Capturing Rainbows is a beautiful, unique and moving community project that captures a slice of gay history you won’t find anywhere else.
While most of us know about many defining and historic gay events and people (such as the Stonewall riots and Harvey Milk), there’s more to our story than just those well known things.
At the heart of the gay community are “normal” and “regular” people. Like you. Like me. We might not be featured in history books or be known around the world, but our “normal” and “regular” lives are nonetheless intriguing, complex and tantalising richer than perhaps even we give ourselves credit for.
Our personal stories and experiences are not only genuinely interesting, they deserve to and should be shared. There’s comfort and connection in learning about each other. And there’s something deeply profound when we see our own individual place in the broader gay community we are all a part of.
Meet Mike Balaban (aka @bammer47 on Instagram)
Someone who shares a similar viewpoint is Mike Balaban. It may have been Instagram’s algorithm that suggested Mike’s posts to me in the first place, but it’s my sense of connection to Mike’s dedication to share his personal story that’s made me become a huge fan of his, and of his work.
Mike began posting his own personal photos on Instagram taken throughout the course of his life. The response is not one that he could have predicted. He’s amassed a massive following, but you know what’s even better? He’s actually managed to accomplish that incredibly rare feat of actually creating a real, genuinely engaged community on social media.
OK, so you might be thinking what exactly it is about Mike’s photos that has drawn thousands of people to them? Well for starters, they have a feeling of capturing a real and personal slice of history. A lot of the photos Mike shares were taken in the 70s, 80s and 90s. There’s just something inherently interesting about seeing images from those times.
Mike’s also lived (and continues to live, I should add) an incredibly rich and well-travelled life. He’s taken photos at beaches, parties, rallies and events all over the world. So not only do you get to see a long timespan, you also get an incredible mix of people and events thrown in too.
But my favourite aspect of Mike’s images is simply how real and genuine they feel. Today, so many selfies feel staged, cropped, posed, filtered and edited. It doesn’t feel like a lot of what we’re seeing is actual reality. It is in fact, an altered state of hyper-reality that we’re being shown.
Even in photos where people know they’re being photographed, Mike has found a way of capturing a real moment. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s not about flexing, posing or showing off. It’s just about people sharing a moment and being in the moment – together.
Looking at his photos, you really do get to experience a slice of gay history you will not find anywhere else.
In addition to the retro/fantastic vibes and nostalgia of the images, I really love the way Mike captions each of them. He has such a vivid way of so richly describing what’s happening in the image, as well as in his life at that time. As I learnt when I interviewed Mike (see below), his incredible memory recall makes it all possible.
Understanding the world events, the mood of the time and any other personal observations he shares, really adds an extra layer of fullness and depth to the photos. It also removes any barriers that may exist. Sure, you might not have been born in the 80s, or maybe you’ve never been to Mykonos, but Mike’s rich and detailed descriptions will transport you to that very place and time.
But enough from me. Rather than write (and fangirl) about it, below you will find a few posts that give you a good indication of what I’m talking about. All of these posts came from Mike’s Instagram account @bammer47 and are reproduced here with Mike’s permission.
Want to check out my chat with Mike? You’ll find it as you scroll down past these posts.
Do young LGBT men and women still attend Pride parades and stand on the sidelines wishing they could join the march, but fear who might see them in that display of pride? I wonder, with all that’s changed over the last 40 years, if that phenomenon is still a common one.
I moved to NYC in late 1976 to undergo a year long intense training program at a conservative bank, populated by young, preppy, WASPY post-collegiate types, where homophobia was commonplace. As such, for the first year I was in NYC, I barely did anything to express my burgeoning gay nature.
By the 2nd year, I was peeking my head out a bit more. When the Gay Pride parade (LGBTQ had not yet been adopted as our “moniker of choice”) rolled around on June 25, 1978, I was dying to be part of the festivities, but deathly afraid of running into anyone I knew, especially from my bank.
I remained huddled in the crowd that lined Fifth Avenue as the throng of paraders marched by, proudly holding banners, shaking tambourines, and flaunting bared breasts. It was invigorating, to say the least. Caught up in the fierce spirit of the occasion, I followed the crowd north to Central Park for a festive rally on the Great Lawn (where i snapped this shot, among others).
There, I felt freed from the risk of being “discovered”, as the crowd was all gay and defiantly so. And, yet, knowing none of the participants, I wandered among them as a silent observer, camera in hand, photographing the experience so I could remember it more vividly later.
