The Mirror Stage

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.

Fun Home the graphic novel also leaves unresolved the question of why Bruce and Alison’s cross-gender identification is only dealt with in adulthood through the lens of sexual orientation. But Fun Home the musical doesn’t treat this as a question at all, setting aside one of the novel’s most vital elements. That this is a casualty of the adaptation to the stage isn’t such a surprise, as it troubles the long-held yet inaccurate Western idea that sexuality is distinct from gender expression. But even if its implications remain unaddressed, Fun Home the graphic novel at least depicts Alison’s attraction to women as unavoidably enmeshed in her desire to be a man, and Bruce’s attraction to men as also a part of his allegiance to femininity. For the two of them, same-sex desire is simply the most irrepressible form of a more complete gender variance, as they try to survive in a heterosexist system that defines manhood as a desire for women and womanhood as the inverse.

In the novel, both Alison and Bruce clearly express a gender nonconformity that only gains political and social recognition from others through their same-sex attractions. They do so in the context of an American legal and social system where homosexuality is the form of gender-nonconformity that has proven most difficult to repress, because physical and romantic desire is such a cornerstone of Western subject formation. Its resilience has helped homosexuality become the site of activism, albeit at the expense of the wider collection of gender-nonconforming identities that transgender and nonbinary people inhabit. Conflating sexuality and gender expression makes Americans uncomfortable, as the delicately negotiated terrain of sexual politics has tried to demarcate a line between the two. But this line was erected for specific purposes that benefit binary (or binary-presenting), cisgender gay people at the expense of transgender and nonbinary people. This is a line permitted by a heterosexist regime that has now come to frame homosexuality as merely a variation of itself, as evidenced by the jubilant and self-congratulatory reaction around the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. As the poetry collective Darkmatter recently asserted, “in order for ‘homosexuality’ to become de-pathologized, gender nonconformity had to become re-pathologized. Gayness had to distinguish itself from trans: ‘We are not freaks like them.’ The modern gay subject only emerged in distinguishing him/herself from gender nonconformity.”

Though the musical adaptation tries to repress the cross-gender identification of its characters, the narrative can’t help displaying it despite itself. Fun Home’s pivotal moment, the musical number the producers chose to highlight at the Tony Awards, actually centers on gender identity even as the musical wishes to frame it around sexuality. In the scene, child Alison is sitting with Bruce at a diner when she encounters a delivery woman who her adult self describes as an “old school butch” wearing men’s clothes and sporting a gigantic ring of keys. Child Alison asks: “Why am I the only one who sees you’re beautiful?” then corrects herself and says, “I mean handsome!” The final lines of the song are  the repeated invocation of “I know you.” Finally, Alison has found a mirror that shows her as she sees herself, in the delivery woman’s gender expression. Her later sexual experiences aren’t nearly given the same weight as this early self-recognition, either in the novel or the musical. Alison’s joy at seeing herself in “Ring of Keys” is not predicated on sexual desire, but on the more comprehensive understanding of gender nonconformity that the butch represents. This is a nonconformity that has up until recently been largely gathered under the expression of lesbian sexuality, rather than understood as a signal that desire and outward gender expression are part of the same system.

Such a celebration of liberation, of the joy of finally seeing someone else embody a form of gender that one previously thought was unavailable, isn’t limited to seeing its expression (same-sex desire over other signs of gender-nonconformity). Neither is this joy about its degree of stability (not allowing for the possibility of gender fluctuation). The force of this type of joy, the same joy that allows child Alison to recognize the possibility of an unbounded gender-nonconformity, is the force that animates the current moment in American discourse around gender expression, at a time when there is still a possibility for transgender and gender-nonconforming people to rally against the forces of cisgender patriarchy that are trying to contain us.

Fun Home dramatizes the historical limits of gender nonconformity in describing a time in America when the only way for it to even be politically and socially possible to be gender-nonbinary is to be gay. But in broaching this limit in the first place, Fun Home also has the potential to envision liberatory possibilities of gender identification without these limitations, if we situate it not in terms of the limitations of state-sanctioned homosexuality, but to a more complete and fluid gender-nonconformity. Bechdel, the author, recently expressed this political ambiguity between lesbian and transgender identity in an interview with the New York Times: “I think the way I first understood my lesbianism, before I had more of a political awareness of it, was like: Oh, I’m a man trapped in a female body. I would’ve just gone down that road if it had been there. But I’m so glad it wasn’t, because I really like being this kind of unusual woman. I like making this new space in the world.”

Bechdel’s complicated description of the relationship between desire and identification is a part of the ambivalence of the current political moment. In positioning herself as an unusual woman, she advances the liberatory ideals of a lesbian politics that continues to resist complete male identification and its risk of making transgender men indistinguishable from cisgender ones. At the same time, this identity is forged out of a gay rights movement that sacrificed the rights of people who did wish to make a more comprehensive cross-gender identification, in order to prioritize the acquisition of freedoms connected to the single form of same-sex desire. Bechdel’s description of herself as an “unusual woman” continues to be centered on her desire for other women, rather than an understanding of her desire being part of a unified system—otherwise she would identify as trans rather than lesbian.

