This past week, I had the privilege of attending a talk sponsored by my university featuring Alison Bechdel. A lot of you may know her for the Bechdel test, which rates movies based on their portrayal of female characters (for the record, Bechdel didn’t actually create the test). For twenty-five years, she wrote and drew the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Recently, she has published two graphic memoirs, Fun Home (about her father’s closeted homosexuality and her own identity as a lesbian) and Are You My Mother? (about her mother and their relationship). On top of massive critical acclaim for both her books and her strip, she was a recipient of a 2012 Guggenheim fellowship, and she is a Marsh Professor-at-Large at the University of Vermont. She’s a pretty cool character.
Alison’s talk, entitled “Drawing Lessons: The Comics of Everyday Life,” focused mostly on her experiences writing and drawing her memoirs, and how she went through that process with her family and with herself. However, she did touch upon Dykes to Watch Out For, and its place as both a comic of queer visibility and political activism. In particular, she said that she stopped writing Dykes in 2008 because in some sense, being queer has stopped being a subversive gesture. That gave me pause.
Alison said that when she started writing Dykes in the ‘80’s, being queer was an act of otherness, a declaration of outsider political stance. The queer movement was very wrapped up with political action, and being queer set you apart from the normal standards of society. It was an act of rebellion. That mentality was a huge part of Dykes, as the comic was set in real time and the characters responded to political events as they happened. To be queer, in that world, was to be radical, ahead of the curve, different. When she said she stopped writing Dykes because this mentality of radical activism no longer applied to the queer community, I couldn’t understand where she was coming from. Being queer is still a subversive act.
On one hand, I can see where Alison was coming from. We have queer people in major political office, the same-sex marriage phenomenon is sweeping the country, and (specifically) those who identify as gay and lesbian are increasingly more mainstream and accepted. Being queer is no longer associated with a certain political view.
On the other hand, being queer and subversive is precisely what brings more attention and change to the mainstream. Existing as a Gender, Sexuality, or Romantic Minority (GSRM) is a subversive gesture in and of itself. When a person stands up and says, “No, I will not play along with the rules of the gender binary”, that person is being subversive. When a queer kid comes out and still maintains their Catholic faith, that is a subversive act. When students create safe spaces within their schools through Gay-Straight Alliances, that is subversive. When colleges and universities require gender-neutral bathrooms and housing, they subvert the social norm of the binary. Any action against the patriarchal, heterosexist, transphobic mainstream counts as an act of subversion, precisely because it says “Hey, your way is not the only way”. These actions may not be politically subversive, but politics is not the only way to long-term change; it also comes through experience and contact and education. Politics changes laws; education changes lives.
While I understand the need for queer political activism, the political realm can only do so much at this point in time. Same-sex marriage has taken up the limelight for queer political issues, and it’s a diva. In its shadow are many other issues that could use political oomph, but can’t quite get there because of the lack of public knowledge and education on those matters. These issues include transgender rights, how the law deals with hate crimes against queer people, and the lack of funding and attention for organizations that help homeless and depressed queer youth. Supporting these causes and educating the public about them helps bring them into the mainstream, but does not make them any less subversive, just as mainstream queerness does not make being queer any less of a radical gesture. Working for change subverts the mainstream, but until we change the mainstream fully with rights and dignity for everyone, being queer and working for queer issues will always be subversive.
In short, I disagree with Alison Bechdel. The newest generation of activists exists on a grassroots level, in cyberspace, on university campuses and in rural towns. They are everywhere, and they are working. The changes may not be visible yet, but they are coming.