Alison Bechdel Reflects on College, Queer Community

Ilse Miller, Staff Writer

Last Thursday, Oberlin welcomed alumna Alison Bechdel to the Science Center for a lecture event sponsored by Lambda Union, along with Year of the Queer and the Forum Board. After graduating from Oberlin, Bechdel hoped to go to art school to continue her education, but found her portfolio denied from multiple institutions. After moving to New York, Bechdel began drawing her now-infamous comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Drawing from personal life experiences, including those of her friends and community members, Bechdel kept up the comic strip for more than 25 years. Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home received vast critical and public attention after being published in 2006, thus solidifying her status as a cultural institution.

The lecture hall was brimming with people by the time Bechdel stepped up to the podium. She began speaking about her time at Oberlin and the turning point her life took while at college, while projecting accompanying images behind her. Oberlin inspired a chain of life-changing events, including Bechdel’s coming out in a letter she sent home during her junior year. The image of her posting the letter from the Oberlin mailroom was projected. Coming out to her family changed Bechdel’s relationship with her father because afterwards he came out to her. Four months later, Bechdel’s father was been killed by a truck, and it remains unclear whether his death was a suicde.

Bechdel went on to speak about self-expression, political motivation and comics as a means of expression. Bechdel spoke about how she got into comics, explaining that she was always drawn to the connection between words and drawing. She talked about experiencing a disjuncture between reality and appearance, and wishing to express her thoughts in a way that could make the two somehow match up. Bechdel said she was drawn to comics because of their status as “lowbrow,” feeling this allowed for a free zone of expression. She spoke briefly of the irony of her cartoon memoir receiving such impressive critical reception, considering that she was initially drawn to the medium because it did not receive critical analysis.

Bechdel remarked that from early on, her queerness caused internal tension regarding her dual identity as both an outsider and a citizen. When writing Dykes to Watch Out For, she realized that personal lives have their own political content and that “the political is personal.” Bechdel spoke about why she decided to end the comic strip after 21 years, stating that it was hard to keep up with evolving identities and that she didn’t feel the same vital need to be telling the stories of her community because she saw these stories were being told elsewhere. Bechdel concluded her talk with some information on her creative process and showed several slides of what her illustrations look like from start to finish.

Bechdel gave an engaging talk, which the Oberlin community received warmly. Everyone appeared drawn to her admiring personality and relatable stories. After the lecture, students and faculty met with Bechdel in the Science Center lobby for a book signing.