CAP­TUR­ING RAIN­BOWS

It’s Face­book-meets-Ances­try.com for the LGBT com­mu­nity. New web­site, Cap­tur­ing Rain­bows chron­i­cles over 40 years of the gay com­mu­nity in words and pic­tures.

DNA Magazine - - CONTENT #221 - In­ter­view by Marc An­drews. Pho­tog­ra­phy cour­tesy of Mike Bal­a­ban.

Face­book-meet­sAnces­try.com for the LGBT com­mu­nity. New web­site, Cap­tur­ing Rain­bows chron­i­cles over 40 years of the gay com­mu­nity in words and pic­tures.

Former Wall Street banker Mike Bal­a­ban cre­ated Cap­tur­ing Rain­bows, a web­site for shar­ing per­sonal sto­ries and pho­to­graphs from the dawn of gay lib­er­a­tion. What started as an In­sta­gram ac­count be­come a global project to doc­u­ment our colour­ful past and record our his­tory, be­fore it dis­ap­pears. Mike and co-founder Tom Walker spoke to DNA. DNA: “Cap­tur­ing Rain­bows” is such a beau­ti­ful image – what made you think of it? Mike: We were search­ing for a name that would im­me­di­ately con­vey the pur­pose be­hind our ini­tia­tive and wanted to be in­clu­sive of the big­ger LGBT com­mu­nity.

Tom: A large part of our mis­sion is to col­lect mem­o­ries and a rain­bow cap­tured in a jar seemed like the per­fect metaphor.

How did the idea for Cap­tur­ing Rain­bows come about in the first place?

Tom: It hap­pened in two stages. Mike’s vin­tage pho­tos with nar­ra­tive go­ing back 40 years were be­com­ing quite pop­u­lar on In­sta­gram and he was be­ing be­seeched to pub­lish a book of them. He’d been re­ferred to me, some­one with 30 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence in the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try, as a pos­si­ble cu­ra­tor for the book. I per­suaded Mike to pre­serve and share the sto­ries dig­i­tally. Was the aim to fill an ap­par­ent gay his­tory void? Mike: His­tory most of­ten records big events like Stonewall, the AIDS epi­demic, and the cam­paign for mar­riage equal­ity but the small mo­ments in peoples’ lives are equally im­por­tant to re­mem­ber and share. “The ex­tra­or­di­nary events of or­di­nary lives” – that’s what Cap­tur­ing Rain­bows aims to doc­u­ment. What is your vi­sion for Cap­tur­ing Rain­bows? Mike: We have grand am­bi­tions, though re­al­is­ing them will re­quire en­thu­si­as­tic par­tic­i­pa­tion by many in our com­mu­nity. Cap­tur­ing Rain­bows is first and fore­most a repos­i­tory of our his­tory, in pic­tures and words. Right now, we are fo­cus­ing on peo­ple shar­ing their mem­o­ries in a few sen­tences, or a short story, or with snap­shots from their lives.

Photo al­bums were once handed down through fam­i­lies from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. Typ­i­cally, pho­tos of the LGBT com­mu­nity haven’t made it into tra­di­tional fam­ily al­bums… and many LGBT com­mu­nity mem­bers haven’t had spouses or chil­dren to pass these things on to. Part of the rea­son I wanted to share my pho­tos was to live on be­yond my life­span – not that I am plan­ning on go­ing any­where soon! Tom: For the time be­ing, we are fo­cus­ing on writ­ten sto­ries and pho­tos, but even­tu­ally we in­tend to in­clude au­dio and video in­ter­views. And you see it as an op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate and grow a com­mu­nity, right?

