Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Curious Case of Two Men Embracing

This image caught my eye when I came across it yesterday. It has a intense degree of intimacy between these two young men that is absent in most of the vintage pictures I've been collecting of friendship between men.

Fingers intricately intertwined. Chin rested on a shoulder. Torsos and hips held close. A knee, caught in a sunbeam from long ago, bent and pressed against another man's leg.

These two guys are close.

They are very close.

Truth be told, the real reason this picture grabbed my attention is two of my friends (@LadyParabellum and @KateFowler03) are currently vacationing in Idaho. I'm guessing this is not a modern day scene they'll be seeing.

So who are these men? What story might they have to tell us?

First we'll have to look at the full picture. The image I originally came across is a crop. Some anonymous person on the internet decided to remove a significant portion of this story before posting it.  This isn't an uncommon thing in images that I found: many bloggers will crop pictures so they tell a more preferable story or focus in on a particular aspect of the picture. This particular image was also photoshopped and, as you'll see, transformed from a black and white negative to a sepia toned print.

You can even spend a significant amount of money to get a print of the image at various retailers. The image is available for free at the Library of Congress.

Let's restore it to the original image.

Boys and Girls, Caldwell Idaho, 1941 by Russell Lee

So there is more to this story than meets the eye. What's going on in the image isn't any more clear, but it's certainly more interesting. Two young women are looking at our friendly lads. Are the women friends of the men? Are the aghast? Jealous? Will these men later take their dates out to the local soda fountain?

Russell Werner Lee
Russell Werner Lee (1903-1986) captured this image while working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the Great Depression. The stated goal of the project was to "introduce America to Americans."

Along with photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, Lee created some of the most iconic images documenting rural America. It is said that "his essential compassion for the human conditions shines forth in every image."

See here, here, and here for more about the photographer.

So what of these boys embracing and the girls looking at them?

The short answer is that we don't know anything about them.

The longer answer is that we don't know anything about them. We can only speculate. The photo is unusual as Lee doesn't have any other images that feature two men intimately touching. There was a reason why he took the picture--perhaps that reason was clear to him and viewers of the photo in 1941. Perhaps it wasn't. We'll never know for sure.

What we do know is that it wasn't uncommon for heterosexual men to touch in intimate ways in pre-1950s America. There are numerous photographs of brothers, friends, and other male duos (trios, and quartets, and...) posed for a camera in various intimate embraces. The vast majority of them did not have any same sex attraction. Some of them, no doubt, did. Their intimacy could be hidden in plain site in an era where men had more lattitude with relationships and closseness. This ability to hide also obscures their experiences to modern viewers.

We still live in a society that actively attempts to deny the experience and power of same sex attraction. We also live in a society where conservative forces attempt to cut off young men and women with same sex attraction from their own history. Many people look toward pictures depicting men together for a sense of validation and to replace what is stolen from some conservatives: a sense of hope, a sense of history, and a sense of existence.

Some vintage images of men being intimate, no doubt, did actually depict men who had same sex attraction. Were they gay? It really depends on how you define the term. While same sex attraction has existed since humans became humans, the construct of a gay identity has existed for a far shorter time. We're unaware of how men who loved other men thought about and defined themselves.

We error in projecting our own sense of identity and sexuality back into a different historical era. It is, however, a great comfort to see these men holding hands, touching closely, and expressing an intimacy that is dangerous to express between men in 2013.

As an interesting aside, Idaho was the site of a major gay panic scandal in 1955. I wonder what the two boys in front of the bank in 1941 thought of the events that were to transpire in Boise? On December 12, Time Magazine reported that "some of Boise's most prominent men had preyed on hundreds of teen-age boys for the past decade." This "widespread homosexual underworld" lead to arrests of

Joe Moore, 54, vice president of the Idaho First National Bank, Attorney Paris T. Martin 44, John Calvin Bartlett, 28, a high-school teacher in a nearby town, as well as a clerk in a haberdashery, a hospital orderly, a liquor salesman, two interior decorators, a warehouseman, and a buyer for a woman's store. Last week Ralph Cooper, 33, a shoeshine boy and ex-convict, was sentenced to life in prison. Interior Decorator Charles H. Gordon, 40, got 15 years. Two other defendants pleaded guilty to committing "infamous crimes against nature" Other arrests and hearings are expected this week.

This "scandal" was revealed to the world by a private investigator, Howard Dice, who was hired by a boy's parents after they discovered what was going on (perhaps discovering their son's same-sex attraction? We'll never know for sure). The Time article continues:

In the course of their investigation, police talked with 125 youths who had been involved. All were between the ages of 13 and 20. Usually, the motive--and the lure--was money. Many of the boys wanted money for maintenance of their automobiles... The usual fees given to the boys were $5 to $10 per assignation.

Calls for rehabilitation were made. No mention was made of the possibility that some (or all) of the boys might have had same-sex attraction.

Social workers began to investigate each case, to work out any family problems. A citizens' committee representing virtually every organization in Boise began a campaign to get after-school jobs for the boys, and a special team of psychiatrists will arrive this week from Denver, at the expense of the State Board of Health, to treat the young victims. 

Mind you, this isn't what really happened.  The red scare was overtaking the country and many feared that communism was lurking behind every corner. A lavender panic was also underway and men with same sex attraction (or many accused of same-sex attraction) were rooted out of society. The theme of the day was control and repression: we all needed to fit in and same-sex attraction was not acceptable in society.

Larry R. Oberg wrote about the events in Boise in his memoir San Francisco, Open your Golden Gate! I'll include a few passages about his first person account.

