When Marriage Was a Drag: “Tricia’s Wedding” after Edie Windsor

1.66 October 2, 2016 11:00 am - 12:45 pm

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Presenter biographies will be linked below as they become available. Final program subject to change.

Vincent A. Lankewish

Marriage may be where it’s been,

But it’s not where it’s at.

Stephen Sondheim, “Have I Got a Girl for You,” Company (April 26, 1970)

Nearly twenty-five years ago in his essay “From Queer to Eternity,” Michael Warner offered a renewed appreciation of Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, the 1972 anthology edited by Karla Jay and Allen Young, noting that this volume represented the best of leftist, subversive thinking about sexuality at the dawn of the modern gay rights movement.  Many of the contributions to this collection inveigh against both heterosexual marriage and attempts by lesbians and gay men to replicate it.  In “Gay Revolution and Sex Roles,” for example, members of two Chicago-based queer groups argue that “homosexuals …dutifully imitated heterosexuals—their relationships crippled by that and by the projected self-contempt of the oppressed.”  In another essay, N.A. Diamon asserts that “[i]f marriage and family, as we know it, are unable to meet the demands put upon them by our changing consciousness, then these institutions will have to be abandoned.”  “Untangling the Knot,” a 2015 reader edited by Carter Sickels, echoes these sentiments.  Revisiting early-post-Stonewall LGBT attitudes toward marriage in the light of U.S. v. Windsor serves as a potent reminder of an increasingly forgotten radical queer past and as an injunction to remember the lives of twenty-first century sexual dissidents who choose not to tie the proverbial wedding knot and, in turn, are relegated to second-class citizenship.

In this context, my paper examines the nationally televised wedding of Tricia Nixon and Edward Cox on June 12, 1971, a historic event that served as the springboard for a witty, trenchant critique of marriage by the drag group The Cockettes in their satirical film, “Tricia’s Wedding,” which premiered on the same day at the Palace Theater in San Francisco. Documentary filmmaker David Weissman—who, with Bill Weber, restored the film in 2102—describes it as “basically … a psychedelic drag parody.”  He notes further: “It was a really entertaining assault on all the norms of bourgeois American culture. It was just one of the funniest things I’d ever seen.”  Indeed the same-sex “weddings” of the 1960s and 1970s were campy, drag affairs that mocked the institution’s normative impulses and served as an occasion for celebrating outsiders: drag queens, people of color, orgiasts, recreational drug users, anti-establishment degenerates of all stripes.  Juxtaposing clips from the Richard Nixon Foundation’s online footage of the Nixon-Cox nuptials with clips from the film, I consider the implications of those nuptials’ mock re-enactment in the latter—a re-enactment that eventually devolves into a wild sex party after Eartha Kitt (played by a young Sylvester) pours LSD into the punch, leading wedding guests Mamie Eisenhower, Jackie Onassis, Rose Kennedy, and Lady Bird Johnson to abandon all social decorum—for contemporary queer politics.