It would be another year or two before I would be able to make my own gay friends and join them in more open celebration on this pride-ful occasion. Even then, for another decade plus, it would be necessary to keep an eye out for any work colleagues who might have decided to go watch “the weirdos” march.
How many of us have found ourselves chasing unavailable partners, looking for love in all the wrong places, over and over? It took me until I was in my 30’s, after several years of therapy, to enter a relationship where each party was equally committed.
My first mis-fire was my infatuation with Bob Harding, my best friend & bank training program colleague during my first 3 years in NYC (1976-1979). Bob was a Princeton graduate, former tight end & captain of its varsity football team, and New England Patriot draftee.
I wasn’t yet “out”, so all my energies were directed towards our friendship with the hope that it might blossom into something more. Even Bob’s sister told me she thought he might be gay. It took a vacation alone with him in St. Martin to lay bare the self-deception I’d been engaging in and to sunder our close friendship forever.
I also spent a year longing for someone unavailable across the country in California, followed by my protracted infatuation with a gorgeous narcissist. That was when I recognized a pattern and began seeing a therapist so I could focus my attention on more receptive “objects of affection”.
I took this photo of Bob on Mullet Bay Beach in St. Martin (March 1979) as our deep friendship was about to hit the rocks. I can almost palpably remember the longing I was feeling when I took this shot, as Bob napped under the Caribbean sun.
How often do today’s millennial gay men travel long distances to see a guy they’ve just met and in whom they’re interested? Does it happen more or less frequently than it did with us in the 1970’s through 1990’s? I hope you’ll share your own experiences so we can compare.
Of course, it was a very different time then. Not only were we hiding our sexual orientation from most straight friends (so we had to lie about our reasons for traveling to meet anyone new) but the mechanics of meeting were different.
While we may occasionally have met guys in other cities via personal ads in gay magazines and newspapers, it was unusual. Mostly, we met visitors in person, whether through friends, in bars, at circuit parties, or on vacation in gay resorts. “Gaydar”, our natural instinct for sensing who in a crowd is probably gay, played a fairly key role in our lives.
Today, by contrast, most young gays are “out” to their friends and online meetings globally can happen digitally at the touch of a button to be followed up with in-person meetings in one or the other party’s location.
Yet, the act of making plans to travel and the expenditure of funds for a trip with an uncertain outcome are in many ways the same now as they were 40 years ago. In my case, I traveled to meet men I barely knew from brief encounters a half dozen times in destinations, including Boston, Chicago, California (a few times), and Vancouver, B.C. Similarly, men I barely knew visited me from San Diego, London (twice), Paris & São Paulo.
I guess the “urge to merge” with another man has always been strong and our hormones and heart often impel us to travel great distances to connect in person, regardless of how far apart we may live.
This photo was taken while I visited Gary-John White of Vancouver in June 1978. We traveled for a week by Jeep through the Pacific Northwest of British Columbia and Washington state, ending up here on Hurricane Ridge on the Olympic Peninsula. The week was a follow-on to one where we’d met in St. Martin in December 1977 and I had drunkenly seduced this ostensibly straight Canadian on a Caribbean beach under a full moon.
If you’re a gay man or woman, what has been your relationship with sports?
Stereotypically and historically, gay men weren’t supposed to be athletic, coordinated, or confident enough to compete in that realm. The pressure to play sports has led to many young unathletic gay men being emotionally scarred for life by their inability to catch or throw a ball in their formative years.
Conversely, gay women were all presumed to be competitive, overly masculine sports fiends. Obviously, not everyone fit those stereotypes, but they served to rein in gay men and women for generations.
Growing up in a conservative, religious, and homophobic region of the US (the Florida panhandle), I had no choice but to play sports, if I wanted to fit in. Fortunately, I had a modicum of athletic ability and sports suited me, both as an endeavour I grew to love AND one that enabled me to hide my growing awareness of my attraction to other boys.
I played every sport possible in my early teens. In high school and college, I played football and pole vaulted (track & field), plus I played rugby during my final years at Brown University & for 5 years afterwards.
This photo was taken while my teammates on Columbia University’s alumni rugby club, Old Blue, and I were warming up before a wintry game in Providence in late March 1979). My final athletic competition occurred in Manhattan’s Gotham (gay) Volleyball League (1989-1994).
