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Reflecting on the Complicated and Painful History of Anti-LGBTQ Violence in the US

After this Sunday’s massacre of 50 LGBTQ people in Orlando, I flashed back to the day I wandered into Skylar Fein’s “Remember the UpStairs Lounge” (2008) at the Prospect.1 biennial in New Orleans. It was installed at the city’s Contemporary Arts Center and invited you down a long saloon-like hallway into a gallery of artifacts, black-and-white images, light boxes, and a black corner booth showing a video.


The artist had recreated aspects of a well-known — some would say infamous — gay bar in the city’s French Quarter. It was named the UpStairs Lounge.


On June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire to the stairway leading to the popular men’s club that burned down under mysterious circumstances. The tragedy claimed the lives of 32 men, and until this week it was the largest mass murder of LGBTQ people in the United States.


The work was chilling, revealing a whole history that LGBTQ people in the US were largely unaware of, and making us reflect on the nature of violence in a marginalized community.


The response to the fire in that period is shocking for us today. People at the time largely ignored the carnage and the event did not generate national coverage like this week’s Orlando massacre. Many relatives refused to claim the bodies of their family members incinerated in the fire and some local radio talk show hosts even joked about burying the remains of the deceased in “fruit jars.” Times have obviously changed.


I reached out to the artist to discuss his project, how anti-LGBTQ violence is represented, what contemporary art can contribute to the discussion, and his thoughts about the Orlando massacre.


As for “Remember the UpStairs Lounge,” the work was later exhibited in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood (with the help of No Longer Empty and curator Dan Cameron) and eventually acquired by the New Orleans Museum of Art.


This is my conversation with the artist.


Hrag Vartanian: You’ve been one of the most important voices in contemporary art that has not been shy about grappling with violence against LGBTQ bodies. What was your reaction to the recent Orlando massacre?


Skylar Fein: “My god, we’re Americans now.”


I never expected to be an American. I grew up feeling like an alien: ineligible for military service —even my blood wasn’t welcome at the blood bank. Like a lot of us, I fought it, then I became comfortable with it, and then I ended up liking it. I think it was John Waters who said that the best part about being queer was that you didn’t have to serve in the military, you didn’t have to get married, and you didn’t have to march in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. It never really seemed like mainstream institutions needed our support or our moral strength to function. Why should we offer it? But it’s the other way around. Most queer people are just like everyone else, and they’ll tell you this straight up. Queer has become banal — well, certainly, “gay” has. When I find out somebody’s sexual orientation, I feel like I’ve found out one of the more banal things I could find out about them. It would be more interesting to find out that the person huffs ether, or counts cards at casinos. Now we rely on transgender people to remind us of our longstanding function of terrorizing the mainstream.


So, we’re American. And when the enemies of the US want to strike at US symbols, they now strike at us! LGBT equality would seem to be another American export that can be resented and attacked as American. For anyone used to being a pariah, this will take some getting used to.


HV: Your work “Remember the Upstairs Lounge” probes another major incident of violence against LGBTQ people in the US. Can you tell us why that interested you and if you see any parallels with the Orlando attack?


SF: In 1973, an arsonist set fire to a gay bar in New Orleans, killing everyone inside. But because it was a gay bar, and because it was in New Orleans, and it was 1973, it got swept under the rug. Even some people who grew up here didn’t really hear about it. It was the largest mass killing of queer people in US history — up until this week — and yet the main suspect was never charged. The whole thing remained in a kind of unconscious locker, a dungeon where the unsettled debts of history lie.


So who set the fire at the Upstairs Lounge? Here’s where things get interesting. It was almost certainly a hustler who worked the bars on that street, a guy who had been thrown out of the bar that night for working a gloryhole in the bathroom. And he was almost certainly gay. We don’t have to shy away from this fact. We don’t have to be held hostage by it, or by the gloryhole, or by the seediness of the entire situation. Now we can say what it was. And we can also say, “That’s all it was.” This story need not control us any more.


So is there a parallel with the Orlando attack? Yes, obviously, because both involved the mass killing of queer people. But they differ in some important details. If you look deeply into the UpStairs Lounge, all you get is confusion — I know I was confused, it took me days to make sense of the police report. And you get moral ambiguity, moral uncertainty, at every level. Community leaders at the time wanted it to be a morality play: the good gay people were left to die by a straight world that didn’t care. Some of that is even true. But the full story is much more disturbing, and much more interesting, I would say, because it’s a story in which gay people kill each other, not for the first time, and not for the last.


HV: Historically, what have been the responses to this type of violence against LGBTQ people and are they different now?


SF: The pictures I found most moving — even shocking — coming out of Orlando were the FBI men, facing the cameras and looking very stern. These men are working, and they are working for us. Their job is now to keep us alive. The machinery of top-level administration is now turning to face us and to protect us. Here is what you get for becoming part of the mainstream: some degree of protection. Most queer people will say, “Well, it’s about time.”


