An Open Letter to Alison Bechdel (Review: “The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For”)

Dear Alison Bechdel,

By Michael Rhode (101_3633 Alison Bechdel) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Thank you.

I know, I know, you’ve received ten-thousand letters like this but let’s make it ten-thousand-and-one, shall we?

I grew up a queer outcast in a very heterosexual little rural farming town. My exposure to any sort of queer identities was limited to the occasional “let’s be nice to people” discussion in class. At a very young age I identified as not comfortable with how I related to heteronormativity. True, I didn’t always have the vocabulary to express my thoughts on my gender/sexual identity but I was aware enough to recognize that I was different.

I didn’t have the sorts of role models that my normative friends had. Where were the male superheroes that wore pink and why couldn’t Luke and Han make out? (Answer: Because Luke’s a weenie and Han and Leia are bad-ass soul-mates.) What I did have was 7-Days, the alternative paper that my parents brought home every two weeks. I thank my agnostic deity(ies) that I was introduced to 7-Days while in elementary school. Not only did their “Hot2Trot” personal section help guide me through puberty but it introduced me to your comic.

When I read Dykes to Watch Out For I had role models, I had superheroes. A bearded dad in a utility kilt and a transgender teen and people of color (I’m from the second whitest state in the union so this point is particularly important) and liberal intellectuals and queersDykes to Watch Out For was my exposure to the idea that queers came in all shapes and sizes and that we didn’t have to confirm to stereotypes. Yes, I was a male with same-sex attractions but that didn’t mean I had to be limp wristed and lisping (though I do have a bit of a Jon Inman wrist). There’s nothing wrong with happening to share characteristics with society’s ideas of queers but you helped me see that I didn’t need to let it define me.

For a young boy who was being introduced to sex primarily by his male, similarly aged friends (all of whom had very cis-centered, heterosexual, patriarchy themed ideas about sex that they wanted to share) Dykes to Watch Out For also expanded my ideas about what sex could mean. Your cartoons regularly covered discussions about sex as well as depictions of responsible and healthy sex. I can distinctly remember reading a strip featuring masturbation and realizing, “Oh! I can do that! And that’s not a bad thing and in fact it seems like it’s a good thing!” So on behalf of the sexually frustrated adolescent who relied on masturbation to help get him through years of celibacy I must offer you a tremendous THANK YOU.

One thing that I can’t thank you for is inspiring in me the idea that I could easily find a community like the one you wrote about. First of all I assumed that all the action in DtWOF took place in Burlington, a mere forty-five minutes from my house. I believe it was sometime when I was in high school and your book Fun Home was being promoted that I found out that the city was probably somewhere near Michigan. (I was actually really upset when I found this out.) Even with the knowledge that Burlington wasn’t the city you were writing about I still figured that if I went to a medium/small-sized liberal city then I’d find the queers. Well, Ms. Bechdel, I went to the University of Vermont for a year-and-a-half and didn’t meet as many queers as I would’ve liked. My own antisocial nature and reluctance to interact with humanity might have been a stumbling block but if Mo could find friends like that then why couldn’t I? (Side note- I’m now in Amherst and there are a lot more active queers so things might not be as bleak as I once thought.)

Reading The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For brought me back to my days of smuggling a 7-Days into my room and losing myself in the black-and-white lines of Mo and Co.’s endless pursuit of life, liberty and the perfect lentil soup. I tore through The Essential (even setting aside the book on Catholic priests in Protestant England I was currently reading, so you know, it was pretty serious) only to find myself reaching the end far too soon. When I closed the book I could feel my heart sinking as I realized that the lives of characters who I love and adore were frozen in perpetuity. The ending wasn’t all pain though as I found the fire you helped to light all those years ago suddenly flare up as it feasted. Not only was there a rekindling but a new fire was lit. I’m older and a different person than when I first read DtWOF and I’ve found new ways to connect with the work. Now I’m super-charged and ready to take on the patriarchy. I’m looking for my own Mad Wimmin Books and searching for my own Stuart/Ginger/Clarice (Hey, it’s not my fault you wrote such wonderful characters that I want to be in relationships with.) It’s time to be subversive and time to be radical and time to kvetch over hummus.

Thank you, Ms. Bechdel.

 

Yours most humbly and sincerely,

Samuel Aloysius Zaber

The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For; Alison Bechdel; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Company, copyright 2008.

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