Our Queer Snapshots

When I was three years old, I had a snapshot taken of me wearing shoulder pads.  Not actually wearing them proper, but lopsided with the padded, leather cups meant to protect my shoulders humped on my back on one side, sagging over my chest on the other.  My real shoulders, unprotected, slope weakly as my arms just hang there.

In the photo, I’m standing in a stoic pose in my grandparents’ front yard on Chandler Street in Flint.  My great-grandparents’ 1964 Skylark—which my mom would inherit from Auntie Prue in 1977 with only 20,000 miles on it—can be seen in the driveway behind me.  I would later get the ’64 Skylark as my first car, but never really owned it because I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was twenty-three.

I have on my first pair of glasses, from the eminent local ophthalmologist Fleming Barbour.

I look very much like a miniature Earl Warren, then Chief Justice of the United States.  That is, Earl Warren with oversized shoulder pads worn askew.

Looking at the image from the vantage point of more than fifty years later, it’s hard not to see a sissyboy in the making.

Me in shoulder pads 1967
Me in shoulder pads, 1967.

Since Kodak introduced its first camera in 1888, photography has been a form of documentation available to everyday people.  From the Brownie in 1901 to cell phones a century later, those persons we now categorize as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer have captured their ordinary lives, first on film and now in pixels as jpegs and bitmaps and tiffs.

The names of many pictured in the earliest photographs of apparently queer women and men have been lost to time.  Such photos often become available on eBay.  Snapshots of shirtless GIs from World War II will invariably be tagged as “gay interest” to lure potential buyers.

Fortunately, a notable number of rare images have been preserved in formal archives.  The Lesbian Herstory Archives, for instance, holds an assortment of “found images” whose identities remain unknown.

Other examples, identified and not, may be found in Michigan-based repositories.  The delightful snapshot of Welch and Wood from 1918 is part of the Mabel Victoria Mann Photograph Collection at the Bentley Historical Library, and an adorable miniature photo of Forman Brown from 1923 may be found in his University of Michigan college scrapbook, also at the Bentley.

I’m happy that copies of both images grace our office wall at home.

Despite noteworthy efforts of several local archives to document LGBTQ communities, amateur photographs that capture past queer lives largely remain in private hands.

In 1995, when I interviewed Betty Leonard about gay life in Flint, she showed me four large albums with photos documenting the history of the State Bar back to the 1950s.  I braved borrowing a handful of the snapshots to copy but wish I had asked to borrow more of them.

Since her death in 2014, I have wondered what’s become of the albums.

State Bar patrons
Patrons at the State Bar in Flint, late 1950s. (Personal collection of Betty Leonard.)

While I was away for grad school, someone alerted me that photo albums belonging to Andy Karagas, longtime host at the Woodward Lounge, were up for auction at his estate sale.  Alas, an unknown bidder snatched them up.

In recent years, Throwback Thursdays on Facebook have become a major forum for sharing photos of queer life that might otherwise never surface.  Jon Nalley’s phenomenal amassing of images showing his gay life and gay friends reveal joys and losses that continue to awe me.

On any given day, a stream of Facebook posts and responses might prompt a flurry of unexpected images.  The event page for Our History in the D, a panel discussion I moderated this month at Menjo’s, brought postings that included a fading photo of female impersonators Bettye Clarke, Vicki Gordon, and Tina Wells and a Polaroid of Bob Isbel and John Wertman, owners of the Interchange.

In addition to unearthing hidden gems, such posts also provide an opportunity to identify individuals pictured whose names might otherwise be lost.

In the course of my research and many oral history interviews, I have been blessed that people have shared a bounty of images.  Jerry Moore’s black and white photos of Halloween at the Golden Slipper in the mid-1950s offer a striking contrast to Donna Chartier’s color instamatic prints of Halloween at the Casbah two decades later.

ChiChi at Golden Slipper 1955.jpg
Bramwell “Chi Chi” Franklin performing at the Golden Slipper, Halloween 1955. (Personal collection of Jerry Moore.)
Casbah Halloween 1975
Customers at the Casbah, Halloween 1975. (Personal collection of Donna Chartier.)

Franz Martin, Greg Kamm, Merrilee Melvin, and Hal Lawson provided snapshots that convey the different forms that gay organizing took in the early 1970s, from the militant style of gay lib journalism to the cozy camaraderie of campus activism to the lesbian sisterhood evident in the first Pride celebration to the flirtatious playfulness of ONE in Detroit.

Franz Martin in 1971
Franz Martin with stacks of the Gay Liberator, 1971. (Personal collection of Franz Martin.)
MSU Gay Lib office 1972
Gay Liberation office at Michigan State University, 1972. (Personal collection of Greg Kamm.)
Merrilee & Friends 1972 600 dpi
Lesbians in Palmer Park for the Christopher Street Detroit ’72 picnic. (Personal collection of Merrilee Melvin.)
For ONE picnic pic
ONE in Detroit picnic, 1972. (Personal collection of Hal Lawson.)

After I met Norm Schwartz in Florida, he sent me an envelope of photos, including several of the commitment ceremony conducted by the Rev. Nancy Wilson for David Krumroy and Bill Leavens in 1977.

As with heterosexual couples, snapshots document our long-term relationships.  They may be especially valuable given that for too many years we were presumed not to have long-term relationships.

I love seeing photos that Barb Murray posts from early on in her life with Annie.

Krumroy & Leavins wedding
David Krumroy and Bill Leavens commitment ceremony with Rev. Nancy Wilson, 1977. (Personal collection of Norm Schwartz.)
Annie & Barb & Mary Ellen & Phyllis 1985
Annie Eaton, Barb Murray, Mary Ellen Kramer, and Phyllis Wyrick, 1985. (Personal collection of Barbara Murray.)

The largest cache of photographs I’ve encountered came my way thanks to James Dowdle, who was bequeathed a box of 612 snapshots and a separate photo album by someone who inherited them from a woman named Erma.

Erma was a major shutterbug, camera ever in hand at a number of gay nightspots, in particular at Bookie’s Club 870.  Bookie’s was operated by Bookie Stewart, last of the great, straight bar owners, whose career spanned more than 35 years.

The collection is a treasure trove of mid-1970s bar life in Detroit, showing prominent bar owners and female impersonators and customers of the day.  The images abound with birthday cakes, trophies, lots and lots of cigarettes, and considerable affection.  As personal keepsakes, the snapshots uniquely imprint the fleeting nights of reverie that defined gay bar life.

Alas, I have yet to learn Erma’s full name.

Bookie & Erma.jpg
Sam “Bookie” Stewart with Erma, mid-1970s. (Personal collection of James Dowdle.)

At the fortieth anniversary dinner of the Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit in 2012, I shared a photo of the Krumroy and Leavens union ceremony with the Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson.  Her reflection on the image expresses much of why snapshots are a crucial means of Queer Remembering.

“I love this picture because I have a visceral memory of being that young, and yet, feeling a sense of Destiny about what we were up to together,” Rev. Wilson wrote.  “I love this picture because it was a special, hallowed time, a time of great liberation, coming out, of hope. It was before we were overwhelmed and challenged, in every way, by AIDS. Sometimes it is hard to remember that there was such a time. We believed we could change the world, and we did.”

Seemingly ordinary images can serve as vital memory triggers for extraordinary stories that need to be told.

Our snapshots document our romances, friendships, and one-night stands.  They document how we had fun.  They document how we fought back.

We need to safeguard our queer snapshots and take them seriously.  After all, in the vast web of collective LGBTQ kinship, they’re our family pictures.

Maybe someday, I’ll discover our Erma.

Tim Retzloff


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