The Queen Victoria Syndrome



So sorry to hear this journal is going out of business.  The Editor says, “I’ve spent all year prolonging this inevitable moment, and it makes me so sad and heartbroken to tell you that I don’t think I can do this anymore.”  It’s a tough business!.  Thank you to this great editor for publishing my work.

Volume V, Issue 7

The Queen Victoria Syndrome

by Wendy Thornton

Years ago, while working on a master’s degree in cultural studies, I learned to see the world through the eyes of the “Other,” via courses in Jewish, African-American, and Southern literature. I studied Italian and French literature, the magical realism of South America, the sorrowful literature of Africa. Of all the courses I took, the one where I felt hopelessly out of place was my lesbian lit class. This surprised me. After all, I assumed that, even though I wasn’t gay, I’d have a lot in common with the women in the class.

Besides me, four women and three men took the course. I was the only heterosexual and the only married individual. All I had to do was say “my husband…,” and my classmates would groan and roll their eyes. I was tempted to say “my partner,” but that seemed hypocritical. I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t married. I was always late to class. Ken and I were raising two kids, going to school full-time, working full-time, and our marriage wasn’t exactly blossoming under the pressure. Still, the book of cartoons about a lesbian super-heroine who hacked off penises with an ax left me feeling a bit queasy. In this, I had something in common with the men in my class.

I was surprised to find the gay men and lesbian women didn’t get along. Somehow I had this idea that there was an über-gay culture that included men and women who preferred same sex partners, sort of a “We are the World” of gaydom. When I expressed this idea one night, “Oh, honey,” one of my fellow students scoffed, “you just don’t get it. We boys don’t like girls, and those girls don’t like boys. There is no rapport.”

So I accepted that everything the guys said would be greeted by hoots of derision by the women; the comments of the women would be pooh-poohed by the men; and anything I said would be mocked by all and sundry. That was okay though. Getting involved in an intellectual argument was much more stimulating than creating soapbox derby cars with my Cub scouts or figuring out where to store thousands of Girl Scout cookies or addressing the insubordination of my irate secretary.

One of the big disagreements I had with the class was over the book Fried Green Tomatoes by Fannie Flagg. The story is of two friendships, one contemporary, the other set during the Depression. In our lesbian literature class, we delved into the friendship between the two young girls growing up in the Depression era south. Idgie and Ruth run a café together in the fictitious town of Whistle Stop, Alabama. I maintained the book wasn’t a story about two lesbian women. These girls were friends. They had a deep and abiding respect for each other. There was nothing sexual about it. Naturally, I was ridiculed for my naïveté.

I took the book with me the next time I had dinner with Marilyn, my friend since high school. A psychologist, Marilyn is my sounding board for all things, both cultural and personal. We meet once a month for dinner, always at the same restaurant, always at the same time, and she, at least, always eats the same food. As I sat down in a booth, I pulled the paperback out of my briefcase. “Oh,” said Marilyn, “that’s one of my favorite books.”

“Really? We’re studying it in my lesbian literature class.”

“What? You’re kidding! That’s not a book about lesbians.” She sipped furiously at her cherry Coke. “Every time you turn around, people are usurping perfectly good stories and turning them into manifestoes. Why can’t a book about friendship just be about friendship?”

I remembered this curious exchange when I watched the movie Brokeback Mountain a few years later with two young female friends. Brokeback Mountain is definitely about a gay relationship. But the two women surprised me—they thought the movie was silly, that the men acted like “lovesick teenage girls.” I admit, I was shocked by their reaction. Having been a lovesick teenage girl myself, having been madly in love with someone who looked remarkably like the dear, departed Heath Ledger, one of the stars of Brokeback Mountain, I found the movie touching and tragic. I didn’t see it as a “gay” movie; I saw it as a movie about two people tragically in love. But then again, I didn’t grow up in a gay era.

Homosexuality was not something we talked about in suburbia in the sixties. I’m sure there were gay people around, but we didn’t know. We couldn’t identify them because we didn’t have the words for their situation, for their experience. I learned from my lesbian literature course that this inability to name what was obviously there is known as the “Queen Victoria Syndrome.” During Queen Victoria’s time, the British Parliament made homosexuality illegal. Supposedly someone asked the Queen, “Shall we extend the same laws to women?” And Victoria responded, “Don’t be silly. Women don’t have sex with women.”

So I grew up a victim of the Queen Victoria syndrome. Once, when I was thirteen, a friend invited me to spend the night at her house. She was very popular, in the upper echelon of my junior high school, and I couldn’t imagine why she wanted anything to do with me. I was a geek, a bookworm. I didn’t have fancy clothes, didn’t hang with the cool kids. So I was surprised and flattered to be invited to her home.

