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Men don't desire a woman of age as their queen

It's that time of year, and I'm even more depressed than usual. It's Queen Season, and I shall never be a queen. Tampa has three queens of the Krewes of Gasparilla, Sant 'Yago and Venus, and in Pinellas, the Krewe of Neptune's King has his royal mate. Even the Sun God who presides over the Festival of States parade in St. Petersburg has a Sun Goddess.

That's enough queens for a deck of cards plus an understudy, but also enough to make a non-queen see red.

It's not that feminist me minds queens. Nor am I having a very delayed reaction to my senior prom.

It's just that I don't understand why the queen must never be married but always be a maid, and never, God forbid, an old one.

The king, on the other hand, is supposed to be married and in at least respectable middle age.

When you ask about this, polite answers come back about how the king has to be somebody rich enough to pay for the parties his krewe makes him give.

That sounds fine, except that it hasn't the slightest thing to do with the queen and how she looks paired with some old guy.

You'd think the krewe members would worry the arrangement might be misinterpreted. You'd think it would upset the wives of the kings. But you'd be dead wrong.

"The queen is 20. The king is about 60," said the wife of the King of Venus, Nancy Vildibill of Brandon. "If the queen were in her late 30s or early 40s, I would sit between the king and queen, as wife of the king. I wouldn't allow it!"

So only debutante daughters are acceptable, unthreatening.

Unless you need women, period: Pinellas' Krewe of Neptune actually allows its queen to be an antique 29, and not even a relative of a male krewe member.

That's because the krewe is not very large, not very old and doesn't have enough men in it with daughters of typical debutante age, which is otherwise how queens are chosen.

I should not fuss, and not only because I do not want to sound just down on debutantes, but because the krewes and such are silly stuff.

Unless, that is, you start reading them as symbols that are repeated across the Tampa Bay landscape. The world is such that nobody questions the krewes, just as nobody questions, for instance, the sight of Channel 13's avuncular high priest of middle age, Hugh Smith, sitting next to one young Kelly or another. She may be lovely, she may be smart, but she may never, absolutely never, get old.

And everybody knows what old means in this context. It means the same thing in the silly stuff of queens of krewes and Sun Goddesses. It means sexually undesirable to men. It means sexually without value.

I do not mean to wax serious, although it might be what happens when a woman turns ancient and 37. So let's lighten up.

Let's contemplate New Orleans, krewedom's nirvana. There, believe it or not, some krewes have queens as old as 50, who are actually married people, and who sometimes even work outside the home.

"'I think it's very nice," said Carol O'Neill, the captain of New Orlean's Krewe of Venus, which picks wives and mothers and career women as queens. "I always tell my members we were the first ERA."

If it sounds like a radical group, think twice. This krewe has marched in New Orleans' Mardi Gras for nearly a half-century.

But unlike Tampa Bay's krewes (and the Suncoasters, who run the Festival of States and pick the Sun Goddess), which are dominated mostly by men, husbands and male significant others play backstage roles in this Krewe of Venus.

Membership is open only to women.

Somehow that is no surprise.