One of the things I love about working in an archive is the serendipity: the way a search for something else entirely can lead you into a gem of a story that takes you in a whole new direction. This certainly isn’t unique to the archival world — but it’s something that historians and archivists tend to start talking about together when they’re in the same room long enough!
Earlier this week, while hunting down the location of a photograph we had scanned several years ago at Northeastern but failed to properly identify, I was going through a folder of images from Northeastern’s annual Winter Carnival from the 1960s and 70s. Many of the photographs were of the individuals nominated for the position of Winter Carnival Queen — sort of the spring term equivalent of a Homecoming Queen. Lots of 8 x 10 glossies of young women posed alone and in groups, in winter coats throwing snowballs, in ball gowns and (in the case of the girls who won) a sparkling tiara.
Then I came to a small yellowed clipping that featured a photograph of the five young women nominated in 1971 … and the young man, Everett Nau, who had been crowned the Winter Carnival Queen of 1970. The brief caption to the photograph read (in part)
NAU GOOD LUCK GIRLS … Everett Nau, last year’s Winter Carnival Queen, bestows his best wishes upon this year’s recently selected finalists (all girls if you’ll notice). … In this year’s campaign, the judges ruled it mandatory that the contestants be of the female gender.
Well, how could I possibly leave it at that?
So I did a little digging, and here (gentle readers) is what I found out about Everett Nau (class of ’71) and his reign as Winter Carnival Queen of 1970.
Nau was an Education major, member of the campus ROTC, columnist for the student newspaper, self-identified as “moderate-right” in political leanings … and also self-identified as male-gendered person.
It appears that Everett’s original nomination barely caused a stir on Northeastern’s campus — most likely because the nominee himself seemed to view the event as something of a lark. The campus newspaper, Northeastern News, offered a full-page spread of photographs showcasing the five nominees on 23 January 1970 (page 5); Everett — like all the other candidates — is shown in a formal head-and-shoulders portrait and more informal poses. It is in these informal shots that Everett’s gender is highlighted — whereas the women’s photographs bear a resemblance to fashion photographs, Everett is pictured dressed in his ROTC uniform, rifle in hand: we are clearly meant to read him as masculine. Yet at that moment, this masculinity did not seem to be a barrier to nomination.
And a few weeks later, it was not a barrier to being crowned Winter Carnival Queen.
Once he’d actually been crowned, “Queen Everett” became a bit of an overnight sensation, the Northeastern News reported (13 February 1970). He was interviewed by newspapers and radio shows nationwide and appearing in news stories as far away as Paris. The 6′ 5″ newlywed (as the newspaper described him) was invited to appear on a game show called To Tell the Truth in which a panel of four celebrities were challenged to identify the true “Queen Everett” among a group of three men (the real Everett and two imposters).
While Nau’s gender was seen as something of an oddity in the context of the Winter Carnival Queen competition, what is striking to a modern-day reader of the newspaper coverage is that his nomination and crowning were not portrayed at the time as any sort of deliberate attempt to disrupt conventional gender roles. Nau’s gender or sexuality is not questioned, and it is only in the aftermath that male candidates are ruled ineligible.
I’ve been unable thus far to find any record of why the post-facto changes in the competition rules were made; I’d be really interested to know who felt Nau’s presence was a threat and why. In the midst of a turbulent year of student protests, women’s liberation, antiwar activism and other upheavals, Nau was hardly positioning himself as a radical — his column for the student paper regularly admonished his fellow students for their disruptive activities (and, as I said, self-identified as “moderate-right” in his politics). This was not some gender-bending longhair out to mock the system. Which makes makes me that much more inclined to believe that the subsequent rule changes had much more to do with peoples’ underlying discomfort with cross-gender categorization than Nau as some sort of radical.
Amazing what lengths we will go to preserve the binary gender system.