That night, Pam and I shared a bed. Her bedroom was almost the size of my whole house and decorated like something out of a teen magazine. She insisted we go to bed way earlier than I wanted. I was afraid she’d laugh at my threadbare pajamas, but she didn’t seem to notice. She snuggled up close and soon seemed to be sleeping. A night owl, I lay awake staring at the ceiling. Pam flung an arm across my chest and then, though I didn’t have the words to describe what happened next, she fondled me. I had slept with my two sisters when we were younger, and this was nothing like that. I moved away from her. She moved closer. Again, her hand went to my breast. Again, I wriggled away. Her hands wandered lower. I didn’t know what to do. I could feel her measured breathing in my ear. The next time she leaned against me, I rolled right off the bed. Curling up on the rug, I spent the rest of the night on the floor.

Pam and I never spoke about what happened that night. We remained casual friends. It would be years before I slept with a woman again, and that woman was Marilyn.

Marilyn and I became friends because we were both on the newspaper in high school. She was not the type of person I would normally have befriended. She was beautiful, blond, perky, best friends with the prom queen. At first, I thought she didn’t have a brain in her head, but I began to notice that whenever our journalism advisor gave one of her inspirational speeches, Marilyn would make sarcastic comments under her breath. “In journalism, truth is paramount,” Mrs. L intoned. “But fiction is more fun,” Marilyn hissed, and people around her laughed. I appreciated her sense of humor.

We began to hang around. We brought out the craziness in each other. Remember that boyfriend who looked like Heath Ledger? The day I turned sixteen, I got my driver’s license, and Marilyn and I took off across the state of Florida, to the small town of St. Augustine, to visit him. For years she was a willing accomplice as I followed him around in a futile attempt to get his attention.

And I accompanied her on her windmill tilting. Because she had a crush on a baseball player, I went with her to every high school game. One night after a ballgame, we were late for curfew and drove furiously across town trying to get home before midnight. Marilyn pointed at a field of reeds. “We could save time if we cross that field.” Heck, she’d lived in Sarasota all her life. If she said it was a shortcut, who was I to question? I turned off the road into the reeds, and suddenly my little Corvair splashed into water. The reeds looked like a field, but in reality, they covered a good-size lake. We screamed as the car sank. Swimming out of the front seat, we hiked to a nearby house and called a tow truck. After the tow truck driver pulled my car out of the muck, he asked, “Where do you want me to take it?”

“Take it?”

“What gas station? Where do you want it fixed?”

“Uh,” Marilyn and I looked at each other, confused. “We’re going to drive it home,” I said. The tow truck driver laughed. “Not tonight you ain’t,” he drawled. I got in, cranked the car, which started right up, and we drove home, water pouring out the doors.

By morning the car was dry. No one would have known about the lake incident if it hadn’t been for the tow charge slip from the gas station I forgot about. Dad didn’t care how I pleaded for mercy. He confiscated my keys.

Months later he trusted me enough to let me drive again but only because he needed a favor. Dad owned a car lot and needed someone to switch out a new Olds Cutlass SX hardtop for an Olds Cutlass SX convertible. Excited, I volunteered. Such a cool car! I was to drive from Sarasota to Daytona Beach, switch out the hardtop, and deliver the convertible to my father’s client in Sarasota. Marilyn was allowed to go. We would spend the night in a hotel in Daytona, courtesy of the car lot. For a sixteen- and seventeen-year-old girl, this was the equivalent of getting a ride in a pumpkin complete with Fairy Godmother.

But I was obsessed with the boy-who-filled-my-dreams-but-didn’t-remember-my-name. We drove to Daytona, picked up the brand-new convertible, and detoured immediately to St. Augustine. We drove up and down the beach, looking for my own true love. We attracted a lot of attention, two tall teenage blondes in a flashy new convertible.

As God is my witness, I do not know how that car got stuck in the sand with the tide coming in. I was a good driver, and I knew better than to stop on soft sand. Perhaps I thought I saw my surfer boy. Who knows? All I know is we were suddenly stuck up to the wheel wells in a car that rocked because waves broke over it. I had visions of my father’s face exploding as I described what had happened to his brand-new, expensive car. I had visions of jail cells.

Fortunately, our hysteria produced a lot of attention. While eager young surfer boys rushed to dig us out of the sand, I saw my own true love, the Heath Ledger look-alike drive by, stare, and shake his head. Totally humiliated, I cried on her shoulder and Marilyn comforted me. It wasn’t until about three in the morning, when the surfers picked up the car and moved it up the beach, that we realized we had run up over two hundred extra miles on this brand-new car. Even Marilyn cried too.