The significant tensions between gays and lesbians, on the one hand, and trans and other gender-nonconforming people, on the other, are a result of how the gay and lesbian political movement has sought to retain its cisgender privilege, even as it was won through the sacrifice of many individuals within the larger space of gender-nonconformity in which gays and lesbians are only one part. Foucault argued that homosexuality is a modern phenomenon generated by isolating same-sex desire as a mark of identity, which only works by presuming an artificially stable and binary gender system. The modern gay rights movement has successfully promoted that artifice for its own strategic benefit even before Stonewall. In an individualist, privacy-driven society, it’s been easier to protect the gender variance of homosexuality because it happens largely behind closed doors, or otherwise expresses itself in public through variations of heterosexist norm, such as images of gay marriage that reiterate a quintessentially patriarchal and heterosexual institution.

In arguing that homosexuality is a form of gender variance, I’m not claiming that all trans people are gay, but rather that all gay people fall within a gender-nonconforming space whose borders are demarcated by “transgender” in the current Western model. This other model of sexuality operates inside of a model of gender, instead of simplifying gender to make sexuality equally binary. This broader model has been more dominant at earlier points in Western history. In the novel, Bechdel calls Bruce and herself “inverts,” a term she derived from Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, for the idea that the characters are both inversions of the gender they’re supposed to be, and also inversions of each other.

This inversion model, now largely seen as primitive or even phobic in the West, has corollaries that continue to operate in places like Southeast Asia, as well as through other third-gender identities such as muxe in Mexico and hijra in South Asia. J. Neil Garcia, the Philippines’ foremost theorist on gender and sexuality, describes how the Filipino understanding of gender identity and expression places a much greater emphasis on kalooban, which translates to interiority, than on sexual desire and its object—the common Western preoccupation. For instance, male-assigned, third-gender people who are seen as “gay” in a Philippine context, are much more likely to say they prefer to be with men because they are “women inside,” rather than separating their desire for men from other aspects of their gender identity.

The fraught relationship between gender and sexuality hides some important understandings. But looking at the history of their constitution as affiliated though separate in the West reveals the ways that seemingly isolated identities were forged and became legible as strategies of colonization and gendered exploitation of labor. The persistence of kalooban identity in the Philippines is a result of anticolonial resistance. It shows that Western-style reproductive patriarchy did not impose itself fully on the Southeast Asian social system. In pre-colonial society, men and women were equally valued, so that male-assigned persons who chose to live as women did not threaten a patriarchal order. Seeing the unified system of sex and gender as extending from a similarly unified system of oppressions further explains how homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny are all shades of the same violent drive, and that separating the three merely extends cover to reproductive patriarchy.

Going along with the reigning misogyny that relies on two stable genders has allowed gays and lesbians to express same-sex desire in the privacy of their homes and out of sight, as long as they hew to cisgender norms as much as possible when in public. Most importantly, a unified system clarifies the repression that is typical of gay experience in America. The desires of boys and girls are often policed even before they express overt sexuality, and the policing is usually tied to behaving in ways that are atypical of their gender. It’s a common experience for gay people to learn to repress gender-nonconforming behavior to gain acceptance, because it’s this nonconformity that marks them as gay at a time when they don’t express overt sexual attraction.

The result is the privileging of the most contested form of gender-nonconformity over others, the form that has come to be protected by law and socially acceptable to the point where many gays and lesbians today enjoy social standing largely comparable to heterosexuals, while transgender people continue to be marginalized across social and civic institutions. These privileged gays and lesbians are persons who have the ability to suppress desires for forms of cross-gender, agender, or multigender identifications other than same-sex desire. If there’s one thing that Alison learns from her father Bruce’s suicide, it is that it’s best to suppress her desire to comprehensively identify as a man if she wants to have women as objects of desire and express masculine traits within acceptable social parameters.

Yet this emphasis on strictures, parameters, limits, seems to run counter to the spirit of fun that’s in Fun Home’s title, a word that contains deception and hoax, and is thus linked to the notion that one of fun’s basic elements is getting away with actions that do not conform to social expectation. If Fun Home is the story of how Alison finds a way to make a sexuality that her father viewed as suffering into something more fun, then it’s important for whatever fun she ends up having not to come about at the expense of others—namely people who do not wish to center sexuality as their primary form of gender variance.

The title also recalls a domestic and personal version of a fun house, that liminal space filled with warped mirrors which makes all who enter question their perceptions. In Fun Home, it’s as though Alison only sees distorted mirrors in the supposedly conventional gender expressions of everyone around her. The inversion at the heart of the novel presents the normative as distorted and the nonconforming as genuine. Yet for gender nonconformity to be fun for everyone, its vitality cannot be limited or merely be centered around sexual orientation.

What would be ideal—what would be fun—is if all forms of gender identification for all bodies were equally available to everyone, and permitted to change and evolve over time. This would mean that current boundaries between gay, transgender, and genderqueer would merge and intertwine, and be thought of as part of a space of gender nonconformity that everyone can occupy according to the specific ways they perceive their identifications at specific times. This is still an idealization, given other ways in which bodies are policed and gendered in America, most glaringly according to race. But Fun Home, especially in its musical adaptation, works to support the idea that some forms of cross-gender identification must be suppressed to express others, or that individuals who have the ability to enact these suppressions can be socially acceptable while others are not.

On closer examination, Fun Home also contains the possibility of joy at all forms of gender-nonconformity across individuals finding social acceptance. To nurture this joy, we must eliminate the artificial boundaries between gender-nonconformity as expressed by homosexuality on the one hand, and more marginalized forms like transgender and nonbinary identity on the other, which have been set up for the benefit of reproductive patriarchy. Doing so is the only way we can all access the same horizon of fun that Alison experiences, when she recognizes the joy of her gender-nonconformity in the mirror of a butch dyke wearing a ring of keys, on the fun house mirror of a round stage.