We’ve all had them: those early, formative crushes on fictional characters from TV and film. For a lot of our straight peers, such crushes were par for the course. Yet, for so many of us queer folk, especially those of us coming of age in a time when sexual identities other than straight were less widely accepted than today, those early crushes were some of the first indicators that we were different. The way we talked about our on-screen crushes had to be different: Phrases like,“He’s so … cool. I want to … be just like him.” or, “I just love her … style.” were a dime a dozen — if we were even of capable of engaging in those conversations at all.
While not my personal first screen crush, I have vivid memories of having a conversation about “Titanic” in the mid 1990s. I had just seen the movie and had become enamored with young Leonardo DiCaprio. Mind you, I had already also noticed him on the TV show “Growing Pains.”
One conversation always comes to mind when discussing this topic. We were on a field trip to some wetland, nature preserve. I let slip something along the lines of, “Yeah, I like, love Leonardo DiCaprio.” One of the other boys I was friends with at the time looked at me and after a moment said, “That’s pretty gay.” I had to be about eight at the time; it was 1997, I was in third grade, and for the first time, I found myself directly confronted with the idea that I might be different. I might be gay.
Of course, this possibility was something I felt on some level for as long as I can remember. “Hocus Pocus” had come out in 1993, the same year “Boy Meets World” started airing. It was the ’90s and Jonathan Taylor Thomas was everywhere. Devon Sawa, the live-action version of Casper the Friendly Ghost, was whispering in Christina Ricci’s ear, sparking the first of countless sexual awakenings across the country.
Regarding some of his earliest on-screen crushes, Patrick, a Chicago-based Circus Artist, told me: “The best friend in ‘Boy Meets World’ [Rider Strong’s Shawn Hunter] in second grade. It was his hair. I mean, seriously dreamy.”
Patrick states that he never really talked about his crush with anyone. “I kept that very much to myself, [I] probably made a point to not talk about Shawn Hunter. In fact, I probably made it more of a point to talk about Topanga. I was pretty vigilant about masking [my homosexuality]. Oh my god, we were under so much stress, like, our whole lives.”
Deflecting attention to other, more acceptable crush-worthy subjects makes a lot of sense and is definitely relatable. Still, that doesn’t lessen the poignancy of those early crushes, nor the pressure to hide them. It definitely doesn’t stop other crushes from popping up.
“Another big moment for me was that Halloween movie, ‘Hocus Pocus.’ Thackery Binx and Max Dennison, with his long hair and white cotton T-shirt or whatever.” Being able to reflect on these crushes, and even the awkwardness and guilt surrounding them, now often elicits more smiles and laughs than anything else. When asked about how he feels looking back on his feelings towards characters like Shawn, Max, and Thackery, Patrick says with a smile that he feels, “Like, I had good taste … and still do.”
Taylor Croteau, a second year MFA Writing student here at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), identified her earliest crushes as “Scully from ‘The X-Files,’ and Emily Deschanel’s character in ‘Bones’.”
Croteau remembers, “I was probably in middle school, ten or eleven.” She notes that, “[These crushes] were at very different times in my life. It was problematic with the first one [Deschanel]; I think I had my own gender issues, and I was equating gender and sexuality a lot. Also, I was ten, so to be fair, I was a small [sic].”
Similar to Patrick, Croteau wasn’t vocal about her crushes. Croteau states, “I did talk about Scully in college. I mean, you have to love Scully, that’s my wife. Looking back on the experience, I wish I had been more accepting of little ten-year-old Taylor. I don’t know if I wish I had said anything to anyone. I mean, I grew up in Tennessee, but I still have not gotten over my crush for Scully, that’s eternal love. My feelings are present. They are still the same.”
Talking with some younger SAIC students paints a similar picture, albeit with new, different objects of affection. Nathan, a sophomore, mentions his childhood crush on “Ryan Potter. He’s the guy who voices Hiro in ‘Big Hero 6,’ and now he’s gonna be Beast Boy in the live action ‘Teen Titans.’ I first discovered him because he used to be on this Nickelodeon show called ‘Supa Ninjaz.’”
Though Nathan had come of age in a time where there were a lot more publicly recognized gay personalities, he could still relate to the idea of processing those youthful crushes through other frames of reference. “I wasn’t sure at the time what it was, but I had this intense admiration for him because he was the first Asian person my age I saw on TV I just thought he looked cute.”
As with the experiences of many other queer individuals, Nathan did not talk openly about his crush: “I was in 7th or 8th grade, and I didn’t tell anyone about my sexuality or anything, it was just me sitting on my couch, watching TV alone.”
In retrospect, the sense of shame and secrecy surrounding some of these crushes has a lot to do with the pressures of the closet that generations of queer folk are all too familiar with. At the same time, there’s a nostalgia and sense of camaraderie surrounding reflections on such crushes. Even if, at the time, we were all “on the couch, watching TV alone,” we ultimately were in good company. With the our collective cultural obsession with all things retro (hello “Stranger Things” and my current crush: Steve Harrington), remembering a time when things at least seemed simpler, is comforting and familiar. For many of us queer individuals, despite the internalized sense that, at the time, we needed to hide or codify our feelings about these characters; a sense of pride remains. Even at a young age, we had enough sense-of-self to recognize, on some level, a truth about our identity through the people we romantically admired on screens both big and small.