In the early 1970s, LGBT culture in New Orleans remained hidden from the public eye. Instead of openly expressing sexuality and engaging in public displays of affection, most LGBT people were “in the closet” and would socialize in bars that catered to the gay community.
On Halloween day in 1970, the Upstairs Lounge opened to cater to the less affluent gay and lesbian people of New Orleans. Higher-class patrons frequented bars on Bourbon Street closer to the Marigny, while the area closer to Canal Street, the “Gay Triangle” catered to the working class, similar to the Stonewall Inn in New York City. These LGBT clubs were centers of the community and often served as social spaces for purposes other than recreation, such as community organizing and freedom of expression.
The 1970s was a progressive decade for LGBT individuals in New Orleans. The Gay Liberation Front began to organize in late 1970. The short-lived group organized some of the first gay political demonstrations in New Orleans, such as protests against police brutality. 1972 saw the first Southern Decadence festival arise, which would lead to one of the biggest LGBT oriented festivals in New Orleans.
A frequent patron of the Upstairs Lounge, Stewart Butler, remembers, “The Upstairs Lounge was more of -- I thought -- a social club than it was a bar. All sorts of different activities took place there. They had occasion to sing, ‘We Shall Overcome’ with a ‘gay and straight together’ verse in it and that was sort of a rouser, if you will.”
Patrons often used a piano and a cabaret stage for entertainment, including shows and parties. Its reputation as a social club led the Upstairs Lounge to become a welcome home for the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), which established itself in the early 1970s. The MCC was the first openly gay church in the United States, and members often faced discrimination. MCC Pastor Reverend William R. Larson and Assistant Pastor Duane George “Mitch” Mitchell would regularly host social events for church members and members of the gay community.