This week with its epic though mixed Supreme Court cases, with Time magazine prematurely declaring Gay Marriage Already Won, and with Rush Limbaugh conceding the fight, nothing is more important than remembering the gay past. Get yourself to the sixth floor of 265 Canal St, where for the next two weeks only, you can see highlights from Harry Weintraub's collection of 10,000+ pre-Stonewall gay photographs, scrapbooks, magazines, artifacts, and ephemera. A New York lawyer with an eye for history, Weintraub began collecting the images before aids had a name in the 1980s and his earliest items date from the 1850s. Obviously, assigning sexualities to anonymous subjects in found photos is an inexact art, never free from ambiguity. Indeed, a few well-meaning, over-eager online amateurs go too far, gathering every old image that merely shows men without women and labeling it gay. Though some items remain open to interpretation, much of Weintraub's archive is authentically queer. And invaluable.
Upon receiving the collection in 2011, Cornell's library discussed Weintraub's struggle to find personal gay artifacts:
"Many families were embarrassed by their gay relatives and would throw out their personal effects, Weintraub said, because "they just wanted to get rid of everything. Many times, I was beaten by the dumpster."
"But relatives started finding out about Weintraub’s collection and contacting him, ready to donate garbage bags full of their gay family members’ scrapbooks, pornography, photographs and memorabilia. He also purchased materials through antique dealers, from the basements of Manhattan sex shops and at antique shows all over the country."
That newsletter also asked how can one tell if people in a photograph are gay without context?
"Sometimes it’s obvious, Weintraub said, such as when men are in overtly sexual situations or the photographs were donated directly by the families of known gay men. Other times, particularly with older photographs, it’s more subtle -- conveyed by an open hand instead of a closed fist, the position of the legs, even a facial expression.
"There are clues, tiny details, if you know what to look for," he said, such as the way the men sit or wear matching rings on their right hands."
"Many of the artifacts show how the gay underworld intersected with the mainstream of American society – the hostile attention of the police and the gutter press, etc – but many more are intimate documents from within: collaged scrapbooks, candid photographs, porno magazines, home-made erotic artworks that testify to a constantly threatened but nevertheless vivid subculture.
"Many of the men in these photos and collages are trapped in their time: many are so ashamed, guilt-ridden, or burdened by social pressures, that they hide their faces (but not their cocks!) or wear masks. This alludes to the mask that gay men had to wear in straight society during those years, when exposure could mean imprisonment, loss of employment, ostracism.
"It is also evidence of the secret handshakes and systems of signals prevalent in a subculture. When such a subculture is derived from the core human condition of sexuality, the game play of concealment and revelation tell plenty about how all of us, gay and straight, choose to present ourselves and the differences between our public and private life – who we are and who we choose to present to others.
"What’s so great about this extraordinary, unprecedented weight of samizdat imagery is that it shows the inhabitants of this underworld living, working, having sex and having fun in total defiance of everything that they have been told. It is this indomitable spirit – this sheer sense of glee, of saying ‘up yours’ – that Harry Weintraub sought to record, and that we at Boo-Hooray wish to celebrate.
"Hooray for Gay" is at the Boo-Hooray Gallery, 6th Floor, 265 Canal St., NYC, open daily 11-6.
Readers interested in more should look to James Gardiner's Who's a Pretty Boy, Then?: 150 Years of Gay Life in Pictures, Russell Bush's Affectionate Men: A Photographic History of a Century of Male Couples, 1850-1950, John Ibson's Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography, David Deitcher's Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918, Montague Glover's private photos of gay Brits 1914-1950 in A Class Apart, or Jonathan Ned Katz's Love Stories: Sex between Men before Homosexuality.