Happy 11th day of Pride! Today we celebrate Willa Cather, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for literature. In college, Willa sometimes dressed as a man and identified as “William”. Many of her characters are male, and Willa preferred to write from the male point of view. In later years, she was criticized for not including more female perspectives, with critics saying she wasn’t contemporary enough in this regard. Some of her writing, especially letters, was a little paternalistic, but you can’t deny the Queer viewpoint, and that makes her pretty damn contemporary, if not ahead of her time, to me.
Happy Pride! Our daily celebration during Pride Month turns to Patricia Highsmith today. If you don’t know her name, you may know of her through the movies. She wrote several novels that arguably became more famous as films (with a queer undercurrent, to say the least, running through each of them): Strangers on a Train (directed by Alfred Hitchcock) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law). In 2015, Carol (starring Cate Blanchett, based on the novel The Price of Salt) earned several Oscar nominations.
The reason Ms. Highsmith makes my list is not because of her personal character (she sounds difficult, if not downright terrible, by most accounts) but due to The Price of Salt. It’s the first bit of queer fiction that allowed its characters a happy ending. Before its publication in 1952, there were suicides, asylums, and/or deep unhappiness. After The Price of Salt, these things still may have existed, but there was also the possibility for love. That’s huge.
The Price of Salt is a legendary lesbian book, and even outside that community, has deeply influenced other authors and movies: the idea of the cross-country road trip on the run from something was borrowed first by Nabokov for Lolita, and by now has become a staple of American literature and film.
In 2007, a woman named Loraine mailed a letter. She had walked to the mailbox several times, but retreated home each time before she was finally able to drop it in the box and walk away. The letter went on its way and was eventually published in Newsweek magazine to a national audience.
The letter, which Loraine had written herself, described her closeted life as a lesbian, beginning as a teenager in the 1930s: a struggle to understand herself, frustrated male suitors, a secret affair. She told of meeting the love of her life, but keeping that love a secret from everyone close to them. She also announced herself as a lesbian, to the great wide world for the first time ever. Loraine was 88 years old.
The publication of that letter led to a documentary being made about Loraine’s life. I read the letter, couldn’t get it out of my head, and wrote my own letter to Loraine. We eventually became pen pals and she shared her first draft as well as more information about her great love, Mary, “the most loved and loving partner imaginable”. I felt very privileged to be let into this utterly personal space. Let’s celebrate Loraine’s bravery and sense of bravery -happy Pride!
We enter our second week of Pride Month, and continue celebrating a queer person or moment every day with a new painting.
Today we honor Louise Fitzhugh, creator of Harriet the Spy. Fitzhugh was queer, though not too much is known about her, and she died at the young age of 46. Writing Harriet was her biggest success, and that’s what I really want to talk about anyway.
I’ve read the book dozens of times, and continue to pick it up every once in a while, even now. It never disappoints and is always laugh-out-loud funny. This is a book that I’ve bought for others, read aloud to little kids, had to buy again and again because a loan to someone else became permanent. I can’t say that about any other book I’ve ever had.
Harriet is a touchstone for kids who were different: she fights with her parents, gets into trouble at school, and spies on neighbors in their own homes. She’s quirky and stubborn. She’s especially appealing to a certain kind of independent-minded girl, tomboys and baby dykes, and I loved Harriet, even if I couldn’t put my finger on those reasons why. I liked that she fishes old clothes out of the garbage after her mom throws them away. I liked that she has another life, a “career” as she calls it, as an after-school spy. This is a very active life, and while she adores quiet activities like reading and writing, much of the book takes place out and about in New York City, where she shows off her savvy street smarts. She thinks nothing of climbing fences, hauling herself up and down in a dumbwaiter, and pretending to play ball while furiously eavesdropping. She makes her own tool belt (Home Depot lesbians, I’m talkin’ to you!). She wears fake glasses because she thinks they made her look smarter. Can anyone imagine a child wanting to wear glasses? (Needing glasses for me felt like a death sentence, and I still mostly wear contacts). Can anyone imagine a smart girl who wants to look even smarter? (Besides Hillary Clinton, and the Interwebs are full of articles about how she’s paid the price for that). Well, good for Harriet, and good for Hillary! My mom coached me to not act too smart (because of boys and blah blah), and I think that’s the world that Harriet comes from.
Speaking of moms, Harriet pretty clearly rejects what makes her mom, and her friends’ moms, tick, in both big and small ways. She observes in her ever-present notebook things like: “I once saw my mother in a mud mask. They’ll never get ME in a mud mask”. (I love the “they”. She refers to “them” frequently. As a kid, I took this to mean all the grown-ups, but now I think it means the hetero-normative world. They’ll never get her in a mud mask, indeed). None of the moms in the book have a career, but Harriet has had one for years. She’s a striver, and insists that she won’t grow up to drink tea and play bridge like the adults she sees around her who are on cruise-control. This ambition, and her brashness, her intelligence and her physical quickness, her independence…all of these were magical traits to me. Interestingly, they’re all considered masculine traits. To me, and lots of other girls, Harriet was a different kind of girl, different in lots of ways, certainly, but in a specific lesbian way that we identified with, even if (like me) I couldn’t put my finger on why I felt such a kinship with her. That kinship is important, and I suspect it brought a lot of girls through some rough passages.
Final personal note: Harriet lived in Yorkville, a subset of the Upper East Side, where I lived also for some time. I thought of her whenever I was in Carl Schurz Park, and I “know” which house is hers.
Edmonia Wildfire Lewis was the first female artist of Native American and black heritage to be recognized in the art world. She often sculpted women of color whom she found heroic; they were often from the Bible. She became so well known that President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned her to sculpt his likeness.
