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Guggenheim recipient Alison Bechdel will be honored next month by Lambda Literary as the 2014 recipient of the Trustee Award for Excellence in Literature for her decades of contribution to the literary and visual arts that helped to introduce and popularize lesbian culture to the mainstream.
The august comics series, Dykes to Watch Out For, influenced innumerable queer women to express their life stories through the comics form. Through Bechdel’s portrayals of queer life, the series also served as a resource for those queer individuals who sought security and comfort in the face of coming out in a discriminating culture.
Bechdel’s foray into graphic novel form was met with critical and commercial success. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, was named “Best Book of the Year” by Time Magazine in 2006, and its sequel, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, was the winner of Publishing Triangle’s 2013 Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction.
Bechdel’s contribution to the advancement of the LGBT community through her comics is undisputed. Her graphic novels have been taught in classrooms around the world—including my own—as texts that expose students to conceptual and literary complexities through form (in the interplay of image and text and Bechdel’s penchant for literary palimpsest structured through psychoanalysis) and offer them a lens into minority culture and minority experience.
It is for these reasons that the College of Charleston, in South Carolina, provided Fun Home, free of charge, as a “recommended”—but not required—text in its annual College Reads! program for last year’s incoming freshman class.
When South Carolina’s state representative Garry Smith received a complaint from a constituent about the text, he introduced legislation into the State’s House to cut the approximately $52,000 it costs to run the College Reads! program.
Calling the memoir “pornography,” Mr. Smith, a Republican, explained the legislation as an act of retribution: “I was trying to hold the university accountable,” he told the New York Times. “Their stance is ‘Even if you don’t want to read it, we’ll shove it down your throat.’ It’s not academic freedom–it’s academic totalitarianism.”
The legislation passed and is working its way through the State government to Republican Governor Nikki Haley’s desk.
In protest of the proposed cuts and in an attempt to show solidarity with the students of the college, the entire cast of the off-Broadway, Pulitzer nominated musical adaptation of Fun Home, which wrapped earlier in the year at the Public Theater and which is rumored to head to Broadway for the 2014-2015 season, performed scenes from the show at a location off campus, sponsored by the College itself.
Bechdel, who admitted she was made uncomfortable by the brouhaha, joined the troupe in support. In a conversation with Slate’s June Thomas, she noted how much the show seemed to matter to the kids and faculty of the school: “People were really happy that we were there—some had come from other schools three to five hours away.”
“I think I’ve gotten quite complacent in my old age, seeing how much progress has been made in terms of gay stuff,” Bechdel reflected. “It was a wake-up call. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Judy Kuhn, who played Alison’s mother in the musical production, pointed out the hypocrisy of state lawmakers who argue that Fun Home—a novel about understanding and recouping family relationships—is a threat to traditional family ideals: “There’s great irony in what the state lawmakers are doing…. Alison wrote a book about what intolerance and small-mindedness does to people….”
Playwright Lisa Kron, who adapted the novel for the stage, further remarked that this proposed cut is antithetical to the nature of a liberal arts education, the goal of which, she explained, is “to teach you how to sit with ideas that aren’t your own, that may make you uncomfortable, and then evaluate the ideas for yourself.”