When I was probably eight-years-old or so, my family travelled from Nebraska to California to visit Disneyland for the first time. We were in the Golden State to visit my aunt, uncle and two female cousins and, of course, to also inhale the acreages of Disney and score some fun rides.
The first day at Disneyland, we purchased mandatory Disney swag and cruft. I was especially proud of my eight-panel, multicolor bucket hat that I wore non-stop. That hat helped shield the intensity of an unfamiliar California sun from my eyes.
While we were enjoying the hot day, I stood under the shade of a tree to watch a live Disney performance on a stage across the street. As I was intently watching the show, somebody hit the brim of my bucket hat and pushed it down to my nose so I couldn’t see.
I looked around to see who was kidding with me and didn’t see anyone. My family was busy eating across the way in a small park. I was alone under the tree. No strangers were around me.
I went back to watching the performance when, a second time, somebody pushed my bucket hat from the back so it slid down over my face.
I ripped off the hat and looked around and saw nobody around me. I wasn’t scared yet. I was peeved because I knew my cousins were somehow behind this even though I saw them eating sandwiches far away with the rest of the family.
When I turned my head back to face the performance for a third time, I was surprised to see Peter Pan standing right in front of me with a cocked finger hovering in the air waiting to give my Disneyland bucket hat a good thwack.
I veered my head to the left, and Peter Pan’s cocked finger thwacked nothing but air.
I thought that was weird. There was Peter Pan standing before me in a tight green leotard. Brown eyes were glistening back at me. A mischievous look of, “Boy are you a dim-witted Bohunk!” smirked from his face.
I didn’t know how to react. I played it cool and said nothing. I crossed my arms. Peter Pan crossed his arms. I turned away and leaned against the tree. Peter Pan did the same. He looked at me and wanted me to say something, but I wouldn’t give in. I just stared at him and said nothing as I watched him take his hand from the tree and delicately place is on his hip. He smiled at me. His body was lithe, but full, and it appeared he had the ever-so-slight suggestion of breasts — which I also found delightful, but weird, because Peter Pan was a boy and not a girl, and yet he was staring through me with a sexual intensity that stirred within me some unfamiliar young puppy lust that mimicked the emotional thrill of forbidden playground teasing from girls.
Since none of it made any sense to me, I decided to pretend none of it ever happened and, repressing the instinct to give Peter Pan the kiss he clearly wanted, I turned away and walked back to my family.
It was probably 20 years later before I had the guts to share my Disneyland Peter Pan tale to my cousins who — laughed and laughed at my confusion. They told me they, too, saw that Peter Pan that day and had talked to her —
“Her?!” I bellowed!
— “Yes,” they roared, “Peter Pan was a girl, and she was flirting with you!”
Twenty years of misunderstanding and Peter Pan repression came rushing to the surface as I realized the basest of the base idea: Peter Pan was a girl and she did want me to kiss her and I wanted to kiss her, too!
Oh, the loss! Oh, the yearning! I felt the sting of my rejection 20 years away and I was re-filled with that initial awkwardness of being attracted to Peter Pan’s feminine body, but not wanting to lead on a boy in tights when I liked girls.
“Peter Pan was a girl,” I said, as the air rushed out of me.
“Yes, Peter Pan is always played by a girl, silly. Little boys don’t want to dress up in girly leotards, so it’s easier to get a girl to play the role.” One cousin said.
Then, piling on, the other cousin said, “Mary Martin was a girl and she played Peter Pan in the movies. Cathy Rigby has played Peter Pan for years! I can’t believe you don’t KNOW that!”
“Why the gender-bending?! Why the confusion for young boys?” I was hollering again.
“She probably thought you know she was a she and not a he,” the first cousin said with a titter.
“Ooof!” The air was let out of me again, and I was re-re-filled with a tinge of melancholia that could’ve set me free in a whole new way that summer at Disneyland — if I’d only been brave enough to start a conversation instead of relying on the hackneyed memes of my Midwestern awkwardness, gender bias, sexual stereotypes and, of course, that old Disney Black Magic.