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In 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court introduced the soon-to-be widely adopted concept of “civil unions” into the U.S. legal system. This category extended many needed protections to same-sex couples but was quickly used to spur same-sex marriage bans across the country, maintaining marriage as an exclusive category open only to heterosexuals. 1999 was also the year that Aaron McKinney was found guilty for murdering Matthew Shepard. 1999 was the year that the Orange County School Board voted to deny students the right to form a gay-straight alliance. And it was the year that, at the Columbia University gay prom, Ariel Schrag punched a girl in the face.
Part of It, Ariel Schrag’s new collection of short autobiographical comics, follows a series of formative moments in the author’s life from childhood to young adulthood between 1986 and 2006. Direct references to the political struggles that radically reshaped LGBTQ rights in this era between the AIDS crisis and the overturning of same-sex marriage bans are few. Rather, Part of It primarily shows this fraught social landscape through Ariel’s fractured sense of self as she attempts to find a community where she will feel “part of it.”
Some of the most surprising and admirable scenes in the collection are moments like the fistfight at the gay prom, where the author confronts her own aggression. Part of It is interested not just in the warm feelings and security that come from finding a community but also in the rage that people unleash when they feel their group is threatened, and the internal conflicts that can sometimes create even greater resentment between members of the same community. After spending a utopian evening learning about organic vegetables and anti-war protests from a hippie babysitter and her fiancée, ten-year old Ariel slowly learns that bitter misogyny remains at the core of the couple’s seemingly progressive relationship. At age 13, Ariel and a friend board a bus to visit another girl from their school, plotting to shame her over her discomfort with bras, boyfriends, and the other gendered markers of adolescence that they are clearly equally uncomfortable with themselves. Unfamiliar with bus routes, the girls miss their stop and find themselves stranded in a strange part of town, pulling the rug out from under the sense of control that their ability to navigate junior high social conflicts briefly lent them.
Although the book is largely lighthearted, real danger nags at the edges of nearly every story, from memories of uncomfortable childhood games about rape to experiencing debilitating anxiety in early adulthood over the seemingly simple decision of picking out a new pair of glasses. The drawing style, part Alison Bechdel and part Calvin and Hobbes, is perfectly suited to complementing this emotional tone, combining detailed realism with a purposefully-deployed cartoonish expressiveness. As Schrag’s artistic style slightly alters between each story yet maintains its characteristic signature, her images reinforce Part of It’s exploration of Ariel’s changing selfhood as she fits herself to new and unexpected life circumstances.
Part of It is situated between triumphalist narratives of LGBTQ progress and the disillusioned discourses of shame and anger that dominate queer theory. It is also a narrative of coming to terms with personal hurts—both experienced and committed—that the distance of a decade’s time has given the author the perspective that enables her to understand why she might resent or feel the need to destroy the communities she also loves and depends on. Part of It likewise invites readers to think through the individual psychological consequences of social and political circumstances in the U.S. at the end of the twentieth century, a necessary reckoning in order to move forward in an intentional way.
Part of It
By Ariel Schrag
Paperback, 9781328972446, 176 pp.