HV: Any thoughts on why homophobes target LGBTQ bars specifically? I remember even when I was younger, growing up in Toronto, everyone was most concerned about being attacked when leaving the gay and lesbian bars rather than the bookstores and other LGBTQ-friendly spaces. Why are bars targeted? Did your research suggest reasons?


SF: I can only guess: it’s where our sex, not our sexuality, is closest to the surface. This has always been the thing that the straight world finds disgusting about us.


HV: How do you think your work about the Upstairs Lounge changed that moment if at all? Did it help create a new narrative? New perceptions of the event? I’m asking partly to understand your thoughts on the role of contemporary art in understanding tragedies like this.


SF: Yes, it changed the narrative a bit, and some people were pissed! In fact, the people who were angriest at me were older gay men, men who had lived through that time. The story was cherished because it was told a certain way. Who was I to mutilate it, and turn it toward my own ends? We don’t live by truth, we live by symbolic attachments, and you fuck with them at your peril.


You know who didn’t mind the seediness of the story? Straight people. They always knew we were sucking dick at gloryholes, anyway. A lot of straight people cried on my shoulder at that art show. I remember a group of older, white couples from the North Shore. They approached me. One of the women said to me, very seriously, “We remember this fire. We remember that our church refused to bury the victims.” She said, very slowly, “We knew it was wrong.” This was the moment the earth shook for me.


The Upstairs Lounge just needed one person to tell the story as it was — and to tell it without shame. That person happened to be me, but it could have been anybody. In fact, I am anybody.


HV: You sound a little disappointed that gay — and maybe queer and LGBTQ — has entered the mainstream. Most people probably understand what many have gained through that new status but what have we lost? And what do you think was the alternative for LGBTQ people?


SF: When I was a young vagabond, I hitchhiked my way around France, and once, in Paris, I ran into an older man who was quite funny and charming and he turned out to be the writer Edmund White.


Once, in a rainstorm, he took me on a midnight walk through Paris, pointing out important places where our history was made. “Here is the place where Genet was arrested for prostitution! And here is the Tour St Jacques, which the Surrealists thought had magical powers!” It was a tour of gay history as marginal, criminal, degenerate — my favorite things. But this is only another symbolic attachment. The young should sweep this away without nostalgia and build a new world, one that pisses off their elders in every detail. This is the correct unfolding of the story.


HV: This massacre targeted not only LGBTQ people but also Latinos (as many of the people killed were both). What are your thoughts on that aspect of the violence and how it fits into the larger history of violence against LGBTQ people and people of color in the US?


SF: That it was a Latino night might have been a coincidence of the attacker’s planning. I’m not sure if this was specifically part of his aim, but I am eager to learn more as the information comes out.


HV: How do you think the LGBTQ and/or art communities should respond to horrific acts of hate like this? Any thoughts?


SF: I’m not sure. I carry a gun but you probably shouldn’t.


An Egyptian friend of mine recently sat up late with me drinking wine. Late at night, she said, “We think all the time of how we will know when we should run.” I said, “Run?”


She watches the news. Between acts of violence like this, and the very real threat of mass deportations and other fascist-aligned actions that the next administration might put in place, she is watching the clock. The family has made sure to keep their passports valid. These people are intellectuals, academics — they participated in the revolution, they overthrew Mubarak, danced in Tahrir Square, then fled Egypt when the military took over again. Now they are in a tenuous situation here, in the US. They don’t want to go back to Egypt; that is out of the question. She asked me, “Where should we go? Canada? Will they take us as refugees from the US?” After a long while, I said, “I don’t think about running. I think about fighting.”


Since that night, I have asked every friend whether they would be willing to risk their lives to protect this Egyptian family, should it come to that. And I have a nice list of people now. We’ve begun studying how to do this effectively. Luckily there’s a lot of information on how the French ran the cell system in Vichy. A lot of people are putting out feelers now. There’s a larger network ready to spring into action. I was able to go back to my friend and tell her, “I have five men who will risk their lives to protect you and your husband. And I have two safe houses outside the city available to you. And if you need an armed escort to reach them, one will be provided.” She wept.


Is this counter-intuitive? How dare I speak of protecting Arabs at a moment like this? This is the queer in me, the true degenerate, taking in the scope of the historical moment, and getting ready to act. Mother of Exiles, protect me.


HV: There have been suggestions that the Orlando shooter was gay. Would that surprise you and what does that say (if anything) about LGBTQ violence?


SF: It would now appear that the two worst attacks on gay bars in US history were both self-inflicted. We kill each other sometimes. Where we go with this information is up to us. I don’t know where to begin. I’ll keep going.


Interview by Hrag Vartanian