Almost 60 years before same-sex marriage was legalized, these 1957 gay wedding photos — some of the oldest snapshots of same-sex nuptials — capture intimate and joyful moments between two men tying the knot, including a ring exchange in front of witnesses.
Everything else about the photo, and the other 17 in the collection, is a mystery.
- Who are these men?
- How did they live their lives?
- Did they have any fears that people would discover the ceremony?
Three acclaimed Hollywood writers-producers, however; will develop a documentary series to help answer those questions and many more, according to a press release from production company Authentic Entertainment.
1957 gay wedding photos
“The Mystery of the 1957 Gay Wedding Photos” (the working title) will follow Neal Baer (“ER,” Law & Order: SVU,” “Designated Survivor”), producer P.J. Palmer (“Anyone But Me”) and writer Michael J. Wolfe as they search for clues that will hopefully unlock answers to the many outstanding questions behind the wedding photographs.
“The first time I saw these photos I started tearing up. I’ve never seen these sorts of family photos before,” Palmer said in an interview. “I’ve never seen this sort of history in family photos. These sorts of histories have been erased and oppressed.
“We are out to bring these stories forward to reclaim our history,” Palmer said. “We have always been here. We have always had wedding ceremonies.”
In 2015, U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 14th Amendment requires all states to perform same-sex marriages and recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
The 1950s was very oppressive for the LGBTQ community. Many people lived in the closet because they feared losing their job if anyone learned they were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. In fact, the federal government during the 1950s said gays and lesbians were unfit to work in the public sector. The government engaged in a massive witch hunt to hunt down and fire members of the LGBTQ community.
Production on “The Mystery of the 1957 Gay Wedding Photos” has not yet started, but the producers hope the series will air in 2020, Palmer and Wolfe said in an interview. They don’t yet know if it will be broadcast on a network, streaming service, or video on demand.
Baer, Palmer, and Wolfe, who all knew each other, were introduced to the photos in late 2017. Baer, a board member at the ONE Archives National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries, invited Palmer and Wolfe to the Archives and showed the images to them, Palmer and Wolfe said. The photographs were donated to the Archives a few years ago.
Palmer and Wolfe were immediately moved by the photos, and a short time later, the three of them began researching the pictures. In June 2018, The Advocate published a story, asking the public for help in identifying the men.
In total, Baer, Palmer, and Wolfe have spent about 18 months as gay history detectives, searching for the men’s identities. Along the way, the process has been an education in gay history, Wolfe said. They have spoken with countless LGBTQ elders about gay life in the 1940s and 50s.
“We have uncovered other stories that will make the show a wonderful series,” Wolfe said. “To speak with them is to connect with my ancestors, to finally know family I never knew I had.”
Vintage gay wedding photos found
The photo collection was printed circa 1957 at a neighborhood drugstore in North Philadelphia. The drugstore owner allegedly decided the photos were inappropriate and refused to return them to the wedding couple, Palmer and Wolfe said.
Apart from the ring exchange, the images also feature an officiant leading the wedding ceremony, the happy couple sharing their first kiss and cutting their wedding cake and opening their gifts.
But more than 60 years later, the pictures have resurfaced. The photos were initially sold as two sets on eBay to two different collectors. One collector donate his set to ONE Archives. The other collector donated their set to the John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives in Philadelphia, Palmer and Wolfe said.
Each archive made a copy of their set and shared it with the other archive. Both archives have the complete collection of 18 photos.
Quest for answers
Baer said in a statement that the men’s stories are filled with bravery because they lived their lives as gay men despite the threat of danger or actual harm.
Baer also said he feels a deep gratitude to the men in the wedding photos because they did something nobody before them had done – They photographed their love for themselves and for posterity.
More than 60 years later, the photos have been found, but Baer said a “painful gap” exists between the past and present:
- How did these pioneers live their lives as a couple?
- What barriers did two men married in the 1950s face, especially when the legal repercussions of being gay were severe?
- What drove them to take the bold chance to develop these photos when sodomy laws prohibited gay sexual relationships?
“Their legacy empowers us today, and we are setting off to find these men and their stories,” Baer said in the release. “Along the way, other heroes have appeared, whose stories have never been told. This is a treasure hunt for our past that emboldens our future.”