Comics About What It Means to Be Gay

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Here in the U.S., June is LGBT Pride Month. The selection of June is intended to commemorate the Stonewall riots of 1969—thought by many to represent the start of the gay civil rights movement in this country.

"Do not go quietly..." One of many protests immediately following the Stonewall riots.
“Do not go quietly…” One of many protests immediately following the Stonewall riots.

Stonewall was a turning point in many ways. Prior to the riots’ aftermath, the gay community in New York enjoyed a precarious kind of freedom in small pockets of liberality, Greenwich Village being one, Harlem being another. Late on the night of June 28, 1969, mid-way through the last year of a decade that had yielded Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy (and their respective assassinations), and a whole generation of counterculture, police raided a small bar just off 7th Avenue.

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This type of raid was routine in those days; gay people in America in the 60s enjoyed less freedom than their counterparts in the USSR. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI kept detailed dossiers on “known homosexuals,” which it considered just one type of subversive element among other threats to America like anarchists and communists.

What was different about that particular night, though, was that the patrons of the Stonewall Inn opposed the police, clashing with them in a series of spontaneous, often violent demonstrations. The riots continued for several days. A year later, in 1970 (on June 28, to mark the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots), the first gay pride marches took place in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities across the country. What had been a mark of shame or secrecy was “out and proud.”

The issue of gay rights and the acceptance of gay people continues to shuttle back and forth politically and socially. But what about on a personal level? What is it like for gay people to exist in a society that surrounds them with bewildering messages about whether they are “normal” or not, or small bubbles where gayness is so concentrated that corporate brands have crept in to try to cash in on gay people as a demographic?

And what does all this have to do with comics?

A scene from Paige Braddock's Jane's World.
A scene from Paige Braddock’s Jane’s World
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Not much, all that directly, other than that comics have been written by and about gay people, and aspects of the gay experience. I’ve profiled the amazing Paige Braddock in this column, characterizing her as a true (though gentle) subversive, showing the inner dimensions of a gay character with such skill that anyone could relate to us as human beings. But there are a lot of other visual and comics works out there that look into what, for some (and even some who identify as gay), is a closed, secret or even objectionable world, or merely a political issue.

A good deal of what’s out there in terms of “gay comics” is meant for a gay audience or is erotic in nature. The rest is mainstream comics’ tenuous attempts to address gay themes, characters or issues.

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Judd Winick’s Pedro and Me Alan Moore and José Villarrubia’s The Mirror of Love
Judd Winick’s Pedro and Me
Alan Moore and José Villarrubia’s The Mirror of Love

In the relatively small category of comics that don’t fit into either of these two compartments, there are some that I would recommend to anyone, like Braddock’s work, because they’re beautifully or cleverly written and don’t seem to have that characteristic of a community talking to itself in its own language. As such, they’re a vital means of connecting people who aren’t gay with the human side of what it’s like to be gay. So, in no particular order, a few of my favorites:

Pedro and Me is a comic created by Judd Winick. It had the advantage of being written by a participant on MTV’s reality TV-defining The Real World series in 1993, and describes the author’s friendship with one of the other participants who lived in the same house. Published in 2000, it chronicles Winick’s experiences getting to know Pedro Zamora, an AIDS educator who was himself HIV-positive, and died in 1994. Winick, who is heterosexual and comes from a sheltered background, was initially nervous about sharing a room with Zamora upon finding out that he was HIV-positive. The two eventually became best friends, and Pedro and Me is a moving tribute. I recommend it highly.

The Mirror of Love doesn’t seem like a comic book on first examination, but it’s a work of sequential art created by two comics giants: Alan Moore and José Villarrubia, whom I’ve had the privilege of profiling in this column. Mirror is a work of poetry, painting and photography, structured as an epic poem. It’s epistolary, weaving in historical figures like Sappho, Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare, giving voice to a form of desire that has existed (Moore suggests) throughout time. The book is full of beautiful photographs colored, painted and manipulated by Villarrubia, who is known for his incredible skill and artistry.

Alison Bechdel's Fun Home.
Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

I am on a mission to profile the incredibly talented, introspective Alison Bechdel for this column. Until that day, allow me to point you to her two most recent works, Fun Home and Are You My Mother? Both revolve around Bechdel’s complicated family. Her father, an undertaker, was a closeted gay man who, Bechdel suspects, committed suicide. Bechdel’s mother is a similarly complicated woman, deeply at odds with her daughter’s homosexuality. The books connect you right to Bechdel’s psyche, leading you through her years of growing up in a funeral home, through her college years, to her adulthood after her father’s death.

I’ve written extensively about Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series in this column. While it isn’t a gay-themed comic as such, it is filled with gay characters (human and mythological), and represents, to me, one of the most elevated forms of showing gay people—and even gay issues—without heavy handedness, in a way that is accessible to all. (Well, perhaps not the Westboro Baptist Church, but then, do they read anyway?) Spanning a massive ten volumes, the collected Sandman has entire branches of scholarship devoted to analyzing every character and line of dialogue. It’s just that good. A Game of You, the fifth book in the collected series, focuses particularly on gay characters.

Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby.
Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby

It’s always saddened me that Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby has never received the recognition it deserves, in the mainstream or within the gay community. Many speculate that it’s the book’s title, but I’ve seen far weirder titles in comics that don’t seem to hurt their stories. I just hope one day it enters the limelight as the genius work it authentically is. Stuck is a brilliant fictional memoir, set in the deep south in the 60s. Its title character, based on Cruse’s own experiences, watches the unfolding of the civil rights movement as he contends with his own homosexuality.

Which brings us back to Stonewall. Read some good comics and remember those revolutionaries of June 28 when that day comes around, and join me in pondering what it means to be gay. My hope is that, whenever we figure it out, we’ll be long past the last traces of gay oppression.