When I was a child, I watched a lot of television with my grandmother, a devout Catholic from Ireland. Occasionally, when an actor she really liked appeared on screen — Michael Landon and his flowing locks from Stairway to Heaven, for instance — she’d turn to me and say, “He’s Catholic, isn’t he? I’m pretty sure he is.”
For the record, Landon was Jewish. But that wasn’t really the point for my grandmother: “Catholic” was simply the highest compliment she had to give. It was her way of saying, “I like you, you’re a good person, now come be part of my club.”
I was reminded of my grandmother’s acts of Catholic-claiming over the weekend, when a Twitter feud broke out over a photo of Prince George. Le Petit Prince turned 4 Saturday, and the day before, he was photographed exiting a helicopter after being given a chance to play pretend-pilot. In the resulting picture, his smile is radiant and his hands have fluttered helplessly to his chin, where they frame his beatific face. His outfit is well tailored and on-trend (shorts can be formal these days, and that is a Brooks Brothers’ shirt).
Overall, the photo has, shall we say, a certain “je nais se queer.” Swap the helicopter in the background for a dilapidated suburban swing set, and I’m pretty sure I have a nearly identical photo of myself at that age in a drawer somewhere.
I’m not the only gay man to notice a resemblance. Overnight, Prince George was being hailed as “a bigger gay icon” than Boy George. And, as with everything that happens on Twitter, there was an immediate and opposite overreaction. Gay men were accused of sexualizing Prince George, of insulting the royal family, and — perhaps worst of all — of making illiberal assumptions about someone else’s sexuality, and didn’t that make us just a pack of small-minded assholes?
But, when I was 4, I knew exactly what I was — as did, unfortunately, many of the kids on the playground. Let me tell you, “gay icon” was not what I was called; English has no kind words for any expression of femininity in a male child. You can say “tomboy” in either an insulting or complimentary tone about a girl these days, but refer to a boy as girly or effeminate? Them’s fighting words.
I don’t know anything about Prince George’s sexuality, but let’s not pretend we don’t market “lady killer” onesies to parents of newborns freshly home from the hospital. Heterosexuals comment on the future heterosexual relationships, hetersosexual identities and, yes, the heterosexualities of children all the time — because sexuality is an integral part of growing up, and when we imagine a future for a child, that is always a part of it.
Embracing Prince George as a gay icon isn’t about what sex he might someday have; rather, it’s about seeing a future for a child that reminds you of yourself, and trying to find a way to say, “I like you, you’re a good person, now come be part of my club.” If he turns out to be gay, now or down the line, mazel tov! And if he doesn’t, what exactly is the harm? At worst, a small group of people decided to celebrate him for something for which he would ordinarily have been mocked. Quelle horreur!
When I was a child, there were no gay people on TV. So, like my grandmother, I claimed as gay the ones I liked, whether or not they were actually queer: Michael J. Fox on Family Ties, Velma from Scooby Doo, Neil Patrick Harris on Doogie Howser (I did get that one right!). They were my invisible gays to go with my invisible friends.
Today, there are more options — real options — for queer people looking for icons. But it’s still a limited pool, and I don’t begrudge those who would — in a loving and joking manner — hold out hope for England’s first (acknowledged) gay prince. Straight people have claimed centuries’ worth of queer historical figures for themselves, erasing their lives and loves, and left queer people to discover our histories on our own (if we do at all). Tables: turned.
Don’t like someone suggesting that Prince George might be gay? I’ll make you a deal: Unearth the stories of actual queer royalty, create a rich and resonant pool of icons (fictional, historical and present-day) onto which queer kids can project themselves and celebrate gender-variant children. Then, I won’t say another word about Prince George.
At least, I won’t until he comes out.