Back in the day, if you’d mentioned same-sex marriage or “Dykes to Watch Out For,” you’d have gotten surprised, revolted or what-have-you-been-smoking looks.
Now, LGBT creativity has come so far into the mainstream that, earlier this month, two renowned lesbians – Alison Bechdel and Mary L. Bonauto – were among the 21 winners of this year’s John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowships (a.k.a. “genius grants”). The awards were announced on Sept. 17.
Among my old queer buttons is one that reads, “What a difference a gay makes!” Hearing about these two fab geniuses, I can’t help but affectionately joke, “What a difference two gays make!”
Bechdel, 54, is an award-winning cartoonist and graphic memoirist, whose comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” ran from 1983 to 2008, is beloved by not only lesbians but anyone with a sense of humor and a heartbeat.
Her memoirs “Fun House: A Family Tragicomic” and “Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama” are brilliant, witty reads, laced with more literary references than you’d want to try to count. The off-Broadway musical version of “Fun House,” based on Bechdel’s memoir, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and the show goes to Broadway in April.
Bonauto, 53, the civil rights project director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, is one of the foremost leaders of the marriage equality movement in this country. Her work was critical to the 2003 landmark court decision that legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts, the first state in the country to permit same-sex marriage.
Her legal work was crucial to the federal court challenges that paved the way to the Supreme Court striking down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013. Many leading activists have played pivotal roles in the battle for marriage equality. But all of us — married, single, straight or LGBT — owe a special debt to Bonauto, an early fighter in the battle for marriage equality.
Why am I so excited that Bechdel and Bonauto received the “genius” grants? Most viscerally, I’m thrilled by the status and security that the MacArthur fellowships will provide for Bechdel and Bonauto, respectively, one of the greatest creative artists and civil rights litigators of her generation.
Many creative artists and civil rights advocates don’t have much financial security, especially if they’re women, LGBT or otherwise part of a marginalized group. Each MacArthur fellowship is a grant, with no strings attached, of $625,000 paid over five years. Thankfully, these “genius” grants will give Bechdel and Bonauto a comfortable cushion from which to carry out their awe-inspiring work.
“Those who think creativity is dying should examine the life’s work of these extraordinary innovators who work in diverse fields and in different ways to improve our lives and better our world,” Cecilia Conrad, MacArthur Fellows Program vice president, said of this year’s award winners, “Together, they expand our view of what is possible, and they inspire us to apply our own talents and imagination.”
Historically, work — whether legal, entertainment, scientific, etc. — that openly involved LGBT issues has been ridiculed, shut down, opposed or talked about in whispers.
In the ‘80s, you really had to look for “Dykes to Watch Out For.” I remember thinking I’d found Oz when I finally found Bechdel’s funny, true-to-dyke-life comic in “The Funny Times.”
One evening in the early 1990s, I was on a bus reading “Dykes to Watch Out For.” My seatmate warned me that I’d go to hell for reading “Dykes.”
My partner at that time, quite rightly, (given the laws and attitudes then) scoffed at my daydream that we’d have a civil union, or even marry, one day.
Now, I, single, fantasize that if I ever marry, Bechdel would draw a cartoon of the wedding.
Thank you, MacArthur Foundation, for recognizing innovation and creativity. Congrats to award winners, Bechdel and Bonauto! May your groundbreaking work continue for decades to come!
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.