Alison Bechdel, Apollyon, Bisexuality, Christian, Comics, Coming out, Coming out Narratives, crossed legs, Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, fathers, Fun Home, Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone, Gender Expectations, graphic novel, Homosexuality, John Bunyan, Literature, Martin P. Levine, masculinity, Matthew Shepard, metacognition, On Writing, Pilgrim's Progress, reflection, religious allegory, Ryan Renyolds, Sexuality, That's Gay, The Green Mile, The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream, often just called Pilgrim’s Progess, The World According to Garp, Ulysses
I recognized Bruce the moment I picked the book off the shelf, even though I had never met him before in my life. It’s a sentiment I’ve read before in many of the testimonies by homosexual, pansexual bisexual, transgender, and everything in-between people in the amassing Queer Theory library within my own library and I think that idea of “recognition” is vital for Queer people. My recognizing Bruce Bechdel however wasn’t because he “looked gay”…okay, it wasn’t ONLY because he “looked gay,” but rather because he, like me, sat with his legs crossed.
The reader might immediately object, wondering what the fluffy duck that has to do with anything? Before I continue I like that expression and I’m totally stealing it.
When I was a kid, and I do mean kid, I was rather effeminate. That may be too strong a word to characterize my behavior because, boys are especially precious and exhibit some level of hyperbolic behavior but looking back I was a rather effeminate boy. Part of this might have been because I always preferred hanging out with girls rather than boys. The girls were nice, wanted to play Pokémon like I did, they didn’t laugh at me when I cried, they didn’t play sports which I hated, they had interesting things to talk about, and, Freud’s latency period be damned, I thought most of them were really cute and it was more fun having them chase me that kicking a ball across a field. Whether it was my extended interaction with them, or just genetic conditioning on my part, I often sat with one leg crossed over the other with my arms crossed over and balanced on the knee while my back slumped forward. If that position sounds familiar it’s because it is often the position that female models in magazines assume, and that hot girl in your third period history class sits in that drives you crazy because you know you could ask her out and you think she wants you too but you’re too much of a coward to and next period you find out the Baseball teams manager did…so yeah. Good times.
The legs crossed over the other was one of my go-to stances growing up, and when I was standing I often placed my hands on my hips and puffed out my chest. Both of these positions apparently were signs of femininity and some asshole-clown-fuck once picked on me enough about it that it was dropped until I graduated from high school. My shitty childhood aside, this example from my own life is rather revealing of a great number of boys who failed the “look of manhood.” Masculinity is often a performance, and a phallic performance at that for the way that “Men” sit is the uncrossed, open legged stance in which your body penetrates as much space as humanly possible.
Since it’s the start of the summer months, and I’ve recently graduated with my Master’s, I thought I would enjoy a nice period of just reading, playing Fallout 4 non-stop, and digging into some old writing projects. At the top of the pile of books I formed was a book that caught me, like Fun Home, from the cover alone. Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone tracks the history of Gay men in the 1970s before and then after the rise of the AIDS crisis. Martin P. Levine, who lived the lifestyle and also subsequently died of AIDS, tries to understand what were the codes of Masculinity that lead to the debacle of the disease and early in the book he observes how boys learn the codes of masculinity alongside sexuality. Levine says,
At the same time, boys also begin to learn what it means to be a man. This role also takes a variety of forms; there are multiple definitions of masculinity based on other social factors such as age, race, ethnicity, region of the country (Stearns 1979). The culturally dominant construction is male gender role stereotype, which includes a wide variety of traits and behaviors. Sociologist Janet Saltzman Chafetz listed seven areas of characteristics of traditional masculinity: (1) Physical—virile, athletic, strong, brave. Sloppy, worry less about appearance and aging; (2) Functional—breadwinner, provider; (3) Sexual—sexually aggressive, experienced. Single status acceptable; male “caught” by spouse; (4) Emotional—unemotional, stoic, don’t cry; (5) Intellectual—logical, intellectual, rational, objective, scientific, practical, mechanical; public awareness, activity, contributes to society; dogmatic; (6) Interpersonal—leader, dominating; and (7) Other Personal Characteristics—aggressive, success-oriented, ambitious; proud, egotistical, ambitious, moral, trustworthy, decisive, competitive, uninhibited, adventurous (see Chafetz 1974, 35-36). (12-13).
