"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Fire Next Time



By Dan Graham


In chapter one of his new book Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation, the Historian Jim Downs writes of the largest massacre of gay people in U.S. history. It was on June 24, 1973 at the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans. It was a fire, intentionally set on the ground floor of the bar as a gay church group met upstairs. Thirty two people died.  It took a long time to identify the bodies because they were burned so badly, and to this day, two bodies remain unidentified.  The fire and deaths were met by a largely indifferent public.  I was just one year old in 1973.

That could have been it, a piece of history forgotten by even the most demonstrative queens among us, but the events of last Sunday morning at another nightclub, the Pulse in Orlando, Florida, changed all that.  Forty nine people dead in three hours and a hail of bullets at the hands of a monster. It was a sobering thing to wake up to, especially as Angelenos began to gather in West Hollywood, just down the street from the Soup, to march in or observe the annual gay pride parade.

There has been a long and rambling conversation this week in person and online about the purpose of this attack - was it terrorism, homophobia, the result of lax gun laws and the proliferation of mass casualty assault rifles, inept or uncaring politicians, religion?

Can't it be all of those things?

I, like many of you, soaked in it for days. I was stunned, tearful, and finally angry. And then it came to me - James Baldwin.

"God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time!"



I went digging around my house for my old dog-eared copy of The Fire Next Time, Baldwin's searing indictment of his country, a country that couldn't or wouldn't accept him. It's the one book that probably best captures my state of mind after this catastrophe. 

I watched talking heads on television ask me to pray and I seethed with rage. Many of them had previously gone on record as being against the very freedoms that gay people had only recently been granted. I know they'll do nothing.  Prayer is all they have; they lack the courage or will to do anything else.

You might be sick of people working this out in writing. I'm not. I can't read enough essays and opinion pieces, news reporting, and Facebook posts.  Thirty two people died in a gay bar just 40 years ago, and no one cared.  So I'll take the help from well meaning people who donate blood, or money for funerals, or simply a social media post in solidarity.

I'll think about Baldwin as I reread this book, and how disappointed he'd be by the present day - the problems of racism and homophobia, and how we thought we had turned a corner but it's still here, still burning.