growing up gay

Pining For Wonder Woman: The Secret Life of a Boy and His Dolls

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.