Secret scrapbooks document queer life before Stonewall

Scrapbooks from writer Carl Van Vechten reveal joy along with harassment were a part of queer life before the 1969 Stonewall riots.

various historical news clippings about queer life on page

The scrapbooks, which are housed by Yale University, are unofficial documentations of queer life before Stonewall.

The Irish Times delved into the scrapbooks, sharing an excerpt from the book Indecent Advances: A Hidden History of True Crime and Prejudice Before Stonewall by James Polchin, who is a writer and professor at New York University.

In the excerpt, Polchin details the work of  Carl Van Vechten, who was an American writer and artistic photographer, along with an avid collector of books, classical and jazz music, and cultural ephemera.

 

old newspaper depicts queer life and events
“Twilight Men” (Van Vechten Scrapbooks), Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

 

Van Vechten archived queer life over many years. Beyond his interest in queer life, Van Vechten was a patron of the Harlem Renaissance and toed the line between white Bohemian culture and Black culture in Harlem.

Carl Van Vechten was married twice to women but had many open homosexual affairs.

According to the Irish Times excerpt: “ He had a talent for disrupting the lines between high and low art, investing the quotidian, the odd, and the marginal with artistic potential.”

His scrapbooks documented “a large archive of postcards, photographs, drag ball advertisements, and news and magazine clippings that documented a range of queer experiences in the decades before Stonewall.

“Mixed with such collages, Van Vechten also pasted crime articles of assaults and murders of queer men. The inclusion of these queer true crime stories, both large and small, suggests how crucial they were to the queer history that he was recording and preserving.”

old newspaper depicts queer life and events
“The Village Meets Harlem” (Van Vechten Scrapbooks), Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

It is emphasized that the scrapbooks show all sides of queer life before Stonewall including both the good and bad: “While the campy collages in the scrapbooks show what one Van Vechten biographer calls a playful and ironic sensibility about his homosexuality, the queer true crime newspaper clippings of assault, strangulation, and mutilation reflect a darker and insensitive reality.”

The scrapbooks also show campy and erotic portraits taken by Carl Van Vechten.

Upon his death in 1964, Van Vechten had the scrapbooks archived at Yale University and preserved for 30 years. He hoped the books would be better understood after Cold War mentality had faded from American consciousness.

Van Vechten’s archival work has undoubtedly made an important impact on the preservation of queer life before Stonewall. 

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