A new book gives insight into a same-sex relationship in rural Canada a century ago.
If it weren’t for the advent of the self-timing camera, we would not know anything about the relationship between Len & Cub. There are no surviving notes, letters or documents to provide any further evidence. Luckily, Len had an interest in photography and documented their intimacy in a trove of images spanning nearly 15 years. These photos serve to illustrate their story in the recently published bookLen & Cub: A Queer History (Goose Lane Press) by Meredith J. Batt and Dusty Green.
Len & Cub features Len’s photos of the duo between 1916 and 1930 and tells the story of a relationship in early 20th Century rural North America. These photos provide the oldest known photographic records of a same-sex couple in New Brunswick, Canada.
The term “queer” seems a bit ill-fitting to describe the actions of individuals a century ago, when even the terms “homosexual” or “gay” were not part of the vernacular. The choice of language is explained by the authors, who dedicate the book to the queer youth of New Brunswick. As Green states in his preface, “… the record of their lives is a testament to the resilience of queer people and an affirmation that we belong in any place we choose to call home.”
Leonard “Len” Keith was born in 1891 in Butternut Ridge (now Havelock), New Brunswick. His family enjoyed a moderate amount of wealth as the owners of a match factory and later a grist mill. Joseph “Cub” Coates was born 8 years later, the son of a farmer who was a neighbor to the Keith family. Together Len and Cub shared a love of the outdoors and documented their outings in photos. The pictures taken during hunting and canoe trips with their arms around each other or lying in bed together make clear the affection they held for each other.
When Len was called to service during World War I, Cub signed up as well, and the two trained together in Quebec.
Photos of the duo are less frequent in the late 1920’s. Len’s camera captures several other unnamed male companions that accompanied him on trips and other outdoor adventures.
Len was also a car enthusiast and eventually opened a garage, which he later converted into a pool hall. Cub continued to make a living farming and then as a butcher.
In 1931, Len was forced to leave Havelock, allegedly due to his homosexual activities. He signed over control of his business and finances to his sister Lucy and headed to the United States. He later settled in Montreal, where he resided until succumbing to cancer in 1950. His sister arranged for his burial in Havelock.
It appears that Cub was not caught up in the scandal that forced Len out of town. He stayed in Havelock until 1940, when he married Rita Cameron, a nurse from the neighboring town of Chatham. After he served in WWII, the couple relocated to Moncton. He would go on to become a prominent figure in New Brunswick’s harness racing circles before his death in 1965.
The photos were donated to the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick by John Corey, a local historian who purchased them at a Keith family estate sale in 1984. Corey’s father had been a classmate of Len’s and knew both families. When he donated the collection, John referred to Len & Cub as “boyfriends” and also identified a photo of an individual who was instrumental in driving Len out of Havelock.
As some of these photos began to circulate on the internet several years ago, curiosity about Len & Cub’s story grew. In addition to the recent publication of the book, the BeaverBrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, NB is featuring an exhibition of the photos from April 2 – July 29, 2022.
He has a new book out. An award winning book. It’s called Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me (Red Hen Press). It is described on the cover as “linked stories” and won the Grace Paley Prize for short fiction. God forbid you call it a memoir or a short story collection. But we’ll get to that later.
This month, his two previous novels: 1989’s The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket and 2007’sWhat I Did Wrongare back in print with Fordham University Press. You can easily order any of these titles on Amazon or Barnes Ignoble. However, if you want to throw your business to an indie book seller, or more specifically a gay bookstore, it appears that you will have to go to one that he has personally walked into and asked them to stock his books. He’ll come back and sign them, too.
The Strand also does not have copies in their store. He went there and asked. Something to do with distribution, although you can order them from their online warehouse.
I have been a fan of John Weir’s work since Eddie Socket‘s original release. I purchased a copy at, uh, Barnes Ignoble, and was thoroughly captivated by this groundbreaking book – winner of the 1990 Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Debut Novel and one of the first to address the AIDS crisis.
The book kept me company on a miserable theater tour in the fall of 1991. I strongly identified with the protagonist, and when he contracted AIDS halfway through the book, it scared the hell out of me.
I wrote some of my favorite quotes in my journal:
Though he didn’t think that God existed, still, it was nice to just sit somewhere with people who believed that he did.
My feelings are clichés and that bugs me, so I try to hide it with other slicker clichés, and with everything in quotes, at least I can remind myself that I know better than my feelings, which are really the drippiest, most sentimental, self-pitying things.