My athletic career ended at Gay Games IV in NYC in August 1994 (at 42), because it was taking longer and longer to recover from the bumps and bruises my body incurred. Yet, I miss the thrill of athletic competition dearly.
How about you? Where did you fall on the continuum of athleticism in your adolescence? Was sports a problem, a passion, or neither for you?
Capturing Rainbows is born
As an extension of the popularity of his own personal Instagram account, Mike is expanding and launching a website called Capturing Rainbows.
The goal is to collect stories, photos, videos, podcasts etc. from LGBT community members all over the world to document and preserve them, all while continuing to build on the following and sense of community he’s created on his Instagram page.
Mike puts it best when he writes:
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.
It is our hope that, through Capturing the Rainbow, we can collect and share—in pictures and words—the LGBT experience over the past few decades—before these memories slip away—to create a tapestry of stories that will become an indelible chapter in all history books. And perhaps along the way, we can reconnect with old acquaintances, and make a few new friends.
Interview with Capturing Rainbows co-founder Mike Balaban
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mike and ask him a few questions. I was curious to meet the man behind these beautiful photos. Before we get to the interview, here’s a little background information about Mike:
Mike grew up on a cattle ranch in a conservative homophobic part of the US.
He spent his first 24 years hiding his attraction to other men by playing organised sports. In 1976, when David Kopay, a former NFL pro football player, came out publicly, Mike reached out to him and managed to meet Dave, who then became a mentor. Mike came out that year, early for those times.
The one area where he still had to hide his sexual orientation was in his conservative investment banking career. In 1999, he left that industry and has been open professionally and otherwise for almost 20 years.
Mike has been dedicating his time since then as a consultant advising companies on doing business in China, serving on a half dozen non-profit boards (including as the founding board chair of Athlete Ally, whose mission is to help sports become more welcoming and accepting of LGBT athletes and to mobilise all athletes to use their outsized influence in society to stand up for LGBT rights outside of sports), and now in launching Capturing Rainbows.
I hope you enjoy our chat below!
(Oh and be sure to check out the Capturing Rainbows site and to follow Mike on Instagram too. The links are provided after the interview.)
Little Gay Blog – I just assumed you’re a photographer by profession but you’re not, right? So how is it that you’ve managed to take so many (awesome) photos throughout your life?
Mike – I’ve never had formal training in photography. I was delighted this February to read that an article on me in Soy Homosensual, an online LGBT magazine in Mexico City, had referred to me as a “reknowned photographer”.
I’ve always been visually inclined. I simultaneously saw the world through my eyes and as it would look through a camera’s lens. I got my first SLR camera (a Minolta) in 1976, at 24, and taught myself how to use it. I took it with me when I traveled, whether on long weekend trips or full vacations, but I almost never used it in NYC (my home).
Back then, unless you were a pro, no one carried a camera or regularly took artsy pics, the way it’s done now. Partly, that’s because each photo cost about $0.40 to develop, so the hobby could be costly. It’s also why you had to be careful with every photo you took. I regularly returned from my vacations and spent $100 or more having my photos from those trips developed.
I took vacations to Rio, Mykonos, Fire Island and Provincetown, among other destinations, with my camera. I knew I’d want to share my pics with friends when I returned home, yet I also knew their patience was limited. I took an equal number of artsy scenery, friends / family they knew, and sexy men I’d met or observed.
When I got home, I developed the rolls of film and labeled the back of each photo with a pen (e.g. Roll #1, photo #1 thru Roll #6, photo #36), then put them in one pile of 200-250 pics. Next, I’d discard boring shots, blurry ones, and duplicates, reducing the selection to 50-70 photos.
I knew that was the maximum my friends were willing to look at. I’d go to dinners and brunches with them for the next 2 weeks sharing the photos and stories from my trip.
After that, I put them in a photo album and forgot about them. I never thought they’d be valuable someday, the way they’ve turned out to be. I preserved the memories in photo form strictly so I could relive them myself, by viewing the photos later.
I collected early photos of me, my family, and friends, that had been taken with an old Kodak Brownie camera or a Polaroid, and organized them into an album from my first 24 years (until I got my own camera).
As a result, I have a dozen albums with 500 photos each from the early part of my life until 1999, when digital photos started replacing traditional ones. In total, there are about 6,000, of which I’ve scanned 2,000 into my iPhone (not all gay) and have posted almost 600 on Instagram.