This is a rather long list, and looking over the qualities of masculinity I recognize some that I do embody, and others that I don’t or never have. Still it’s a stereotype for a reason. I’ve written before about the conflicted nature I’ve had with the idea of manhood, and while I’ve never questioned my gender identity I have often wondered about whether I have passed the rites of manhood. Part of it may have been my effeminate nature, but other parts of it might have had something to do with the stirrings of my sexuality. Which brings me to John Bunyan. No not the lumberjack that was Paul. Played by Oliver Platt in Tall Tales. I’m referring to the 17th century Baptist writer and theological scholar.
It’s an odd moment, and even in retrospect I don’t know where it came from. In my sophomore year of high school my teacher always had two books assigned, one to read for regular class discussions, but also another for outside reading to be done by a set date. One of the books was The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream, often just called Pilgrim’s Progess. The story is a religious allegory (story where everything builds towards a didactic moral lesson and everything in it is usually symbolic) and is told in two parts. My class only had to read the first half which is the story of a man named Christian who has fallen from the Grace of god and goes on a long journey in order to find Heaven and Paradise and while he searches he encounters angels and demons of all sorts. One of said creatures is Apollyon, whose name literally means “Destroyer,” who has fish scales, a lion’s head, a second mouth on his stomach, and fights Christian in the Valley of Humiliation in hopes of returning him to the village to live his life out in dutiful service. For the record, as far as I know, Bunyan was not on drugs when he wrote this book though I imagine the people who turned Alice’s Adentures in Wonderland into a stoner’s paradise would get a nice kick out of this odd book. The reader may be getting frustrated with me by now but I’ve come to the important point.
I was in my home reading the book and this specific scene. My sister was sitting across from me doing homework while classical music was playing. I don’t know where my parents were, I think they were in the back watching television. I was in the middle of the fight with Apollyon when I had a thought that flooded my entire body and had come, seemingly out of nowhere: “Oh my god I’m gay.”
My body trembled. I felt like throwing up. I ran to the bathroom and stared at myself in the mirror. The next half hour is a blur because I talked to the figure in the mirror assuring him that I wasn’t gay. I liked girls. They had boobs and boobs were great. I wasn’t gay. I was not. Once he had been convinced of this truth I smiled to myself and left the bathroom completely forgetting about the thought.
In hindsight I had been both right and wrong.
To this day I don’t really have any explanation for this sudden conviction of homosexuality. Perhaps the image of Christian, a man desperate to hold onto his faith fighting an inverted monster was a convenient metaphor for myself, but at that time I was dealing more with budding atheism than my bisexuality. Perhaps my teenage brain imagined these two beings fighting one another, and the image of two male torsos pressed against one another in Grecian style combat created some stirring of desire which reared its ugly head up. Or, and this is entirely possible, I was just a confused teenager who didn’t know what I wanted.
This sensation would never return in such violent and intrusive quality, but it did occasionally appear over the course of my development. I would take more than just a casual notice of men in magazines or on the internet, and occasional dirty movies that I would pretend desperately hadn’t happened but Browsing histories don’t lie. It was always there and I had no real name or title for it.
I suppose that’s why recognizing Bruce on the cover of Fun Home there was once again a dormant stirring. I didn’t just want to buy the book, I needed to read it and find the man on the cover. I wish I could say I had heard of Alison Bechdel and her work in Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, but I was pushed by another force. I wanted to learn and study the behavior of men who desired other men sexually because I hadn’t yet realized I was one of those men. I tucked the book into my pile, and when my family had returned home I opened the book and began to read. The only other time I have devoured a book with such veracity was The Green Mile, and like that experience which made me recognize that I had to be a writer, Bechdel’s book instilled in me the idea that human sexuality, as well as my own, was something vital to the discourse and would forever after be part of my existence.
