Reel in the Closet, a 2015 documentary by Stu Maddox, compiled the home movies, dating back to the 1930s, of ordinary LGBT people, celebrating with their friends, none of whom knew they would one day be seen on the big screen, nor that their candid shots would become their legacy to us. 

LGBT museums today, such as the Stonewall National Museum in Fort Lauderdale, covet such films and photos that help create a picture of what life was like for us all, prior to today. Do you have such films and photos? Ray and I do, of a period starting soon after Stonewall to the present, a no less significant time, considering Anita Bryant, Harvey Milk, Marches on Washington, AIDS, Barney Frank, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Brokeback Mountain, and Marriage Equality, just to cite a few reasons.

Do you remember when many of us were taking home movies? When I was a child, my parents held the camera up to their eye, and would direct us, “Smile. Say something.” That was when you took your film to have it developed, and in turn got a yellow box with a reel of film inside. A few times a year, the family would sit together as Dad ran the projector, and Mom gave commentary. We kids would laugh, point at the screen, and say “Who’s that?”and “Look at you.” It was a documentation of the McNaughts. 

All of my siblings have copies of the films.

Since Ray and I have been a couple, we’ve recorded everything with our cameras. When the photos came back in fat envelopes, we’d go through them together, pick out the ones we liked best, and insert them carefully, one by one, into beautiful, leather bound albums. We have at least two dozen of them displayed up at the lodge on Tupper Lake. We also have stacks of discs that have been transferred from video camera cassettes. 

Now, of course, there’s iPhones and iClouds. We create e-albums, and e-invite others to have access to the photos and videos. We also have Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media outlets through which we can post a photo, series of photos, or video, to help family, friends, and strangers stay up on our lives. Most of us in the U.S. needn’t fear social repercussions from posting these photos, unlike the gay and transgender people in the 1950s. They trusted that their friends would never show the photos or movies to anyone but “family.”

I’m very glad that we have the photo albums and discs, but I rarely sit down to look, watch, and reminisce. I have fantasies of enjoying the discs, and slowly going through the photo albums, as I linger on my deathbed, long enough to complete the task. But, I don’t get to choose when and how I die, and I hate to think I might miss the great pleasure of “lighting the corners of my mind,” with memories of Ray, me, Jeremy, Brit, Lincoln, and our families and good friends.

When and why do you think we stop sitting alone, or together as couples, going through the photos, and watching the home movies of ourselves? When and why do you think we start back looking and watching them again? Wouldn’t rekindling memories of our past enrich our relationships? 

The photos and the films prove that we existed, that we loved, that our lives had meaning. What happens, then, when they get tossed out a few years after our deaths because they took up too much space in a nephew or niece’s basement? Do we vanish? Will anyone see firsthand proof of our full, beautiful lives?

I used to love it when Mom would guide us through the old photos of her family, telling us how our great uncle Frank used to be a flashy dresser and dancer in his day. We knew him only as the skinny old man with the whiskers who drank beer and smoked on the back porch of his sisters’ home. Mom’s grandfather was a ship’s captain on the Great Lakes who drowned. (Dad joked he was drunk.) 

The stories created for us the sense of belonging to something bigger than just our immediate family. Some ancestors came from Ireland, others from Scotland. On one side of the family, or the other, we allegedly had relatives on the Mayflower. We learned that we were part of a living history of struggle, of succeeding, of glory, and of heartache, regardless of when we immigrated here.

So, too, are today’s and tomorrow’s LGBT youth our children. They’re part of your and my family, and they need us to explain who they’re seeing in the photos. These young people belong to a bigger picture, to a living history that we helped create. While it’s true that many young LGBT and queer youth currently don’t seem to care much about their history, they, too, will grow older, and as they do, they’ll be more interested in how they got to where they are now. So, please don’t throw away the records of your lives. Don’t let them get discarded by others who might not understand or care about the important stories they tell.

Before you donate them, though, sit comfortably alone, or with others, and slowly go through the albums and films so that you, too, might remember all of the struggles, the living, the grieving, the loving of our lives. I promise myself that when I go north this summer, I’m going to sit alone, or with Ray, and look at the captured moments of our lives. 

I wish you could sit with me. I have so many wonderful stories to tell. And, so do you.


About the author...

Brian McNaught has been a leading educator on LGBTQ issues globally since 1974. He has made his many books and DVDs available for free at The New York Times named him “The Godfather of gay diversity training.


Check out other stories by Brian McNaught

McNaught: Through Thin And Thick

McNaught: The Way We Were