A classic graphic novel expresses a contradiction at the heart of sexuality
Watching Fun Home, the Tony Award-winning musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical novel, felt like sitting on the edge of a mirror. The in-the-round staging of this story I loved so much made me feel like I was watching my reflection, if slightly distorted, stand and sing before me. While the show is hailed as a rare coming-of-age musical about a lesbian protagonist, the novel also centrally portrays Alison’s struggle with her gender nonconformity in the wake of her own gender-nonconforming father Bruce’s suicide.
Yet as the musical progressed, I watched as Fun Home distanced itself from the transgender themes of its source material. In the graphic novel, whole scenes show Bruce living through Alison’s body as he forces her to wear dresses and barrettes, while Alison rebels by wearing pants because she feels like a boy. These are passing moments in the musical, subsumed by the more widely-legible drama of Alison coming out as a lesbian and Bruce admitting that he’s had affairs with men throughout his marriage. This narrative streamlining is a form of marginalization that is familiar to me as a trans woman. But it’s particularly painful here because in recent memory, Fun Home is the American literary work that comes closest to the idea that sexual orientation is more accurately and productively seen as a form of gender nonconformity.