Recently, footage from 1945 depicting gay men kissing and dancing at a St. Louis pool party was discovered by filmmaker Geoff Story at an estate sale. Story, a gay man, has decided to create a film about the footage, choosing to dive into what it was like being gay during this time and the fact that “invisibility was imperative to survival.”
At face value, this footage might not seem important, especially to someone outside the LGBT community; the released footage is only 17 seconds long. But the implications of this film are vast. The film shows something almost no one has ever seen before: gay people being themselves in a time where being such was unequivocally considered wrong and heinous.
The same year the footage was filmed, a photo, perhaps one of the most iconic of all time, was taken in New York's Times Square. The photo, known as V-J Day in Times Square, depicts an unidentified sailor kissing a woman after learning that World War II had ended. Taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt, the photo is now recognized around the world; in fact, artist John Seward Johnson II sculpted a 26-foot-tall depiction of the picture.
But imagine, if you can, if a man had grabbed another man and kissed him the way that sailor grabbed and kissed the woman in the picture. Imagine if it had been two women. We know that gay people existed during the 1940s, so why is it hard to imagine? Why is it difficult to think about the repercussions of those hypothetical actions? Would anyone have photographed it at all? Would the hypothetical participants be arrested for public indecency?
There wouldn’t be a 26-foot-tall sculpture depicting the event, that’s for sure.
LGBT history is a subject only recently deemed worthwhile by universities and institutions. The modern LGBT community has very minimal concrete evidence of LGBT activity before the Stonewall riots in 1969. Footage like that of the 1945 pool party can give LGBT people a sense of belonging; gay people exist, and they always have, regardless of what history might say.
It’s impossible to rewrite history, for what it’s worth. But it isn’t impossible to identify the trials and tribulations the LGBT community has had to endure to get even the slightest bit of visibility. We not only need to remember our trials; we’re clearly hungering for records of our lineage.
Despite the community not having much recorded history prior to the 1950s, there are many organizations that seek to archive what history there is. The University of Southern California in Los Angeles is home to ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archive, the oldest archive of LGBT history. The archive is full of photographs, audio files, and documents. In addition to this archive, San Francisco is home to the GLBT History Museum, dedicated to preserving and promoting queer history. Gerber/Hart Library and Archives in Chicago is another major preserver of LGBT history.
It is important to support these places and the work they are actively doing. These archives attempt to shine light on LGBT history and give a voice to those who have went so long without one. The support from not just the LGBT community, but everyone, is imperative to keep our history alive.
The LGBT community didn’t begin to exist after the Stonewall riots. We didn’t begin to exist after the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s. Our lives didn’t begin when nationwide marriage equality was established in 2015. The LGBT community has always existed, and the history behind that community, although scarce, is just as important as the history we were all taught in school.
MICHAYLAH KIMBLER is an intern with The Advocate.