I started college in 1993 with absolutely no idea that girls could like girls—like, LIKE them, like them. I knew about gay men—there was that one bedroom scene on that show "thirtysomething"—but that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge about The Gays. I was already an angry feminist, had cut my hair from my ass up to my shoulders (two years later I'd boast that soccer mom/lesbian haircut I still wear), and was heading to a women's college, so deep down somewhere maybe I knew. Or not.
I landed a work-study job at the Women's Center, hired by the lesbian who ran the place, and by the time my second college fall came around I was in desperate unrequited love with a woman, had read Felice Newman's classic "The Whole Lesbian Sex Book" (I hadn't even had my first kiss, but I've always been nothing if not prepared), had bravely attended my first meeting of L.A.B.I.A.—Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action (really)—and was enrolling in all the women's studies classes and falling for all my teachers and classmates. And then I found Alison Bechdel's fantabulous comic book, "Dykes to Watch Out For."
It was like Bechdel had been sitting in the Women's Center with me as my boss hired my unrequited love's girlfriend, was watching as we cycled through loves and heartaches, helped us cook our hippie meals in our sad dorm kitchens. If you're straight, white, middle class, you're used to seeing your life more or less represented in all the pop songs, on TV, in movies, but if you were a baby dyke in the '90s, Bechdel was pretty much the only real reflection of yourself you were likely to stumble upon—we're talking pre-interwebz, people.
And then I grew up, and so did Bechdel, and she came out with a graphic novel for grown-ups like me. "Fun Home" blew my mind in a whole new way. I saw myself in the frames about college lesbian life, sure, but I also saw myself in the stories of opaque parents and unexpected loss, dashed dreams and secret plans. I was teaching women's studies at this point, and I added her graphic memoir to my syllabus.
An unlikely thing happened a few years ago: They made that graphic memoir a musical. And my current ladyfriend—quite a bit younger than me and with a much different coming-out path—got me to give up the bones for pricey tickets and drove me to New York City to see it on Broadway. Best field trip ever.
I hadn't seen a Broadway play since freshman orientation—"Kiss of the Spider Woman," I think. I had heard about Broadway my whole life, though. I'm from Idaho originally, and when my sister and I picked colleges across the street from each other, that street was Broadway. In my imagination we would be a wide river of asphalt away from each other—Broadway couldn't be just a street, could it? But it was, just a few lanes in either direction and a median running up through Harlem. Seeing a play on Broadway was a bit more impressive, but frankly, I was still a bit disappointed to discover that "Broadway" just referred to a general area where there were a lot of theaters.
On this trip, though, Broadway was awesome. The ladyfriend had never been to Times Square, so we started there. Oh man, that place has changed in the last 20 years. It was starting to get its makeover when I moved to NYC, the slow downhill march toward Disney stores and MTV. Gone are the porn theaters and cheap food bars, replaced with chain stores and tourist traps. I wondered where all the people for whom those streets were home had gone as we muscled our way through throngs of people pushing up and downtown, stopping for selfies to prove hey, we're in New York! We took one as we crossed Broadway and headed west for a pre-show drink.
We had two, and some snacks, and then booked it to the theater—no being late for this special event. I can't remember ever being at a big time event like this and being surrounded by queers. That alone was amazing, all the butches and femmes and genderqueers and fags and dykes waiting in that long line for the women's bathroom. It made me smile—we've made it! And then who is exiting the bathroom as we're about to enter but that dyke who hired me to work at the Women's Center more than 20 years ago. I'm not even kidding—there she was, looking just the same: "Surprise running into you at this lesbian event!" she joked. We laughed, she headed to her seat, and I choked back my first tears of the night.
And then the show started and the tears just ran and ran and ran. When college Alison Bechdel falls in love for the first time and sings at the top of her lungs, "I'm changing my major to Joan!" I could barely see through my stinging eyes—I changed my major to Sophie, so I knew exactly how she felt. When young Alison sings about seeing a butch woman and that feeling of knowing somewhere deep inside you that you are not alone, that you can live a full life without apology—well, it was all tears in our corner of the theater.
I spend much of my academic life being critical of representational strategies for political change. Just because there's some gay comic relief on "Modern Family" doesn't mean you can't still get fired for being LGBTQ. It doesn't mean that some of us don't risk violence when we hold hands, use a public restroom, or even just walk down North Avenue and lock eyes with cops.
But that doesn't mean representation doesn't feel pretty fucking good. We cried, we walked, we took the subway down to the village for fries and shakes at the diner where I used to eat with my Joan, and then it was a long ride to the outer edges of Brooklyn, the only place my family can afford to live in NYC these days. A lot has changed in the last 20 years.