Gays of Yore

What’s the story behind this deeply romantic gay vintage photo?

It’s always great to see evidence of queer partnership from the long ago. During times when being queer was a huge risk to one’s job, safety, and standing in the community, such photos show that it was still more important to these people to document their love even if it might end up costing them everything.

That’s why the members of the fantastic subreddit r/gaybros were so happy to see this heartwarming image from the early 1900s on their feed:

Let’s Get Married, circa 1910
byu/2LegsOverEZ ingaybros

In the photo, two men sit side by side on a paper moon backdrop holding a sign that reads: “Let’s Get Married.” As commenters were quick to point out, taking such a photo was a huge risk at the time, which is presumed to be somewhere around 1910. But as others explained, the process of photo-taking was a lot more private back then. You could ostensibly pay someone to privately snap a photo and then keep it in your home without fear or copies or distribution. If the photo ended up in the wrong hands, however, it could become dangerous blackmail fodder.

One commenter put it best: “Yeah, it’s brave (or impulsive!),” they wrote, “I just like to also remember that queer folks did also find ways to live their lives too! Like, yes, the oppression was intense and awful, but at least in some areas, gay people still found ways to enjoy themselves without getting jailed.”

That’s an important thing to remember: even during times when the threat of jail and disgrace was forever looming, queer people found ways to have a good time at the fair, somehow.

The Paper Moon Photo: What’s Its Origin?

Looking at this photo, you’ll notice a familiar backdrop that you’ve probably seen before. You might be familiar with this imagery thanks to the 1973 Peter Bogdonavitch Ryan O’Neal (RIP) vehicle Paper Moon, a fable about a 1930s father and daughter team of hucksters who travel the country looking for new grifts. But chances are you’ve seen the infamous paper moon backdrop before. During the early 20th century, this was a popular backdrop for all kinds of events where a photographer would offer sessions, like county fairs, arcades, and other big events. Also known as “Man in the Moon” photos, these images hit their peak in the 1920s, when you’d see nearly every variation of this kind of photo being freely distributed. You could see dogs on the moon, children playing violins on the moon, couples announcing “just married,” and in some cases, same-sex couples posing as “friends.”

Even though the early 20th century was not a very welcoming (or safe) time to be queer, the fact that society wasn’t thinking about it in the slightest also offered certain protections. You could hang out with your guy friends and claim that you simply prefer male company, and no one would be the wiser.

Nothing to see here, folks!

People would use the moon backdrop for different things: some people just wanted a nice, professional-looking photo.

Others wanted to goof off a little.

And others wanted to create a romantic memento to enjoy and pass on to family members.

Some just wanted to be as gay as possible.

Whatever the reasons, we now have a huge archive of photos of men, women, dogs, cats, kids, and gays chilling on the moon.

While we’ll never know the full story of the original image, it’s nice to imagine that those two men were creating a fantasy all for themselves, something to remember and potentially pass on to the next generation of gays. It’s even better to imagine that these men knew that someday, the world they fantasized about, where men could marry other men, would be more than just a fantasy.

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