Now, I know it’s illegal to turn back an odometer, and, frankly, I was surprised that the guy at the gas station offered to do it for free. But after all, what do you do with two hysterical girls at three in the morning?

Marilyn and I remained friends through high school and into college. During our first year at the University of Florida, we decided we weren’t going home for the summer. The dorms were closed and neither of us had a place to live, so we borrowed a friend’s apartment. The apartment complex was pretty sleazy—in fact, the apartments were known as the Green Latrines. But the price was right: free.

These wooden duplexes, built off the ground, were painted a sickly forest green. Located in the blocks across from campus known as the Student Ghetto, the apartments were square, boxy, and consisted of a kitchen-living room box and a bedroom-bathroom box. The floorboards creaked. The apartment didn’t have air-conditioning; the doors could not be locked; windows didn’t close securely. There were no phones. The Green Latrines were popular with male graduate students. Women typically didn’t live there.

Marilyn and I actually loved spending the summer there. We came from very staid, middle class families. We were not scholarship students. Our parents paid for our educations. Each month during the school year, we received a small allowance and spent it before the first week was out.

But the summer was different. Being on the voluntary poverty level was exciting. We had no money, but we knew all we had to do was make it through a couple of months and then we’d be back in the dorms with our parents sending a regular income. For those two months, we rated our boyfriends by where they took us for dinner. Fast food was a two, one step up from being invited to share an apple in a grocery store parking lot. Steak dinner was an eight. But the sine qua non was a buffet, where we could help ourselves to all the food we could eat and stuff our purses with ill-gotten goods for our starving roommate.

It was after we each had such a date that Marilyn and I heard our intruder. We each returned from a buffet dinner date, put our napkin-wrapped packages of food in the refrigerator, and fell into bed, exhausted. There was only one bed in the apartment and we shared it chastely. About two in the morning, we heard footsteps creaking along the floorboards. We lay motionless in bed, terrified, as the thief made his way through the house. He made no attempt to be quiet, breathing heavily as he rifled through our things.

When he came into the bedroom, we pretended to be asleep. We heard him moving around the room, opening dresser drawers, rifling through the closet. Finally, after taking all our little packages of food from the fridge, the thief climbed out the way he’d come in, through the window. He could just as easily have come in through the front door that didn’t lock. But he never bothered to check the door.

The next day I said, “Marilyn, did you hear—?”

“Oh, don’t say it,” she hissed. “We didn’t hear anything. Understand? We were sleeping. Nothing happened.”

Her theory was that if we didn’t acknowledge the thief had been in the house, then the incident didn’t happen. I realized later he was probably looking for drugs. He had to know that the residents of those ugly green apartments had no money. I think the reason he didn’t rape us was because he thought we were a couple. In those days, men and women had hair the same length. He saw two people sleeping together and decided we must be a boy and girl. He never imagined two women lying there, helpless. The Queen Victoria Syndrome.

When I was a teenager, my friends and I were confused by everything but our sexuality. We wanted to make money, but we wanted to be free spirits. We wanted good jobs but didn’t want to be corporate drones. We wanted to fall in love but didn’t want to be tied down. We wanted to be brilliant but didn’t want to think about anything serious. You name it; we had an inconsistency for every mood.

The only area I can safely say we had no ambiguity about was in the area of friendships. Our friendships were sacrosanct. I would have trusted Marilyn with my life, and did on a number of occasions. Never once did we think of taking our relationship to a sexual level. It was already so much more. And besides, I knew the minute I met the Heath Ledger look-alike that my destiny was heterosexual.

Once a friendship is sexualized, the very nature of the friendship changes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But one of the lessons I learned in my class on lesbian literature, one of the discoveries I made outside my readings, from attending a class full of gay men and gay women, was that people who are gay know it early and without ambiguity. They don’t fall into the lifestyle—they are the lifestyle.

I have been madly, passionately in love. I have felt like Heath Ledger, listening to Jake Gyllenhaal mumbling in Brokeback Mountain, “I wish I knew how to quit you,” and thinking, I know that feeling. Marilyn was the person I poured my heart out to. If it hadn’t been for her, I don’t know how I would have survived. We’ve been friends long enough to be honest with each other. While others may sympathize with a love-struck sixteen-year-old girl, your true friend will tell you to quit whining and do something about it. If that means you end up sitting on a sandy beach while your father’s expensive new car threatens to float out to sea, well, that’s just another memory for the scrapbook.

Sure, you need lovers, because love is the essence of life. But then again, you need your friends to sympathize with you when you’re ready to die of sadness, to go with you to the edges of the ocean, to remind you that you can survive anything.

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