I’m sure that going through photos from your past must bring up a lot of memories for you. What’s been one of your favourite memories that’s come up that perhaps you had forgotten about?
I can’t think of any significant memories that have come up in the photos that I’d forgotten about, for 2 reasons: first, when you have a collection of photos like I do AND you’ve been disciplined enough to organize them right away (most people store their photos in old shoe boxes in a garage and forget about them:-), you have a clear idea of when they happened by virtue of where they appear in your albums and from time to time you go back and look at them, which prevents you from forgetting them.
Secondly, you may have noticed from my detailed narrative on Instagram, but I have a nearly photographic memory for detail when it comes to where I was, who I was with, what was going on, etc. when taking these photos. A detail here or there may be cloudy, but very rarely do I forget anything important.
I guess what IS most surprising in looking back at my photos is not recalling a forgotten memory as much as realizing how much I was able to travel, how lucky I was to meet so many amazing people and good-looking men, how fortunate I was to have been driven to photograph them, how lucky some let me photograph them nude – and how comparatively simple life was before the digital age (and, of course, how fortunate I am to have survived AIDS!).
As for my favourite memory from those days, it was the cycle of seduction, sex , and romance that occurred when I met someone new while traveling and mutual attraction became evident. There are perhaps a half dozen of those incidents that stand out in my mind. As someone who is drawn to people and their stories, my favorite part of each affair was not the chase or the sex, but lying in each other’s arms after we’d first had sex and sharing condensed versions of our life stories.
When you put things out into the world, especially using social media as the platform to do that, you can experience a broad spectrum of responses. Have you had any negative responses or feedback and what’s your general approach to dealing with negativity or hate online?
I have heard horror stories from some fellow bloggers about Internet “trolls” that constantly harass them online. I’ve either been lucky or adept at managing relationships with my viewers in a way that has largely allowed me to avoid such distractions. Perhaps the fact that I attended grad school for diplomatic / international relations and have spent my entire career negotiating deals between people and businesses in different countries has made me sensitive to others’ needs and able to frequently deflect conflict when it appears likely.
Further, I believe in engaging all my followers. I respond to every direct message I receive on Instagram and often reply under viewers’ comments OR reach out to them privately. The result is, I believe, a reservoir of goodwill among those who view my page.
Yet, there have been two instances where conflict was unavoidable or only partly deflected. In the first instance, I’d commented in one post that I thought Provincetown was the most “diverse” of the LGBT resorts on the east coast of the US, which triggered the ire of a follower who pointed out the relative absence of people of colour vacationing there. I’d been referring only to the equal mix of straights, gay men, and lesbians, not other kinds of diversity. So, I agreed with him on his point, though I felt that the issue he identified was widespread across our country, not specific to any gay resort.
The second instance was more problematic: in one post, I had explained that, unlike many gay men, I’m not focused on a man’s genitalia. One follower took issue with that and publicly commented that he found my claim “disingenuous”. According to him, if I didn’t care about dicks, I wouldn’t be wearing and photographing men in Speedos so frequently.
I didn’t understand his reasoning, but I decided to contact him privately to explain (No need to have this debate publicly)…I did say that I’d appreciate it if he’d not call me insincere on my own page before hearing me out, whereupon he told me he didn’t appreciate being taken to task publicly OR privately. That made it clear this fellow was spoiling for a fight from the get-go. He’s the only person, as far as I can recall, that I’ve ever blocked from my Instagram page.
What are your thoughts about the current state of the gay community? What’s one thing that’s better these days, and what’s one aspect of the past you’d like to see brought back?
My thoughts about the current state of the gay community? This is a complex issue and there’s really no time to adequately address it here, frankly. In brief, much has been gained, but an equal amount has been lost via LGBT liberation.
Please read an op-ed column in yesterday’s NY Times by Frank Bruni at the following link to get a clear idea of my thinking:
I posted it on my Facebook page and on Capturing Rainbows yesterday. At the bottom of this message is my lead-in to that post on Capturing Rainbows to give you an idea of how I frame this issue – and it perfectly encapsulates my thinking:
We have equal rights (more or less, depending on who you are and where you are located) in the US, at least, after a long hard fight. And, yet, we are in danger of losing our gay identity and culture to assimilation and the rise of digital apps. Capturing Rainbows aims to arrest this trend, to the degree that’s possible. We want to restore and reinforce the sense of gay community that is rapidly diminishing today.
