“We honestly didn’t think it would take this long. I figured a couple of Google searches, a Facebook search and done."
For almost two years, Neal Baer, P.J. Palmer, and Michael J. Wolfe have been trying to solve a mystery that began in the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries.
It was there that Baer discovered a set of wedding photos taken in 1957.
An officiant stood before the couple making their vows. The couple shared the traditional kiss at the end of the ceremony. Friends were gathered to witness the marriage.
In fact, everything about these photos showed exactly what one would expect from a wedding in 1957 except for one detail. The couple in question were two gay men.
Baer shared the photos Palmer and Wolfe, and within a few days, they decided they had to find these men and return their photos to them.
They had little to go on beyond the year and that they were developed in a drugstore in North Philadelphia, but it was a start.
“We honestly didn’t think it would take this long,” Palmer explained in an interview with SDGLN. “I figured a couple of Google searches, a Facebook search and done. Instead, our search led us to other stories peripheral to the story of these two men. They were intensely personal and we began to discuss how we could share them. Should we write a book? Make a documentary? These stories are too important to just let them go in search of the men in the photos.”
Baer and Palmer are producers and directors; Wolfe is a writer, and they soon decided to produce an unscripted series titled “The Mystery of the 1957 Gay Wedding Photos.”
For Palmer, it seemed that they were reclaiming a part of LGBTQ history that had not been lost, but had simply never been included in the narrative.
In fact, they found that the anomaly was not so much the fact that these men made this commitment in the 1950s. The anomaly was that the photos survived and were preserved for 60 years.
“We tend to think of them as heroes and trailblazers, but that’s putting them into the context of who we are today,” Palmer said. “For some of these men and women, they were just living their lives. Gay marriage isn’t new just because it became legal. The only thing new is that it is legal. I’ve talked to historians now who have told me that this happened a lot but we just never saw the photographs. They weren’t included in family albums.”
The decision to make the series and continue the quest to find the men in the photos carries with it a great weight as they discovered when they spoke to elders in the queer community, many of whom still live somewhat secretive lives in the year 2019.
Some of these men and women could only be approached after someone else had vetted the filmmakers and offered assurances that they could be trusted, and even then, sometimes the names they were give were not the real names of the person to whom they were speaking.
“They’re in their 90s and they’re still using a false name,” he said. “I live a life where there are apps that will tell you where I’m at and what I’m into this very second. These elders don’t live like that and it comes from a desire for safety. They lived through Stonewall. They saw our community decimated by HIV and AIDS in the 80s firsthand. That’s still a part of who they are.”
This idea of queer history is still foreign to many. In fact, the narrative of queer history in the U.S. has been the continued reassertion that we are somehow wrong, dangerous, or conspicuously non-existent, and Palmer pointed to his own family as an example while reiterating the importance of these photos.
He was an adult before he learned that he had a great-uncle who was gay, and who had a partner with whom he spent most of his life.
“I never saw a picture of them. I don’t know what they looked like,” he said. “They were gone before I was born and I feel like if I had seen them when I was nine years old in a family album I would have known that there were other people like me in my own family. I would have known that I was all right and I had a right to be here.”
By the end of our interview, it was clear that Palmer was not only searching for the men in the photographs nor was he focused solely on filling in one particular gap in our collective queer history. He, like many others who take on projects like this, is clarifying his own place in the world.
You can view the wedding photos from the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries on the official website created by Palmer, Baer, and Wolfe or follow their journey to find the men in “The Mysterious 1957 Gay Wedding Photos” on their Facebook page.