Gay pride’s being celebrated again in Chicago this week with all the usual trappings and trimmings–parade, festival, wigs and boas, countless rainbow flags, and pointed public displays of affection. Conventional wisdom has it that all of these are hard-won privileges enjoyed only in the post-Stonewall era. But David Deitcher’s recent book, Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918 (Harry N. Abrams), shows that not everything you’ll see under the sun at the parade is new. Dear Friends is built around a collection of astonishing photographs of pairs of men in affectionate poses, which are all the more surprising because they were struck a century and more ago. The anonymous sitters wear sailors’ uniforms, workmen’s overalls, straw boaters, muttonchops, and other accoutrements of the period, but their poses look thoroughly modern–they hold hands, sit on one another’s laps, intertwine legs, and share embraces usually reserved for lovers. Though never sexually explicit, the images are shocking in their juxtaposition of dated styles of photography and dress with casual displays of affection that are still controversial in these purportedly more liberated times. When similar contemporary photos are used in advertising campaigns they’re hyped as something radical and daring. But such photographs were commonplace in their day, and many survive today; in recent years they’ve become popular with collectors, particularly gay men.
Are these images proof of some sort of thriving Victorian gay scene that’s somehow disappeared from history? Despite how attractive that possibility might be, the answer Deitcher gives in his thoughtful essay is a resounding no. The poses in the book spring from a philosophy of friendship that held that close bonds within one’s sex were the most important, fulfilling relationships to be found in life–marriage was a more practical matter. Same-sex affection wasn’t held up to the scrutiny and suspicion it’s faced since the turn of the century, when the classifications of homo- and heterosexuality entered the lexicon. Overheated correspondence was another expression of these bonds, and so was sharing a bed. The men in these pictures were best friends, fellow soldiers, and sometimes family members, commemorating their intimacy in a way typical of their time.
And of course, some may have been lovers. Deitcher points out that while homosexuality was yet to be defined and reviled, gay sex (as we understand it today) was still abhorred. The closeness of these friendships could easily accommodate and conceal physical relationships that went far beyond hand holding, and that possibility makes these photos all the more mysterious and unreadable today. Gays and straights alike often see today’s sexual mores as the end result of a long line of progress–or decline–stretching back through history; by showing a very different but not so distant world, Dear Friends provides a striking example of how rules that seem basic and natural are in fact shaped by society. But beyond the theory there’s the sheer visual pleasure of these photos. The hair and clothes are freakier than anything you’ll see on a club kid, and the obvious love between many of the subjects is touching. And though we can’t really say if these men are gay or not, if you know you are (or even if you don’t) there’s another big plus to Dear Friends–it’s full of cute guys.