In the late 1950s I was a miserable little 11-12 year old transkid stuck up in the snow belt of far northern New York.
I skied and skated. I played hockey since even thinking about figure skating would have gotten me pounded to a pulp and ridiculed.
In the summer I loved to swim.
If I had been a WBF instead of a WBT I would have been a tomboy. Not really a baby butch but more like the little girls of today who play soccer and softball.
I wasn’t the little princess type, neither the WBF nor the WBT sort.
In 1959 the movie “Gidget” came out. I also bought the paperback. I was blown away.
I had a role model. A girl who was the kind of girl I wanted to be. You see in the late 1950s girls didn’t surf. Girls sat on the beach, sun bathed and looked pretty for the boys who did things like surfing.
Gidget wanted to surf too. She bought a board, a long board (In the 1950s boards were 8-10 feet long and were heavy) and got the guys to teach her how to surf. She had to face sexism and the idea that, “Girls don’t surf.”
But she learned. There were several other novels and a bunch of movies and I went to all of them even though I was teased for liking “girl movies”.
Gidget was a real person and the fictionalized stories about her exploits as a teenage girl surfer in 1950s Southern California were true.
The original Gidget was created by Frederick Kohner in his 1957 novel Gidget, The Little Girl With Big Ideas. The story was based on his daughter Kathy.
Now if the story ended there Gidget could have slipped into the recesses of books and movies read during childhood the way Pippi Longstocking and Nancy Drew did.
But Gidget was a role model for my pre-feminist socialization.
Other movies followed morality tales like Parrish and Where the Boys Are where girls make the mistake of saying yes and are hit with the punishment of pregnancy. While those tied in with my mother warning me about boys and the dangers I would face of beatings and even murder not to mention local disgrace were I to succumb to any feelings I probably had.
Yet Gidget remained.
Many years later when I was some 30 years past coming out I read an article about the real Gidget in the LA Times. Her name is Kathy Kohner Zuckerman.
The following is an excerpt from Surf Culture The Art History of Surfing
But in the hallway, I saw a large black-and-white photo of a striking teenage girl on the beach with her surfboard, wearing the innocent smile and modest swimsuit of the 1950s. “This is me,” Gidget said proudly. She looked as happy as she did that day on the beach, a far different Gidget than the woman to whom I had been introduced on the Columbia lot. “That’s the picture Life magazine used.”
I recognized the photo, although I could not remember exactly where and when I had seen it before. It was one of those images that summed up a world so perfectly, there was nothing left to say. The Gidget in the photo is the Gidget that launched a thousand boards, and the one who now guided me into her once-and-future past. We headed out to the patio, and Gidget talked about how it all started.
“We were living in Brentwood,” she said. “My mother used to drive some of the neighborhood guys down to the beach. They would put their boards in her Model-T. I tagged along. I wanted to surf — it looked like so much fun. I pestered everybody for lessons. I remember asking a surfer named Scooter if I was bothering him. He said, ‘You’re breathing, aren’t you?’ There was this guy named Tubesteak living in a shack. A few other surfers were always hanging around. They were always hungry. I think some of them lived there, too.”
Just as the Stations of the Cross are key points along the way to a defining religious moment, the shack Gidget referred to — although long gone — is a sacred site, along with its revered twin, The Pit. Its very mention among surfers, especially those who surfed Malibu in the ’50s, conjures a mythology that forever binds the wave-riding tribe. On her pilgrimages to the beach, Gidget would bring a picnic basket filled with homemade sandwiches and trade them for use of Tubesteak’s surfboard. Soon, she bought her own board for thirty-five dollars from a well-known shaper named Mike Doyle. “I wish I still had it,” she said. “It was blue and had a totem pole on it. Today it would be worth a small fortune.”
In a very real way Gidget made my life as a transkid bearable at a time when I thought I was the only person like me in the world. She embodied everything I wanted to be as an innocent 11-12 year old transkid who would soon be caught by my parents and labeled as a teenage drag queen.
But more than that she taught me that just because you are a girl doesn’t mean you can’t surf or do anything else you dedicate yourself to doing.
That made her really special among 1950s girl heroes.