New book spotlighting a gay couple in the 1910s and 1920s

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More than a century ago, rural gay men were invisible. Thankfully, this same-sex couple had a camera.

A new book spotlights a photogenic gay couple in rural New Brunswick in the 1910s and ’20s

Cub and Len in a hammock at the family home of Len Keith. Credit: Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

While LGBT+ history goes back millenia, our records of it tend to focus on urban experiences, leading us to believe that rural gays didn’t exist. They did. But without the critical mass to create institutions like bars, associations and clubs – or the freedom granted by the anonymity of city living – they tended to be discreet about their lives, making it harder for us to see them across time.

We would probably never know about Len and Cub, a gay couple living in rural New Brunswick in the early 20th century, if it wasn’t for the self-timing camera. Self-timers started to become more widely available in Canada around 1917, just in time for Leonard “Len” Olive Keith to use it to document the halcyon days of his relationship with Joseph Austin “Cub” Coates. 

Len and Cub book cover. Credit: Provincial Archives of New Brunswick / Goose Lane Editions

Born 14 December 1891, Len was eight years older than Cub – their families were neighbours in a rural area about 50 kilometres west of Moncton. Len’s family owned a match factory and grist mill, and their prosperity is probably why the family could afford a camera with a self-timer in the first place. In 1911, Len’s father became the first person in his village to own a car. Then seen as a “rich man’s plaything,” the vehicle provided Len with more mobility and freedom than his peers; he’d take Cub out for rides.

In their new book Len & Cub: A Queer History, Meredith J Batt and Dusty Green use Len’s photos as a window onto the lives of the two men and what it would have been like for them in the context of their time. Batt and Green are co-founders of the Queer Heritage Initiative of New Brunswick, which is dedicated to collecting and preserving the records of LGBTQ2S+ history in the province, including conducting oral history interviews. In this excerpt, they write about who the men were and how they might have thought about themselves.

A particularly intimate photo of Len and Cub in the 1910s. Credit: Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

Leonard Olive Keith and Joseph Austin “Cub” Coates were both born in the rural community of Butternut Ridge (known today as Havelock), New Brunswick, at the end of the 19th century.

Len was an amateur photographer and automobile enthusiast who went on to own a local garage and pool hall after serving in the First World War. Cub was the son of a farmer, a veteran of the First and Second World Wars, a butcher, a contractor and a lover of horses. The two were neighbours and developed a close and intimate relationship with each other. Len and Cub’s time together is documented by the many photos taken by Len showing that the two shared a mutual love of the outdoors, animals, alcohol and adventure. As many amateur photographers do, Len photographed what was important to him, and Cub’s prevalence among the hundreds of photos is striking and impossible to ignore. The photos taken in the 1910s and 1920s show the development of their relationship as Len and Cub explore the wilderness of Havelock and spend time alone together. Unfortunately, these adventures would cease when Len was outed as a homosexual by community members in the early 1930s and forced to leave Havelock.

Cub, however, remained seemingly untainted by scandal and stayed in Havelock until 1940, when he married Rita Cameron, a nurse born in Chatham, and relocated to Moncton after the Second World War. He would go on to become a prominent figure in New Brunswick’s harness racing circles before his death in 1965. Len never returned to Havelock, residing near Montreal before succumbing to cancer in 1950. Len’s photos were donated to the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick decades after his death by Havelock resident and local historian, John Corey, who had purchased the albums at the Keith family’s estate sale in 1984. Growing up, John heard stories of Len and Cub from his father, Roy Manford Corey, who had been a classmate of Len’s. When John donated the albums [to the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick] in 2011, he described the pair as “boyfriends” – a term noted by the archivist in the collection’s finding aid. The archivist also noted, after a conversation with John, that Len had been “driven out of town for being a homosexual” by a group of Havelock men. This anecdote is written on an envelope containing a photo of one of the men responsible for Len’s outing.