I pored over it for so long that one of my cast-mates finally said “What the hell is with you and that book?!”
John Weir was working with ACT UP on The Day of Desperation in January, 1991 when he and other activists (including fellow writer Dale Peck) interrupted the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather:
It’s interesting to hear him mention his mother in the clip above, as she is the subject of several stories in Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me, written 25 years later, after their relationship had evolved into an adult child/caregiver situation.
In the intervening years, Weir was Contributing Editor at Details magazine and published nonfiction pieces in The New York Times, Spin, and Rolling Stone, among other publications. In addition to his writing, he has been an associate professor of English at Queens College since 1993.
I have been following John on Facebook for years. He would sometimes post new material and share extended witty, hysterically funny conversations with his mother. I also followed Sukey Tawdry, Mrs. Weir’s beloved pooch who had his own Facebook profile and passed away just days after she did in 2018. (John’s tribute is posted here.)
For all of the platform’s faults, John’s connection to Facebook is evident: he dedicates Nostalgia to his 5,000 followers.
Weir has a crankier social media alter-ego, whom he refers to as “The 3am Guy.” This allows him to rant about various topics at all hours of the night and then perhaps soften the edges or clean up the mess the following day – a tactic more people should adopt, IMHO.
It was Weir himself and not The 3am Guy who posted the following – a stinging encapsulation of what it is like to be a gay author of a certain age, on the first day of Gay Pride Month, just trying to get his work in front of its target audience.
This is his entire post, which I have reprinted with his permission:
The Self-Pitying Author Asks: Why Are None of My Books on the LGBTQ+ Pride Table at My Local Groovy BKNY Bookstore, Next to *The Town of Babylon* and *The Guncle*?
It’s LGBTQ+ Pride Month, and I plan to spend the month ashamed! Mostly because I have this new book out and I haven’t done enough to promote it. Here’s a funny thing about the book:
What’s its genre?
Is that like asking a book its pronouns?
Well, *Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me* calls itself “linked stories” on the cover. That’d mean it’s a collection of short stories: fiction.
Somebody said maybe it’d get more notice if I had called it a novel, “because it reads like a novel” (presumably because the same dude is the narrator of all 11 stories, and the stories follow him – not in order! – from like 1974 to 2014); and the thing is:
It got published because I submitted it to a writing contest – the Association of Writers & Writing Program’s (AWP’s) Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction.
I submitted to a contest, which I’d never done before, because: my agent wasn’t interested in the manuscript, which meant I no longer had an agent; and of the *12 agents whom I queried to see if they’d represent me* – well: None. Of them. Even. Replied. Not even their harried assistants wrote back to pretend they were the agent and say, “No thanks.” No one. Not an email, not even a form-rejection email.
Then in fear and self-loathing I sent the manuscript to a friend, who is also an agent (generally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to have an agent who’s a friend), and they said, “Love this, can’t sell it.”
So I submitted to a contest.
Which specified: “Short Fiction.”
Like the kind of stories Grace Paley wrote. A prize in her name! And I was all, “Well, I’m not Paley, and not that the judge has to pick a Paley-esque collection, but: I do sort of do the thing Paley does of writing stories as if they were just what happened that day.” (Not to put myself on her level of genius!)
A lot of Paley’s stories are written as if they were unstructured suit jackets, they fit fine but without the expected ribbing: her work feels impromptu, copied from everyday ordinary life (even if that ordinary life is extraordinary); and so but then you realize that every word is deliberate, she has a distinct aesthetic and a project, her writing isn’t random, nor is it cinema verité, though it’s often presented as if a quirky documentarian were given a camera to record whatever is in front of her.
So my collection got picked for the Grace Paley Short Fiction Prize, the reward for which was its being published by a small press that partners with the AWP: Red Hen Press.
So it won a Story prize, so it’s Stories.
I guess it was my idea to use the phrase “linked stories,” because short story collections don’t sell that well, and I thought maybe people would be more likely to buy it if they thought it was gonna feel like a novel.
I don’t think it’s a novel. I don’t really care if it’s a novel. I don’t know what it is; but then some people have been:
It’s a memoir. It’s autobiography. It’s a series of essays with a dude in the middle saying “Ow.” It’s nonfiction misnomered as fiction!
“How dare you misgenre me!” it’s thinking, sitting un-bought on a low shelf in the Fiction section at your neighborhood Barnes Ignoble.
