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Bechdel speaks of life, career, LGBTQ rights at Wilkes U.

The line for Alison Bechdel’s autograph took well over an hour at Wilkes University on Tuesday night.

Many of those who walked away with the author and cartoonist’s prized signature first shared personal stories of inspiration, hope -- and yes, struggle.

Some told Bechdel, an icon of queer literature, their own coming out stories. Others were positively giddy just to have met her.

“It was beautiful, I thought it was fabulous,” Wilkes graduate Brianna Schunk said, a quiet reverence in her voice.

“It’s just been so phenomenal and so surreal getting to meet her,” freshman Caleb Flannery said, barely concealing his joy.

Bechdel spoke at the university’s Dorothy Dickson Darte Center to kick off the English Department’s 2024 Allan Hamilton Dickson Spring Writers Series.

The Clinton County native rose to international acclaim for her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” which for 25 years followed a group of lesbian characters through life, love and America’s changing political climate.

Bechdel later turned her pen to the story of her own family, notably the suicide death of her closeted bisexual father, in “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” a 2006 graphic novel that chronicled her early years in rural Beech Creek.

“I was a clueless white middle-class kid who grew up not too far from here, in a small town,” Bechdel, 63, told the audience.

Coming out as a teen

At 19, Bechdel came out as a lesbian, a watershed moment which changed not just her life, but her perspective on American society, leaving Bechdel feeling increasingly like an outsider.

“But you can see how things are from outside the system,” Bechdel said. “I was starting to understand the way oppression works.”

When “Dykes to Watch Out For” launched in 1983, “most gay people were not out,” Bechdel recalled, and the strip was focused on the daily lives of urban lesbians like the people she met after moving to New York.

“My work did eventually become more overtly political,” she said, noting how the fight for LGBTQ rights – and significant victories -- resulted in backlash from opponents.

That backlash intensified after June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

“I never imagined when I was young that gay people would be able to get married to each other,” Bechdel said. “I thought, maybe we had progressed so far enough that we wouldn’t be going back to the bad old days.”

She paused, adding: “It’s becoming more and more obvious these days that this is not true. It’s freaking out those people who don’t want things to change.”

Bechdel was frank in her denunciation of the autocratic direction she fears the country is headed in, including book bans and increasing restrictions on bodily autonomy.

“The more chaos they create, the harder it is to see what they’re really doing, and what they’re doing is they’re dismantling democracy, because they think autocracy would be better for them,” she said.

“It’s tragic and insane that we’re caught up in this manufactured nonsense when there are so many real issues,” Bechdel added.

Other works

In addition to her long-running comic strip and “Fun Home,” Bechdel’s works include “Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama,” which delves into her relationship with her mother, and “The Secret to Superhuman Strength,” which was released in 2021.

“Dykes to Watch Out For” also inspired the famous “Bechdel Test,” a measure of gender bias in film and fiction. It was based on a conversation between two characters, one of whom says she only watches movies that have two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

“It was just an episode of my comic strip in 1985 that I stole from a friend,” Bechdel said to laughter from the audience. “It was lesbian humor. We just thought it was funny. It’s been very strange watching the world catch up to that analysis.”

Another of her works that jumped off the page: “Fun Home,” which was turned into a musical in 2013.

On Tuesday, Bechdel and the audience were treated to a live performance of a song from the production by members of the Wilkes University Theatre ensemble, which recently staged a presentation of the musical.

Powerful stories

First year Wilkes students Cally Williams and Caleb Flannery are musical theatre majors who served as assistant stage managers for the production. They were on hand for Tuesday’s event, and among the first in line waiting for Bechdel’s autograph afterward on their scripts, eagerly holding them up for photos.

“It’s just such an amazing book and show,” Flannery said.

“Especially being able to do an LGBTQ musical in this area is so awesome,” said Williams.

Wilkes student Jazmin High, from East Stroudsburg, credited Bechdel with helping her on her own journey.

“She really influenced me as a writer and we have something in common – we’re both gay,” High said.

“I happened to tell her that I came out two days ago because of her book. It helped me come out,” High added, saying that the process had “gone so well, better than I thought it would.”

Brianna Schunk, a 2020 Wilkes graduate, is “a very big fan” of Bechdel’s work who came to Tuesday’s event clad in a colorful “Fun Home” T-shirt.

“When I was in school, I saw her original Broadway production on its closing night, and then in 2018 I was in a class about American resistance literature, and ‘Fun Home’ was one of the books that we read,” Schunk said. She wrote her final paper on the book, and that paper was later accepted for presentation at a Sigma Tau Delta the English honors society conference.

“She really seeks to present the truth in her books, which I think is very evident when you read her novels, that no matter what she’s either seeking to find the truth or tell the truth,” Schunk said.

Talking briefly with WVIA News after the line of autograph speakers came to an end, Bechdel reflected on the backlash against civil rights she discussed in her lecture.

“I felt like we were just on this upward trajectory, the long arc of justice finally going in the right direction, but it’s very clear that that arc can go any which way, and it is going backwards right now, and we have to stop that from happening,” Bechdel said.

And her advice to young LGBTQ people in this country?

“We love you, we need you, keep fighting.”

You can listen to Erika Funke's recent interview with Alison Bechdel here.

Roger DuPuis joins WVIA News from the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. His 24 years of experience in journalism, as both a reporter and editor, included several years at The Scranton Times-Tribune. His beat assignments have ranged from breaking news, local government and politics, to business, healthcare, and transportation. He has a lifelong interest in urban transit, particularly light rail, and authored a book about Philadelphia's trolley system.

You can email Roger at rogerdupuis@wvia.org
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