Washington Blade's photo archive traces gay community

The Washington Blade is launching an extensive photo archive documenting the history of the gay community and the gay rights movement.

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A picture from the archive shows the first gay pride day.

“It's a slice of American history. It's truly a one-of-a-kind collection,” Michael Key said.

As photo editor at the Blade, Key had what he calls a dream job: organizing and digitizing the newspaper's archive of photos. Spanning 42 years, the pictures trace the gay rights movement back to its origins.

‘The Blade was covering our community long before the (Washington) Post or anyone else was paying attention. It's not like you can go somewhere else and find these images,” said the paper’s editor Kevin Naff.

Keys says readers have been asking for such an archive for years. Now that the project's underway, the paper's staff says there's been a steady request for access from academics, researchers and journalists.

“We've got hundreds and hundreds of photos in there now and we'll be adding more every week. They date back to ‘69 when the paper launched,” Naff says.

The collection was nearly lost when the newspaper's former parent company Windows Media went bankrupt in 2009. With new leadership, the paper seems to have bounced back.

From the original high-heel races in Dupont Circle to the end of ‘Don't ask don't tell’ in September, the collection includes familiar faces and places.

Early gay events were much smaller, photo editor Key says. “People are a little more tentative, perhaps scared to have their pictures taken.”

“Pride back in the 70s and 80s was very much a political event stating ‘we're here, we're a force, we're people,’” he said.

The staff finds the hundreds of images detailing the impact of the Aids epidemic on the gay community most compelling, as well as those of the "act up" protests that followed. For the editor, the photos provide a goalpost to measure how far the movement has come.

“For those of us who lived through that time to go back and see what the community was going through at the time and how much has changed,” Naff said. “Now we have gay marriage. In Washington that's something no one could have imagined in 1985-86 when these protests were taking off.”

The staff hopes the collection will be a source of money as well. Starting at $12, the paper is selling framed prints, refrigerator magnets, and other memorabilia.

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