Well, but back to Paley: I can’t call it nonfiction because I lied about stuff; compressed 6 real people into one fictional character; took scenes from real life and put them in a different month, with other weather; invented conversations; collapsed 8 different events into one; made shit up; gave all my best lines to other people; left things out that’d make me look bad if you thought I committed them; mis-remembered the past; manipulated my mis-remembered past to satisfy narrative arcs. Gave stuff tidy endings that, in real life, are never-ending.
I used techniques of fiction, in other words.
But I wanted it to read as if it were happening right in front of you, happening *to* you, right now, in this moment that you’re reading it.
I wanted it to read like nonfiction. Or like a Frederick Wiseman documentary, maybe.
I wanted you to think, “He must have just written down what happened.”
“Why not say what happened?” Elizabeth Hardwick said to Robert Lowell, when he was stuck on a poem; and then he emptied all her letters into his book! Her aggrieved, enraged letters about his leaving her for another woman.
Sleep with a writer, wake up in print.
So I can see a person’s assigning my book in a course in, like, I dunno, “Personal Narrative?”
Argh, I think the term these days is “Autofiction,” which I hate. I always hear, under that name, the accusation that all a particular writer ever did was obsess about themselves; and that an “auto-fictionalist” was deficient because they could not make shit up.
Is there a notion lately that a “writer” is a person who works entirely from “imagination,” and that to base a story on true events is somehow not to be as glorious as a person who works solely from imagination?
As if “saying what happened” did not involve using your imagination.
As if “autofiction” is somehow ethically suspect because you’re invading the privacy of people whose lives your work is based on. But there is such a thing as an emotional autobiography, where the arc of feeling is lifted from your own life, if not the events. And even a science fiction writer is surely modeling characters on people they know in real life (see Philip K. Dick’s books where one of the main characters is clearly based on Bishop James Pike of California).
And then there is this thing of, If you’re a homo-dude like myself over age like 55 and you’re writing about stuff that happened in the first 15 years of the global AIDS crisis, 1981 -1996, you are automatically *historical*, and your writing is going to have no useful application to stuff that is happening today, it’s gonna be retrograde at worst, merely “interesting” at best, yet another traumatized recounting of an era that properly belongs in a theme park, AIDSWorld.
O and alas. Call my book what you want, it doesn’t have a genre. But if it reads like nonfiction, that doesn’t mean it’s without an aesthetic; and if it reads like a novel, that doesn’t mean it’s not a series of stories carefully revised and assembled in a particular order; and if it reads like memoir, don’t expect it to be telling the truth about everything; and if it’s just some Wicked Aging Sodomite not letting go of the past, well:
Maybe we live in a country and moment when we are deeply aware of having *let go too quickly of the past*; and maybe the refusal to account for the past is a right wing strategy; and maybe the past is not even past, as Faulkner says; and maybe a book is not a weighted blanket, maybe it’s not meant to help you fall dreamlessly to sleep, maybe its point is to fling you into a stage of inconsolable grief at 3 in the morning.
In May of 1991, I completed my first professional theatre job – playing the Corwardly Lion in a national children’s theatre tour of The Wizard Of Oz. It was a whirlwind experience full of laughter, adventure and romance that ended as soon as I was dropped back into my parent’s house on Long Island. I felt just like Dorothy – unsure if what I had just experienced was real or a Technicolor® dream.
While Dorothy may have felt that there was no place like home, if you think about it… the Lion, with his newfound courage, remained in the Emerald City.
I was determined to stay connected with New York City – my Emerald City – and continue my life as a working actor. I purchased a Long Island Railroad ticket for the month of June to ensure that I would go into the city to audition, search for a job and find a place to live.
The Wicked Witch from the tour had mentioned that her sister was curating an evening of performances called Homo Alone in the East Village on June 3rd. She suggested that I go see it and be sure to introduce myself.
So I hopped on the LIRR, a homo alone, to go see Homo Alone.
My own journal from the time reads:
Just went and saw 3 performers – somewhere between single-person one acts and stand-up comedy…. I’d love to do it. This journal would serve me well up there. Hmmm…
I then continued to write for 6 pages pining for the tour that had just ended and planning out my transition into NYC. But I remember how the performances that night made me feel: this was where I belonged, in a little theatre in the East Village, getting up in front of people with a notebook full of stories. To speak in my own voice with confidence and… yes, courage. To trust that what I have to say is unique and worth sharing and maybe even funny or touching or meaningful. Hopefully some combination of all those things.
