gay history lesson

This Instagram Account Full of Gorgeous Men Also Provides a Powerfully Personal Gay History Lesson

Instagram is full of thirsty content. Many users on the popular image sharing social media platform have discovered the quickest way to get more followers and likes is to show some skin. (We’re not complaining.) However, once and a while there is an account that combines thirst with meaningful content, and that is what you have with Mike Balaban. His account @bammer47 is the gay history lesson we all need.

Balaban’s feed currently has approximately 5,400 followers but is quickly growing as more and more people stumble upon him. His beautiful photography is paired with powerful captions that capture his gay experiences from years long gone. Nostalgia paired with beefy men in short shorts is a recipe for Insta-success.

Through his eyes, viewers pay witness to an important piece of queer history through his re-telling of one-night stands, trips to far off places and friendships with men who later lost their lives to HIV.

Balaban also has a blog, Capturing Rainbows. There, too, he features his captivating photography in blog posts paired with information for people to understand the history that came before them.

He writes:

What is often left out of the history books are the small moments that have also given color and form to our community — stories about how we brought ourselves out of the shadows; and stories about our families which were most often bound, not by blood, but by camaraderie, friendship and love. From Greenwich Village and the Castro, to Fire Island and Provincetown and a thousand places in between, we have created loving homes, safe havens and cultural crucibles for LGBT people and their friends.

It is so easy to let these memories about LGBT life that have made being open possible fade away.  They only re-emerge when we reminisce about the past with friends, but they are never written down and will never be known by younger generations of LGBT people.

Balaban explains that now more than ever it is important for us experience the gay history lesson he offers, and to remember our journey that came before:

Now, more than ever, as we see a rise in bigotry, discrimination and hate across the world, we need to remind ourselves of our journey and teach those too young to remember our struggles, our celebrations, and our achievements; and to ensure that our place in today’s society is neither taken for granted, denied or diminished.

Take a look at these gay history lessons here:

This post is a mash-up, a fusion of disparate elements. The photo frames my handsome friend, Jackie Yordan, originally from Puerto Rico, on the boardwalk in Fire Island Pines, during the summer of 1980, exactly one year before the discovery of AIDS was announced. Jackie contracted the disease and passed away a little more than a decade later. While I’ve focused a lot on Manhattan and how the acute AIDS crisis impacted my life in the 1980’s, the place that apparently had the second highest mortality rate per capital in the world from AIDS (after NYC) was the Caribbean island of Trinidad & Tobago. This week, I was messaged by Jason Jones, a Trinidadian human rights defender who’s leading a landmark legal challenge to remove discriminatory laws that criminalize LGBT people in his island country. He’s asking for help in spreading the word, as he’s shepherding this case forward all by himself. He sought assistance from internat’l LGBT rights organizations, Outright International & All Out, but they said they couldn’t help him, while Lambda Legal doesn’t do work in the Caribbean. So, he’s relying upon the good graces of people like us to help his effort. Today, in Trinidad, he can be arrested and imprisoned for up to 25 years for having consensual sex with an adult gay male partner. Since filing this case, he’s received more than 60 death threats and hundreds of hate messages via social media. The case will be heard in the High Court, Port of Spain, Trinidad on January 30, 2018. Contact him at @trinijayjay, if you’re able to help / have ideas that may assist with this important effort. Thanks!

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I’ve visited Brazil 6 times, always during major holiday weeks: 5 times for New Year’s and once, on my first visit in 1983, during its Carnival madness. From 1988 through 1995, I spent 4 New Year’s vacations in Rio de Janeiro, managing to also visit Buzios, Parati, Petropolos, Salvador (in Bahia province) & São Paulo in the process. The focus of every vacation in Rio was the gay section of beach in its Ipanema district, located directly in front of where Rua Farme de Amoeda intersects the beach. At that time of year, the climate is typically hot and sticky, with the sun powerful enough to burn even the swarthiest of complexions. A typical day might have consisted of a late breakfast; a workout at the local gym or perhaps some shopping at Blue Man (a small shop with the latest designs & colors in skimpy men’s bathing suits that became famous far beyond its jurisdiction) to avoid the midday sun; several hours on the gay beach comfortably packed among our gay brethren like sardines, cruising and schmoozing; drinks and local appetizers at one of the sidewalk cafes on Rua Farme de Amoeda, dinner out, and then invariably a visit to Rio’s prime, super crowded (especially at New Year’s when tourists and locals all congregated there) Le Boy gay bar, and, possibly, a late-night visit to one of Rio’s popular gay saunas, depending on one’s hormonal urges and fortune earlier in the evening. This photo was taken on the gay beach with a gaggle from São Paulo (“Paulistas”) and Rio (“Carioca”) I’d met that trip (December 1995). I was enamored of the cutie in the white swim trunks (with my arm around him) and, while we flirted a lot, nothing else happened between us. #35mm

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I’m going to use this post for two purposes: first, I want to belatedly thank my growing pool of followers for accompanying me on this journey, as I’ve gained clarity about the value my vintage photos possess. Three days ago, I reached the 5,000 follower milestone, but failed to acknowledge then my gratitude for your loyalty & passion about gay history. You’ve inspired me to develop a clearer voice and the resolve to continue using it so that our collective gay history becomes embedded in the popular archives of our time. Secondly, I ran into a friend last week who’s been dating @darrenjkearns & the pics I took of Darren & others in South Beach 25 years ago came up in our chat. I’m reposting my favorite of him from January 1991, while acknowledging for the first time that I thought Darren was the “best looking man” I knew in NYC then. Those times in Miami were special, partly because of the feeling in the air that South Beach was reviving, we were young, AIDS was no longer taking up every other moment of our conscious lives, and bright futures seemingly lay ahead for all of us. Friends, including Darren, @my3piglets, Rob Deraney (a victim in the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Towers in NYC in 2001), @dancritchett, @passivnoir, & Mark Goebel surrounded us and made SOBE our special playground for a short moment in time. #35mm

