LGBT issues

‘Reel in the closet’: secret LGBT histories from the ‘40s to Stonewall and beyond caught on vintage home video

The Daily Beast

August 11, 2018

Stu Maddux brings together intimate home videos of personal LGBT histories.

“Breakfast In San Fernando,” flashes the title card. It is July 1947. A handsome man in a checked shirt beckons the camera through a gate, and inside a sunny garden are all kinds of other handsome men, skinny dipping, clipping hedges, and throwing themselves around on the grass.

The men are beautiful, happy, and were it today we may have seen their taut, glistening bodies captured on Instagram. But back then, when same-sex intercourse was illegal and LGBT people the subjects of widespread stigma, violence, and legislative prejudice—and all this long before the Stonewall Riots of 1969—LGBT people still not just lived their lives, but also some recorded them.

Documentary-maker Stu Maddux sifted through around 300 hours of homemade video material for his film Reel In The Closet, which shows LGBT lives at home, on vacation, on political demonstrations, out on the streets, and in LGBT bars back when such bars were very hush-hush places. Daily Beast readers can watch the documentary, free, here for a few days.

Maddux’s film is a fascinating, intimate survey of lives lived within and also outside the pages of history, and a reminder that LGBT people lived full lives, even as society ignored, persecuted, and discriminated against them. As one of the documentary’s contributors describes it, the videos are like “marks on cave walls.”

Around 70 percent of the material in the documentary was gleaned from San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society, with more from the Lesbian Home Movie Project, the ONE Archives, and the Library of Congress. The latter holds the collection of Lilli Vincenz, a well-known activist with the pre-Stonewall Mattachine Society, who recorded that group’s brave, silent demonstrations.

John Raines, a freelance media preservationist who works on preserving analog media in digital form, said the GLBT Historical Society’s archive had been the brainchild of Willie Walker, one of the society’s founders.

A nurse in the 1980s, Walker, said Raines, had seen relatives of patients dying of AIDS ashamed of the gay-specific material in those patients’ possession. Sometimes the relatives would throw that material away. Seeing its historical and cultural significance, Walker started trying to save as much as possible.

Although such familial homophobia and shame has thankfully lessened in recent times, one can only guess at how much LGBT home-shot video has been lost. Archivists hope older LGBT people today will save what they have and donate it, at the right time, to organizations like the GLBT Historical Society, and other societies like it; the same for family members who may have such material in their possession.

Maddux’s favorite moments on the tapes are “mundane moments and day-to-day things. You see straight versions of this all the time, like Christmas, birthdays, and Thanksgiving. With these movies, we see LGBT people back then doing the same, and also for me it’s nice to see them behaving just as we do today. Until I saw the films, I’d never seen myself in 1948 before. It’s a pretty powerful feeling, watching these home movies and feeling like you’re part of a community that’s been around for a while.”

Raines’ job, he said, is like bringing all these real-life, filmed ghosts “back to life.”

The home videos mean that the familiar newsreels of LGBT people being put in paddy wagons after bar raids, or demonstrating, or leading shadowy lives do not stand alone. “We can also see how resilient our community is, it’s so important for us to see,” said Maddux. “History gets telescoped and compressed into moments of extreme good and bad, but there was lots of everyday living too as we walked through a lot of bad times.”

Raines’ favorite tapes include one where a gay couple make a film to explain their daily lives to straight viewers, and one of pop star Sylvester performing at the opening of the Castro Street Muni station in 1980.

“It’s exciting to see videos of the Castro from the 70s,” said Raines. “It is not the entertainment district it is now. There’s a paint store, automobile garage, places you can’t imagine being on the street now. There’s so much asphalt, no pedestrianized sections.”

It reminds Raines of a more fun time, before “politics and plague” necessarily became defining hallmarks of LGBT life as the 70s and 80s progress.

The first video of San Francisco’s early version of Pride, Gay Freedom Day, was shot in its first year, 1973 (after preceding Pride-like events in 1970 and 1972).

“We do have history, and it has been so much suppressed,” said Raines. “Watching the movies today you realize how much in common we have with people back then. It’s inspiring to see the struggles people have gone through, especially if you might be living in adverse circumstances today.”

