Today, it might seem like any other informal, casual photograph of a young gay couple enjoying each other’s company. But this picture, in fact, reveals far more than that. It was taken in 1953, a time when purposefully vague statutes on morals, lewd conduct, or disorderly conduct in many states allowed the police to target and arrest gay and lesbian people for such transgressions as wearing items of clothing of the opposite sex, propositioning someone of the same sex, or even holding hands with a member of the same sex. This photo could have gotten these men arrested.
The image is part of the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries – the largest repository of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer materials in the world. The picture was once owned by the young man on the right-hand side of the image above, Joseph John Bertrund Belanger. Belanger, for most of his life, was a devoted collector of LGBT history. Born in Edmonton, Canada, in 1925, he served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and was a member of the Mattachine Society – an early instance of what today would be called an LGBT organization — in the early 1950s. It is thanks to his passion and foresight that the image survives today.
Here, in the midst of the 2014 pride season, what remains so remarkable and moving about this particular image is how quietly radical it feels all these years later. Belanger and another man have found a private safe-space in the unlikeliest of places — an ordinary photo booth – where they felt so at ease, and so themselves, they could kiss each other far from the prying eyes of a disapproving public.
Kyle Morgan is an archivist at the ONE Archives at the USC Libraries