elisechenier: (Default)
A great deal of the research for this project has come from lesbian and gay archives. Scattered across the United States and Canada, they are treasure troves for historians of sexuality. Too few, however, know about their existence, but those who do have a deep passion for preserving the past. One of my best “finds” at ONE National Lesbian and Gay Archives in Los Angeles illustrates this perfectly.

When I arrived there in the early summer of 2012, archivist Michael Oliveira was excited to show me their most recent acquisition: photographs of a male couple who had a wedding ceremony in a North Philly apartment sometime in the 1950s. For five decades, the photos sat in the Mandarang family collection. Jackie Mandarang never knew why because she recognized not a soul. One day she asked her father about them.

Your mother used to work in a photomat, he explained. Whenever film came in that the photomat owner deemed inappropriate, he would confiscate it on moral grounds. He did not mind, however, if the staff helped themselves to the prints.

Jackie’s mother tucked the wedding snaps away in her purse and hoped that one day the gentlemen would come in to the shop and she could surreptitiously pass the photos over. They never did, and the pictures ended up among the Mandarang family photos.

In a letter to the archives Jackie explains that she put the photos up for auction on eBay. The successful bidder insisted that she make a copy of the set and send it to ONE for preservation and public use. I am glad he thought to do that, but it does make me wonder how much historical material is in the hands of private collectors, out of reach of the research community. When the value in an object is in its scarcity, can we ever hope that copies will be made available so that we can know our own past?

I got in touch with The Philadelphia Gay News in the hope that, with their help, the photos could be reunited with their rightful owners. They ran a story about the confiscated photos in February 2013, but no one has come forward to claim them. What made the couple decide to get married? Who was it that married them, and how did their friends feel about the ceremony? We will never know.

I had hoped that the article might also prompt people who have stories of their own about same-sex weddings in the '50s, '60s and '70s to get in touch with me, but that didn’t happen either. Even in the age of the Internet, finding each other is a challenging task.

It is a pleasure to share my research findings with a broad audience but the truth is that my underlying hope is that the blog reaches people who participated in or witnessed same-sex weddings, or who opposed them, or who officiated them, or who had any other connection to the subject. If that’s you, please get in touch with me. It that’s not you, please like, share and re-post as far and wide as possible. Don’t let our history be a scarce resource. You can email me at echenier@gmail.com.

[Image Description: two reasonably young men in suits stand at a wedding cake, cutting it together]

[Image Description: 5 men stand together in V: at the center, an officiant holding a large book. On both sides of him, the grooms and their best men. A six th man in a suit, also holding a book, is in the background on the right].

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This past week I met with Vancouver's queer seniors writing collective Quirk-e to talk about a draft of an article I recently completed with the title: “Freak Wedding! Marriage as Postwar Lesbian Pleasure Practice.” The article was inspired by the headline of a 1957 tabloid story about a butch and fem lesbian wedding in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

The question I ask in the article is simple enough: how can we make sense of butch and fem lesbians' highly conventional marriage practices when everything else about them was highly unconventional? There are extraordinary parallels between working-class butch and fem lesbian bar culture and the culture of early twentieth century circus freaks, so I use the critical studies understanding of late 19th and early 20th century circus "freaks" to deepen our understanding of butch and fem culture in the 1950s and 1960s.

Margot Dunn, a Quirk-e collective member, made a brilliant comment during our discussion. "There is nothing freakier than a wedding ceremony," she said. People dress completely out of the ordinary, they say things that are out of the ordinary, and the day is spent in a very unordinary way.

Everyone agreed, myself included. Margot could see something so obviously freaky, but made so ordinary by its status in our culture as “normal,” that no one else could see.

The wonderful thing about the word "freaky" is that it can mean different things. Something can be freakishly weird or freakishly wonderful. The challenge in writing Outlaws to In-Laws is to make the story of same-sex marriage in the 1950s, '60s and '70s as interesting to people who see marriage (gay, straight, or otherwise) as freakishly weird as we might expect it to be for those who see it as wonderful.