Cub and Len dressed to go out in 1926. Credit: Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

Even with the remaining records of Len and Cub’s lives, loose ends and ambiguities abound. As time passes, anecdotes fade, records crumble and living contacts pass away, a certain amount of reading between the lines of history is necessary. Still, it is remarkable that these photos exist at all. To end up housed at the Provincial Archives, they first had to have been taken by Len, sent for developing and preserved by Len throughout his life, then held on to by his sister Lucy, acquired by John Corey at the Keith family estate sale and finally donated to the archives. During this time, photos have no doubt been lost or destroyed, as Len, Lucy or even John may have been concerned with the legal or social repercussions of owning records that depicted a same-sex relationship too transparently. As far as we know, there are no love letters between Len and Cub and no photos of them being more intimate than those in this book.

As we explore what Len and Cub’s relationship might have been, it is important to remember that the remaining records are a product of their time, when a homophobic undercurrent prevented same-sex couples from living and loving openly. Gay records from the early 1900s are rare, and as such, scholarship on gay rural Canadian experiences from this period is scanty. It is clear Len was smitten with Cub, and vice versa. Many of the photos support this narrative and show the means by which their relationship was allowed to blossom in that time and place and the lengths they would have gone to conceal the true nature of their affection.

During Len and Cub’s formative years, the terms homosexual and heterosexual were not part of the vernacular of the villagers of Havelock. Such definitions of sexual orientation were largely reserved for use by early sexologists working to develop new models of decoding human sexuality. Still, an absence of language or classifications to define oneself did not mean that same-sex love was accepted. “Unnatural” sex (i.e. non-procreative sex) was stigmatised by religion, gay sex was prohibited by law, and to live and love openly was virtually impossible for same-sex couples. So how might the boys have understood and interpreted their same-sex attraction? Would they have been bothered at all by any notions of stigma around gay sex and love? 

Len and Cub on an 1916 excursion to Jemseg, New Brunswick, almost 100 kilometres from the village where they lived. Credit: Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

While the LGBT+ subculture of New York’s nightlife would have no impact on the lives of two young rural New Brunswick men, a lack of visibility or alternative representations of gender and sexuality in Havelock allowed Len and Cub to fly under the radar, or pass as straight. The fact that Len and Cub were young men who worked and dressed in conformity with their masculine gender status would have been enough to avoid public suspicion from their fellow villagers for some time. Yet this view of same-sex attraction may have contributed to Len being driven out of town, though not Cub. Len was older than Cub, a seemingly confirmed bachelor who never dated or spent much time with women; he may have been perceived as truly queer in the derogatory sense, an oddball, someone suspect, who just didn’t fit in and was therefore worthy of being ostracised.

By the early 1930s, North American society had become increasingly concerned with policing the boundaries of gender and sexuality as a direct response to the perceived decadence and debauchery of the Roaring Twenties. By mid-century this policing had led to an extremely rigid divide between heterosexuals and homosexuals, firmly entrenching heterosexual men as the pious, patriotic, masculine standard and homosexual men as their immoral, feminine, perverse opposite.

Cub and Len in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec in full military kit in 1917 during the First World War. Credit: Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

With this in mind, it makes sense that Len would be outed in the 1930s as the stigma around gay people was on an upswing, and society’s moral policing of gender roles more actively sought to suppress deviation from the norm. Ironically, the fact that men and women operated in distinctly segregated social spheres inadvertently provided space for same-sex romantic friendships to develop without intense scrutiny as to why two men or women might be spending so much time together.

Len and Cub lived in a complex era, but in some ways their love may have been less complicated than our preliminary stage-setting suggests. It is possible that Len and Cub’s relationship developed without much worry over the personal implications of their same-sex desire for their sense of identity. Where you did it mattered, and who knew about it, but the boys no doubt took precautions to hide the true nature of their affections. Yet, same-sex desire was in no way endorsed, and so their romantic entanglement could never have been acknowledged publicly.

Excerpts were originally published in Len & Cub: A Queer History by Meredith J Batt and Dusty Green, co-founders of the Queer Heritage Initiative of New Brunswick, an archival and educational initiative that aims to collect the queer histories of LGBTQ2S+ people.

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