In the post-ceremony celebration, a newlywed couple cuts a beautifully made wedding cake, and the touching moment is captured by a photographer. But it’ll be 60 years before anyone sees this wonderfully evocative image. Taken in 1957, the photo shows what was then an illegal act – and were it not for a trio of TV producers, the world would never know about this secret union.
Being gay in the United States during the 1950s was a dangerous business. Social attitudes back then, some of which prevail today, meant that many in the LGBTQ community remained closeted, at least to the outside world. Anti-sodomy laws existed in every U.S. state, prohibiting gay sexual relationships, while individuals faced social persecution and sometimes even violence if outed.
So laws against gay sex effectively rendered homosexual relationships illegal and could even lead to prison sentences in some U.S. states. Societal mores meant the shunning, or worse, of anyone caught out. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, the American Psychological Association declared homosexuality to be a “sociopathic personality disturbance” in 1952. A year later, then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower then passed an Executive Order banning lesbian women and gay men from federal jobs.
So, the couple in the wedding photo were clearly taking a risk when they held their forbidden ceremony in 1957. But perhaps they had been emboldened by some of the decade’s more gay-positive developments. Organizations like the Mattachine Society, formed in 1950, were publicly standing up for the community, even winning a landmark case guaranteeing free speech rights for gay people in the Supreme Court in 1958.
But while the Mattachine Society was shaking things up in Washington, D.C., life in Philadelphia, where the picture got developed, was difficult for the LGBTQ community. The secret ceremony is evidence enough of that – but so, too, is the fact that whoever took the wedding film in to be developed never got their hands on the images.
Sadly, legislation prohibiting gay relationships had existed long before the 1950s. In fact, anti-sodomy laws made their way onto the statute book in 1563 under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when the U.S. was still a British colony. Consequently, homosexuality remained illegal in one form or another after independence and well into the modern era.
In 1814 onwards homosexuality then became a “crime against nature” offense, lumping it with other things such as necrophilia and bestiality. Those found guilty could face prison sentences of up to 20 years, serve a period of hard labor or pay a fine.
But gay people didn’t just have the legal implications to deal with, there were other pressures too. Being outed often meant becoming a social outcast – and that didn’t just mean being shunned by friends and family. In some states, in fact, including New York, gay people couldn’t even get served in bars.
As a result, many in the gay community went about their lives in secret. For many years, private parties and bathhouses catered, very quietly, to a gay clientele. But the illegal nature of those venues left them open to police raids, which were frequent. In fact, the earliest record for such an incursion goes back to 1903 – and in that subsequent trial, seven men were found guilty and received prison sentences of up to 20 years.
Repression of the LGBTQ community continued largely unchallenged for the next five decades. But, in 1950 things began to change, albeit very slowly, following the formation of the aforementioned Mattachine Society that year.
Founded by gay rights activist Harry Hay and others, the Mattachine Society helped bring LGBTQ equality into the public consciousness. In fact, they fought not one, but two hugely important court cases, taking one of them all the way to the Supreme Court.
The first of those cases came in 1952, after a man named William Dale Jennings was arrested for allegedly soliciting a police officer in a Los Angeles park. Rather than pleading guilty to avoid trial, as many men in his situation did at the time, he fought back, which was a pivotal moment for the gay movement of the era. The Mattachine Society saw a huge growth in membership as a result of the trial, and the story hit the national headlines.
Though he confessed to being gay, Jennings denied the accusations that he’d made advances to a policeman. And though accounts of what happened the day of the alleged crime differ, something incredible resulted from the trial. The case against Jennings was dismissed, with the jury voting 11 to one that he had been the victim of entrapment and police intimidation, among other things.
The second important case that the Mattachine Society was involved in began in 1954, but it rumbled on for four years. When the Los Angeles Postmaster declared as issue of ONE: The Homosexual Magazine, produced by the organization, as pornographic, the group sued. And in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of the publication. That decision was the first the court had ever made in regard to free press rights around homosexuality. Finally, it seemed as though equality was slowly on its way.
