Friday, May 16, 2008

A Queer Day in History: The Radical Celebrates Her Birthday By Revealing A Variety of Well-Known and Little-Known Facts About May 16

It is no coincidence that we wake up this morning and find that gay men and lesbians in the state of California have, once again, been permitted to marry legally, this time via a split decision of the California Supreme Court. This is an historic event that bitter, angry people at the grassroots in this odd western state hope to reverse by referendum, against mounting evidence that conservative heterosexuals in the United States care more about global warming, health insurance, the price of gasoline, and the failed war in Iraq than they care about Adam and Steve registering at "Tar-jay." One referendum activist I saw on the news last night was predicting that this movement would doom Obama in California, as conservative voters flooded to the polls to save the family.

Mary, please.

It is, however, a fact that May 16 is a truly magical day in the year for queer folk. For example, half a century ago today, on May 16, 1958, a baby was born in the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Her parents peered at her skeptically, observing not only her big mouth but the rather pronounced and nimble fingers on both hands that suggested she might have a future as a....typist?

"Let's call her -- Tenured," suggested the mother, recovering from an intense two hours of labor and not thinking clearly, since she had anticipated being childless for a few precious hours longer.

"You've hit it," said the proud father, who was not really listening, but wrote it down on the form for the birth certificate people anyway. He had arrived just in time from upstairs where he was attending to other, less important patients, to whom he was previously committed because of the Hippocratic Oath and whatnot. "But I want to also name her after my favorite Aunt, who oddly, has been living with my other favorite aunt, her widowed sister-in-law and a librarian, for the last thirty years." The parents mulled it over silently, recalling Favorite Maiden Aunt's Wellesley degree, her life as a social worker at the Catholic Worker settlement on the Lower East Side of New York, her friends who plunged into the battle for Republican Spain in the 1930's. "I've got it!" the father said triumphantly. "Tenured....Radical!"

And thus was the Tenured Radical born and named, almost four decades before computer technology would create the cultural niche that would make her famous. Sure, in nursery school, tiny children would say, "What's tenure?" and the Radical would respond gravely, "I have no idea, but I shall commit myself to rectifying injustices done in its name one day." That is, of course, another story for another day.

And this is but a single episode that marks May 16 as a queer holiday. Other events occurring on this queer day in history (hat tip) we might want to note are:

May 16, 1527, when Florence re-established itself as a Republic, having driven out the Medici for the second time, no less, along with their interior decorators, who kept insisting on Renaissance furnishings. The Medici were an extraordinarily queer family, whose periodic defeats only inspired them to greater feats of kitsch and camp. Among those who would begin to set the tone for gays and lesbians everywhere were Lorenzo the Magnificent, an avid art collector; Pope Clement the VII, who wore a dress and commissioned the Sistine Chapel from a girlie-man; and Catherine de Medici, the world's first successful domineering mother. She ruled through her sons Charles IX and Henry III of France, and was responsible for the St. Bartholomew's massacre in 1572, a large scale slaughter of ill-dressed Protestants with whom the French and the Italians had collectively and utterly lost patience.

On May 16, 1770, 14 year-old Marie Antoinette married the future King of France, who was fifteen and several years from being able to consummate the marriage. Needless to say, the Dauphine was mightily distressed. Although the act was finally accomplished, Louis never really took much of an interest in his wife or the French people, preferring the company of scientists instead. Soon Antoinette's attention turned to big hair (pioneering what would later become the "beehive hairdo,") decorating, and her ladies-in-waiting, particularly the princesse de Lamballe and the duchesse de Polignac. Marie Antoinette became, after her head was removed from her shoulders in an effort to stem her overreliance on credit cards, a great heroine for nineteenth century women who loved women but who had not been fully educated by sexologists to call themselves "lesbians."

On May 16, during the 1822 Greek War of Independence, the Turks captured the Greek town of Souli, and having read Homer, demanded that the Greeks become their boyfriends. The Greeks happily complied, as the Turks were so big and strong. Hence the phrase that allows queer people to respond to accusations of unnatural behaviour by saying pointedly, "What about the Greeks?" Anything Greek is a queer holiday for these and other reasons: if you don't understand this, read the collected works of Mary Renault (who was, by the way, also a lesbian.)

On May 16, 1836, Edgar Allen Poe married his thirteen year-old cousin Virginia. This was an act that would later be replicated repeatedly and in excess by a number of people in Arizona, Utah and Texas, causing periodic and exasperating shortages of pastel dresses in the American Southwest.

On May 16, 1919, Liberace was born. Why is he part of this post? "Staaahp it!" you shriek. Also in the arts, on this day in 1929, woman-identified-woman poet Adrienne Rich was born; and on May 16, 1947, lesbian feminist poet, scholar and essayist Cheryl Clarke was born and began to revolutionize African-American literary tradition on May 17.

On May 16, 1985, actress Margaret Hamilton, otherwise known as Miss Elvira Gulch (aka, the Wicked Witch of the West,) died in Salisbury, CT, after having successfully avoided houses falling from the sky for decades. She would make famous various phrases that are now indispensable to queer people in the United States: "Surrender, Dorothy;" "And your little dog too!" and "I'm melting! Melting!" Her cruelty to Dorothy Gayle would secure Judy Garland's status as a gay icon forever, and allow queer people to mutter to each other about Miss Mary Thing across the room who thinks she's hiding something, but is in reality droppping hairpins all over the house, "I hear he's a friend of Dorothy's...."


Elizabeth Tallent said...

Happy Birthday, dear Radical, and many happy returns of the day.

anthony grafton said...

Happy birthday, dear Radical, and keep posts like this coming, please.

Ahistoricality said...

Mazel Tov!

May your next half-century be equally ... whatever you want!

Lesboprof said...

I cannot believe that you share a birthday with Adrienne Rich AND Cheryl Clarke (who is so smart and HOT!!!)... You are just the cooolest!

Have a great birthday, lady!

Sisyphus said...

Happy Birthday! Have fun overthrowing something!

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday, TR!

Bardiac said...

Happy Birthday!

This post made me laugh! And I think Margaret Hamilton rocked! I have a friend who has an old cruiser bike, who sings the "dah d'dah d'daaaaa daaaa" theme while she rides.

Carine van Rhijn said...

Happy Birthday Radical!

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday from Houston!

Susan said...

Happy Birthday -- and what a great birthday it is! Clearly there is something in the air/water of May 16! I am grateful that your parents thought to name you so appropriately!
And the coolness of your birthday companions makes me jealous. Well, not as jealous as I was of my sister, who shared a birthday with John Lennon. I've spent years trying to find SOMETHING or SOMEONE cool or at least interesting who shares mine.

Jennifer said...

Happy Birthday TR--great post--funny, witty, AND informative, just why we all keep reading (of course, it's also radical!)

Flavia said...

Happy belated! I was road-tripping on the great day of May 16th, but (as it now turns out) I was celebrating it by listening to an endless series of Very Gay dance mixes as I drove through the Berkshires.

gwoertendyke said...

happy belated and thanks for this hilarious little journey down gay may 16th.

Bear Left said...

Happy belated birthday!

And I'll add one:

May 16, 1988: BearLeft starts coming out - and gets accepted, that same day, to the college where that coming out happens & he starts growing up.

Glad to hear about your Parisian adventures!