I am one of many who see same-sex marriage as weird and wonderful. Since the late 1800s marriage in Western culture has increasingly come to be a public celebration of love, intimacy, and commitment between two people. In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, mainstream American society insisted lesbians and gays were incapable of authentic love, intimacy, or commitment. That same-sex couples married each other anyhow makes these weddings freakishly wonderful. On the other hand, as a cultural institution marriage typically reinforces gender stereotypes. When Daisy de Jesus performed wedding ceremonies in New York’s Broadway Central bar in the late '60s, she asked: "Do you take so-and-so to be your butch, to love and protect you? Do you take so-and-so to be your fem, to love you and to be faithful?" Daisy would come to reject this kind of gender differentiation as she became more and more involved in the women's liberation movement in the early 1970s.

What guides my exploration of this topic is the largely forgotten gay liberationist argument that love outside the bounds of society's prescriptive norms is a radical action. To truly embrace other human beings as having a value, a dignity, and a humanity equal to you and everyone else, they claimed, is the most direct path to uprooting of social and political inequality.

People do not always marry for love, and it is certainly not the only way to express love, but the couples I am writing about loved radically. At the time, most Americans thought such love to be so freakishly weird it was perverted; in this context how can it be anything other than freakishly wonderful?

What do you think?

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elisechenier: (close up)
I have always loved giving public talks. I love the challenge of writing a compelling narrative, and I love the rush of energy I get from an attentive audience who is usually pleased, sometimes even thrilled, to learn something new about queer history.

Occasionally someone approaches me after a presentation with a story to share. Just such a thing happened this past week. I participated in a student-organized panel for Queer History Month and shared stories about researching same-sex marriage in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. Afterwards Ron Dutton, a local archivist of the gay past, approached me.

“I didn’t know you were working on marriage,” he said. “Have you seen the 1957 story that ran in TAB magazine about a gay male wedding that got busted by the police?”

“No,” I said, all ears. “Tell me more.”

“I can’t remember the details, but I have a copy of it in my collection.”

Today I went to Ron’s home, part of which is converted into a massive archive that holds over one million items. Here is the one he shared with me:

click for larger

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elisechenier: (butch/fem)

[click for larger]

The headline says it all. In the 1950s, lesbians were “freaks.” This was especially true of butch women who adopted a masculine working-class style. Their style alone communicated volumes: I will not conform to society’s rules; I will not be a “proper” woman; I am a sexually desiring being, and my desire is directed toward women, especially feminine women.

When I first uncovered this image, I was stunned. It is rare to see photographs from this period. Few working-class women had cameras, few could afford to take photos, and most moved so often that photos tended to get lost, misplaced, or thrown out.

But even more than that, I was surprised to learn that these women, whom historians have always characterized as rebels, as heterosexual refuseniks, as the political predecessors to the lesbian and feminist liberationists who denounced marriage and romance as major sources of women’s oppression, got married. Not only that, they did so in the most conventional of ways. As the image of Ivy and Gerry shows, they wore conventional wedding attire. My research is showing that this was only the beginning. Women arranged for an officiant – sometimes a friend, and sometimes a Christian minister sympathetic to same-sex lovers – and exchanged heartfelt vows. Afterwards, many couples celebrated with a multi-tier wedding cake. There was no marriage license, of course, but what did that matter?

How does lesbian marriage fit with the image historians have constructed of butch and fem culture as a rebel culture? Was marriage in this case an act of resistance against heterosexual norms or was it, as some queer critics of today’s marriage equality movement argue, conformist and conservative?

I have been exploring this question in archives and interviews with people who married in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s and found that men engaged in the same practice. I have learned that then, as now, “homosexual marriage” was a topic of heated debate among gays and lesbians. Some wondered why anyone would want to give up the freedom from life-long monogamy that lesbians and gays enjoyed. Others thought that such practices made homosexuals look ridiculous and undermined any hope of winning civil rights.

From Outlaws to In-Laws explores the history of same-sex marriage in the United States from the 1950s up to the present-day marriage equality movement. Some have argued that weddings in the 1960s and 1970s were acts of resistance and acts of conformity, but after two years of reflecting on my research findings, I suggest that “resistance” as a category of analysis is not particularly useful in understanding marriage as a cultural practice among lesbians and gays. Without abandoning an understanding of marriage as a political institution, in From Outlaws to In-Laws I want to explore the way love, pleasure, desire and affection are given expression, and how these feelings and their public expression contribute to forming and building community.

If you have a story to share about same-sex marriage before 1980, get in touch with me. I am still collecting histories and artifacts for this project. And if you have a question or comment, I hope you’ll share it below. Thanks for reading, and please share this blog with your friends.

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