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Pictured in black and white, two men sit cheek-to-cheek and share a kiss inside the hushed confines of a 1953 photo booth.

The twin photos, once dangerous mementos of a concealed romance, have become symbols of the brave life of Joseph John Belanger, a quiet vanguard of the early LGBTQ movement.

“He was an activist,” said Sara Burningham, producer of Making Gay History, a podcast about important figures in North American LGBTQ history.

“He was not a central activist but he was there at some really important moments in the civil rights struggle.

“But what’s become almost as important about him is that photograph.”

Born in Edmonton in 1925, JJ Belanger lived a storied life, which spanned from the skies over Europe in the Second World War to the front lines of the civil rights movement.

JJ Belanger

The series of iconic photos, taken at PGE exhibition, Hastings Park in Vancouver are now part of the ONE national archives. (ONE Archives at the USC Libraries)

He lived as an openly gay man at a time when the simple act of sharing a kiss could get you thrown in jail, said Burningham, who has been poring through archival records and archival interviews documenting Belanger’s life.

‘Defiance and rebellion’

The photograph of Belanger’s stolen kiss at the Playland amusement park in Vancouver, B.C. has become a cherished part of LGBTQ history, she said.

The photograph was rediscovered in 2014 and has since been shared around the world.

“It’s become so iconic and it captures this defiance and rebellion,” Burningham said in an interview with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM. “They are in the safety of the photo booth but two men kissing in that moment was not safe at all.

“People draw such hope from it.”

Belanger served in the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1942 to 1944. He was awarded a Defence Medal, Canadian Voluntary Service Medal, and War Medal for his service.

He worked odd jobs in across the West until 1954 when he joined the United States Air Force.

He served for five years, earning numerous commendations including the Aviation Badge, Good Conduct Medal and Outstanding Airman of the 26th Air Refueling Squadron.

“The Second World War was really crucial time in gay men’s rights, that’s when so many men who thought they were the only ones found other men, in the services,” said Burningham.

“So there were a lot of men finding and expressing the sexuality in that time.

“That was crucial for him, in terms of the relationship that he forged, but he certainly wasn’t the only one.”

JJ Belanger

J.J. Belanger at age 17 as a member of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps in June 1940. (ONE Archives at the USC Libraries)

Belanger met and fell into a passionate romance with an Austrian pilot during his service in the Air Force. They trained and served alongside each other in UK until their plane was shot down off the coast of France in 1944. 

Belanger survived, spending three days adrift in a dinghy in the Atlantic Ocean, but his companion, Gordon, died.

‘So there is some openness, but obviously still a very, very stifling closet that he was forced to live in.’ – Sara Burningham, researcher 

“JJ was out to his family, they were out to Gordie’s family but of course not to the wider world,” said Burningham. 

“He couldn’t serve openly, he couldn’t be open in terms of his public life, therefore losing someone in that way becomes a very solitary grieving process, because of course the military doesn’t recognize your loss and you can’t grieve publicly.

“So there is some openness, but obviously still a very, very stifling closet that he was forced to live in.”

‘It’s part of history’

Belanger was an early member of the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay advocacy groups ever formed in North America.

In the 1980s he was politically involved with the San Francisco chapter of the Stonewall Gay Democratic Club, volunteered for Project Inform and was a member of the Quarantine Fighter’s Group. Belanger was also a devoted collector of LGBT history, and carefully documented his own life.

Belanger died on Jan. 26, 1993, two days after his 70th birthday.  

His personal collection is now part of the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, the largest collection of LGBTQ memorabilia in the world.

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers a historic apology to the LGBTQ community, it’s more important than ever to illuminate the often forgotten figures in LGBTQ history, said Burningham.

“You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been,” she said. 

“For any of us, connecting to our past is a key to understanding our present and figuring out our future.

“It’s part of history.”

Listen to Edmonton AM with host Mark Connolly, weekday mornings at CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM in Edmonton. Follow the morning crew on Twitter @EdmAMCBC. 

CBC | Canada News

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