Dykes To Watch Out For
When I began, tentatively, to come out as bisexual during my teens, my list of queer role models was fairly short. I had read and absorbed and wept over the gay relationships in Mary Renault’s novels; I knew there was something inexplicably sapphic about Keira Knightley in Bend it Like Beckham and Anna Chancellor in The Hour; but I was the first in my group of friends to come out, and my experience was predominantly solitary. More than anything, I wanted a community – of people my age, sure, but also people older than me, who had been there, done that, and could point the way for me.
When my sister gave me a copy of The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For this Christmas, I knew I had found the community of queer elders that my adolescent self had yearned for. These weekly cartoon strips were created by lesbian icon Alison Bechdel (of the eponymous Bechdel test and author of Fun Home). They appeared in a number of alternative newspapers in the USA over the course of several decades from 1983 onwards, following a large cast of characters living in an American city which may or may not have been Portland, Oregon. The strips are often funny, and always beautifully drawn, with the kind simplicity of style which makes you think ‘I could have drawn that, if only I’d thought!’. The real appeal of the strips, though, is the honesty with which Bechdel portrays her community of characters. She doesn’t set out to depict a perfect community, or to persuade a homophobic society of the ‘respectability’ of queerness. Her characters are flawed, developing, and real.
One of the best things about discovering the recent past of LGBTQ+ folk through the lens of DTWOF is the realisation that people have been fighting, campaigning, and creating space for queerness for such a long time. The strips leading up to and in the aftermath of the election of George W. Bush, for example, are full of the same combination of pain, frustration, and determination that I shared with my communities in the wake of Trump’s election. It doesn’t exactly make things better, but it’s comforting to know that we have always been there for each other, making shelter for our friends in an unfriendly world.
I read my Christmas present in the space of a few days, which meant that I raced through twenty years of the strip’s lifetime dizzyingly fast. Relationships sprang up, grew, became established, and faltered in the space of a few hours. Campaigns against the war in Iraq, and in favour of equal marriage, whizzed by. I’ve since returned, and revisited some sections more slowly. But I don’t regret falling headlong into the book; it was much like developing an intense crush, though on a community rather than a person. More than anything, I wanted to know more about them and to spend time with them. I cannot give it higher praise.
Naomi Gardom, Kite Trust Volunteer
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