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April 1, 2023

Len and Cub: A Hidden Relationship Brought Into the Light Through Early 20th Century Photographs

Leonard “Len” Keith and Joseph “Cub” Coates fell for each other in early 20th-century New Brunswick, at a time and place where queer relationships were taboo. Their story was almost lost forever—until a collection of tender photographs brought their romance into the light.

Len was born in 1891, and Cub was born 8 years later. They grew up in the rural New Brunswick village of Havelock in the early 20th century. The two were neighbors, and they clearly developed an inseparable relationship. Len was an amateur photographer and automobile enthusiast who went on to own a local garage and poolhall after serving in the First World War. Cub was the son of a farmer, also a veteran of the First World War, a butcher, contractor, and lover of horses.

Their time together is catalogued by Len’s photos, which show that the two shared a mutual love of the outdoors, animals, and adventure. Photographs of Len and Cub on hunting and canoe trips with arms around each other’s shoulders or in bed together make clear the affection they held for each other. Their story is one of the oldest photographic records of a same-sex couple in the Maritimes.

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.

The 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.

Len’s photos of their life and tells the story of their relationship against the background of same-sex identity and relationships in rural North America of the early 20th century. Although Len was outed and forced to leave Havelock in the 1930s, the story of Len and Cub is one of love and friendship that challenges contemporary ideas about sex and gender expression in the early 20th century.


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