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Who has done more to preserve Houston’s gay history than Dalton DeHart?

NancyFord at desk
Nancy Ford

By Nancy Ford

Last month, hordes of people attended a reception at Montrose Counseling Center honoring Dalton DeHart, Houston’s Number One photographer of all things gay for the past 30 years. That night the center (which serendipitously enough is recognizing its own 30-year anniversary this year) displayed dozens of albums containing literally thousands of Dalton’s images chronicling our illustrious history.

Those viewing them agreed that it’s safe to say that over these past three decades, Dalton DeHart has flashed more gay men than the entire New York cast of Naked Boys Singing.

I personally consider myself very fortunate to have previewed many of those photos almost weekly by virtue of my career in the gay press. The greatest challenge in leafing through all your smiling faces on such a frequent basis is choosing which smiling faces to print. For every one image chosen, a hundred more are, regrettably, not; Dalton has taken advantage of more photo ops than George Bush at a VA Hospital.

Yes, for more than 30 years now, Dalton has faithfully chronicled hundreds of our community’s events on film. Any given day or night he can be found at our formal galas, our political banquets, our fundraising dinners—you know, any place that serves chicken. He’s said “Say cheese!” more often than Chi Chi LaRue.

And not once in these 30 years, despite these thousands and thousands of photos, not once has this man uttered the word blackmail. Not yet anyway, Annise.

But Dalton is not just our family photographer. Last year he retired from San Jacinto College with not only the school’s 2006 Teacher of the Year award, but also the Minnie Stevens Piper Professorship Award—the highest honor that a person in a college or a university can achieve.

“It’s kind of the Oscar of the education business,” Dalton once told me. Leave it to a gay man to compare the highest accolade of his life to the Academy Awards.

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about Dalton is his professionalism. He can turn any negative into a positive. (Get it? “Negative?” Try the veal!)

And you know he’s a true pro because he always gives us plenty of time to hide our cocktails behind our backs before he snaps the picture. If he didn’t, these 30 years’ worth of photos would look more like a cry for intervention than our community’s collective history.

Earlier this year, Dalton contributed the bulk of his work in photo albums to our Gulf Coast Museum and Archive of GLBT History, better known as GCAM. If it were physically possible to line up all of these photos chronologically and skim through them with your thumb, it would reveal a priceless, 30-year motion-picture history of the ups and downs, triumphs and defeats, the ins and outs of Houston’s gay community: our Pride parades, community fundraisers, commitment ceremonies, births, deaths, drag, drama, and all points in between.

By looking through Dalton’s collection of our headshots, we can even see the precise moment Botox was invented.

And who is friendlier than Dalton? He always greets each of us with a big, “Hello, darlin’,” and a big, wet, smack on the lips. I’ve kissed Dalton DeHart more often than I’ve kissed any man. And that includes my ex-husband.

Dalton told me recently that in the course of one afternoon and evening, he had attended and photographed 11 events.

Eleven.

He’s not a photographer, he’s a Marathon Man.

Happy hours, after hours, any hours, he’s out there, snapping away. Where does this man get his energy? Ask him, and he’ll tell you he feeds off the energy of his subjects. Makes us wonder if there might be something to the Native American belief that cameras steal a piece of the soul. Except in Dalton’s case, there is no stealing involved. Instead, his energy, talent, and joy all flow through his camera, back into this community he loves so much.

Perhaps most importantly, for 30 years this man has framed the local GLBT community in a most flattering light. Just as with any family, the portrait that is the end product seldom reveals the family’s shortcomings, squabbles, or dysfunction. Perhaps Dalton’s greatest gift to our community is that he captures us in the image we want to present: happy, smiling, our arms around each other. Focused.

Because of Dalton’s dedication and unfailing energy, the story of our collective lives will endure far longer than any one of us individuals. Each of the images Dalton freezes on film is a thread in this incredible tapestry of our lives he has carefully woven together. And that should be enough to make all us pause motionless for a moment in time, suck in our stomach, and smile.

For that, Dalton, we love and thank you.

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