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This photo of Jeff X may have been taken on one of the last days, 36 years ago, that he ever had sex. For any who haven’t followed the saga, he and had I met on Fire Island during the summer of 1980. We’d had a mad, but harried, affair there, which included our first sexual encounter (hidden from our housemates in the dunes behind the beach on Fire Island Pines), and our last one (a public coach-athlete, LSD-fueled fantasy scenario enacted in public at dawn in the infamous Meatrack … my only sexual activity there ever, honest!:). Here, the following summer, I was visiting him at his home in Chicago. The trip happened the same month that the discovery of a gay cancer was announced (July 1981) or the next. In this slightly blurry photo, he’s undressing in his bedroom and we’re about to tango under the sheets. Later in the trip, as documented elsewhere on this page, five of us took an idyllic day trip to nearby Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan and the group was captured in an iconic photo of five handsome, muscular gay men on the beach. Three of the five later perished due to AIDS. Soon after this photo was taken, Jeff retreated into a celibate existence, a result of his fear of dying from AIDS. We all shared that fear back then, but he alone allowed it to alter the course of his romantic and sexual life, never escaping the shadow of the disease. The epidemic affected all of us living then differently, taking many lives and encumbering others. Today, it’s hard to even recall what it was like back then, which is why so many are striving to keep the memories of those lost (See @TheAIDSMemorial for inspiring tributes to loved ones lost) and our experiences alive. #35mm

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Rio de Janeiro has been a frequent and popular vacation destination of mine for almost 35 years. I first visited Rio during its Carnival madness in 1983. I returned 5 more times (1988, 1989, 1992, 1995, & 2004), all for New Year’s eve, when an estimated 3 million Cariocas crowd Copacabana Beach for fireworks, religious ceremonies, general revelry, and tributes in the roiling surf to Yemanja, Goddess of the Sea in the African-inspired Candomblé religion. By the late 1980’s, Rio had become crime ridden. Drivers wouldn’t even stop for traffic lights at night, merely slowing, to avoid potentially being robbed on city streets. One photo I took on my trip there in late 1989 shows a gang of street toughs, coincidentally captured behind me in the frame, as they cased Ipanema Beach for likely victims to burglarize. A decade later, Brazil’s surging economic development seemed to have virtually eliminated visible crime. But, the country has experienced a return to economic turmoil in recent years and I’ve heard reports that street crime has been resurgent. In this photo (December 1995), Joe Eviatar and a hunky young Carioca are perched along the water’s edge on the gay beach in Ipanema, with a typically packed crowd squeezed in behind them. That year, we started our trip in Salvador, capital of Bahia province in northeast Brazil, where the African slave trade in the Americas had established its first toehold. From there, we traveled here to Rio for a week, including the Xmas and New Year’s holidays. I ended the trip in São Paulo, visiting two Brazilian friends. One, Carlos Gama, Jr. (a commercial photographer) photographed me in the nude in his apartment; and I was introduced to Florian Raiss, a promising Brazilian sculptor and illustrator, acquiring some of his work. #35mm

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Among the favorite parties I attended were two pool bashes in the summers of 1991 & 1992 at David Pollard & @donhaddenindc’s home in the suburbs of Atlanta during HotLanta weekend. I’ve featured photos taken at both parties before. But, this is probably my fave from my first year there. While thousands ostensibly gathered in Atlanta to participate in a boozy raft race down the nearby Chattahoochee River on Sunday morning of that weekend (complete with muscled men drinking beer, calling out to each other, and deliberately rowing their rafts into their neighbors’, like a game of “bumper cars” on steroids), many were too busy partying every night to wake up in time for such shenanigans. The best they could manage was to rouse themselves and get to this pool party mid-afternoon, IF they were lucky enough to wangle an invitation. I like this photo (August 1991) because it accurately conveys the density of the crowd, the buzz in the air the whole afternoon, and the muscle abundantly on display. Many millennial followers have expressed surprise that “circuit parties” were in vogue 25+ years ago. They were a novelty then, so there was a freshness to them that’s lacking in today’s mega-parties, at least from my (perhaps, jaded:) perspective. #35mm

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In August of 1990, my Gotham Volleyball (NYC gay league) team and I traveled to Seattle and then to Vancouver to compete in Gay Games III in that Canadian city. Joining 12,000 other athletes and many more spectators, we had a fantastic time and even won a bronze medal in a lower level of competition. While there, we met and befriended numerous competitors from other cities. This pic features Peter (right), a fellow volleyball player (with an identical twin) and two divers, all three of whom hailed from Philadelphia. Peter joined our team that week on a ferry trip to Victoria, the provincial capital, and a visit to its world-famous Butchart Gardens. I’ve forgotten the names of the divers, but they were memorable because, buff and handsome as they were, they saw fit to provide sunbathers at nearby nude Wreck Beach with a demonstration of muscle flexing the day after the Games had ended. Naturally, I was there with camera ready. I’ve shared that photo before, but I’ll feature it again as my next post here, for viewers who missed it before. The fellow in the middle here showed up at @donhaddenindc & David Pollard’s HotLanta pool party the next August and appears in one or two photos of mine from there, too. Oh, and, bring back short shorts! #35mm

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