In 1973, Reginald Adams, a gay Catholic, was among the 32 people who died in a fire caused by arson at the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans. It was the worst mass killing of LGBTQ people in twentieth-century U.S. history.
Now, almost 50 years since that tragedy, the too-short life story of Adams, who was a Black, gay, Catholic man living in the Deep South, has been told by gay journalist Robert Fieseler. The journalist, who published a book about the fire at the Up Stairs Lounge fire, became fascinated by Adams. Fiesler recently penned an essay in Commonweal about Adams’ complex life and identity.
Fieseler explained, “In 1969, at the age of twenty, Adams entered the Jesuit seminary in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, the only Black member of his formation class.” It was a fraught time to be a Black Catholic in the South: Adams “witnessed the burning of a cross nearby after local Jesuits began to integrate their parishes.” In the end, Adams decided to leave the seminary before taking first vows.
At the same time, he was coming to understand his sexuality. After choosing not to pursue the priesthood, Adams began a relationship with a white, transgender Mormon, upending norms even within the usually accepting New Orleans gay community.
Race shaped Adams’ experience as a gay man as well. Fieseler wrote, “As an ‘out’ resident of New Orleans, Adams broke another barrier by becoming the first Black customer to drink in… a racially segregated gay bar on Bourbon Street.”
Even as Adams came to a deeper understanding of his sexuality, his faith remained an important part of his life. Fieseler explained how Adams found a new, LGBTQ-friendly worship community in his post-seminary life:
“Living in violation of Catholic doctrine, Adams nevertheless did not abandon his faith. He spent Sabbath days with a congregation called the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) of New Orleans, which conducted worship services that included a communion ceremony. Evicted from their first two locations, the MCC congregation met for a time at the Up Stairs Lounge, which served as a makeshift community gathering place.”
Tragically, it was this community space where Adams died not long after. In an act of arson one Sunday, several dozen people were killed, including the 24-year-old Adams. The local Jesuits identified his remains so that he could be given a Catholic burial in his Texas hometown. The gravestone, long unmarked, was recently engraved by the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana with Adams’ name and the simple words “Still Beloved.”
Fieseler described how moved he was to see the gravesite, placing himself in relationship to the vast communion of LGBTQ Catholics at rest:
“I weep for some time, my eyes pinned to the words “Still Beloved.” I can’t quite articulate why this small change in a Texas field overpowers me this way. Perhaps, as a gay Roman Catholic like Adams, I relate to the feeling of being perceived as an unwelcome fact. I am a same-sex-married contradiction, a spirit and a body at odds with the canon. After I perish, I wonder if some future regime might try to hush my memory, lest my story be presented as a viable way to live. After the fire, Adams joined untold numbers of Catholics who, like him, rested without acknowledgement of their faiths, their loves, their names. I wonder how many others rest this way. Respectfully, if all of these graves could be marked, it might provide a stunning visual lesson for those who fight an ideological war against a mystery of human nature. Look at all of us, across time.”
For Fieseler, it was a sacred moment as he prayed at the grave of a man who, though “[i]solated from the faith… found a way to continue his praise.”
In life and in death, all too many LGBTQ+ Catholics remain invisible and unknown in the church. But in the story of Reginald Adams, Fieseler sees a reminder of the diversity and dignity of queer Catholics. Visibility and respect can be long in coming, but LGBTQ+ Catholics have long been part of the church and present among the communion of saints. Recovering these stories from history calls us to a new and more dignified future.
—Grace Doerfler (she/her), New Ways Ministry, June 27, 2022