In Reel In The Closet, we see images of people dancing in bars, walking, gossiping, observing. The videos are from all over America: New York, Atlanta, St. Louis, San Francisco, the wide-open countryside. We see magnificent drag queens, the unfurling of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in D.C. in 1987, the Mattachine Society demonstrating in Philadelphia in 1968.

At one early gay-rights demonstration, a handsome man wears a T-shirt with the legend, “Only beautiful cops need arrest me.”

There are the home movies of Christine Jorgensen, America’s first high-profile transgender woman, video of Act Up demonstrations, video of relaxing at the Golden Gate Bridge in 1950, sunny picnics, and images of women (dressed in the “butch” and “femme” codes of the time) at Mona’s Candle Light, a San Francisco lesbian bar of the 1950s.

One videomaker recorded images of the handsome men in suits, soldiers, and Mexico border guards he encountered. There are countless parties with people having fun, drinking, joking. We see women on a seaside vacation. Others film the quotidian nature of their intimate relationships: we see happiness, contentment, cooking, reading, doing chores. In its absolute normality, in the smiling or goofing glances to camera, it is deeply moving to watch.

There is video of the first New York Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade in 1970, the year after the Stonewall Riots, and the precursor to modern-day Pride. The mood is radical and loud, a big shift from the besuited manneredness of the Mattachine Society.

Bill Longen, who worked in the 1980s as a film and TV editor, filmed what living with HIV was like for himself and his partner, as well as his partner’s eventual death. There are fleeting images of LGBT heroes like the famed activist and Stonewall demonstrator Marsha P. Johnson and Jeanne Manford, co-founder of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, later broadened to Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and now simply PFLAG), carrying her sign, “Parents of Gays: Unite In Support For Your Children.”

In other scenes from the 1970s, people debate about the way forward; how LGBT people should be seen; how they should demonstrate and demand. One student in 1972 says an LGBT association at a rural college could become a site of “sex orgies.”

Then suddenly, we are on a road trip, watching the landscapes of America whisk by. In St. Louis in 1977, someone says they hope the city’s drag queens dress as best as they can, “to show where it’s at.”

Curating the material for the documentary, Maddux realized a lot of the overtly LGBT material would be found in the middle of the tapes.

This may be because those doing the films were reasonably concerned their films could be confiscated if the material was deemed improper.

Film developers, said Maddux, would stick around to monitor the material at the beginning and end of the developing process, but would absent themselves in the middle to have a smoke or do something else. “So, you’ll see a traditional Christmas dinner at the beginning of some film, and then, boom, you’re into a pool party.”

Maddux, who has also made a documentary about LGBT older people and the discrimination they face, said that the tapes are a vital legacy, ensuring that LGBT lives are remembered. “We should all spend time with our older gay neighbors, and talk to them about their experiences. If they have garages of stuff and they pull out boxes of VHS tapes, I’m sure they’ll have something amazing to say about it.”

Next, Maddux is working on a documentary about LGBT ghost-hunters looking for LGBT ghosts (and uncovering some fascinating history along their spooky way), and Minister Of Loneliness, about the loneliness epidemic in modern society.

As for the need for archive today, today’s generations are feverishly telling their stories via their phones and social media accounts. Maddux hopes LGBT people continue to leave their filmed material to archives, whether they be local or LGBT-specific.

Raines thinks there would be so much material in the future, the challenge would be to curate the good stuff, “to sort the wheat from the chaff,” as he put it.

In the shorter term, said Raines, archivists are trying to curate material from as many LGBT communities groups as possible, not simply gay men.

Maddux wants Reel In The Closet to help young people connect to a past community. “In my earlier years coming out, it would have been so valuable to see people like me existed and were happy. We should recognize older LGBT people are part of history. They didn’t just go to parades, protests and fight the good fight. They lived day to day through times that were incredible and filled with incredible change. Their stories are valuable.”

Of spending so much time immersed in, and making sense of, all these ghosts of the past, Raines said: “To me it’s a seductive fantasy, imagining what it was like, what it was like to be part of it—as well as enjoying resurrecting this material, and conjuring up voices and images which have lain around in boxes for so long.”