By the following month, I had found a job and was sharing a leaky 5th floor walkup on East 6th street with Glinda The Good Witch. By the end of the summer, I had lost the job and Glinda turned out to be a clinically depressed nightmare person, but another tour loomed in the Fall and I was on my way. I had made the move to the big city and the life that I was looking for.
Fast forward to 1998: I read David Sedaris’s Naked and absolutely loved it, so I picked up his previous book Barrel Fever, which I had somehow missed. A few pages into “Parade,” the first story in that collection, a light bulb started to flicker on: I know this story. How do I know this? I didn’t read this… I have heard this. Where did I hear this? Wait. This was the guy from Homo Alone. Back in 1991. That was David Sedaris reading onstage that night.
I mean, how do you forget the tale of a guy who breaks up with his boyfriend Charlton Heston to start dating Mike Tyson and then one night after strenuous sex, he accidentally swallows Mike’s gold teeth?
Something like that stays with you.
In 2017, when David’s selected diary entries were released in book form as Theft By Finding, the first thing I did was flip to June of 1991 to see if there was any mention of that night, but it skips from May 15th to June 22nd. It was interesting to read about this period of his life though: he had moved to NYC the previous October and worked at SantaLand in Macy’s that Christmas. In 1992 he would gain national exposure reading “The SantaLand Diaries” on NPR.
Later in 2017, my partner Chris and I went to see David read at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a sold-out multi-night engagement. He is known for meeting and autographing books for every single person who is willing to wait in line to see him after his readings. This can take hours.
When it was my turn to get my book signed, I stepped up and launched into the statement I had waited 20 years to say: “In June of 1991 I saw you at some little place in the East Village in an evening of solo performances called Homo Alone and you read the story about Mike Tyson out of a notebook….”
He said “Oh. It wouldn’t have been a notebook.”
I redirected. “Uh… it might have been a notepad. Or some papers. I’m not sure but I always remembered that night.”
He didn’t. “You have a really good memory.” He said without looking up from signing my book.
I mean, what did I expect to happen? Was he supposed to throw his arms around me and exclaim “My GOD that was a magical night! Your laughter and applause meant so much to me! And here you are! My biggest fan! After all these years!”?
And yes, my memory might be good, but it’s not GREAT, or I would have also remembered that “the little place” was The Club at LaMama and another one of performers that night was Lisa Kron, who would go on to win two Tony Awards for the book and score of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.
The third performer, Dominique Dibbell, has also had an impressive career. Kudos to Heidi Blackwell for collecting this trio.
I only know all this now because I unearthed the original program & promotional postcard from my mother’s basement this summer. And while I cannot say that I have a flawless memory bank, I will accept being called “A pack rat with decent recall.”
Note the “Thank You” to David’s partner Hugh Hamrick. According to Theft By Finding, they had only met three months prior. “This spring” David wrote, “I am, if I’m not mistaken, in love.” 29 years later, they are still together.
Had I unearthed this program sooner, I could have gone up to Lisa Kron at the 2015 preview of Fun Home that I attended – one of the most memorable Broadway experiences I ever had – where she and Alison Bechdel were sitting two rows in front of me. I could have said “I saw you with David Sedaris in 1991 and I don’t remember what you did but I know I really liked it and now I think you’re awesome!”
But I didn’t. And again, what is the anticipated reaction? What do we expect of people we admire when we reach out to them? When the shoe is on the other foot and someone mentions that they were moved by something that I did or wrote, I am grateful… but I don’t have a proper response other than to just say “Thank you.” It can easily become an awkward exchange, but the impulse is strong to make a connection with someone whose work motivates us and/or makes us feel something.
The next time I attend a David Sedaris reading, I will bring that old program along to show him and say; “I was at this show. You read Parade and I never forgot it. You inspired me to write. Thank you for all your work over the years.”
Maybe then I will get a different reaction. Then again, maybe not:
A recent post – the one featuring an essay written by Armistead Maupin for the September 1980 issue of Blueboy Magazine – was my most-viewed ever. This was thanks in part to links from Queerclick and KennethInThe212. I threatened to upload another article from the San Francisco-themed issue written by Randy Shilts: What If They Gave A Backlash And Nobody Came? Several people requested it, so here it is.
