I THINK I WAS AROUND EIGHT YEARS OLD WHEN I awoke one morning from a romantic dream about Robert Goulet—he was holding me in his arms and singing “If Ever I Would Leave You” while Julie Andrews, dressed as Mary Poppins, glared at me from her sexless void—I awoke from that paradise of dark chin stubble and ringing baritone, cigarette smoke and shaving cream, and thought,
“Oh, fuck it. I’m gay.
“I’m a Queer. Flamer. A Poofter, a Pansy, a Nelly, a Ponce.
“No point pretending any more. I love Schubert string quartets and I don’t care who knows it. When I put on cologne, I put on half a bottle. What’s the point of holding back? I like hanging out with the girls during quiet time and reading. Girls are nicer, more helpful than boys. I like skin-tight and/or revealingly short clothing in either all-black or highlighter pink. Is this a crime in a world where fridges are harvest gold?
“Fuck it. I’ll keep on coloring maps starting with the edges, using my deluxe twenty-four color Venus pencil set that I keep carefully arranged by hue in a minaudière.
I’m stressed about my unruly fly-away hair, what self-respecting eight-year-old isn’t? I tried on my mother’s brown chiffon cocktail dress with matching high-heeled booties and fur pompoms: surely this indicates I’m secure in my masculinity? When I go for a haircut, the barber presses into me as he snip snip snips away, and I get a pleasurable ache in my belly at the heat from his body, which mingles and gets trapped with the scent of shaving cream and Barbicide—which, if there’s any truth at all in “The Power of Positive Thinking,” should mean the act of killing Barbie—and my barber’s aftershave.
No more pretending that I have a doctor’s appointment once a week, when in fact I’m going to my piano lesson thanks to a note from my mother that magically releases me from the torment of gym class.
“I’m done. I’m takin’ the train to Faggot Town, baby!“
I think that’s how it happened. And no raised eyebrows or tut-tuts about my age, either. When you’re born gay, which I was, it takes a supreme act of will not to know, even in 1963. There were no dirty uncles diddling me or strangers with candy flashing me from the driver’s seat of their Chevy Corvette.
That came later, when I was well into my twenties.
One summer when I was very young some gypsies, travelling folk, brought the carnival to town. Commandeering Centennial Park, they installed a Shetland pony ride, corndog stands, stands for lemonade and Cokes and another for Tiny Tim Donuts, which you could watch as they scooted along a conveyor belt and dropped into a vat of hot oil. They erected a merry-go-round that creaked as it whirled and beat-up bump-’em cars. But the most awesome ride of all was a miniature Ferris wheel whose exposed engine, tended by an ancient wizened man burned red-brown from decades in the open air, belched blue fumes. Its noisy, rattling operation seemed guaranteed to break down at some point and hurl entire families into oblivion as their screams of delight flipped over into terror.
Summer days in Whitby smelled of burnt sugar and the pungent green of mown grass. My sister bought me pink candy floss in a white paper cone, and I picked fistfuls of the spun sugar and shoved it in my mouth. It was deliciously insubstantial and as each mouthful evaporated I grabbed another (a mode of delivery which I would find useful several decades later with a range of substances just as delicious, elusive and compelling).
I spotted the booth where you threw a ball at a target and won something. I’d never done anything like that before—neither winning nor attempting to win—but I was motivated by one of the prizes and not the black plastic toy gun. I lusted for—
The Kewpie doll.
The plastic Kewpie doll was impaled on on a stick—impalement on sticks was the go-to presentation at carnivals for everything from hot dogs to toys—and topped with a plastic pinwheel that swirled around if you caught the breeze at the right angle. She wore a leotard sparkly with sequins and her head, out of proportion to her body by a factor of three, was graced by a bow-shaped mouth and huge faux-innocent eyes in the manner of Betty Boop. Adding the finishing touch for daywear was a feather boa in pink, and I felt that, should I ever have the good fortune to possess such an item I would stand in front of a mirror, wrapping it around and around my neck, so transfixed by my own beauty that my life would effectively be over.
This Kewpie doll was the most enchanting and glamorous totem I’d ever seen. It crackled with promises of excitement and infinite, motley possibilities.
I picked up the ball, took aim and hurled it at the target like I was throwing a life-line to my own drowning, floundering self.
“Winner! Choose your prize!” said the gypsy man. His voice was a chorus of small stones rasping on sandpaper, his face a russet apple that a distracted vegan had left in their dehydrator for year while they went to teach ESL in South Korea.
Almost choking with over-excitement that I’d won, I pointed at the Kewpie doll.
And as I watched the carnie’s face darken, and his lips twist into a snarl, I understood that the way I was was wrong and that there was no hope for me. I wouldn’t disappoint just my mother, that was a given, but strangers, too, people who had never even met me.
I had heard people talk with suddenly lowered voices; heard words like queer and sissy and one of those; this was like the air I breathed, polluted with sin and disapproval and intimations of the unthinkable. I’d heard them talk about Mister Cunningham, the retired church organist, who was someone children were warned to stay away from, who lived alone and sometimes answered the front door with a pair of underpants in his hand (this was the anecdote related by my cousin, Gert Tucker); but I had never felt hatred and contempt directed towards me, personally, the way I had just felt.
They’d been talking about me all along. I was one of those.
I would have to lock the real me in a vault, for safety; hide the diamonds, as it were, and present only the cheap crystals for public consumption.
I walked home with my sister and I cried silently, a skill I’d already perfected through practice. I had the damned Kewpie doll but it no longer felt like a prize. It was my Scarlet Letter, to be strapped to my belly as I stood in the town square; it was a chunk of plutonium to render me untouchable and poison every attempt at love.
The pinwheel, the feathers and the sequins were still there, but instead of delight I felt shame. Why would an eight-year-old have the skills not to care what people thought? My life depended on caring what people thought.
There is a peculiarly despicable sadism in squelching someone’s delight. To squelch the tender green shoot that is the delight of a child is an act devised in the lowest circle of what you understand as hell.
Which brings me to the Humphead Wrasse. And I can hear all of you exhaling at once with an impatient, “And about time, too!” Please. Be gentle with me, OK? I’m slow but I get there.
The Humphead Wrasse is a giant fish with a punk haircut, groovy geometric skin patterns and thick lips. He lives on coral reefs and is the biggest badass fish in the hood. And get this: he changes sex several times during his life.
That’s right. If there aren’t enough females, a few civic-minded Wrasses will volunteer, throw on the pantyhose, paint their faces and become females.
I think that’s what they call epigenetics: when you have the capacity for being a certain way, but it’s only latent until triggered by something in the environment.
(Or like how in English we have the word “woman” but if the context and environmental pressures require a name for whiny, entitled, narcissistic humans who steal everything that’s not nailed down, wage wars and keep everyone in bondage and slavery, we take off the “wo” and voilà! A diminished human of reduced intelligence and empathy called simply, “man”.)
For those of you with too much spare time who are suddenly terribly concerned about transgenders, or anything else for that matter, being unnatural: Everything that happens in nature is natural. If transgenders were the only manifestation of their type, they would still be natural.
I mean, I hate to be obvious, but it is what I do best.
The Humphead Wrasse doesn’t bat an eye when his best bud Irving suddenly gets all flirty and wants a little sugar. He just rolls up his sleeves and gets on with it. He doesn’t go all “the sex change dudes are getting more attention than me!” and set up a mass protest swim with the other no-sex-change Wrasses. He’s like, “Hey more Humphead Wrasse pussy for me! Whoo-hoo!” or whatever sound he makes when he’s in a party mood.
I mean, when a fish is more sophisticated than a social conservative, well—
—I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.