August 11th, 2014, I was getting ready to board a plane when I heard that Robin Williams had killed himself. My mom shared the news in hushed tones over our airport dinner; my sister was only six at the time, and none of us wanted to explain to her.
I wished that the news had been kept a secret from me, as well, for just a little longer. Instead, reality sunk into me, layer by layer, as we boarded the airplane. Memories of Aladdin and Jumanji on our old basement television crowded their way past me along with the other passengers. Rewinding VHS tapes, the technicolor plastic cases where I would replace them after every viewing. Our Disney collection — I don’t know what happened to all those old tapes. I hope they aren’t in a landfill. Their covers were so bright that sometimes I would just look at them, try to conceive the world painted in bold lines, a world so much easier and more colorful than the cold gray of the basement where I crouched.
It wasn’t that he was my favorite actor, or even close. I almost think it would have been easier if he was. But this way, I had no excuse for the silent contemplation that my mind and body demanded of me. As I got sandwiched on the plane between two large, loud men, without a single armrest to myself, I felt like an idiot. They tried to talk to me, to joke with me, over and over and over, and I felt scrutinized and hollow and ugly and lost. I didn’t want to cry, but I wanted to be home. I wanted to understand. I wanted to watch Aladdin.
If I owe that movie anything, it has more to do with Jasmine than the Genie. She was — you guessed it — one of my first “girl crushes.” I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but I was obsessed with her and her tiger, her long hair, her thick eyebrows and her little curly-toed slippers. So maybe, that afternoon in 2014, I was lamenting that little bit of my self-knowledge. If not for the thrill of the Genie, perhaps I wouldn’t have watched the movie, wouldn’t have fallen for the princess, wouldn’t be the flaming queer that I am today.
I know things don’t really work that way. But things also aren’t meant to work in a way where the comedic light of so many childhoods can off himself with a rope around the neck on a random August day. The best I can do is try to find solace in the butterfly effect.
It was a hard afternoon. In the least glorified terms possible, I felt like shit. And I don’t think that ever really went away.
Farther back, now. Another time — I don’t know the year, but I must have been six, seven, eight. Introversion and social anxiety set in pretty early for me, so I was pretty quiet most of the time. Well, all of the time.
My parents took me camping pretty often. My mom, especially. And there’s this one story she likes to tell, about her and me at a campground — in fact, she mentioned it just last week. It was evening, but the campsites around us were lively enough. The two of us were walking past them, on our way back to our own tent. Well — she was walking. I was parading. I was also singing, and if anyone reading this was in one of those neighboring tents that night, I’d like to offer my sincerest apology; no one should ever be subjected to my atrociously off-key shrieks. But somehow, in that moment, I wasn’t self-conscious at all. “That one bizarre time that your introversion just vanished,” my mom calls it. I think she was baffled at the time, too, by this musical fiend that had suddenly possessed her shy, nervous daughter. But I didn’t have time to be confused by my own actions. I was ecstatic.
The song, of course, was from Aladdin. Which one? The best one: “Prince Ali,” a gloriously theatrical romp through the streets of Agrabah. Aladdin, in disguise, is all at once reinvented, and becomes the focus of what seems like the whole kingdom: pretty girls flounce and swoon, children cheer, shopkeepers stare in wonder. All of them are in awe of Ali, a persona that radiates confidence, wealth, glamor, and — most importantly — masculinity. “Prince Ali, mighty is he, Ali Ababwa! / Strong as ten regular men, definitely,” Williams’s Genie belts. A verse later, a gaggle of starstruck young women join in with a catchy counterpoint: “There’s no question this Ali’s alluring / Never ordinary, never boring / Everything about the man just plain impresses / He’s a winner, a whiz, a wonder / He’s about to pull my heart asunder / And I absolutely love the way he dresses!”
Ali is, in a word, a paragon of the male gender. The Genie has impossibly, wondrously transformed a shaggy “street rat” into a strong, handsome prince who provokes the envy of every other man in Agrabah. Charming, confident, and cocky. Euphoric.
So euphoric, in fact, that he overcomes his skittishness, his well-learned tendency to stay in the shadows. When he is allowed to reinvent himself in the presence of strangers, he absolutely dazzles.
That isn’t to say that I dazzled any of our poor neighboring campers that night. But, God, I felt great. I didn’t connect it to gender at the time. In fact, I still don’t, not really. Because even though being trans is about gender by definition, it’s also so much more. It’s about the understanding and appreciation of oneself as a person, a prince, a protagonist. That night, for the first time, I felt it.
When Robin Williams died in 2014, I started seeing the world differently. It was colder, somehow. I didn’t know him and I didn’t even miss him, not exactly. But I think I owed him something that I never got to appreciate while he was still alive. It’s a silly moment to hold so dearly, but I wouldn’t possess confidence like that again until I started introducing myself with a new name and pronouns.
Everything is so much brighter when I can be proud of myself. Sure, I’ll never be a prince. But also, in a way, I think I already am.