The name California comes from a sixteenth century conquistador fantasy of a formidable island inhabited by free-loving black Amazons. They were led by a brave queen:
Know th[ere] . . . exists an island called California . . . populated by black women. . . [L]ike the Amazons was their style of living. The[y] were of vigorous bodies and strong and ardent hearts and of great strength; the island itself the strongest in steep rocks and great boulders that is found in the world; their arms were all of gold . . . [W]hen they had peace with their adversaries, they intermixed . . .
There ruled on that island of California, a queen great of body, very beautiful . . ., desirous in her thoughts of achieving great things, valiant in strength, . . . Queen Calafia. (from Dora Beale Polk, The Island of California, U. of Neb. Press, 1991)
California’s founding myth derives from a siege on sexual and racial diversity. Despite the state’s reputation as a stronghold for live-and-let-live tolerance, its tolerant spirit has been contested and has suffered as many shameful defeats as victories. Whereas the state attracts people who are drawn by the promise of social freedom and possibility, it also draws those who mainly seek riches and wind up trying to domesticate and dominate the spirit that others cherish.
I like to think of Calafia as the avenging defender of sexual minorities, feminists, native peoples, blacks and sexual, ethnic and racial diversity in general. I imagine her with the suffragists when California women won the right to vote in 1911. I picture her guiding the California Supreme Court when the state was among the first to repeal its anti-miscegenation law in 1948. I see her taking over Alcatraz with Native American students and marching with Cesar Chavez. She would have been by Harvey Milk’s side when he led the defeat of the Briggs initiative, and with Gavin Newsom when he recognized same-sex unions in 2004.
Calafia has suffered a number of defeats over the years, too, of which Prop 8 is the most recent. The laws robbing Chinese of their constitutional rights and the internment of Japanese-Americans are just two examples.
This election suggests that Calafia has regrouped and might once again be on the ascendancy. November was a good month for California LGBTs, anyway. Gavin Newsom won his race for Lieutenant Governor. Barbara Boxer, one of only fourteen senators who voted against DOMA in 1996, won her senate race. Jerry Brown, the attorney general who refused to defend prop 8, won the governorship, and our new attorney general, Kamala Harris, has vowed not to defend it. Victoria Kolakowski became the first openly transgender judge in the country. Perhaps most satisfying of all, the author of prop 8, Andrew Pugno, lost his race for state assembly. These victories demonstrate that it is possible for politicians to fight for principle and win. With the Prop 8 hearings scheduled on December 6, 2010, I’m hoping that Calafia is at peak strength.
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