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PAUL BRETON

WASHINGTON, D.C. GAY LIBERATION FRONT


paul breton, gay priest, gay priest activist, fire at the upstairs lounge, arson on gay community, washington d.c. gay liberation front, washington d.c. gay activist alliance, washington glf, early gay rights, gay hate crime history
Paul Breton's ordination at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C. by unknown, 1973.

We are still running down the Gay Liberation was not only in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York path! Up next is Paul Breton. When I called him out of the blue for an interview, he quickly said, “Yes! I am 84 years old and have a lot to say.” When I asked him if he had any questions for me or about the interview, he said, “No,” and we set up a time.


Paul was born and raised in Connecticut and attended Catholic schools. He later pursued his education at seminaries, earning degrees in liberal arts and philosophy. After serving in the U.S. Air Force Security Service, Paul became involved in social activism, particularly within the antiwar and gay rights movements during the 1960s. In 1969, he had a significant encounter with several pioneering gay and lesbian activists in Washington, D.C., including Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, Martha Taylor, Nancy Tucker, and Lilli Vincenz.

In 1969, Paul founded the Homophile Social League in Washington, D.C. He continued to play a significant role in gay liberation in Washington, D.C., participating in the Gay Liberation Front and co-founding the Washington, D.C. Gay Activist Alliance. When reflecting on New York City’s first Pride March (then called The Christopher Street Liberation Day March), he said, “It was a very emotional experience and vindication of the fact that what we were doing was the right thing. There were hundreds of us all together. We were united.”


Paul’s involvement in the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) began when he founded a congregation in his home, which was later chartered as an MCC congregation in 1971. The MCC, without question, is the most important LGBTQ church, both historically and presently, with over 400,000 members and 222 congregations in 37 countries in every continent but Antarctica.


1973 proved to be a pivotal year that forever changed Paul’s life. After being freshly ordained in the Metropolitan Community Church, he was summoned by Reverend Troy Perry, the founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, to go to New Orleans, Louisiana, to help with the aftermath of the arson attack at the UpStairs Lounge, which occurred on June 24th on the second floor of a building at 604 Iberville Street.


Following an MCC church service, parishioners were socializing at the UpStairs Lounge, one of the few gay-friendly bars that welcomed them, when the fire broke out. As a result of the arson, 32 people died, and 15 were injured. This event was the deadliest attack on the homosexual community in America before the Pulse Nightclub Shooting in Orlando, Florida, which took place on June 12, 2016. The Pulse Nightclub shooting spree killed 49 people and wounded 53.


The cause of the fire at the UpStairs Lounge remains officially "of undetermined origin." The main suspect, Roger Dale Nunez, a gay man with psychiatric issues who was ejected from the bar earlier that day, was never charged and died by suicide in November 1974.


—August Bernadicou, Executive Director of The LGBTQ History Project



paul breton, gay priest, gay priest activist, fire at the upstairs lounge, arson on gay community, washington d.c. gay liberation front, washington d.c. gay activist alliance, washington glf, early gay rights, gay hate crime history
Paul Breton (right) with Rev. Elder John H. Hose by unknown, 1973.

“Reverend Troy Perry called me in the middle of the night and told me about the fire. For most of my professional life, I have maintained secondary employment while doing church work. In 1973, my secondary employment was with the Department of Social Services in Washington, D.C. Troy thought my expertise from working with the Department of Social Services could be used in New Orleans, so he asked me to go.


Reverend Roy Birchard in New York City got a wealthy church member to fund my travel to New Orleans, and I made the trip and worked there for three weeks. I discovered that social services in New Orleans were worlds away from social services in Washington, D.C. Still, I was there also to give people a shoulder to cry on.


The first day I was in New Orleans, I went to the UpStairs Lounge building to see what had happened. The results of the fire had not been cleaned up yet. When I arrived on the scene, I could smell the scent of burnt bodies and wood—all the brush from that fire. Some people had put flowers at the foot of the staircase to the UpStairs Lounge. I met Morty Manford from the Gay Activist Alliance in New York City, and we started discussing a strategy of holding news conferences and getting the story of the tragedy out there.


It was a very emotional time. The whole experience hit me differently because of the way the victims died. The congregation's pastor died in the window. He was climbing into the sunlight, and his body cooked in the fire. Many of the victims who survived the fire were physically and emotionally damaged.


Those of us who were there to assist met with the survivors and then met as a group. A collection of people in New Orleans wanted to impress upon us to go home, get out of New Orleans, and not make a big issue about the fire. Troy made it very clear that he would make a big deal about the fire because he believed that each one of the people who were victims of the arson was sacred. I agreed, and we stayed in New Orleans, disappointing the authorities.


It became time to plan the memorial service. Everywhere said no, except for St. Mark's United Methodist Church. During the service, we were notified that television cameras were parked outside on the middle road. New Orleans was very closeted, and media exposure posed a threat to many people at the memorial service.


We told the congregation they could go by the pulpit if they wanted to leave through the back door. A man stood up and said, ‘I've gone through the back door for the entirety of my lifetime, but not today or ever again.’ He walked out the front door, and the rest of the congregation walked out behind him. I look at this as the baptism of New Orleans—the beginning of the gay liberation movement in New Orleans.


The whole event greatly impacted me and has marked me for over 50 years of my life. There were tears every single day. We did everything we possibly could as professionally as we could, but I cannot shake the memory.”


List of fatalities of the fire at the UpStairs Lounge:

Joseph Henry Adams

paul breton, gay priest, gay priest activist, fire at the upstairs lounge, arson on gay community, washington d.c. gay liberation front, washington d.c. gay activist alliance, washington glf, early gay rights, gay hate crime history
Headline from the Times-Picayune newspaper, June 25, 1973.

Reginald E. Adams

Guy D. Andersen

Joe William Bailey

Luther Boggs

Louis Horace Broussard

Herbert Dean Cooley

Donald Walter Dunbar

Adam Roland Fontenot

Larry Norman Frost

David Stuart Gary

Horace “Skip” Getchell

John Thomas Golding, Sr.

paul breton, gay priest, gay priest activist, fire at the upstairs lounge, arson on gay community, washington d.c. gay liberation front, washington d.c. gay activist alliance, washington glf, early gay rights, gay hate crime history
Firemen give first aid to survivors at the UpStairs Lounge by G E Arnold, 1973.

Gerald Hoyt Gordon

Glenn Richard “Dick” Green

James Wall Hambrick

Kenneth Paul Harrington

Rev. William R. Larson

Ferris LeBlanc

Robert “Bob” Lumpkin

Leon Richard Maples

Larry Stratton

Eddie Hosea Warren

James Curtis Warren

Willie Inez Warren

Dr. Perry Lane Waters, Jr.

Douglas Maxwell Williams

George Steven "Bud" Matyi

Clarence Joseph McCloskey, Jr.

Duane George “Mitch” Mitchell

Unidentified White Male

Unidentified White Male



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