The photos are striking.
From well-preserved original Kodak prints to the floor-to-ceiling enlargement that is now the centerpiece of a new exhibition at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery – a series of portraits of Leonard Olive Keith and Joseph Austin (Cub) Coates convey a tender connection .
“I never imagined the queer history that existed in New Brunswick, so seeing it in front of me was really shocking,” said Dusty Green, who first saw the photos in 2015 while working as an intern. at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick in Fredericton.
“It was more than just childhood camaraderie,” Provincial Archivist Meredith Batt said. “They clearly cared about each other…and making those records was kind of like an act of defiance.”
Batt and Green say the photos are not only rare but likely the earliest photographic records of a same-sex couple in the Maritimes showing their affection for each other but not their community, which would have punished them for it.
Now, a century later, that love is on display and as public as it gets. In addition to the exhibition which will run until the end of July, Batt and Green are launching their book this weekend.
Len and Cub, a queer storypublished by Goose Lane Editions, will be celebrated Saturday at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery with guest speakers Brenda Murphy, Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, and John Leroux, Director of Collections and Exhibitions at the Fredericton Gallery.
“It’s a message that transcends time,” Green said. “Every queer person knows what it’s like to hide in plain sight in your community or not be allowed to express who you are or express your love for another person.”
In 1892, Canada enacted gross indecency laws that made any act of attraction between men, including kissing and fondling, a criminal offence. The law was extended to women in 1953. In 1988 the offense of gross indecency was repealed.
The photos of Len and Cub show two men expressing their intimate connection at a time when the law made it dangerous. They appear cradled around each other, sometimes holding hands, or one gently resting his head on the other.
The two men were neighbors in Havelock, then known as Butternut Ridge, a small but prosperous community about 50 kilometers west of Moncton.
According to the book, Len was a hobby photographer and car enthusiast who eventually owned a local garage and pool hall. Cub, who was younger, was a farmer’s son. He eventually became a butcher, entrepreneur and horse lover. Both men were veterans.
Their many private moments in the early 20th century were well documented by Len’s camera.
Green and Batt believe “the boys” took precautions to hide the true nature of their affections, in part by spending time outdoors fishing and hunting.
“There are so many things that could have shielded them from speculation,” Green said. “They’re both young men, and it wouldn’t be uncommon for them to develop a close friendship and go camping together.”
All the while, Len, who came from a wealthier family than Cub, used his camera to capture the people and places that mattered to him.
“He cared about what he was photographing,” Batt said. “It’s very clear that he cared about Cub and his community. He loved being outdoors and spending time in nature, going on adventures. He loved his garage.
“It would have been very difficult for him to leave and let go of those things.”
Kicked out of town
After World War I, the relationship between Len and Cub changed, and so did society.
“We’ve seen this social conservatism bubbling up,” Green said. “People would have been more rigid in their understanding and control of sex and gender boundaries and would have been more alert to suspicious behavior, such as men in their twenties who spend a lot of time alone together.”
Batt said the bond between Len and Cub was “wearing down” and Len was getting involved with other men.
Len also got into fox farming, which put him in competition with families who were already making money in the lucrative market for fox pelts.
An archivist’s note attached to one of the Keith family photos identifies a man standing outside a house in Havelock as “partly responsible for Leonard Keith’s expulsion from town because he was gay”.
In 1931, Len ceded control of his business and finances to his sister Lucy and left for the United States. Green and Batt said they found no record of his return home until his burial in 1950.
Cub married and was well known in harness racing circles before his death in 1965.
“We see ourselves in their situation”
Len and Cub’s story might never have been told without local historian and Havelock resident John Corey.
In 1984, he bought the Keith family photo albums at an estate sale. He donated all of these striking black and white images to the provincial archives.
Green said the photos helped affirm something he never learned in school.
“I didn’t see myself represented in New Brunswick history,” Green, 31, said of his childhood. “And I took New Brunswick history classes when I was a kid.
“So I kind of had it in my head that queer history in New Brunswick from that time didn’t exist or if it did, it had been destroyed.”
A year after finding the photos, Green founded the New Brunswick Queer Heritage Initiative, with the goal of collecting and preserving archives of LGBTQ history in the province.
Batt, 26, joined in 2018 and is now president.
“If you read the dedication in the book, you see it’s for young gay men in New Brunswick and they find their place,” Batt said.
It’s just one of the ways he relates to Len and Cub, even though their lives are a century apart.
“It’s a concrete visual record of gay people living in a time and place where it would have been quite hostile or dangerous for them to do that,” Green said. “And I think that still resonates with some queer people living in some New Brunswick communities today.”