When I was young, I knew that I was different from other boys my age. I was not quite sure, however, of the meaning or nature of that difference, but clues began to emerge mainly through my relationship to images of the dominant culture. I distinctly remember at the age of 5 or 6 watching an episode of Star Trek in which Captain Kirk is shirtless. He displays the required smooth chest of the period. The episode revolves around an angry teenage boy named Charlie who has the habit of hurting people. No matter, the important point is not the episode’s particular narrative, but the scopophilic pleasure of a half-naked, young William Shatner. When I saw this image, I felt warm and tingly. Of course, I did not know what this sensation and feeling exactly meant. And even though I liked it, I did know that I should keep such an emotion secret and only relish it in private.
Captain Kirk was my first boy crush and my first queer experience that foreshadowed all the fabulousness that was yet to come. Now, don’t think I did not experience difficulty in coming to terms with my sexuality, but it never truly daunted or worried me, nor did I truly pretend to be something I was not. In many ways, I cherished my difference and queerness at first when it was just a private adventure and then after I came out at the age of 18.
In the summer of 1975, having just turned 8, my parents and I moved to suburban New Jersey from Brooklyn. That last summer in Flatbush, I discovered my second boy crush when I saw the maverick Chuck Heston as Colonel Taylor in Planet of the Apes. The film was playing at a revival house along with the last movie in the Ape series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The first Ape film is an amazing science fiction story which holds up well even today. But for me, beyond the narrative of Earth’s future, it was the spectacle of Mr. Heston with his beard and hairy torso that engaged me. He became my new object of desire- a desire that has continued until today despite Chuck’s unfortunate “From my cold dead hands” remark about guns and gun control soon after the Columbine tragedy.
Needless to say, my fixation on Captain Kirk/William Shatner waned when confronted by the awesome image of Chuck Heston in Planet of the Apes, sweaty and naked, jumping into a lake near Ape City. Captain Kirk cannot top Chuck either physically or in terms of acting ability. Heston’s other films like the historical epic Ben-Hur and the film noir Touch of Evil along with his other scifi masterpieces besides Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and The Omega Man are all intriguing, good films. And lucky for me as a young, queer boy Chuck’s films usually featured him shirtless at one moment or another. His rugged handsomeness continued throughout his life unlike Shatner who got a bit pudgy and had that unfortunate hairdo, perhaps real, perhaps not. But I digress…
Besides fostering my lifelong love of Chuck Heston, Planet of the Apes became one of my favorite movies because of the narrative and the impeccable ape makeup. I had all the Planet of the Apes dolls, I mean action figures, and play sets that were produced. With the dolls Cornelius and Zira, I could not only reenact the story of Earth’s future, but also play house because of their humanity and the fact that they were married. Playing house with dolls is a decidedly non-boy thing to do, but I was able to do it with my non-human, scifi couple.
To achieve this end I built a 5 room doll house out of old cardboard boxes and scraps of fabric, wood, linoleum, wallpaper and carpet in order to shelter my simian lovebirds. My parents to their credit did nothing to dissuade me from constructing my chimpanzee love nest and even helped out. My mother assisted with the decor providing scraps of fabric, wallpaper and so on from the decorating of her own house. My father who worked in office furnishing at the time brought home pieces of leather and commercial carpet samples. Cornelius and Zira’s living room featured an L-shaped sofa in a tan leather with burgundy leather trim. While such a decorating aesthetic horrifies my current 19th century sensibilities, it was the late 70’s and I was only 9 or so and had not yet developed my own sense of style and taste. There was also faux wood paneling in Cornelius and Zira’s bedroom, a linoleum floor in the kitchen and every room had paintings and a clock on the wall cut out from magazines and catalogs. This doll house was a testament to my queer ingenuity and creating it was a symbol of my secret life where Chuck wandered around bare-chested.
