When I was five years old, I ran down the long driveway of my house, an afghan tied around my neck, convinced I could fly like Superman – my hero at the time. Racing down the steep slope, I launched myself skyward. Not only did I not take flight, but my left leg got caught in the afghan’s loosely woven fabric, and I skidded head first to a humiliating, bloody and painful stop. My love affair with the Superman pretty much ended after that.
By the time I was seven, I had found a new, less pain-inducing superhero. Her name was Princess Diana – known to us mere mortals as Wonder Woman. She was a goddess who had grown up in a place called Paradise Island, surrounded only by other women, all of whom were beautiful, confident and astonishing athletes. Competitive but not cruel, unlike the boys I knew in my grade school who viewed dodgeball as a death sport.
Wonder Woman became my everything. She had a golden lasso that would make villains tell the truth. Bracelets made of an indestructible metal that could deflect bullets. A shining golden eagle bustier top and a tiara that turned into a boomerang. She could also leap tall buildings, but did it in boots with a three-inch heel. Superman, on the other hand, always wore flats.
It wasn’t just her powers I craved. It was the way she turned from her disguise as mild-mannered Diana Prince (clever, right?) into her alter ego. She would simply spin a few times, and with a brilliant flash of light be completely transformed; and just like that, she was off to save the world. I had probably practiced that spin a hundred times, believing – as only a child could – that I could transform, too.
One day at school I was playing with a couple of boys. When one of them pretended to shoot me, I threw up both arms, just like Wonder Woman deflecting bullets. It was clear to them what I was doing, and for the rest of the day I was mocked relentlessly.
Although my fantasies about being Wonder Woman didn’t disappear that day, I knew I had to perfect my own disguise. In front of my parents, I pretended to like the show a little bit less. I only practiced the spin when alone in my room, door closed, so no one could catch me. I selected Spiderman Underoos when offered the choice of superhero underwear, even though I secretly wished my undershirt was emblazoned with the golden eagle my heroine sported.
When I was a child in the 1970’s, boys who wanted to be Superman were considered imaginative and full of confidence. “Good for them,” their parents thought. Not, “Don’t you think our son is subscribing to a male archetype?” Boys who wanted to be Wonder Woman were thought of as odd and maybe even a little bit transgressive. “We better watch this one,” parents would whisper to one another. Not, “Isn’t it wonderful that our son is demonstrating a sense of agency and self-worth through role models both male and female?” My own parents were always loving and encouraging, but how could they know my love for Wonder Woman was more than just enjoying a TV show? How could they understand I was desperate to become Wonder Woman so I could cast off my secret identity as a scared gay kid, and transform into someone who was beautiful, powerful and confident. Capable of being all the things I believed I never would be.
As I continued to conceal my secret into my teenage years, I was – like Diana Prince – always on the lookout for danger. The kind of danger a gay kid in an all-boys Catholic school faces where guys could get a varsity letter in “Spot the Fag.”
I learned not to carry my books against my chest like a girl. Not to tell anyone that one of the reasons you love your newest action hero, Buck Rogers, is because he is the sexiest man you have ever seen. Keep it to yourself that you wish you could marry your English teacher because he is so kind to you. No matter what toll it takes on your heart and soul, that golden eagle needs to stay covered up.
It took me many years to give up that disguise and entirely find my superpowers as a gay man. As I’ve watched the world change over the past three decades since I came out, I’ve been heartened at how many people are more accepting not just of alternative sexualities, but also gender. Today, children don’t have to choose a superhero to emulate based on body parts. They can choose their heroes based on what brings them an internal sense of potential and power, informing how these children will see and interact with world, and not the other way around.
Last June, the creators of the “Alter” comic book series announced the first transgendered character, Chalice. Central to the story is her transition from male to female and from human to superhero. She deals with her own transitions while helping others do the same. It is their anomalies, like physical disabilities and poverty, that make them powerful. Chalice offers a revolutionary role model for children and adults. After all, each one of us is in a constant state of transformation, evolving, growing and changing. But now we don’t have to do it in secret.
When my younger son was around the age I was when I discovered Wonder Woman, I had him watch a few episodes of the series on DVD. He enjoyed them in that kind of “humoring dad” way. I hadn’t seen the show in years, and was surprised at how slow and plodding the storylines were. But the first time I realized that magical spin was coming, I stood up, extended my arms, and showed my son how to become a superhero.