On Halloween night, 1955, a purge of "child molesters" was launched in Boise, Idaho. What should have been a limited attempt to clean up vice in a city park soon became an extensive witch hunt. All men who had sex with other men, not just a few pedophiles, became targets of official repression and public scorn. Lives were devastated, many were imprisoned and hundreds fled the city and the country. 
Small, isolated, and socially conservative, the Boise of the 1950s boasted a large Mormon population and some seventy churches. The interstate highway system, authorized by Congress in 1956, did not yet exist. McCarthyism, the Cold War, and the communist "menace" it had engenedred, as well as the legacy of the town's boisterous frontier days, combined to create a palapable lack of diversity. 
The politics of the purge remain unclear. Writing in the mid-1960s, John Gerassi suggests that the investigations were an attempt on the part of a wealthy minority, the "Boise gang," to consolidate political and economic dominion over the city and the state as well as an ultimate effort to bring down, by any means, a wealthy and highly influential homosexual known as the "Queen," Although never identified publicly, the Queen allegedly used his wealth and power to end the investigation. 
Some insist that the scandal was orchestrated by the Mormon church as a veiled warning to gays in Salt Lake City and Mormons everywhere to stay in line or face similar consequences. Still others believe the story to be more banal, a simple attempt to undercut Boise's liberal reform-minded mayor of the period. It is unlikely that we will ever know the truth. 
What remains clear is the fact that the scandal was fed by the suffocating political climate of the times and incendiary editorial and reporting in the Idaho Daily Statesman and its afternoon edition, the Idaho Evening Statesman... 
The first three arrests occurred on Halloween night, October 31, 1955. The first article reporting the arrests appeared the next afternoon in the November 1 edition of the Evening Statesman under the title "Boiseans Held on Morals Count." Front-page editorials that bore such titles as "Crush the Monster" and "This Mess Must Be Removed" soon followed....
By December 19, 1955, a curfew had been placed on all minors under sixteen and parents were warned to track carefully the comings and goings of their young male offspring. 
Eventually it became clear that only a handful of the wildly exaggerated number of boys claimed by the police were, in fact, involved with adult men. Of those who were, five or six had criminal records and appeared motivated mainly by money, budding young hustlers issued from poor families. One later killed his father and another, still later, died of AIDS. These young men were characterized by some as tough gang members by others as society's victims forced to earn a living with their bodies. Still others were simply willing participants in same-sex sexual activity or youngsters out to make a few bucks in order to repair and maintain their automobiles. The charges of sexual corruption and the existence of a "widespread homosexual underworld" became increasing difficult to justify... 
Gay life in Boise was deeply closeted. Julia Davis Park as heavily cruised as was the YMCA and the men's rooms at the Idanha lounge, the Greyhound bus depot, and the city library. Existing at different social levels, various networks of gay colleagues, friends, and acquaintances flourished nonetheless. Much of Boise's gay male population was married, mormon, or both. All were closeted. 
The club Les Bois, lay boys, as we called it, was a straight bar, yet one of the few gay-tolerant, if not gay-friendly, spaces in the city. it attracted many of us. Young men in civvies from the nearby Mountain Home Air Force Base would shop up on weekend nights to dance with women and cruise men. In order to get in, I forged the birth date on my driver's license, not a difficult task in the days of hand-typed government documents.
During the summer months, we would drive up to the top of Table Rock Mountain, make love in the car, then smoke and watch the lights of city below. It seemed a peaceful, even idyllic time The scandal that would overwhelm so many would not break for another year, long after Marvin and I had moved to San Francisco.

Curious for more? A play was written about the event. Check out the script here. The wiki article is here. In a New York Times Editorial about Senator "Wide Stance" Larry Craig mentions the Boise Boys Scandal. Seth Randal made a documentary about the events in 1955. An opera put on in Boise made mention of the scandal. John Gerassi's obituary can be found here. You can listen to an NPR story about a play in LA about the play Boise USA.

Curiously people on the right, who have been locking up gay and lesbian people for years, are not worried they are going to get locked up. Check out Dr. Robert Gangnon and his ridiculous paranoia about the homosexual agenda.

Also, Idaho recently rejected legal protections for LGBT people.

Really now. Who is at risk of loosing their freedoms here?

I've strayed a long way from the image of two boys from 1941. It's been an interesting adventure for me. Hopefully you enjoyed it too.

For more images of vintage men and their relationships (some gay, some straight) visit: Two Men and Their DogAdam and Steve in the Garden of Eden: On Intimacy Between MenA Man and His DogThe Beasts of West PointVintage Men: Innocence Lost | The Photography of William GedneyIt's Only a Paper Moon;Vintage Gay America: Crawford BartonThese Men Are Not Gay | This Is Not A Farmer | DisfarmerDesire and Difference: Hidden in Plain SightCome Make Eyes With Me Under the Anheuser BushHugh Mangum: Itinerant PhotographerTwo men, Two PosesPhotos are Not Always What They Seem,Vintage Sailors: An Awkward RealizationThree Men on a HorseWelkom Bar: Vintage Same Sex MarriagePretty in Pink: Two Vintage Chinese MenMemorial Day Surprise: Vintage Sailor LoveMemorial Day: Vintage Dancing SailorsThe Curious Case of Two Men EmbracingThey'll Never Know How Close We WereVintage Love: Roger Miller Pegram,Manly Affections: Robert GantHomo Bride and Groom Restored to DignityThe Men in the TreesThe Girl in the OuthouseTommy and Buzz: All My Love,Men in Photo Booths, and Invisible: Philadelphia Gay Wedding c. 1957. You can also follow me on Tumblr.

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