Tom: In New York City alone there used to be dozens of gay bars, restau­rants and cof­fee shops. Most of these LGBT gath­er­ing places have dis­ap­peared. This has hap­pened for sev­eral rea­sons: ma­jor cities are be­com­ing too ex­pen­sive to sup­port these “al­ter­na­tive” en­claves; the rise of apps like Grindr and Scruff re­plac­ing those hang­outs, and the gen­eral main­stream­ing of the LBGT com­mu­nity are all partly to blame. Yet, as the LGBT com­mu­nity gains greater ac­cep­tance and be­comes more in­te­grated into the larger so­ci­ety, we are also fac­ing greater re­sis­tance. There will al­ways be a need for safe havens and Cap­tur­ing Rain­bows aims to help fill that need. Mike: The fam­i­lies that many LGBT com­mu­nity mem­bers cre­ate are of­ten not of blood, but of shared ex­pe­ri­ence. We want to fa­cil­i­tate this shar­ing to build stronger bonds within our com­mu­nity, as well as be­tween older and younger gen­er­a­tions. So many younger LGBT peo­ple to­day don’t know what it was re­ally like in the ear­lier years.

His­tory records big events like Stonewall, AIDS, mar­riage equal­ity… but the small mo­ments in peoples’ lives are equally im­por­tant to re­mem­ber and share.

That’s why mem­bers will be en­cour­aged to get to know each other, cre­at­ing men­tor-pro­tégé re­la­tion­ships and friend­ships?

Mike: Yes, mem­bers will get to know each other on­line, which hope­fully will lead to off­line friend­ships. As the membership grows, through tag­ging of pho­tos and other in­ter­ac­tions, we en­vis­age the po­ten­tial not only for new friend­ships to be de­vel­oped, but also for mem­bers to be re­con­nected with old friends from their past and from around the world. Even in its early phase, Cap­tur­ing Rain­bows is proving to be a global plat­form. Al­ready, we have mem­bers from the US, UK, Switzer­land, Hong Kong, Nige­ria, Is­rael, Australia and Ar­gentina. I just heard from some­one in Malaysia last night.

Tom: And if we suc­ceed in our ul­ti­mate vi­sion, Cap­tur­ing Rain­bows will be­come a pro­ducer of con­tent about the LGBT com­mu­nity for books, films, etcetera – for our mem­bers and wider so­ci­ety.

Is this some­thing that could be­come big­ger, like a gay ances­try.com?

Mike: We hope and be­lieve so. In fact, we’ve been de­scrib­ing it as a “combination of Face­book meets Ances­try.com” for the LGBT com­mu­nity. If you re­mem­ber, Face­book started as a di­rec­tory for stu­dents at Harvard and look what it grew into. Ev­ery­one we have spo­ken with has com­mented on the need for some­thing like Cap­tur­ing Rain­bows and has also ex­pressed amaze­ment that noth­ing like it had al­ready been estab­lished.

What have been some of the most touch­ing mo­ments when put­ting Cap­tur­ing Rain­bows to­gether? Mike: There are nu­mer­ous sto­ries posted by mem­bers who share their ex­pe­ri­ences with com­ing out or los­ing close friends and loved ones to AIDS. But, the most touch­ing mo­ment for me may have been when a self-de­scribed “15-year-old clos­eted boy liv­ing in a deeply (and un­for­tu­nately) con­ser­va­tive part of the south” ex­plained how in­spir­ing the photo sto­ries on my In­sta­gram and Cap­tur­ing Rain­bows have been for him. He ended with: “Noth­ing has ever made me feel more con­tent or less alone than read­ing your posts. Thank you.”

In the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, there couldn’t be a bet­ter time to be out and proud, agreed? Mike: Yes and no. There is a valid de­bate about how much has been gained ver­sus lost with gay rights progress over the last sev­eral decades. We have gained the freedom to be our­selves – de­pend­ing on where you live and your fam­ily’s be­liefs – and are be­ing ac­cepted by so­ci­ety in greater de­grees. Yet, main­stream­ing has had its dis­ad­van­tages.

