Four years ago, I sung the praises of an advertisement that PFLAG Canada put out to promote and support legal marriage equality worldwide. The ad was titled “Nobody’s Memories,” and it depicted images of what could have been: Weddings of same-gender couples from the mid-20th century, shown as home movie footage from an “alternate universe” that gives the viewer chills with their authentic aged styles. If you want to learn what I’m talking about, check out this blog link to take a look at it yourself; I just watched it again myself and am still struck by how powerful and moving that ad still is.
This week, a news item in the showbiz world made me recall that “Nobody’s Memories” ad and its (*sigh*) imaginary depictions of couples who just happen to be of the same gender in real love. I’ll talk up that TV item in a bit, but while doing some research on it, I went further down the internet rabbit hole and came across this photo of an actual wedding memory that did happen:
The above photo, as confirmed in this 2014 Houston Chronicle article, is from a small ceremony that took place at Harmony Wedding Chapel in Houston in October 1972. The groom is Antonio Molina, a shipping clerk, former high school football star, and Navy veteran. The resplendent bride is William “Billie” Ert, a female impersonator (stage name: “Mr. Vicki Carr”) and former hairdresser. Yes, William Ert was a male, but he had a voter registration card that listed his gender as “female.”
And with that error on that voter card, Antonio and Billie, who had been a couple for a number of years and were truly in love with each other, hatched a plan to legally marry in the state of Texas. No, they weren’t the first same-sex couple in the U.S. who aimed to marry. Indeed, as they were tying the knot, a male couple from Minnesota aimed to have the U.S. Supreme Court hear their pleas to become legally wed (the court declined to hear their arguments).
For sure, though, the approach Antonio and Billie took was quite daring, well publicized, and rather dangerous. Mind you, it was a time where homosexuality was still considered a mental illness, and was considered a crime by the state of Texas. The county clerk refused to record Antonio and Billie’s marriage certificate, the Texas Attorney General backed him up, and the Houston Police vice squad threatened to press charges against both the couple and the minister who performed the ceremony.
Antonio and Billie’s efforts to become legally wed didn’t advance the cause of marriage equality, sadly. Matter of fact, it inspired Texas lawmakers in June 1973, one month after Antonio and Billie’s case was thrown out of court, to codify state marriage laws to explicitly recognize marriage as not between “two persons” but instead “a man and a woman.” (Voters in Texas would add that codification to the state’s constitution three decades later.)
Even more heartbreaking than that, their plight put an emotional strain on Antonio and Billie’s relationship. Antonio would end the relationship later in 1973, which led to Billie attempting suicide. Billie survived the attempt, thankfully, and would continue to perform in drag shows for a few more years before dying in 1976 after a lengthy illness. Antonio would pass on in 1991.
Back in the 1970s, Antonio and Billie had neither the legal system nor the court of public opinion on their side. As alluded above, those were less accepting times back then, even with Stonewall-inspired LGBT+ activists making those voices heard. But you still have to respect and applaud couples such as Antonio and Billie for daring to challenge the status quo.
As you may have also surmised above, or from the images at this link, Antonio and Billie were far from the first to challenge those all-too-conservative marriage norms, publicly or otherwise. Matter of fact, there was another couple that beat them by a decade and a half in an apparently more intimate and private manner.
The above image is actually a website screenshot (the website is at this link). At the time of this writing, I am apprehensive to embed any of the singular photos in this blog as I haven’t personally sought permission to use them. The pictures are the property of the ONE Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries and the John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives at Philadelphia’s William Way LGBT Community Center. As the accompanying fine-print disclaimer explicitly states, their permissions are needed before use. (Side note: Someone else on WordPress is much more daring, and perhaps gained permission, to embed these photos with property credit, starting here and with several subsequent pingbacks.)
While copyrights may make me hesitant to embed the photos to this blog, I’m not so shy toward mentioning why I want to talk them up here. As you can make out from the screenshot, there’s a mystery about the people in these photos. But there’s no mystery about what they depict — a same-sex commitment ceremony.
The story is believed to be this: Once upon a time around 1957, two men in (presumably) the Philadelphia area loved each other so much so that they decided to have some sort of a commitment ceremony. While the photos appear to be in a modest setting, they do display the traditional wedding setup: Grooms in their best suits, a presiding officiant, witnesses, the exchange of rings and vows, the first kiss, dancing, opening of gifts, cutting of a cake, etc.
For sure, these are very lovely photos (and again, they’re available at this link). However, someone else didn’t think they were lovely: Sometime after the ceremony, one of the grooms took the film to a North Philadelphia drug store for development. But the manager of the drug store had a policy of withholding any developed photos he deemed inappropriate. And because of his ruling, the groom and his husband never saw their preserved cherished memories.
Luckily, the drug store’s owner appeared to have another policy: If any developed photos couldn’t be returned, his staff could do whatever they wanted with them. As a result, one of the employees held on to the pictures. That employee, according to her daughter, had “a somewhat photographic memory for faces,” and she kept them for the time when whomever dropped them off for development returned to claim them “so that she could give them to the customers on the sly.”
The drug store employee in question is now deceased, and her daughter would sell the photos on eBay six years ago. The purchaser donated the pics to the ONE Archives, who in turn shared them with the Wilcox Archives. The two organizations have since made efforts to find out who the people are in this photo, but their mission has so far produced no fruit.
Notice how I say “so far,” because here’s where that bit of showbiz muscle I had alluded to earlier comes in: Three noted Hollywood creatives are teaming up to produce a docuseries with the (at least) working title of The Mystery of the 1957 Gay Wedding Photos. The team includes Neal Baer, a writer/producer (ER, Law & Order: SVU) who’s on the ONE Archives board; P. J. Palmer, a filmmaker/producer (the LGBT-themed Anyone But Me is among his credits); and Michael J. Wolfe, a writer and founder of the publishing company Still Life Press.
As reported this week here, here, and here, The Mystery of the 1957 Gay Wedding Photos (which appears to not yet be linked to a network or streaming platform) will document the efforts of Baer, Palmer, Wolfe, and their acolytes to discover the people in those 6-decade-old photos and their backgrounds. The effort sounds like a hybrid of gumshoe detective drama (without a whodunit); a history expedition (with pictures as the only antiquities so far); and an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? that, rather than explore tales from the producers’ family trees, wants to turn their gaze on the story of a certain couple from (presumably) the Philadelphia area and their place in the broad LGBT+ history.
Hopefully, what this project will also do is help build a necessary bridge between older and younger generations within the LGBT+ community. Yes, we can now live in the public eye and freely marry the person we love. But remember that it wasn’t always that way. It was a dangerous time for our community in 1957. We risked arrest and be denied service based on whom we loved or were attracted to. Perhaps that was the reason those photos show the grooms being married not in a chapel, but in what appears to be the sanctity of their home or that of a loved one. It’s also likely why a shopkeeper with conservative prejudices denied them these memories. (Oh, if only that era had digital photography… and prevailing open-minded attitudes.)
So, if you’re reading this and know of the couple and participants depicted in those photos, drop the ONE Archives team a lead (at this link). If you don’t have a lead, however, still take notice. These are real memories involving real people, not a sixty-second idyllic dream of what could have been (no offense to PFLAG Canada, of course). If we don’t take time to reflect on and be inspired by those hopeful moments, we’ll be doomed to fall easy victim to the dark, prejudicial times that surrounded them.