Reading the book I felt sorry for Bruce, but honestly there was more pity and concern aimed at his family who had to deal with his compulsive desire for perfection. Bechdel shows her reader numerous instances of her father’s at times erratic behavior whether it be during dinner where she compares him to the Minotaur:
Or else the numerous fights that took place between her parents:
Allison would describe her father as a towering malevolent presence:
And even Bruce himself would, in his own way acknowledge his faults:
The reader may at this point ask whether or nor Bruce Bechdel is really a sympathetic figure? Given the way he allowed his mania for perfection and closeted sexuality to come at the expense of his family can anyone really look at the man and see him as a good man? To this, I don’t have any clear response.
I’ve read Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic about three times a year every year for the last three years, and each time I read the book I’m struck by the character of Bruce, specifically the conflict of his “erotic truth.” Bechdel employs these words in the last section of the book to imply the idea of person’s sexuality and that Bruce’s conflict was ultimately rooted in the fact that he was conflicted with his own erotic truth. She doesn’t say outright that Bruce is gay, for he might have been bisexual or pansexual, and without his outright testimony we’ll never really know. For my own part this idea of “erotic truth” became something incredibly important for me. I didn’t want to be something I wasn’t, more importantly I didn’t want my marriage to suffer. I told my wife I was bisexual, and she was happy for me but reminded me that unless Ryan Reynolds demonstrated any interest nothing was going to happen, which I’m perfectly fine with. (*in hushed whisper* Mr. Reynolds if you’re out there call me.)
This essay is not my usual objective approach to looking at a work of literature, but recently my friend Tom who leads our Graphic Novel Book Club announced that the new book for this week would be Fun Home, and seeing as how much this book has meant for my personal development I was thrilled and, as usual, forced into a bit of metacognitive reflection.
Fun Home is a book that, much like Ulysses, The World According to Garp, and On Writing, has left me so entirely affected that to consider my life without it now is unthinkable. Much the way Bechdel presents the moments in her life in relation to books so do I, and considering it’s place in my life the story of Fun Home is the story of my coming out. “Coming Out” stories have the potential to become cliché over time, but nevertheless queer authors, writers, artists, actors, statesmen, journalists, memoirists, and biographers have the duty of performing this right.
The “Coming Out” story is not just public declaration for the sake of acknowledgment by the masses, it also serves the purpose of recognition. Bechdel describes her own realization after reading The Word Is Out, a book which was a collection of interview with self-identifying queer people. This idea of “erotic truth” is important because ultimately is we cannot be honest with ourselves about our honest nature, sexually, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and everything else then we’re not really living. Bruce lived a life of quiet desperation, and while his family wasn’t ruined by the experience they did suffer at times the wrath of a man who might have served everyone better had he the gumption to be honest.
Of course there are extenuating circumstances and the man did the best he could with what he had, but finishing the book after reading it for the first time I was struck by yet another of my seemingly endless thoughts: I don’t want that to be me. I’ve now spent the last two years studying sex, gender, and everything in between and I’ll continue to do so because that’s my erotic truth. Fun Home, and Bruce with his prissy stance, kicked my ass out the door that would lead me to where I am now.
Recognition is everything. When we recognize the people we instinctively know as our own, whether they be men, women, or even fish-scaled demons with lion’s heads, then we start community and the process that leads to a fully functioning self, and, sometimes, access to people who suggest good books to read.
I’ve included below a link to a web series I’m a fan off that covers the way “coming out” is often presented in media and television. That’s Gay is a series that was always, alongside Modern Lady, the best part of Infomania for me and I hope you enjoy it too.
I’ve also included a link to a comic essay by Bechdel called Coming Out that I would really encourage you to read, you can begin to see the inklings of the work that would eventually become Fun Home as well as numerous scenes that would later actually be included in the book
“That’s Gay”-Brian Safi
“Coming Out” by Alison Bechdel
*Writer’s Second Note**
For the record Ryan Renoylds is not my go-to man crush, nor, believe it or not, is Benedict Cumberbatch. Now if Matthew Shepard were to…to…to…
Sorry, I seem to have lost my train of thought.