Other developments during the decade, however, proved that equal rights were still a long way off. As the psychiatric community viewed being homosexuality as a mental illness, many gay people were even considered a security risk. But the struggle continued, and in 1959 the U.S. saw one of the first LGBTQ uprisings, known as the Cooper Do-nuts Riot in Los Angeles. The incident, which began following alleged police harassment against a group of gay people outside a 24-hour café, involved scores of lesbians, gay men, drag queens and transgender women.
As we’ve seen, the 1950s were a difficult time to be LGBTQ in the United States. But the following decade would prove pivotal in the fight for equal rights. At the turn of the ‘60s, lots of activism took place in the courts, whether attempting to overturn anti-gay legislation, or working on employment rights.
Another crucial moment for the movement came in 1965, when around 150 people went to Dewey’s Coffee Shop in Philadelphia to protest the fact that it wasn’t serving people in “non-conformist clothing.” Following several arrests due to the protesters refusing to leave after being denied service, the local black LGBTQ population picketed the café. Later, after another sit-in, Dewey’s relented and ended the policy. Then the year after, the Mattachine Society organized a “sip in” at New York City’s Julius Bar, challenging the prohibition on selling alcohol to gay people.
The protest saw demonstrators ordering a drink at the bar, announcing they were gay and waiting for the barman to serve them. When the demonstrators proved that bartenders were refusing to sell alcohol to them, the Mattachine Society went back to the courts. Challenging the notion that just having gay men in the bar made it disorderly, they won. And from then on, legally operating gay bars began to spring up.
Three years after the “sip in,” an event then occurred which arguably birthed the modern-day LGBTQ civil rights movement. In June 1969 police raided a gay bar in New York City called the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, but instead of taking the move lying down, the patrons fought back and took to the streets in protest.
At the time, bar owners were often tipped-off about any planned raids but on June 28, everyone was taken aback when police appeared at The Stonewall Inn. The mafia-run bar catered to a broad LGBTQ customer base, who would normally comply with the officers, show their ID cards and either sometimes face arrest or would be thrown out of the bar. But on this night, something was different.
As was custom during the period, customers dressed as women would be taken to the toilet to prove their gender, and they’d be subsequently arrested if they were found to be men. But this night they said no, and others in line refused to show their identification. Cops then decided to arrest the patrons, and watching them being manhandled into waiting vehicles outside the bar, witnessing bystanders turned on the police.
What followed was five days of violent confrontation between police and the Village’s LGBTQ community. In David Carter’s book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, he interviewed one participant, Michael Fader, who described the feeling in the crowd during the riots. He said, “… It was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration… There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and [we were] going to fight for it.”
After decades of conducting their lives in secret, the LGBTQ community was finally visible. In his book, Carter interviewed gay rights activist Frank Kameny, who said, “By the time of Stonewall, we had 50 to 60 gay groups in the country. A year later there was at least 1,500. By two years later, to the extent that a count could be made, it was 2,500.” Then, the following year, the first Gay Pride march took place in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, later spreading as the years went on. And in recognition of that historic turning point, the Stonewall Inn became a national monument in 2016.
So, as we’ve seen, LGBTQ rights have been a long time coming. Which means that, for those grooms back in 1957, their wedding was a big gamble. The ceremony, for its part, took place in a flat, presumably due to fear of being arrested if it was conducted elsewhere. But what must have it been like planning a ceremony entirely in secret?
Clearly, our 1950s grooms had a photographer, or at least, someone with a camera at their wedding. But sadly, this particular film of photos never made it back to the couple, and it wouldn’t be seen in public for another 60 years. But how did this happen? Well, originally, a man had taken the film to a pharmacy in Philadelphia to be developed. However, what he likely didn’t know was that the store manager had a policy regarding “inappropriate” images.
After the images were developed, it was decided that they shouldn’t be delivered due to the controversial content. Depicting not only the ceremony but also the couple’s first kiss, they were handed to an unnamed female employee for disposal. She, however, decided against throwing them away and instead kept them safe.
At the time, whoever took the wedding photos to be developed never returned to claim them. But the employee held on to the images for nearly six decades, until her death in 2013. At that point, her daughter put them up for sale on eBay. The buyer, perhaps seeing the cultural and historical value of the pictures, then donated to them to the John J. Wilcox Hr. Archives in Philadelphia and the ONE Archives in Los Angeles. Soon after, a group of TV producers came across them, and they loved what they saw.
