Why Calamity Jane is my Queer Secret Love

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Every April since I learned that movie stars have birthdays too, I’ve honoured Doris Day’s with an annual re-watch of one of my favourite movies of all time: Calamity Jane.

Calamity Jane is, on the surface, a typical old school Hollywood romp. But it’s a romp with a difference, and that difference is the relationship between the two female protagonists, one of which is the tomboyishest tomboy ever to tom.

Sure, Howard Keel has a voice like the brushed velvet on the classiest of Westwood gowns to the point in which my queer ass understood my grandmother’s crush on him.

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Sure, also, back in the golden age it was fine to sleep with anybody you wanted to sleep with so long as you didn’t talk about it, but approaching homosexual relations in any movie had a facade of both no and of no.

Hollywood, being full of artists who tend to — in the words of my beloved aunt trying to navigate her understanding of the modern world’s relative openness — usually, dare we say, be more liberated, found a way around broaching these topics in their movies the only way they knew how.

There have always been queer characters in motion pictures since the very first depiction of two guys dancing in The Dickson Experimental Sound Film in 1894.

Vito Russo & the Celluloid Closet

I learned about The Dickson Experimental Sound Film while swatting for an LGBTQ film quiz my friends and I took part in last year. Our team name was Quizilla Queen of the Desert. We were against a team of sober JJ Abrams fans and successfully came in second by only half-a-point against a group of dandy older gentlemen and the only group we could have stood losing to.

A necessary, pregame Celluloid Closet re-watch had taken place a few hours before our honourably drunken defeat; honourable despite the fact that our team name was as such, it was the Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert question that sealed our second-place fate.

The Celluloid Closet is a book about the depictions of homosexuality on film by LGBTQ activist and film historian Vito Russo. While I’ve yet to read it, the documentary it birthed in 1995 — and narrated by the one and only, my queer House Mother, Lily Tomlin — has an intense story to tell of its own.

Vito Russo passed due to AIDS-related complications in 1990, having been diagnosed with HIV five years previous. By 1989, he was a professor at UC Santa Cruz teaching an Arts Division course that also went by the same name as his book — The Celluloid Closet — and the documentary he had been trying to get off the ground since writing its treatment in ’86.

According to students lucky enough to be able to take that course, Russo loved to stand with his students, share smokes, and all of Hollywood’s gay gossip. Sounds like a course I could have really invested some time into.

Morocco, The Hunger, and… Calamity Jane

The first time I watched The Celluloid Closet, it was on YouTube. That sentence is a cultural phenomenon now. Picture history classes in the future talking about us in regards to what we watched on YouTube. Cat videos included. Ruminate on it a while, it’ll help you to Carpe this very Diem.

It was fabulous seeing the openly bisexual Marlene Dietrich strutting around in her tux and top hat, smooching another woman onscreen in Morocco at the height of my obsession with old Hollywood. The height of my obsession with Dietrich herself; a woman whose — for want of a better word — swagger is so unique that it could be semi-replicated by Cate Blanchett and Cate Blanchett alone. Or the scene from The Hunger where Catherine Deneuve undresses Susan Sarandon with her eyes, and then her hands.

Even more fabulous was when Doris Day appeared in a clip from that favourite film of my childhood, Calamity Jane.

Calamity Jane was and still is my queer love story

It wasn’t that I’d ever imagined Calamity Jane to be a romantic movie. I never wanted to see Calam and Bill Hickok end up together unless they were yelling back and forth at each other in song, like in I Can Do Without You’.

As a kid, my childhood draw to this character was her personality. And her look. And I’d use the S word I used for Blanchett up there but I refuse to let it out more than once every couple-of-thousand words. I wanted to be her. I wasn’t a dress and make up girl, I was a hat, muddy knees, and boots girl. In my mind I was Calamity Jane.

Seeing the movie listed with other great films as one that hadn’t erased the queerness but rather celebrated it in a way that seemed beyond those who believed, for example, that Calam wasn’t eyeing up Katie’s bustier when she was helping her dress. Like we knew this because we were this, even if we didn’t know it until it was right there in our faces, singing about a woman’s touch under the guise of housekeeping.

When Calamity Jane appeared in The Celluloid Closet alongside The Crying Game, The Maltese Falcon, and Thelma & Louise, something clicked in my queer little head; that we’ve always been around, we’ll always be around. While these queer stories haven’t been front-and-center of the plot and a lot of queer characters have been typecast to be ‘bearable’ to the heterosexual viewers.

Like those who think a gay guy is so cute and funny if he’s camp enough, and how they’d love to be his best friend while their husbands joke about why they don’t want to go to a gay bar. These characters have existed and long before my childhood, were there as a silent whisper to my queer family before me. A whisper of we’re here, we’re queer, and we’ve always been on screen.

Only if you knew where to look.

Happy 96th Birthday, Doris Day

Calamity Jane herself, Doris Day, had her 96th birthday this week. It wasn’t until I started to give some thought to the imprint that Calamity Jane, as a movie, made on me. It happens every year like clockwork and hopefully always will.

At some point I realised because of that movie, Doris Day technically helped me to come out to myself as early as I did. Doris Day, as Calam, helped me realize how it was okay to be myself in my mud-slicked shorts and my scraped-up legs, long before I knew there was a difference between liking boys or liking girls.

I think my favourite part of the journey Doris Day’s birthday took me on was finding articles written by cismen about Calamity Jane; on its standing in the ranks of musicals and how newspapers are wrong about the housework song. But not because it’s the queer anthem it 100% is (don’t get me started on ‘Secret Love’), but because they are redefining to men what it is to be a woman. Because men are clearly so central to their queer as all fuck love story.

Calamity Jane may tiptoe towards the end with Calam and velveteen voiced Howard Keel’s Wild Bill riding off into the sunset with Katie and Lieutenant Dan(!!!), but I wouldn’t change a single bit of it.

Not Calam’s ogling, nor the scene where Dick Wesson’s Francis Fryer gets dolled up in drag to serenade the rowdy patrons of The Golden Garter saloon. The final scene is proof of The Celluloid Closet, and the queer writers that came before me, when Calamity Jane sings of her secret love and rides off to the cabin she and Katie share.

Why? Because even now — 55 years on — we need that subtext.

Written by

queer freelance music journalist. likes coffee + davids of various natures. https://ko-fi.com/fenderqueer

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