Capturing Rainbows

Brook Altman
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Each of us has stories in our lives that are meaningful, inspiring, funny, sad or may spark another emotion inside us. No doubt, they’d spark the same emotion in others, if we shared our experiences with them. Perhaps, it was the circle jerk you engaged in with your peers as a 12-year-old boy that made you realize your attraction to boys was probably not a passing phase. Or it may have been when someone you had briefly dated outed you in a fit of jealousy via your college’s Twitter feed. Or, maybe it was the sadness you felt upon learning that the adorable straight friend from your youth, who had protected you from bullies and one time even got caught up in physical passion with you, had been killed by criminals in an attempted robbery.

Capturing Rainbows is where these stories from the LGBTQ experience over past decades are being collected, preserved and shared, insuring our place in history.

In 2016, international financial consultant and LGBTQ activist, Mike Balaban, began posting his expansive collection of several thousand thirty-five millimeter prints from the 1970s through the 1990s, all featuring gay moments from his life, on his instagram account @Bammer47. He generated a lot of interest, especially from LGBTQ youth, who recognized they were legitimate windows into the way life was lived in a period that people don’t get to hear about. Balaban says, “A lot of millennials today are envious of us because of the seeming innocence, simplicity, and naturalness of living in the 1970s or 80s by comparison to today, when being gay is not particularly special. I have to remind them that times weren’t always as glorious as the photos may make them appear, even though there were some really amazing moments.”

People suggested that Mike publish a book featuring the photos and backstories. He began looking around for someone to help him curate the material, because he felt too close to it. Mike was introduced to Tom Walker through a mutual friend and they began Skyping. Tom, a former Manhattan resident, now lives in Oahu, while Mike resides in New York City.

Tom’s biggest question to Mike was, “Are you trying to make a difference?” With Tom’s background in photojournalism and publishing, he felt that doing a book wasn’t going to make enough of an impact or be seen by enough people. “This project is profoundly important, not only are your photos important, but so are your words.” Tom said. “Also, why don’t we try and get everyone to share stories and snapshots? We’ll capture the LGBTQ experience and bring the community together by collecting a comprehensive range of first-person narratives and photos. I think the humanity expressed in our stories will also appeal to a much broader audience, allowing us to generate a following within and outside of the LGBTQ community.”

Together, Mike and Tom decided to launch Capturing Rainbows with a private and very small beta Facebook group to capture real life storytelling within the LGBTQ community. They wanted to document the little stories that deserve telling, not the big moments, like the Stonewall riots which are already being recorded, but the moments that happened in-between. As Tom and Mike put it so eloquently, “Most of us know about the large pivotal moments that have shaped our gay history. But, 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 LGBTQ people and their friends.”

Mike feels the community and connection that Capturing Rainbows can provide is global. “Times have changed so much. I remember placing a personal ad in the Advocate in 1977 trying to meet someone and it took a week to get responses through the mail. In the 1980s, I worked on Wall Street on the trading floor where everyone could hear me and I was speaking to my friends on the phone while using the pronoun “she this” and “she that” when I was really talking about men. There was no way I could openly acknowledge that without everyone knowing I was gay. Or walking into a gay bar where all the windows were blacked out so that no one would know who was inside. Twenty years later, we were connecting through voicemail services and leaving messages for a dollar fifty a minute. And now, today there’s Grindr. So, the progression and the trajectory of how communication takes place and community develops has all changed.”

Every generation can learn from these stories and most importantly make sure that we stay open and OUT without having to hide. “Capturing Rainbows has already engaged global members from Bulgaria, Peru, Cambodia, and Uganda who want to have community and connection and we want to give them a roadmap,” Mike says, “What really made me believe that the magic and connection would come was situations like, after I posted a photo on @Bammer47, a guy reached out to me and said ‘I’m in the photo you took at that party in Cape Town in 2003. Can I take you to lunch?’ Then, I posted a photo of a Brazilian model I’d met twenty years ago in Hong Kong, had a fling with on New Year’s Eve, and then lost contact with. Someone else tagged him immediately and within hours we were reconnected. This is really happening. But, to benefit from these types of connections and reconnections, you have to be willing to contribute a story, put a photo up on Capturing Rainbows, or at least post a comment.”

There used to be so many places where we all felt comfort as a community, like restaurants, bars, clubs, bathhouses and other gay spots that no longer exist, except in stories and photographs. This is a way of keeping them alive. There’s an increasing perception among many in the LGBTQ population as we get assimilated that we don’t need these spaces anymore. Yet, we do! By demonstrating and illustrating how valuable they are and how the community thrived within them, these stories will hopefully encourage our community to protect them and support them anew.

Tom recalls, “I remember places like Rafaella’s in the West Village. It was like our Cheers. And, people like Rollerina racing around the Village on roller skates with a fairy wand and sequin-studded eye glasses. It was Bohemia; whether you were LGBTQ or not; a writer like Quentin Crisp flying through with a big fedora was commonplace; artists like Patti Smith hanging around outside; any outlier or any person who felt different was accepted. Our community was a big part of that. These places have faded away, but our stories will always live on, told by our community in personal memories shared on Capturing Rainbows.”

