Why Queer Representation in Art Is So Important
I first saw her at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. I had a few minutes to spare before scurrying off to a literary conference, my notebook still tucked between stiff fingers from the cold.
I drifted past the marble and cast bronze, meandered through both da Vinci and the Harlem Renaissance, and eventually found myself in a ballroom, with china laid out to host the night’s guests. Before being shooed away, I stole a glimpse. I wasn’t looking for her, but she found me regardless.
I imagined Tallulah Bankhead would be the kind of sepia-cast vixen to blow cigarette smoke in your face. She would be a charming, albeit sloppy, alcoholic. I imagined her slipping on her driving gloves and proposing an impromptu picnic, during which we might discuss the gnarled roots of her Dixie-Aristocrat familial dynasty, and I would spill sparkling cider on her checkered blanket. She would forgive me, like any proper Southern Belle, but she’d still tease me about it on the ride home, her scarf whipping wildly as she went 20mph over the speed limit.
Legend has it she once drank champagne from her own shoe at the Ritz in London, and distressed many of her co-stars with her antics, including Lucille Ball. She was exactly my type.
I had fallen in love, one way or another, with all of them. I had felt a funeral in my brain with Emily Dickinson, then dreamed about a "Blue Moon" with Billie Holiday. And now, Tallulah.
It was easy to fall for them, to crush, the way I did with occasional profiles softened by peach fuzz through car windows, whose faces would light up for just a moment with a flush of raspberry at a stoplight in dusk. It was easy to fall for the muses, perhaps how da Vinci fell for Mona Lisa and Pygmalion for Galatea, with their Fibonacci proportions carved by their own hands. As long as I had the blueprints to chisel our own romance from their history, as it had been suggested, I could get the girl.
But how could I separate the male gaze from my own fancy, to construct them as I knew them, without memorializing them to ruin? I had little navigation, and less honesty with myself.
The canon of romantic tales were cemented exclusively in the collection of damsels and their princes. While my collection of girls were flat, they were heroines in their own right. I could always draft up ways we would meet, whether bumping into one another at a speakeasy or in between classes at Amherst.
I had collected them, but I knew they were not mine. I could not configure them in the shape of ornaments, using them as figureheads. I didn’t want a house of dolls, but they are still tucked into my memory. I memorialize those who gave me a face to put to a feeling—before I could admit I liked girls beyond the legends of them.
So, cheers to my first love, Tallulah, and to all the others who were cloistered to their quarters, or too golden for their age. May your oil paint luster stay evergreen.
By Hanna Andrews, 18