We regularly marvel at how snapshots of LGBTQ life from the past are able to do what even the most impassioned history lesson cannot — provide a relatable visual texture to the lives we might have led had we entered the world at a different blip in time.
Movies are even more immersive for obvious reasons, however few and far between.
In a recent New Yorker piece, a treasure trove of queer cultural preservation is profiled, starting with the personal home video collection of Harold O’Neal, who was born in 1910 and spent much of his life in San Francisco.
Harold was a rehabilitation officer for the Veterans Administration and later worked in personnel for the Army Corps of Engineers, and like many gay men and women of his time, led a very different private life than the one he broadcast publicly.
Also an amateur filmmaker, over the years he recorded the fabric of his hidden-in-plain-sight life — the parties, the drag shows, the intimate moments with his partner. These things we take for granted today, but were still somewhat radical in the ’40s and ’50s.
The clips spent decades tucked away in boxes in O’Neal’s home, until he responded to a documentary filmmaker’s request for footage of the Castro. While the filmmaker ultimately only used a few brief clips of O’Neal’s, he recognized the historical value of the deeply personal collection.
Now the movies live at the G.L.B.T. Historical Society, and you can watch a couple of them, as well as some other archival gems from other sources, below:
1. Sunbathing in Vallejo, 1947:
2. Houseparty, 1946:
3. San Francisco lesbian bar Mona’s Candle Light around 1950 (discovered in an unmarked can at a San Jose flea market):
4. Tape from the collection of author Allan Bérubé of Garrisson von Habsburg, San Francisco, 1991. Garrison died two years later at the age of 29:
Head here to read the full, very worthwhile New Yorker piece.
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