Also in 1975, I experienced a pivotal TV moment of my young life: the debut of Wonder Woman starring Lynda Carter. It is fascinating to me now how I constructed my queer identity through the images of the dominant culture such as Captain Kirk, Chuck Heston, Planet of the Apes and Wonder Woman. But, I also redeployed these representations, giving them new meanings that directly allowed me to form a positive relationship to my own same-sex desire.
Of course, I was not conscious of this process at the time, but I now recognize that these ideological representations hailed me as a queer subject as did negative images of homosexuality. But the images I felt connected to were redeployed and refashioned for my own use. This redeployment enabled me to construct a positive queer identity. In other words, my chimpanzee dollhouse was not a source of shame, but pride even while I was conscious of the fact that it should remain a private pleasure while I was young and vulnerable.
When I first watched Wonder Woman, I loved when Diana Prince (the superhero’s alter-ego) transformed into Wonder Woman by spinning around in the midst of a big explosion and then emerging in her sexy red, white and blue patriotic outfit. I would spin around in the backyard of my parent’s house and become dizzy.
On one level, my obsession with Wonder Woman could be understood as adhering me to the dominant model of homosexuality current at the time in terms of gender inversion. Yet, it also resonates with other social and cultural definitions of homosexuality, particularly the ideology of the closet. Wonder Woman had an alter-ego, Diana Prince, who is normal in terms of physical strength and power and who conforms to prescribed norms of gender. Her true identity of Wonder Woman is her most closely guarded secret just as my desire (my true identity) to have sex with men was the secret of my childhood and adolescence. In a sense, Wonder Woman and I were both in the closet.
However, this closet was not occupied by guilt and shame. My fascination with Wonder Woman did not suture me to the prevailing ideology of the closet. In choosing Wonder Woman as a role model, I picked a figure who disrupted traditional notions of gender and proudly, powerfully and spectacularly displayed her difference.
For me, the figure of Wonder Woman allowed me to participate in dominant definitions of homosexuality, yet simultaneously she provided a figure for the conceptualization of my own desire and identity which was indeed positive and disrupted the negative discourse of same-sex desire operating at the time. It became in the words of Foucault a “reverse discourse”.
In my obsession with Wonder Woman, I desperately wanted a doll of the superhero. When I was growing up, Christmas gifts revolved around the big Sears catalog which had a large toy section. When it arrived, I would peruse it for hours, deciding on what I would like for the holiday. I would mark off items and then give the catalog to my parents who would select my presents from the things that I noted. That year I marked off the Wonder Woman doll. It was a small step outside my spectacular closet, but I did not get the doll that holiday. Either my parents missed it because it was in the girl’s section of the catalog or getting me a Wonder Woman doll was crossing a boundary they wanted to maintain. I guess a doll house made out of old scraps was okay, but a brand new toy meant for little girls was too obvious, too telling, too much.
Disappointed, but not defeated I was determined to have my own Wonder Woman action figure. And that is when it occurred to me- ZIRA! She was the only female doll I had, so she would become my Wonder Woman. It was not a difficult conversion. My mother and I had previously made some outfits for Zira out of old pieces of fabric. The mauve dress cut shorter with the wide blue belt tied at the waist would suffice for her costume even though it was not as fabulous or patriotic as the original. A little tinfoil at the wrists became her bullet repelling bracelets. Tinfoil also fashioned her headband and a piece of thin gold cording became her magic lasso. And Zira already had knee high boots in tan which worked just fine.
The transformation was complete. Zira became Wonder Woman of the Planet of the Apes, a simian superhero fighting injustice with her strength and fabulousness. Zira would spin around complete with explosion sound effects and emerge from her drab olive green outfit into her spectacular mauve and blue ensemble with bullet proof bracelets, headband and golden lasso.
My deployment of Zira in the Wonder Woman narrative rather than the original story of Earth’s future was an example of the strength and resilience of my own queer identity in the face of the dominant fiction. The dominant fiction does not allow boys to play with girl dolls and I had found a way to transgress that law. The Planet of the Apes figure was repurposed in order to fulfill my own desire and thereby contributed to my growing up queer.