Skylar Feins Remember the Upstairs Lounge.
Skylar Fein's Remember the Upstairs Lounge. Photograph by Mike Smith/Courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery

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Until Orlando, the deadliest known mass murder of LGBTQ people in American history happened when an arsonist set fire to the New Orleans gay bar the Upstairs Lounge in 1973.

All 32 men inside died.

The crime was never solved. A gay man who'd been ejected from the club earlier that day was suspected, but not charged.

Worse, the incident was swept under the rug by the public, by institutions. Families didn't talk about it. Churches refused to bury the dead.

Another installation view of Remember the Upstairs Lounge at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans in 2008. Feins work will be featured at Seattle Art Fair August 4 through 7 at CenturyLink Field Events Center.
Another installation view of Remember the Upstairs Lounge at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans in 2008. Fein's work will be featured at Seattle Art Fair August 4 through 7 at CenturyLink Field Events Center. Photograph by Mike Smith/Courtesy Jonathan Ferrara Gallery

Thirty-five years later, in 2008, an artist named Skylar Fein built a memorial art installation in tribute to those who were killed that night, and all of those who still fear, and who still are attacked. It was called Remember the Upstairs Lounge.

In the aftermath of the killings at Pulse, the editor of Hyperallergic, Hrag Vartanian, checked in with Fein. Fein's first thought after the attacks, when he saw the public outcry against the killer and the FBI investigators was, "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.

Read the whole thing. Fein's work will be at Seattle Art Fair August 4 through 7, at CenturyLink Field Events Center.