first. Their conversation briefly took a dark turn, in a bit of foreshadowing.

"All of the sudden something came over me and I look at Bill square in the eye and I said, 'Bill, I have a feeling you're going to die,'" Everett remembered. "He looked at me just as seriously and says, 'Yeah, I know it.' And then we just sort of moved on."

After they ate, the three joined the others at the gay bar at the corner of Iberville and Chartres.

Larson sat at the bar itself, near a baby grand piano where men gathered to sing showtunes in a corner.

Everett and his friend took a table in the next room until they heard commotion.

"All I could see was the glow of the light, the fire, and it was coming in really fast," Everett remembered. "It was just kind of swirling all around me."

Bar manager Buddy Rasmussen pulled Everett and some others out through a back emergency door, but Everett went back inside, thinking his friend was left behind.

"It was totally engulfed in flames," he said. "It was above me and around me and at the same moment I felt a presence cover me. I now believe it was God covering me with His spirit."

Everett escaped the fire without a burn or blister.

"They [later told me] the fire was estimated to be 2,000 degrees," Everett said. "The fire department said when they got in they found bodies with the flesh burned off and they were just bones and some of them, the heat was so intense, the bones were fused to the floor."

UpStairs Lounge fire investigation
File - In this June 25, 1973 file photo, a rescue worker leans heavy against a charred window at the Up Stairs bar in the French Quarter section of New Orleans, where 29 persons died and another 15 were injured during a fire. The worker was helping remove the charred bodies when he apparently couldn't face it any longer. A new book details the 1973 deadly fire at the gay bar that killed 32 patrons. Robert Fieseler's book is called "Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation." (AP Photo/PA. File)

In the chaos, Larson managed to rip plywood from a window, open it, and start to escape. The upper panel fell, pinning him as dozens of people watched on the street below.

"Flames then consumed his clothing and his skin as people were watching two stories below," Fieseler said. "His last words were 'Oh God, no.'"

The New Orleans States-Item would describe the scene like this:

"The watch he was wearing on his left arm was stopped - shortly after 8 p.m. It was a grim record of when life came to an end.

Attached to the man's torso was a macabre, almost mannequin-like face - a face filled with the terror of death - of a man who came close to escaping the holocaust that swept through the Up Stairs Lounge at 604 Chartres but didn't."
Angus Lind, New Orleans States-Item

Larson's burned body was left in the window sill - uncovered - for hours, even as investigators pieced through the charred remains of the lounge and its patrons.

WCPO is not publishing the photos of Larson's remains in the window of the Up Stairs Lounge, though they were widely circulated at the time.

UpStairs Lounge fire
File - In this June 25, 1973 file photo, the inside of the Up Stairs bar is seen following a flash fire that left 29 dead and 15 injured. Most of the victims were found near the windows in the background. The bar is located in the New Orleans French Quarter. A new book details the 1973 deadly fire at the gay bar that killed 32 patrons. Robert Fieseler's book is called "Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation." (AP Photo/Jack Thornell, File)

The fire burned for less than 20 minutes. It started in the stairwell with a can of lighter fluid, but it spread quickly.

"Everything, it turns out, within this bar wasn’t up to fire safety codes," Fieseler said he found in his research. "The carpet instantly lights and it lights so quickly that it lifts off the floor and it looks like it's floating on the air; the red wallpapering all had been cleaned with a petroleum distillate and all goes up; the ceiling tiles, flammable."

No one was ever arrested for starting the fire, despite overwhelming evidence pointing to one suspect, according to Fieseler's research.

Roger Dale Nunez had been kicked out of the bar for drunkenness and trying to steal tips. Everett said several patrons heard him yell something to the effect of "I'm going to burn you all out" as he left. The fire started about half an hour later.

Nunez reportedly admitted to starting the fire to others later. He was never arrested and died by suicide about a year and a half later.

"He was mentally deranged and he was drunk," Everett said. "It really wasn't a hate issue."

Twenty-nine people died that night. Three more died in the following days.

Butler County upbringing

As Fieseler was researching his book, he was building profiles of the survivors and victims of the fire. But one was elusive.

"As a journalist, I was taxed for about four and a half years to find any information about Bill Larson, the most infamous Up Stairs Lounge victim," he said.

