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    Calafia: Queen of California

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky

    Once upon a time, long, long ago, “very near to the region of the Terrestrial Paradise,” there was a legendary island. “One of the wildest in the world,” it was protected by “bold and craggy rocks” that were the strongest “that is found in the world.” A wondrous realm, it was ruled by a queen “more beautiful than all others, and in the very vigor of her womanhood, valiant and courageous, ardent and with a brave heart.” Her name was Calafia. The land she ruled was called California.

    In those days, no men lived on the island of California. “It was home to a nation of black amazons,” who like their queen “were of powerful bodies and strong and ardent hearts and of great strength.” Brave warriors all, they had a “Women Only” policy that was strictly enforced. “Their weapons were golden and so were the harnesses of the wild beasts that they were accustomed to domesticate and ride.” Men who ventured into their realm were destroyed by griffins, trained to kill any man they encountered.

    “The greatest of the long line of queens who ruled over this mythical realm,” Calafia desired “to perform nobler actions than had been done by any other ruler before her.” One day she encountered Radiaro, a great Muslim warrior, who told her that in a far distant land “all the world is moving in an onslaught against the Christians.” Now Calafia “did not know what Christians were, but believing only that “with the great strength of herself and of her women” she would be victorious, she joined the expedition.

    Calafia and her warriors arrived at their destination just after a fierce struggle that ended in a stalemate. The great queen, announcing that she and her Amazons could do better, took leadership of the Muslim forces. During the battle, she “pressed audaciously forward among her enemies” with such skill that “it cannot be told nor believed that any woman has ever shown such prowess.” She “dealt with many noble knights, and no one of them left her without giving her many and heavy blows,” yet she remained fearless and undaunted.

    There still was no victory for either side, so the Muslims issued a challenge to the Christians: let them send two warriors to fight Radiaro and Calafia in a single combat to decide the battle. King Amadis, the leader of the Christian forces, and his son Esplandián accepted their proposal. Then the unexpected, unimaginable happened.

    Calafia, learning from an aide that “Esplandián is the most handsome and elegant man that has ever existed,” resolved to see this enemy for herself before meeting him in mortal opposition. Escorted by 2,000 of her warriors, she journeyed to the camp of her antagonists. To impress them, she wore a golden toga embroidered with jewels and crowned by a golden hood, raiment fit for a California queen even today. When she finally saw Esplandián, she immediately fell in love with him.

    There were hurdles, however, to their romance. First, they had to survive a test of valor on the battlefield. Then there was the matter of an interfaith relationship—to Esplandián, Calafia was an infidel. Even more serious was the fact that they both were physically attracted to women. They additionally both held divergent views of females in society: Esplandián believed they were subservient to men in all things; Calafia strongly disagreed. Never mind that he was already engaged to the beautiful Leonorina.

    The next day, Calafia dueled with King Amadis, and Radiaro with Esplandián. The Christians won. The vanquished surrendered and were imprisoned. During her time in captivity, Calafia, who after all did have an eye for women, acknowledged “Leonorina’s astonishing beauty” and decided not to compete with her for Esplandián’s favors.

    Calafia’s story has a happy or a tragic ending, depending on your point of view. She converted to Christianity as “the one true faith.” She then married Talanque, a handsome knight and valiant warrior, and returned with him to California to establish a new dynasty that would rule over a Christian nation of both women and men.

    This story of Queen Calafia was first told in Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Exploits of Esplandián) by Garcí Rodríguez de Montalvo, published in Seville in 1510. It was the fifth book in a series that told the story of the conflict between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades. The first four volumes were praised in their time, but this one was pretty much considered summer beach reading when it first appeared. In Don Quixote, Cervantes’ hero burned his copy. Even so, it was hugely popular and went through edition after edition.

    At least one person among the first Europeans to visit California in the early 16th century read the book. No one knows who first used the name for the region, but by 1560 it was appearing on maps and in accounts of travels there.

    California is unique in many ways, but especially in its name. We have states named for a virgin queen, a French monarch, Native American nations, an American president, and the wife of an English king, among others. Only California is named for an island realm that was ruled by a black lesbian Amazon woman.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.