Tales From the Attic: LGBT Home Movies Are the Stuff of History

Written by | Entertainment

One man’s quest to preserve footage of our community — both in public and at home.

By Kevin Phinney

Photo courtesy Reel in the Closet.

Photo courtesy Reel in the Closet.

Director Stu Maddux believes our homes are more than the sum of our furniture, clothes and dishes: they’re artifacts of our lives and times.

As evidenced by his ongoing film project Reel in the Closet, Maddux (pictured) has made it a personal crusade to convince gays and lesbians that each time one of us creates a video of an event in our lives — whether personal or public — we are helping to craft the next chapters of our shared history. What’s of particularly vital importance, he says, is uncovering older home movies of gays and lesbians before corrosion turns them to dust.

Reel in the Closet helps preserve these moving images and introduce them to the community at large. This includes both well-known moments in gay history caught on camera and more candid moments of LGBT people at ease in the privacy of their homes.

The idea of preserving a visual record of gay lives occurred to Maddux after reading an article in a San Francisco newsletter. “There was a profile of a guy … transferring old LGBT home movies for an archive,” recalls the director. “He was literally working with hundreds and hundreds of reels.”

So Maddux set out to create an archive of his own, and the film that he’s assembled since that moment of inspiration includes many scenes likely not found in your grandmother’s home movies: men dancing together at a party in 1947; lesbians enjoying a classic torch singer in a subterranean speakeasy; an innocent pool party that suddenly morphs into a lighthearted same-sex skinny dip romp.

“Seeing one of these films for the first time,” explains the director, “I began to get a sense of my connection to the LGBT community, to my roots and the generations of gay people who had come before me.”

Maddux says much of his film represents the filp side of oft-viewed archival clips that focus on tragedy and social upheaval. “It’s really something, seeing people be happy and at play, rather than people carried off in paddy wagons,” he adds. “ “You’re seeing people relaxed and relating to each other, having drinks and holding hands and being authentic in a way that’s not really ever been depicted before.”

Maddux believes that as greater numbers of people scour their attics and garages, an even more diverse range of visuals is likely to surface.“We’re looking for all different types of events from all kinds of people … whether it’s a lesbian retreat in Ottawa or some commitment ceremony from 1980,” he says. “I’m sure there’s even better stuff out there.”

Maddux believes his film is still in gestation, and he hopes people will contact him with footage that can become a part of its next iteration. “Most of the footage we used has been obtained by word-of-mouth,” he explains. “Everyone seems to have something — a DVD, a VHS tape or just a reel of film. Some of this material has already found its way into a handful of archives around the country, but many operate on a shoestring [budget] and don’t even actually have a way to play what sits on the shelves.”

“Now we’re putting out a call for whatever people have that’s relevant; so that we can layer it into the film,” Maddux says. So the next great addition to the film could come from you. Learn how you can see a version of Reel in the Closet or share vintage film with Maddux at closetreel.com*.

Last modified: August 22, 2017