Transgender Mormon Survives Mass Murder

On Gay Pride Day in 1973, someone set fire to the entrance of a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Within minutes, 28 people were dead, and 4 more died within the following two weeks from their burns. A mother died along with her two gay sons. A minister burned to death halfway out a window. A man ran into the bar’s bathroom to tell his friend the bar was on fire. The friend escaped. The man who’d alerted him died in the bathroom. Another man lost his partner in the fire as well. He also lost all of his fingers. A gay couple never picked up their two young sons from the movie theater where they’d been dropped off earlier that afternoon.

And the life of a transgender Mormon was changed forever.

Richie Soleto grew up in the Jefferson Ward of the New Orleans Stake. He attended Seminary classes, participated in Boy Scouts, and considered going on a mission. But after graduating high school in 1970, Richie studied Food Service Management at a vocational school and began working as a waiter in a French Quarter restaurant. Some of the other waiters were gay and eventually convinced Richie to go to the UpStairs Lounge with them one day after work. There Richie met Reggie Adams.

Reggie was a black man from Dallas who was studying at Loyola University in New Orleans. Soon, the two men were a couple and living together in the French Quarter. They remained regulars at the UpStairs Lounge, where the group often put on “nellydramas” like “Egad, What a Cad” and other plays the regulars wrote and performed. There were tricycle races in the bar. The members of the Metropolitan Community Church, the first church to directly address the concerns and issues of gay Christians, met at the bar for socializing after services. Richie and Reggie met with their friends often and were both at the UpStairs for the Beer Bust on June 24, 1973. They were singing around the piano with other patrons. “United, We Stand” was one of the popular tunes they enjoyed.

Richie and Reggie were friends with Buddy Rasmussen, the bartender, and Adam Fontenot, Buddy’s partner. Reggie asked Buddy if he and Richie could invite Buddy and Adam out to dinner when Buddy finished his shift at 8:00. Buddy happily accepted, and Reggie asked Richie to run back to their apartment a few blocks away and get some extra money.

That request saved Richie’s life.

When he came back to the bar, fire engines were blocking the street. Flames and smoke were pouring out of the building. Buddy survived, leading 25 people out a back exit. When he got down to the street, he looked back up at the bar and saw Adam still sitting on his barstool, screaming and waving his arms amidst the flames. Then a burst of water from a firefighter’s hose knocked him off his stool. That was the last Buddy ever saw of Adam.

Richie never saw Reggie again at all. He spent the next few weeks laying out Reggie’s clothes for him in the morning, hoping he’d walk back in through the door and life would go back to normal. But it never did.

It didn’t help that no churches would bury the dead because they died in a gay bar. Several families wouldn’t even claim the bodies of their deceased relatives, afraid to have people find out someone in their family was gay. The jokes going about town after the fire included such classics as, “Did you hear about the weenie roast in the Quarter the other day?” and “Where do you bury fruits? In fruit jars!”

Richie eventually realized he wasn’t really gay. He was a woman in a man’s body. So he legally changed his name to Regina Adams to honor her dead partner and has been Regina for the past forty years.

Regina is featured in the book Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire by Johnny Townsend, and she is also interviewed in the documentary Upstairs Inferno, produced and directed by Robert Camina. (See also The Up Stairs Lounge Arson by Clayton Delery-Edwards.)

Camina is still raising funds for application fees for various film festivals, plus to make Blu-ray discs of the film for those festivals. The arson at the UpStairs Lounge remains the largest mass murder of gay people in the U.S. (if you don’t count the deliberate inaction of the government over AIDS in the 1980s). Regina Adams, a transgender Mormon, was a part of that national tragedy. And she has been a leader for other trans people in New Orleans for decades.

Review of City of Brick and Shadow

The novel by Tim Wirkus, City of Brick and Shadow, is a riveting tale of two missionaries in a sweeping Brazilian slum looking for a missing congregant they had recently baptized. All the characters are well-realized, from the unhappy local Mormons to the woman at the lanchonete to the mysterious Argentine, a kind of Satan figure who rules over Vila Barbosa. Further, the level of description is quite vivid, helping the reader feel like an unwilling visitor to the slum all along the way. In some respects, the mystery is pretty banal—a petty con artist is probably killed—but Wirkus raises several philosophical issues as well, all without making the story too heavy. Ultimately, the book raises a very Mormon question—what is the purpose of life, and what are we willing to pay to fulfill that purpose.

The two main characters, the missionaries, form a pair almost like Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, the main character being a slightly dull Watson dragged along by his energetic and condescending senior companion. And yet it’s much sadder than any story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The climax is surprising and shocking, but the conclusion, not to give too much away, left me feeling quite unsettled and more than a little depressed. But that’s what good literature does, it makes one think and question and leave thinking things he or she hadn’t thought much about before, even if those thoughts aren’t always sunny. This is the kind of accomplishment Mormon literature should strive for. We don’t need to be told everything is wonderful for those who follow the Lord. We need to see life, and ourselves, as the imperfect creations we are, so that we can answer those difficult questions posed so clearly by this extremely well-written story.

Call for Submissions

I am accepting short stories dealing with unconventional Mormons for an anthology to be called “Marginal Mormons.” The stories should be 25 pages or shorter, though length will not necessarily disqualify a submission. Payment will be $20 and one copy of the book, in exchange for perpetual, non-exclusive rights. The stories may be original or previously published, as long as you currently retain the rights. I am not particularly impressed with faith-promoting stories, but I am also not looking to attack the Church. I simply want stories that show unconventional Mormons or new interpretations of doctrine or history. The story does not need to be disturbing but should certainly be thought-provoking.

Please email any stories in the body of the email, but also include them as an attachment. Send to johnnyjohnnyt at yahoo dot com.