Lesbian Cartoonist Alison Bechdel Countered Dad's Secrecy By Being Out And Open
Since coming out as a lesbian in 1980 at the age of 19, graphic novelist Alison Bechdel has made it a point to be open about her sexuality. It was a decision she made consciously as a reaction to her father, who was gay and closeted, and who died four months after Bechdel came out.
"In many ways my life, my professional career has been a reaction to my father's life, his life of secrecy," Bechdel tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I threw myself into the gay community, into this life as a lesbian cartoonist, deciding I was going to be a professional lesbian. In a way, that was all my way of healing myself."
In 2006, Bechdel's "healing" took the form of a graphic novel called Fun Home, in which she details her own coming out and grapples with her father's death, which she suspects may have been a suicide. Fun Home has since been turned into a Broadway play, which recently won five Tony Awards, including the award for best musical.
Bechdel says seeing her life story put to music was a visceral experience: "I was kind of blown away. I was not at all prepared to hear the music. ... It was much more emotional than I had been anticipating."
Fun Home lyricist Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori (whom you can hear in the audio link above) join Bechdel in a conversation about the play.
On Bechdel's father making her wear feminine clothing
Bechdel: That struggle came so early in my life. It's like one of the first things I remember is wanting to wear boys' clothes and fighting with my dad about it. And sometimes I would win, which testifies to the strength of that feeling in me. But mostly when I did have to knuckle under and dress up for a party or something, it just felt terrible. It just felt very powerless. I felt like I was living some kind of lie. It was not pleasant.
On seeing a butch lesbian for the first time when she was about 9 years old
Bechdel: We were in Philadelphia ... a much larger city than where we lived, and we were having lunch in a diner and this woman came in — this big, burly woman with short hair and men's clothes — and I was spellbound. My jaw dropped. My father saw me looking at this woman and he whipped his head around and said, "Is that how you want to look?" And there was so much going [on] in that exchange. In that moment, I recognized that woman: I identified with her; I wanted her; I wanted to be her. And I knew that that was completely unacceptable.
On writing "Ring of Keys," a song about the first time Bechdel saw a butch lesbian
Kron: One of the things that I was ... really worried about doing well was portraying butchness and portraying exactly what is meant by that and what is felt in that, because I think if you live inside of the world and the community where that gender expression has meaning, it's completely clear, but if you don't, it's very difficult to grasp. And yet it's central to this story.
In mainstream culture, the way that it has often been expressed is as a stock character of ridicule. I was very worried about how we would put this story and that character and specifically that moment onstage without triggering that ridicule, that sort of reflexive response. So Jeanine said we need to write a song about this panel [in the graphic novel] and I said, "We can't because there's not going to be a way to do it that people won't laugh at that character and I couldn't bear it." And Jeanine said, "We have to," and then I said "OK," because I do what Jeanine tells me.
On coming out
Bechdel: I came out by reading books, not by having actual experiences with other people. I had this very formative moment: I was browsing in my college bookstore and I found this book called Word Is Out. It was a book about a documentary film that had been made which was interviews with a whole bunch of gay men and lesbians. I think it was made in the late '70s. I was spellbound by this book and as I was reading it, I had this simultaneous realization that, "Oh my God, I am one of these people in this book," and also that it was OK. Just like that, I accepted it in myself. I didn't have any long period of struggle. I had this great opportunity because of the moment, the generational moment, when I came out. It was OK to be gay in 1980. ...
I've been all about being out and open about being a lesbian since I came out in 1980, and it has been my career — I wrote this lesbian comic strip for many, many years. That was my job, a little bit to my family's horror at first, but they all got used to it eventually.
On what led Bechdel to believe her father, who died after being hit by a truck, may have committed suicide
Bechdel: That my mother had asked for a divorce; that my father had been behaving so erratically. My mother would call me upset — he had just thrown a painting down the stairs. So in some way he started to decompensate, like there was something he was just having a hard time managing.
There are other little clues I would find. He was reading a book by [Albert] Camus called A Happy Death, underlining certain passages about love and not being able to love. It just seemed like his life had become impossible.
On "the Bechdel test" of female characters in movies and on TV
Bechdel: I feel a little bit sheepish about the whole thing because it's not like I invented this test or said, "This is the Bechdel Test." It somehow has gotten attributed to me over the years. Many, many years ago — back in 1985 — I wrote an episode of my comic strip where two women are talking to each other. They want to go see a movie and one woman says, "I'll only go to a movie if it satisfies three criteria."
I have to confess, I stole this whole thing from a friend of mine at the time because I didn't have an idea for my strip. My friend Liz Wallace ... said, "I'll only see a movie if it has at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man." That left very, very few movies in 1985. The only movie my friend could go see was Alien, because the two women talk to each other about the monster. But somehow young feminist film students found this old cartoon and resurrected it in the Internet era and now it's this weird thing. People actually use it to analyze films to see whether or not they pass that test. Still ... surprisingly few films actually pass it.
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