But first… a couple of other items of interest from this same issue:
There used to be a whole lot of Uncle Charlies in New York City! None of those advertised above is the one that lasted longest: The Uncle Charlies bar on Greenwich Ave. in the West Village, which closed in 1997. And then there’s the one that has been on E. 45th st for 10 years now.
And Look! It’s an advertisement for Grace Jones’ fourth LP… her first good album!
Record review: San Francisco’s very own Two Tons O’Fun. Izora Armstead and Martha Wash had been Sylvester’s backup singers. They soon changed their name to The Weather Girls when it started raining men… and the rest is history. Hallelujah!
And now for our feature presentation. This article recounts several significant incidents where backlash against the San Francisco gay community was anticipated, but did not happen. It’s interesting to read Shilts’ account of what had been accomplished up to this point in time – with no idea that they were standing on the precipice of a health crisis that would decimate the community and undo so much of the work towards assimilation that he was highlighting.
Shilts would go on to write three books, all important documents of gay history: The Mayor of Castro Street – a Harvey Milk bio, And The Band Played On, which chronicled the early days of the AIDS epidemic and Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians In The Military. He died of AIDS complications in 1994.
Just imagine what he would have to say about the current administration. Or Mayor Pete. Picture him as a frequent guest on Rachel Maddow. His voice is sorely missed.
Back in the early aughts, an older friend of mine was preparing to move out of his NYC apartment and gifted me with a gay time capsule: a closet full of porn magazines dating back to the mid-1970’s. He had moved into this rent stabilized 5th floor walk-up in college and stayed there for 30 years. Roommates and boyfriends came and went – leaving a trail of old magazines in their wake. But my friend stayed in this spacious top floor railroad apartment in the last remaining tenement building on a stretch of East 59th street, with a living room facing the Queensboro Bridge. Why move? The landlord finally offered him a sizable cash settlement to leave, unaware that he was ready to depart NYC anyway. But it was a nice parting gift.
I, in turn was given a King’s Chamber of gay erotica: 7 file boxes full of near-pristine old smut.
Shocker: porn is lucrative. For a few years I supplemented my income by selling them singly on eBay. The shrinking collection has now moved through 4 different apartments in the last dozen years. Unfortunately I did not have my friend’s tenacity (or luck) when it came to NYC real estate.
Recently I cracked the boxes open again and came across an article I thought was worth sharing. Yes, an article. As the old joke goes – I like these old porn mags for the articles. Well… the photo layouts are nice too, but… the articles do give a window into what gay life was like before the plague.
The September, 1980 issue of Blueboy Magazine was dedicated to the city of San Francisco – The Promised Land for gays. Presented below is an article titled The City That Dare Not Speak Its Name penned by Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin.
Although this was written just before the AIDS epidemic blew the gay community sky high, San Francisco had already been through some shit, as Maupin mentions in his opening paragraph. The Zodiac Killer, Jonestown Massacre, Patty Hearst kidnapping, the murders of Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone… followed by Dan White’s acquittal…. I am unclear what “Decadence” he is referring to, but surely it was a bloodbath.
Maupin sensed that the press was sharpening its knives to criticize his beloved city. And he wasn’t wrong in his assessment. Like his Tales of the City series, the article is a love letter to San Francisco, capturing the time and place as nobody else could. It was the best of times… it was the worst of times….
In the spirit of “everything old is new again,” Maupin observes “…. some local lavender ward healers (that) propagate the Cult of the Politically Correct can grow tedious beyond belief, and I wonder, in my heart of hearts, whether the immeasurable joys of cocksucking are worth the price of being either political or correct.” Yes, he ultimately concludes that nobody embraces eccentricity as unconditionally and as joyously as do San Franciscans.
40 years later, I think those who love the city would agree… even if they do complain about all the human feces in the streets.
The article concludes with a reference to a novel Maupin was working on: Jackie Old – a fictional piece about Jacqueline Onassis at age 70. Unfortunately she did not live to see 70 and this novella – initially published as a 5 part series in New West magazine – would not get an official release until a 2014 Kindle edition. Even so, it is not included in his bibliographies.
Also featured in this mag is an extensive piece by another prominent gay San Franciscan: the late great Randy Shilts, author of And The Band Played On. I will post this piece – What If They Gave A Backlash And Nobody Came? -if there is interest. Lemme know if you want it. (UPDATE: I posted it HERE)