Autumn Comes: ‘Queens and Kings’

Published in: September-October 2022 issue.


THE THEME of this issue comes with a caveat. I thinkit’s still okay to refer to a certain kind of gay male as a “queen,” while the term “drag king” appears to be gaining ground. In any case, what these articles share is a focus on historical figures who made a career out of flouting the prevailing gender norms—and becoming famous doing so.

            This may also be a time when the word “queer” can be of use. Someone like John Randolph (1773–1833), a U.S. Congressman from Virginia for whom the term “flamboyant” was invented, was undoubtedly queer in the old sense of peculiar, regardless of what he did in bed. At any rate, as described here by William Benemann, he sure wasn’t “straight” by any definition. And while his strangeness was widely commented upon, he kept getting re-elected and became a leader in Congress.

            Randolph lived at a time when the vocabulary simply didn’t exist to discuss such matters. That would change later in the 19th century thanks to a cadre of German psychologists, culminating in the work of Magnus Hirschfeld. As Finn Ballard explains here, Hirschfeld’s greatest achievement was founding the Institute of Sexual Science, in Berlin, in 1919. This was a time when homosexuality was understood as a form of gender “inversion,” and while Hirschfeld did much to separate sexual orientation from gender, he regarded some cases as “intermediate sexual types” and recommended gender reassignment, including surgery, for these individuals.

            Weimar Berlin also produced an exuberant cabaret culture, notably a singer named Paul O’Montis, who was a sensation of both the stage and the silent screen. His personal style, as reflected in caricatures of the day, would seem to justify the “queen” epithet, but Laurence Senelick is mostly struck by the campy lyrics of his songs, which are filled with racy double entendres and make sly references to same-sex cruising and gender-bending people on the town.

            Another star of silent movies, as well as the talkies, was Greta Garbo, who could be called a “drag king” in that she wore men’s clothing in a number of her films. In Queen Christina, as Irene Javors elaborates, the surface plot is conventional—a queen looking for a suitable consort—yet Garbo spends most of the film in masculine garb strutting across the screen, swilling beer, and flirting with other women.

            At last we come to Truman Capote, whose most famous books—Breakfast at Tiffany’sand In Cold Blood—aren’t especially gay in content. It was his ubiquitous presence on TV talk shows that brought a truly queer persona into America’s homes. Andrew Holleran discusses how Capote parlayed his fame into the life of a socialite, partying with New York’s society ladies—his “swans”—who seem to have kept him around mostly as a conversation piece. He got his revenge, kind of, with the posthumous publication of his tell-all novel Answered Prayers.