On the evening of June 24th 1973 a fire tore through a bar in New Orleans’ French quarter where a group of gay men were meeting for a religious service, 32 died in the blaze. Though it was the largest massacre of gay people in American history no one called it a tragedy, and no one tried to understand the purpose of the meeting-it was a religious service. The men were part of a growing religious movement that developed in the 1970s that has since been forgotten and overshadowed by the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
In his new book Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation, historian Jim Downs uses the story of that fateful night as a jumping off point for a wide ranging narrative revealing that gay life in America in the 1970s was far richer and more varied than has been remembered. In short, gay life in that decade was about far more than just sex. He shows us gay people standing together as friends, fellow believers and colleagues to create a sense of community among people who felt alienated from mainstream American life. Jim Downs is an Associate Professor of History at Connecticut College and an Andrew W. Mellon New Directions Fellow at Harvard University.