One of those who saw the pictures, filmmaker P.J Palmer, had a visceral reaction on seeing the wedding images. He told Deadline in July 2019, “The first time I saw these photos, I was surprised to be moved to tears… These men look so happy and in love…” And as a result of seeing the pictures, Palmer, along with producer Neal Baer and writer Michael J. Wolfe had an interesting idea.
Desperate to know more about the happy couple and their lives, the trio decided to try and discover more about the 1950s grooms. And they’ve since turned their project into a docuseries entitled The Mystery of the 1957 Gay Wedding Photos, which will follow the producers as they try to find out anything they can about the men in the image.
Baer later explained to Deadline why the series, and the search, was so important. He said, “We are drawn to stories of bravery, where these men lived out their lives under threat of danger or actual harm… Their legacy empowers us today and we are setting off to find these men and their stories.” But, right from the off, the producing trio knew their work wasn’t going to be easy.
To start with, the men in the wedding photos look as if they’re in their 20 or 30s. That would mean that they’d be in their 80s or 90s now, so time – and age – are large factors. Then, of course, there’s the problem of getting the word out. Taken long before the age of social media, just getting the images in front of the right people is a challenge.
As Baer put it to Advocate in June 2018, “What would be a huge help is just getting these photos in front of a bunch of 80 and 90-year-olds.” And that’s where the tech age comes in – surely someone, somewhere must know the people in the pictures? Wolfe continued,“We are hopeful that in the connected age that we could spread them fairly widely and get more eyes on them. There are too many recognizable faces among the set that we couldn’t find a match.”
Aside from the problem of getting the images out, there’s one more big issue that could impact the search for the grooms. And that’s the HIV/AIDS epidemic that swept across the U.S. and the world during the 1980s. Wolfe told the BBC in August 2019, “We are talking about a generation of people who were decimated by AIDS.” Apparently, according to figures from the Kaiser Family Foundation, around 700,000 Americans have died from the illness since the epidemic began.
Wolfe continued, “There are a lot of missing people who otherwise would have made a search like this much easier.” And it’s not just our 1950s grooms who remained anonymous. ONE archivist Michael Oliviera told The Philadelphia Citizen in July 2019, “There are so many unidentified people in our [LGBTQ photo] collection – it is a frustrating part of our history.”
So the grooms may never be found, but the show’s producers remain undeterred. They began searching for the wedding’s participants in January 2018 and although the series doesn’t yet have a platform, the search continues. Apparently, if you happen to recognize anyone in the images, or know someone else who may, the producers definitely want to hear from you. There’s a Facebook page and website for tips and hints to help with their identification.
Whatever the outcome of the show’s search, gay rights have definitely improved since the images were taken. But while the Stonewall Riots put LGBTQ equality center-stage, it would be decades before same-sex marriage rights existed. As recently as 1996, in fact, then-President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law, denying federal recognition of same-sex unions.
However, despite Clinton’s gay marriage bill, the first same-sex civil unions took place in Vermont in 2000. But the rest of the country somehow took the opposing view, enshrining gay marriage bans into state law. While marriage rights stalled, though, other legislation started to catch up. In 2009 then-President Barrack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Act, which expanded on hate crime law from 1969 to include crimes motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation. Later, the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which barred openly gay people from joining the military, was repealed in 2011. Then in 2013 the Defense of Marriage Act was ruled unconstitutional.
And with the end of the Defense of Marriage Act, same-sex couples were now recognized as eligible to receive benefits, including life insurance, survivor’s benefits and social security. Then, in 2015 the Supreme Court officially ruled that gay marriage was a right wherever you live in the country. So, finally, after decades of secret ceremonies, LGBTQ people could now legally wed anywhere in the United States.
That momentous decision meant all states must allow – and recognize – same-sex marriage. Also in 2015 the Equality Act was proposed, to stop discrimination against anyone for their gender or sexual orientation. It took four years, but it finally passed through the House of Representatives in 2019, and it is now with the Senate.
As for the couple in those incredible photos, they’ve become a symbol of love, perseverance and the fight for equality. There are, undoubtedly, thousands of tales like theirs that will never be told, but hopefully, the full story of these two men will one day see the light of day.