Approaching a deadline, fate and dogged reporting intervened. Fieseler noticed some entries on Ancestry.com for a "William Lairson" when searching Larson's Social Security number. That led him to a new family, which was also trying to clarify what happened to their great uncle Roscoe.

"It took a long time to find him," said Michael Lipscomb, Lairson's grand nephew. "When I saw that photo of Roscoe at the pulpit, I was like, yeah, that’s a Lairson."

Their research aligned, tracing William "Roscoe" Lairson back to Hamilton, Ohio, and a childhood growing up in what was then the Butler County Children's Home with four siblings.

Former Butler County Childrens Home
The site of the former Butler County Children's Home on D Street in Hamilton.

"He was a man of God from a young age," Lipscomb said. "My whole family were Methodists."

Tragedy struck early.

His father died of alcohol poisoning in Kentucky, prompting Lairson's mom to move the family to Hamilton in search of a better life, Lipscomb said. An older sister, Dorothy, was hit by a car and killed when Lairson was young.

In state records from his time at the Butler County Children's Home, Fieseler found a series of reports showing a progression as Lairson grew from a troubled boy with an often "unpleasant" attitude into a leader and caregiver for many.

"The adults who supervised him identified him as an artistic child, even a sissy, and at the same time, I saw this young man who was developing an incredible resilience in the belief in the goodness of other people," Fieseler said. "He was a boy giving sermons at a young age and he was confirmed at a local church. He was developing this close bond with Christ that came to define his life."

Lairson's caregivers noted his penchant for religion and preaching in those reports, too. They also, at times, noted what they described as a "sex problem," a proclivity toward other boys.

Documents show he worked for a time at the Champion Paper Mill.

Lairson joined the United States Army in 1944, enlisting in Northern Kentucky. He served in Europe during World War II. He was discharged in 1946.

When he left the Army, records show, he married a woman named Nellie in Northern Kentucky. It ended in divorce about one year later.

"The reason of the divorce is what scandalized him so much that he left his birth identity behind," Fieseler said. "She left him for neglect, which in the 1940s was code for 'bedroom neglect.'"

Fieseler and Lipscomb said there was some evidence Lairson lived in Chicago, working as an entertainer, before landing in New Orleans with a new name, and a renewed purpose.

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

Long-overdue recognition

Back in 1973 New Orleans, Bill Larson's remains were offered to his mother, who declined to accept them, most likely for financial reasons, Lipscomb said.

She entrusted them to the MCC, until they were interred. But for years, Larson's final resting place included no marker.

Fieseler and Lipscomb worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs to get one placed at the site in 2018.

"It's quite emotional," Fieseler, who now lives in New Orleans, said. "I had seen the crypt when it had no marker and I go by it now with the marker and it makes a tremendous difference."

Lipscomb agreed.

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

Bill Larson's grave
Rev. Bill Larson's military service is recognized with a marker, decades after his death thanks to efforts from his grand nephew Michael Lipscomb and author Robert Fieseler. Photo provided.

Larson's best friend, Ricky Everett, continued on a spiritual journey in the years that followed. He's now a father to an adopted teenage son.

"I got to a point where I would thank God for saving me," Everett said. "And then I got to thinking and telling Him, 'Next time just let me go," because of all the emotions. But then I got to asking, 'God, why did you save me?' And He spoke into my spirit and He told me, 'Because I know you'll go carry the Word and tell people that I love gay people no different from any other people.'"

Around the time of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York, widely considered the turning point for gay rights in the United States, the New York Times recognized Bill Larson's significance to the movement, too.

In an obituary, the Times writes the Up Stairs Lounge fire – and Larson's death – was "largely met with indifference by public officials and much of the citizenry."

The year 2020 was supposed to mark the first Hamilton Pride celebration. Like everything else, it went virtual with a June 2021 inaugural celebration now planned for Larson's hometown.

"The tie to Hamilton is really neat for us just because there aren't a lot of stories we can connect to in an area like this," said Hamilton pride chair Taylor Stone-Welch, who also just learned about Larson's story. "I think that goes to show that the younger generation can take for granted what has happened before and it’s important that we share the story and acknowledge it."

It's finally time for the world – and his hometown – to understand Larson's place in history.

"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," Fieseler said.