What is something we have gained (aside from the overarching freedom from having to hide our identities:-) and something we’ve lost? Well, you can meet someone else gay online in 5 minutes. There’s little difficultly in locating each other in today’s world.
However, we’ve lost the sense of intimacy and wonder that came from meeting in person in bars, bathhouses, beaches, etc. in a world where we were outsiders and our community was much smaller. Today’s meetings are almost all “transactional” in nature and there is a relative absence of “feeling” to them. Or, you have to work harder to locate the emotions at the center of any meeting.
You’re expanding your horizons with the Capturing Rainbows website by allowing others to submit their stories for sharing. How did it all come about and what are you hoping to achieve with the site?
How did Capturing Rainbows come about and what do we hope to achieve with it? I”ve already alluded a bit above to the last part of the question, but I’ll tackle it here in a more organized fashion:
Initially, I posted a few of my vintage photos on Instagram, as a lark. They were so much more popular than recent pics that I began responding to their enthusiastic reaction by posting more old photos. Gradually, I focused on exclusively gay content.
I also gradually honed my “voice”, initially describing only what was happening when I took the photo, who was in it, etc. I was intent from the beginning on asserting the normalcy of our “lifestyle”, whenever possible using people’s real names. As I gained followers and realised they appreciated the detail as a way of placing themselves at the time and place where each photo was taken, I expanded my narrative’s length, began asking followers questions about our gay community lifestyle, and started seeking their input.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a couple hundred followers, largely millennials (which was a big surprise), who urged me to publish a photo album with my narrative. I considered it and actually spoke to a couple of agents, with the idea I might produce such a book in time for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion in June 2019. But, I sensed that publishers weren’t prepared to take a risk in producing a book like this since they were unsure what the interest in it might be among consumers.
I was introduced by a mutual friend to Tom Walker, a longtime publishing industry executive, to potentially curate the book I was by that point considering self-publishing. He pointed out that the publishing industry model is dead (there are few bookstores) and suggested I do something more expansive.
Tom, who conceived the idea for Capturing Rainbows, is my co-founder, and lives in Honolulu, where he moved from NYC when working on a book project and decided to remain there. His idea was for me to use my photos and write full short stories to go with them, then attract first-person stories and photos from a wider universe of gay community members.
There is more to that vision, as the following not-yet-finished “mission statement” describes:
Capturing Rainbows is a platform for the creation, curation and distribution of historical content from the LGBT community. Our goals are to:
i. Insure our memories don’t disappear when we do and they become effective tools for creating a more accepting environment for the LGBT community in the world at large.
ii. Restore some of the sense of community being lost to assimilation and the rise of digital apps, by fostering social interaction among members, and helping fulfill the unrealized potential of the on-line world to contribute to our real-world connected-ness.
iii. Become a pipeline for making sure our stories are seen and heard by audiences beyond just the LGBT community, while honing the voices of our contributors.
What this means is that we want to aggregate first-person stories from across the LGBT spectrum (in our earliest iteration, on a private Facebook page, it only focuses on the gay male story, but we’ll expand into verticals for lesbians, trans people, and “others” after we’ve moved to our upgraded website this summer.), preserving and sharing them, while fostering an environment where members interact socially and mentorships, friendships, business relationships, and dating might ensue. Think of a “gay Facebook meets a gay Ancestry.com”.
Eventually, having curated the voices of our many contributors, we hope to help them achieve a broader distribution, possibly publishing books and making documentaries that focus on their stories.
Thanks so much for your time Mike, I really appreciate it.
About Tom Walker
Tom Walker is the other co-founder of Capturing Rainbows. Although I didn’t interview him for this article, both Mike and I thought it was important to include some information about him as well.
Tom Walker move to New York City in 1980 from California. Except for a few years spent in Hong Kong, he lived there until 2013 working in publishing, photography, digital branding and advertising.
He was always interested in storytelling, particularly in first person history. He came to Hawaii in 2013 to produce a photographic book on the life work of a National Geographic photographer and fell in love with the place, remaining there to live after the assignment was over.
For the past four years, he’s been working on a project about the Japanese presence in Hawaii over the last 150 years, and have been pitching a project to document stories of local Hawaiian families before the older generations pass on.
When he heard of Mike’s idea, it seemed a natural fit with his interests and a reason to keep him traveling back to NYC.