In 1989, the year that Tim Burton’s Batman was released, it had been 20 years since the Stonewall uprising. Later that year, ACT UP would stage a mass protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to push back against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese’s position on the AIDS epidemic. There were strides and setbacks aplenty for the LGBT community’s push for rights. As a child living in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, in an era with no internet, and certainly no discussions about any of those events in my public school, I knew absolutely nothing about it.
What I knew at that age was that, despite the fact that everyone in my life decided I was a boy, I had some doubts on the matter. What to do with that information, though, was a little bit murkier. While a concrete definition of what "queer" meant wasn’t readily available, utilizing the word itself as a smear was the point of a pretty rough game played at recess. Up until this point, with an absence of feeling that I had anyone to really talk to about it, the majority of my ability to express or experiment with these feelings I was having was in the form of selecting to play as female characters in video games. At the time that was mostly just limited to Ms. Pac Man, Metroid’s Samus, and the Princess in Super Mario Bros. 2, the last one easily explained by her ability to float and unnecessary to dig deeper into.
This is where Batman enters the picture.
I don’t know if I can oversell the feeling of being 7 years old and living in America the summer that Batman was released. While seeing superhero logos and marketing blitzes for event films these days is commonplace, there was something to the sudden and unavoidable sense of that logo appearing everywhere — on fast food cups, neckties, baseball caps, even being literally shaved into people’s hair. It felt like magic, like Batman was real and these were all signs that he was looking out for us.
I stumbled upon the moment where, in the movie, Vicki Vale is let into the Batcave by Alfred, thus failing at the one job Alfred actually has, and she learns that Bruce Wayne is Batman. The parody version cut to the chase a little quicker, depicting a scene where Bruce steps out of a closet in his Batsuit to discover a nonchalant Vale — whose only commentary is a punchline, paraphrasing it as “Oh, so you’re a transvestite.”
This was a word I hadn’t heard before, and being the curious little nerd that I was, I perked up and brought the comic to my sitter and asked her what it meant. She took it, looked at it, and explained to me that it was a word for men who liked to dress in women’s clothing. To this day, I still remember the look of panic on her face when I responded “Oh, like me,” and suddenly threatened the easy-night status of this sitting job.
Now, let’s be clear about something. I’m not a transvestite; it’s not a term I like to be called nor a description of who I am. For many, it borders even being a slur, a relic from an older age, while some still embrace it and identify with it to this day. I’m not one of those people — but in the summer of 1989, it meant the world to me. In my sheltered little Midwestern suburban life, it was the very first word I’d ever heard to even describe something remotely close to what I had felt. The very idea that there even was such a word was mind-blowing.
There’s a power in language. Up until this point, I thought this was something I was alone in. It made me feel like there was something wrong with me. It made me feel like I was broken somehow. As big as the world can be for a child when you think you’re the only one going through something, it can also feel so very small. Hearing that this thing in my head had a word meant that I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t broken. I was just this type of person that had a name. I wasn’t alone. There were others like me — even Batman, maybe!
I don’t know how much longer I’d have gone on not knowing anything, but I do know that as I got older, as we got the internet and as I began being able to research and explore this facet of myself for real, I could continue to look back on that day and remember where that journey began. I'll always remember the day that media storm of a superhero movie trickled down to a throwaway joke in a silly magazine parody and found me. I'll remember being a scared, lonely kid who didn’t know where she belonged in the world, and how Batman found me and told me I’d be okay.