A painting a day for Pride Month. Today we celebrate Bayard Rustin.
Bayard Rustin was a Quaker and a pacifist who worked for social justice using civil disobedience. He fought segregation wherever he saw it: in the military, labor unions, NYC schools, on buses, in the internment system that forced Japanese Americans into camps during World War II. He organized Freedom Rides throughout the South. When he was imprisoned for refusing the draft, he fought segregation in prison dining halls.
In 1953, he was arrested for “sex perversion”. That charge was used to discredit him inside and outside the Civil Rights movement, with the result that he mostly served behind the scenes so that his homosexuality wouldn’t compromise the entire cause.
In that background capacity, he advised Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and organized the March on Washington in 1963.
On a side note, he had a beautiful voice, and recorded several albums.
In 1982, he legally adopted his partner Walter Naegle, a not-uncommon practice in those days, because that was the only legal way for gays to protect their relationship and establish some rights in relation to each other.
In 2013, President Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest honor, which Naegle accepted.
Over the course of her career, Billie Jean King won 20 Wimbledon titles and four U.S. Opens, 39 Grand Slam titles, and ranked as the number one singles player five times in a six year span.
In 1973, she won “The Battle of the Sexes” against Bobby Riggs, a former tennis champ, who had declared that women couldn’t play as well as men. This victory, as well as her fight for pay equality, changed women’s sports.
She has said that she realized later in life that she was a lesbian, but stayed in the closet for years due to homophobia from her parents, the sports world, society, and even herself. She was unwillingly outed in 1981 and lost all of her professional endorsements within 24 hours.
But her parents, and society, have come around since then. Over the years, she inspired an Elton John song, was admired by Muhammad Ali (rest in peace), acted on TV shows, and won more sports and humanitarian awards than I’ll name here, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and every award that tennis has to give.
She has created foundations that help to enhance the lives of women and girls through sports, and seek equity and social justice for all.
Il Sodoma was an Italian Renaissance painter who lived around 1500, and worked with Raphael and Pope Julius. He worked on both the Sistine Chapel and the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican (more commonly known as the Raphael Room). Unfortunately, he was fired from both of those projects, as were many other popular and talented painters of the day, because you know, it was Michelangelo and Raphael. Who can blame Pope Julius for zeroing in on those two?
Il Sodoma worked on many other projects too. At Monte Oliveto, the monks at the abbey where he painted frescoes called him “Il Mattaccio” (the maniac) because he kept a zoo of small animals (my favorite: badgers – who are included in the fresco with their red collars). His clothing leaned toward the flamboyant. He got his name (the Sodomite) from leering speculations about possible relationships with younger men and boys. Sodomy was in fact punishable by death in Rome at that time. Da Vinci and others were charged, but Il Sodoma never was.
Haters, look out, because he took that name away from you and started signing his paintings that way.
A painting a day during Pride, honoring LGBTQ people and moments!
Today is Billy Tipton, a jazz musician and big band leader who began living as a man in the 1930s, while he was a teenager. He went on to make a living from his music, marry several times, and adopt children. His secret was revealed only after death, to the surprise of everyone but two cousins.
I find his to be a very poignant story. He absolutely beams in every photo that I’ve ever seen, leading me to wonder about his interior life. Did he experience pure enjoyment at pleasures big and small? Small: wearing sharp hats, suits, and ties; smoking in public; crouching down in the dirt in a very manly pose. Big: succeeding in the man’s world of professional jazz; living his life the way he damn well wanted to.
Were these happinesses ever eclipsed by having to concoct stories to explain the binding of his breasts and the absence of male genitalia (to his wives, he blamed a near-fatal car accident)? Did having a secret life wear on him? Was he afraid of being found out? I wonder how his life might have been different in the 21st century, and I salute him for making his life what he wanted it to be starting in the 30s.
A different queer person or moment every day of Pride Month. Today, Sappho!
She was a very well-admired Greek poet who lived around 600 BCE, who set her poems to lyre music that she composed herself. We get the word “lesbian” from her birthplace, the Isle of Lesbos. She was famous in her day and romanced many of the female students that were sent to her to learn the art of writing. Many of her poems were love poems, written explicitly to women. We’ve lost most of her complete poems over the years, with only fragments surviving, including some manuscripts that were torn into strips and used to wrap mummies.
In honor of Pride Month, I’m doing a painting every day to honor an important queer person or moment.
First up is Pauli Murray. It’s hard to know what accomplishment to start with. She was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women. She was a legal scholar who was credited as co-author in a brief by Ruth Bader Ginsburg because of her groundbreaking work on applying the Equal Protection Clause to sex discrimination*. She was arrested in 1940 (15 years before Rosa Parks) for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated Virginia bus; the name she gave to the police was Oliver**. She attended my alma mater, UC Berkeley***. Later in life, she became the first African American woman to be ordained by the Episcopal Church, and was posthumously sainted. She also wrote and published poetry.
In short, she was a real bad-ass.
* This co-authorship credit is a clever and gracious way to acknowledge the work of legal scholars of Color, who weren’t allowed to climb to the heights attained by White lawyers like RBG. Not only did the White lawyers reach positions of greater power, but they could do so using legal arguments that piggybacked on the work of these scholars of Color. Kudos to RBG for sharing the credit that is due to Pauli Murray.
** It was this queer moment that prevented Pauli/Oliver from becoming the face of the Civil Rights movement for Blacks; leaders of the movement didn’t want her queer identity to take any focus away from the Black struggle. The movement waited another 15 years for Rosa Parks (a married woman, and by all accounts, model citizen) to come along before addressing bus segregation in this specific way.
*** Go Bears!