When I was a kid, Disney’s Tarzan had no political meaning to me. Who wouldn’t love the story of little wild boy, raised by gorillas when his human parents fell victim to an evil jungle cat, having adventures with his animal pals and falling in love with Jane? And of course the music’s great.
But sitting in senior year AP Calc, three weeks after my senior prom, I saw the movie differently. I took a girl to my senior prom – she’s still my girlfriend. My mom stood anxiously to the side while my dad took photograph after photograph of their daughter in a short pink dress standing hand in hand with a girl in a tuxedo vest and blue tie. Mom smiled through a grimace, and I ignored her loud and clear discomfort in favor of chasing a stereotypical prom experience.
And so we sat in AP Calc watching Tarzan. I pulled my desk up next to a close friend – he’d recently started dating a guy and been outed, very late the night before, to an unhappy mother and an irate stepfather. He was still wearing the ratty gym shorts he’d left the house in and a hoodie belonging to his maybe-boyfriend. I knew the dark circles under his eyes and the Xanax in his jacket pocket with intimate familiarity.
And so I watched Tarzan through brand new eyes. Not only did I catch a buried Heart of Darkness reference – a young gorilla shouting “The Horror!” at the excess of the human campsite – but suddenly Tarzan’s story seemed like a full-color metaphor for discovering sexual identity and coming out.
A young man, always slightly different from his family and never accepted by his father, begins to discover his own identity – true, in the movie it isn’t explicitly his sexual identity, but the connections are there – it is after all a romance that leads him to his self-discovery.
I found that the music was practically speaking to me. Listen, though – “Strangers Like Me.”
“I wanna know, can you show me
I wanna know about these
strangers like me
Tell me more, please show me
Something's familiar about these strangers like me”
Maybe it’s just me. But this is exactly how I felt when I was first coming out (at 13) and meeting other gay people – especially older teenagers and adults. I was enthralled and I felt a sense of connection I had never before felt with complete strangers.
It’s a romantic song with “she” pronouns so of course that emphasized my connection with the song.
“Every gesture, every move that she makes
Makes me feel like never before
Why do I have
This growing need to be beside her
Ooo, these emotions I never knew
Of some other world far beyond this place
Beyond the trees, above the clouds
I see before me a new horizon”
This is a perfect stanza for how I felt the first time I had a crush on a girl. And it’s from Tarzan, for heaven’s sake.
And then the song gets into describing my initial feelings about the gay rights movement:
“Whatever you do, I'll do it too
Show me everything and tell me how
It all means something
And yet nothing to me
I can see there's so much to learn
It's all so close and yet so far
I see myself as people see me
Oh, I just know there's something
bigger out there”
These stanzas, for me, reflected my realization that being gay was about more than who I fell in love with – there is a political side to the identity, and there are important political issues in play. “It all means something and yet nothing to me”? Although I understand that my civil rights are important, when I was first coming out, civil rights were the last thing on my mind. I just wanted to know if I would ever have a girlfriend and if I would get to go to a dance with a girl and if I would kiss a girl and if and if and if; the only times I thought about civil rights led to 13-year-old me sitting in a corner and crying because it literally seemed like the whole world was against me. When I should have been able to think about nothing but crushes and first kisses I was haunted by the knowledge that I was now legally inferior.
And I think Tarzan feels that. This is where the movie really speaks to me:
Tarzan is finally discovering who he is. He’s discovering why he’s different from his family and friends, and he’s discovering that this difference is why his father rejects him. He’s realizing that his father rejects him not because of something he has done but because of who he is. And I think that sounds like an experience common to a lot of gay people – feeling rejection and alienation not because of something you’ve done but just because of who you are, because of your intrinsic identity, and worst of all – often because you’ve finally been honest about who you are.
I’ve felt that. I heard people mutter “fag” and “dyke” and “hell” and felt it like a blunted knife because they didn’t know me and I’d never done anything to them – maybe never even spoken to them. But they could see this part of my identity – this incredibly personal part – and they turned it from something wonderful into something painful.