Feb 13, 2015

Why Gay Men Read "Dykes to Watch Out For"

In the 1980s and 1990s, gay men and lesbians both called West Hollywood home, but it was two different West Hollywoods that rarely interacted, with different bars, restaurants, gyms, bookstores, parties, and organizations.  We came together for a few causes of common interest, like Gay Pride, but we rarely became friends.

If you did become friends, it was hard to find a place to hang out.  Lesbian bars charged men exhorbitant covers to keep them out, and the various womyn's spaces in town didn't allow men inside at all.
But we all read Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For in the local gay newspapers, and collected the small paperback reprint books: New Improved Dykes, Unnatural Dykes, Invasion of the Dykes, Split-Level Dykes.  

They gave an interesting glimpse into lesbian experience, so close to our own: growing up amid a "what boy do you like?" brainwashing,  being told that same-sex desire does not exist, escaping to a gay haven, looking for love in a paradise of feminine beauty.

But also so different.  And, perhaps, with lessons we could learn.

1. Gay men paid little attention to events taking place outside West Hollywood, except for homophobes plotting our destruction.  We barely knew that the Gulf War was happening, but Mo, the central character, was devastated by it.  Ecology, big business, politics, poverty, patriarchy -- the Dykes to Watch Out For seemed less insular, ready to fight for many causes in the wider world.

2. Gay men knew other gay men, period.  You might know heterosexuals at work, but you didn't number them among your friends.  You could easily go for weeks without speaking to a woman. But the Dykes to Watch Out For sometimes had children from heterosexual marriages before they came out.  That meant ex-husbands and the current partners of those ex-husbands, and so on, and so on, until their address books swelled with names of friends from every gender and sexual orientation.

3. The acronym LGBT had not yet caught on; gay men recognized same-sex desire, period.  Even vague statements like "what a beautiful woman!" were likely to get you laughed at, if not branded a "traitor."  But early on, Dykes to Watch Out For began to explore the fluidity of desire, with transwomen, bisexuals, and a woman who insists that she's a lesbian, not bisexual, even though she's in a relationship with a man.

See also: The Princess: Sometimes Boys Are Girls.