“The beta test was a success and gave us such insight”, says Mike. “We quickly learned that in order to get more interaction and comments we needed to expand the group. In about nine months we went from fifty people to four hundred interacting with each other. People were saying we were assembling high-quality content of a varied sort about different moments in their lives; they began commenting and asking questions and we started getting the kind of community forum we were looking for. At that point, we decided to launch the website.”

Tom’s expertise is storytelling. He tells everyone who wants to share their stories, “You need to write from your heart, not your head. Just get it down.  Just write it and I’ll help you edit it. That’s the hardest thing for people to do because a lot of our memories are painful. Words are lacking in terms of truely communicating the  emotion one has about a memory. It’s almost like sign language. It’s not always accurate. The better you become as a writer, the more you’re able to capture something ephemeral. Yet, it takes time. But the benefits are immense—to the writer, it is cathartic, building a better sense of self; to the readers, it can be informative, entertaining and often inspiring; and to both, it is a bond—a bond that builds a stronger community.”

A big differentiator for Capturing Rainbows is that it seeks out real story arcs. Each story should have a beginning, middle and end. Short stories are incredibly effective.

These two have found a new niche in publishing. People love to say, “No one reads anymore and ‘We need short, snackable content’. These boys are debunking that myth. People ARE reading. In fact, according to Statista there are an estimated 221M magazine readers in the US. reading an average of 18 minutes a day, 32% of whom are on mobile and 12% on desktop. Yes, we still have an attention span for good content. People still want a sense of completion. They want to walk away with a feeling and now they get to add a comment and have someone else respond. We’re more evolved readers now and Capturing Rainbows is exploring that very concept.

There’s an evolution involved here and a momentum behind them, but right now their biggest challenge is with people taking the time to write their story. Most people who have been involved from the beginning have said they ‘want to write and contribute a story’ but the fact is the majority of them hang back and don’t do it. Tom, who is familiar with this challenge, says, “That’s not uncommon. There’s a reluctance by people to put themselves on the line in front of an audience. They get to the front of the diving board, stand there and hold back. Writing is therapy and a good coach is just trying to pull a story out of them and that’s what we’re here for. We work with our members to help them find the meaning in their lives through the process of telling their unique stories.”

Their solution is old school Hollywood. Mike and Tom have created a stable of contributors, now writers, who they are developing and whose voices they are helping to hone. At this early stage, the content is mostly gay white and male because of who each of them is, the period they grew up in, and who they were exposed to. But, this is intended to be a platform for all LGBTQ community members and their allies with a first person narrative to tell. No one should point a finger here about what’s missing, if you haven’t told your story yet. You can’t hide behind your photography on Instagram anymore—Capturing Rainbows has arrived.

There’s a Private Members section where collaboration happens (launching soon). It’s a safe space where people who have been writers and editors can connect and help others with their stories. Once you become a member you’ll eventually be able to connect with others to create a private group where you can get help with your story. For example, a transgender member may want to create a private group to coach them with a rough draft of a story in a safe space to develop it before it goes live. It can be racy, but with a few eyeballs on it, it will become a more effective story. Also, unlike Instagram or Facebook, as long as the photo supplied with a story is relevant and there’s a point to it, nudity will not be an issue.

Like any other site, the best stories will float to the top, based on likes and comments. The only criteria for these stories is threefold: it needs to have some historical focus, and, for what it’s worth, yesterday is history; describe first person experiences; and be told through an LGBTQ prism. Allies play a big role in this platform, too; there are parents whose kids are transitioning and straight men who are in bro’mances. Certainly, present day news that affects our community and our families often has a historical connection and relevance. So, here is the platform for telling your stories—come be a part of Capturing Rainbows.

Mike Balaban grew up on a cattle ranch near the Florida border with Alabama. He moved to New York shortly after grad school and has remained there most of his adult life. Mike’s career in international finance and consulting spanned more than 30 years, with Asia as his primary focus. He has served on multiple non-profit boards for the last 22 years, including GLSEN’s founding national board, member of NewFest’s board, member of the Advisory Council of Stonewall National Museum & Archives in Fort Lauderdale, and founding chair of Athlete Ally’s governing board. His expansive collection of 6,000+ 35mm photos from the 1970s through the 1990s served as the foundation for his popular gay history-focused Instagram page, Bammer47, which in turn was the inspiration for Capturing Rainbows.

Tom Walker was raised in the military with his early years spent in Japan, Washington D.C. and Northern California. Tom began his professional career in NYC and Hong Kong working in corporate design and publishing and went on to become art director for the bestselling Day in the Life coffee-table book series, as well as producing and designing many other bestselling photojournalistic books. Following the growth of the digital market, he moved into digital advertising, developing award-winning websites and advertising campaigns for businesses including Continental Airlines, Ernst & Young, and Louis Vuitton and worked as an Olympus Master Photographer.

Tom currently resides in Honolulu, continuing his photography on Instagram, @tikithom and is currently launching a line of high-end products for the Hawaiian tourist market, under his own brand Ohana Nui. He has also co-authored with Paralympic gold-medal athlete Tatyana McFadden, Ya Sama, Moments from My Life.

Brook Altman is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Prowdr.com. To learn more about how this extraordinary LGBTQ lifestyle website came into being, check out Welcome To Prowdr.

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