There's a reason so many of us gay children in the '90s identified with Disney's The Little Mermaid. It's been said that the original story appeared in letters written by Hans Christian Andersen to a male lover, the tale symbolizing their own inability to be together. The themes of not fitting in, family acceptance, and wanting to be part of a different world were easy to identify with — especially for those of us struggling with our sexual orientation.
When I was a toddler my Grandma Gerry took me to see The Little Mermaid, and it didn't take long for me to develop a full on obsession with the movie. After giving me the VHS a few years later, and seeing how much the film meant to me, Grandma Gerry went with a full Ariel theme for the upcoming holiday. She got me an Ariel pillow, a Barbie style Ariel doll, and a ton of accessories.
But she wasn't there when I opened them. Grandma Gerry had been fighting cancer for over a year, and passed away on December 17th. She'd already bought and wrapped all of our gifts, and we opened them on Christmas day without her.
Looking back, I'm honestly still a bit surprised that Grandma Gerry thought nothing about giving me a toy usually reserved for little girls. Barbie dolls weren't really marketed as a toy for young boys like me, but she didn't care. She knew I'd love the doll, and she was absolutely right.
I carried around Ariel with me for longer than I'd like to admit. Not only did she remind me of my grandmother, but more importantly, I identified with her character in the movie. She was different from her sisters, and her love for a human was as taboo as queer love is in the real world.
Though I was too young to really be sexually attracted to anyone, it was undeniable that I was different than my older, straight brother. I wasn't often concerned with gender norms – usually requesting the "girl's toy" with my happy meals – and was vocal about my frequent crushes on other boys.
My first crush? Prince Eric, obviously!
"I want to marry Prince Eric when I grow up," I would inform pretty much anyone who would listen. I remember explaining to my mom that I was just like Ariel — "because she was in love with Prince Eric!"
"You can't marry Prince Eric, Mathew," she'd reply, "because he already got married to Ariel. When you're older, you're going to have to find your own prince to marry."
My parents weren't fazed by my crushes or refusal to abide by traditionally male gender roles. "You know if they're your real friends, they won't care what toys you play with," my dad would tell me.
One year for my birthday, when I was around seven or eight, my parents gave me an official collection outfit from the movie they'd ordered directly from Disney. Another year, my mom made my Ariel doll a Maid Marian costume so that she could accompany me (I was dressed as Robin Hood) to my school's Halloween parade.
My obsession slowed as the teasing about feminine toys and my queer mannerisms eventually got the better of me. I retired the Ariel doll before starting junior high, and the conversations about crushes on boys came to a halt.
I struggled a bit coming to terms with the feelings I was having. Although my first kiss had been with another boy back when I was nine or ten, for some reason, I attempted a to date a female classmate in high school. It was nice having a socially accepted partner to take to prom, and at the time I was too worried about what others would think about me to be honest with myself.
It didn't last. I could barely hold my supposed girlfriend's hand, let alone kiss her. It just felt so unnatural to me. What felt natural was kissing that boy years before on my bus ride home from school. What felt natural was talking to my parents about wanting to marry Prince Eric and having crushes on male classmates.
When it came time for me to have the conversation with my parents shortly after I turned eighteen, I knew they would support me. They'd known all along—apparently even before Grandma Gerry purchased that Ariel doll. During a PFLAG meeting a few years later, I learned that my mom had her first inkling I might be gay when she was pregnant with me.
Clearly, my parents were never surprised by my boyhood crushes. The only thing they found surprising was when I hid that part of my life from them in an attempt to convince the world (including myself) that I was straight.
Like Ariel, the path my life took wasn't what I'd expected. Frightened, Ariel went to the sea witch to become human, but with compassion and understanding it was her father who made her bipedalism permanent. I hid my orientation from my parents, but they turned out to be my biggest supporters when I came out to my family.
Oh, and my mom was right. Prince Eric wasn't an option for me, but I did eventually find my own prince.