We’ve lost a lot of our coun­ter­cul­ture in ur­ban cen­tres like San Fran­cisco and Man­hat­tan that helped de­fine our com­mu­nity. Cap­tur­ing Rain­bow’s goal is to doc­u­ment our his­to­ries be­fore they dis­ap­pear, and through this, pro­vide a con­text and a stag­ing ground for our cul­ture and com­mu­nity as it evolves in the fu­ture. Tom: The rise of au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ments around the world is serv­ing to re­verse some gains of the LGBT move­ment, and not ev­ery country has shared in those gains yet. We want to educate mil­len­nial LGBT youth as to how we fought those battles so that, if it be­comes nec­es­sary to fight them again, they’ll be equipped with the knowl­edge and tools.

The AIDS era al­most wiped out an en­tire gen­er­a­tion of gay men. Does the project cover much of this time?

Tom: There are other out­lets fo­cus­ing their ef­forts specif­i­cally on this topic. The AIDS Me­mo­rial page on In­sta­gram con­sists en­tirely of trib­utes to those who lost their lives to AIDS. We see what we of­fer as be­ing com­ple­men­tary. While the AIDS cri­sis is very much a part of the times we are doc­u­ment­ing, they were so much more than just that. Our goal is for Cap­tur­ing Rain­bows to pro­vide a com­pre­hen­sive pic­ture of the many ex­pe­ri­ences, time pe­ri­ods and lo­ca­tions that have made up the global LGBT

I came out in 1976. Gay men were… proud of our abil­ity to have sex any­time with any­one we wanted. It wasn’t easy, dur­ing the 1970s, to form last­ing re­la­tion­ships.

ex­pe­ri­ence across many decades. That said, the les­sons from AIDS are many and we should re­main cog­nisant of them.

How can we best learn from our gay his­tory?

Mike: The first and most im­por­tant step we must take is to doc­u­ment it. The next most im­por­tant step is for mem­bers of our com­mu­nity to share it, and hope­fully that will lead to greater learn­ing. No mat­ter how many sta­tis­tics and dates you show some­one, it only takes one great story to make peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence it vis­cer­ally. From The Di­ary Of Anne Frank to The Color Pur­ple, to Malala Yousafza’s first-per­son ac­count of her life in Afghanistan, it is the per­sonal story that res­onates most.

Tell us about life as an out gay man in the pre-AIDS era.

Mike: I came out in 1976. Gay men were as­sert­ing that we were not at all like het­ero­sex­u­als and, as a group, we were proud of our abil­ity to have sex any­time with any­one we wanted. We re­jected the con­ven­tions of straight so­ci­ety, in­clud­ing mar­riage, home own­er­ship, par­ent­ing, etcetera. It wasn’t easy dur­ing the 1970s to form last­ing re­la­tion­ships be­cause most gay men pre­ferred quick sex with­out com­mit­ments.

Tom: I moved to New York City in late 1980, which was when I re­ally started to dis­cover the gay com­mu­nity there. AIDS, or the “gay can­cer”, as it was whis­pered about in those days, was al­ways a spectre that was loom­ing. In 1984, I moved to Hong Kong for a cou­ple of years which, in my mind, made me feel safe – away from the epi­cen­tres of the dis­ease which seemed to be San Fran­cisco and New York. The re­al­ity was very dif­fer­ent. Most of my gay male friends from Hong Kong from those days had all died by the early 1990s. There will al­ways be a big hole in my heart.

Gay mar­riage has be­come a huge po­lit­i­cal is­sue. Did you ever think we would get so far in your life­time with this?

Mike: Ab­so­lutely not; at least, not un­til the last 10 years.

Look­ing back at your own gay past, what are the big­gest life les­sons you’ve learned? Mike: Never for­get; his­tory has a stub­born way of re­peat­ing it­self and those who do not learn from his­tory are doomed to re­peat it. Do you have any life regrets?

Mike: I don’t be­lieve regrets serve a use­ful pur­pose, but I guess I wish I lived in a time where I could have come out ear­lier and avoided the dis­com­fort and in­ter­nalised ho­mo­pho­bia that were in­escapable grow­ing up when I did.

Tom: Regrets? Al­ways. Do the same things over again? Prob­a­bly. [Laughs.]

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