Same-sex couples have always found a way to consecrate their unions, even before marriage equality was written into law. When being openly gay could spell the end of your career and even institutionalization, these ceremonies would take place in private, hidden away from a disapproving and discriminatory society. One such wedding took place in Philadelphia in 1957—and 60 years later, a trio of filmmakers hope the photos of that day will be the key to unlocking the past.
The pictures, which were dropped off at a local drugstore on the corner of North Broad Street and Allegheny Avenue, depict a small gathering of young white men in a smartly appointed apartment. Two of them exchange vows with their friends bearing witness, they embrace and kiss, they cut a multitiered cake, they open gifts. Then, as these things often go, someone whips out the heels.
“The fact that they came together to have this commitment in a private space among friends and perhaps even family was really extraordinary for that time period," says John Anderies, director of the John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives at Philadelphia's William Way LGBT Community Center. "And that they documented it with photography is also quite amazing.”
Amazing, yes, but it was also 1957—when homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder. This was a decade before Stonewall, 15 years before Philly's first Pride march. What looked like a celebration to some was an abomination to others.
“I've certainly heard from a number of people that did drag back in the '50s and '60s, as well as trans individuals in the '60s and '70s, that Philadelphia was in many ways a fairly liberal city,” Anderies says. “But police crackdowns on gay bars were not at all uncommon. So it was sort of a mixture. Societal acceptance wasn’t great overall.”
So the men in those pictures only had the memory of that day. In accordance with the store's policy for photos it deemed "inappropriate," the manager confiscated the nuptial snaps. And since confiscated pics were, according to another store policy, up for grabs, an employee held onto them—for more than half a century. She had hoped, her daughter later explained, that if the customers ever came back, she could give them their wedding photos "on the sly."
In 2013, after the woman passed, her daughter found the photos among her possessions and sold them on eBay, where a couple of different collectors purchased them before donating them to the Los Angeles–based ONE Archives and the Wilcox Archives.
In December 2017, Neal Baer, Michael J. Wolfe, and P.J. Palmer visited the ONE Archives and were "immediately wrecked by the photos," Wolfe says. "We thought there was really no choice—we had to figure out who these guys are."
"When I first saw the photographs at the ONE Archives I teared up," Palmer adds. "Why was I getting emotional looking over black-and-white photos of a wedding? I realized in my personal history I never saw those [kinds of] images in the family album. I think had I known that as a child, I may have had a different life experience. Just knowing that I had a history, that I was like somebody else in my family."
Neal Baer, P.J. Palmer, and Michael J. Wolfe
They thought it would take “maybe a month” to find the photos' groomsmen. Nearly two years later, they're still looking. About 10 months into their search, they turned to the public for help, launching a website that encourages anyone with information or clues about the couple to reach out.
Baer, Wolfe, and Palmer—who all share a background in film and television—are also developing a series, The Mystery of the 1957 Gay Wedding Photos. Considering the popularity of true crime serials, it's not a bad idea. The mystery, however, remains a tough nut to crack. It has been 60 years, after all—the couple may be long gone. Though there's always the chance of finding surviving friends or relatives, no matter how slim those chances may seem.
"There are days we are 100 percent sure, mystery solved, we got them," Palmer says, "but when we dig deeper to verify, a lot of holes get punched in those leads."
Still, the filmmaking sleuths remain confident they'll find some clues to identify those two men who exchanged vows so many years ago. The series is a way to drum up support and interest in solving this mystery.
"Our hope is that the public falls in love with the search and with these photos as much as we have," Wolfe says. "We would love for them to contact us at our website with any leads, if they recognize or have a connection to these photos or think they have a connection. We would love to hear from them."
If anything, the emotions that the photos elicit speak to the importance of LGBTQ history, which is often destroyed or stowed away forever—deemed obscene or wrong or somehow incongruent with accepted values and traditions.
"Our history has been repressed in so many different ways, or just straight up stolen and erased," Palmer says. "I think the more we get this history restored, the more we can accept ourselves and people can accept life with us."