It’s a heady moment for gay Americans. With victory after victory at the state level, public opinion on homosexuality having rapidly progressed from suspicion to grudging acceptance to celebration, and the Supreme Court seemingly on the verge of discovering a constitutional mandate that every state recognize gay marriage, all that really remain are a few mop-up actions. Crush a few evangelical bakeries out of existence and maybe force the Catholic church to conduct gay marriages, and there won’t be much left to quibble about.
As the New York Times might put it, “For Gays and Lesbians, Total Victory, And a Few Nagging Questions.” Among those questions might be: How much longer should the movement revel in victimhood and/or apartness? How much longer until a gay household becomes less noteworthy than one that, say, contains a piano instead of a television? The answer is “probably never.” If today’s gay Americans live in serenity, the culture should turn its attention to yesteryear, which must look darker and more unsettling with each passing moment.
An excellent example of how the arts portray homosexuality is this year’s Tony darling Fun Home, a transfer from Off-Broadway’s Public Theatre that tied for most nominations (12), including one for Best Musical. The jaunty title, bright colors, peppy score, and carefully selected quotations from critics form the basis of a television advertising campaign promising “not just a new musical, a new kind of musical.” The “fun” of the title, however, is short for “funeral,” and the show is about a tortured gay man who commits suicide in a fit of guilt and shame.
Fun Home jumps back and forth between the present and scenes from the memory of lesbian graphic novelist Alison Bechdel (Beth Malone): from her college years, when she discovers her sexuality and is played by Emily Skeggs, to her childhood in Pennsylvania in the 1970s, when, as played by Sydney Lucas, little Alison tries to unravel the tautly wound personality of her father, Bruce (Michael Cerveris). We learn near the beginning that Bruce committed suicide shortly after Alison came out to her parents as a young adult. His death is presented as the tragedy that underlies candy-colored suburban whims: Yes, this is yet another piece about the seething poisons in the Betty Crocker cake mix.
That the musical is based on Bechdel’s own graphic-novel memoir of the same title, though, gives it a certain unassailability: This isn’t the usual mean-spirited satire but a heartfelt tale about a real family that suffered a real loss. Bruce Bechdel, who apparently had a need for furtive, fleeting hookups with other men, did indeed die horrifically. But as Alison’s much more ambiguous, more honest, and (consequently) more interesting book makes clear, it wasn’t necessarily a suicide. Bruce was struck by a truck while carrying an armload of brush across the street. He left no note.
This is a highly unusual method of committing suicide: It promises almost certain pain but no guarantee of death. And it brings at least one innocent person into the act as an unwitting accomplice likely to be physically or psychologically injured. In the last year for which federal statistics are available, more than 99 percent of all suicides were committed by some method other than that of a pedestrian seeking to be struck by a vehicle. Yet the show presents it as undisputed fact that Bruce Bechdel committed suicide, after much anguished grappling with his sexuality.
In the graphic novel, Alison Bechdel writes more forthrightly: “There’s no proof, actually, that my father killed himself.” As evidence, she adduces “the fact that my mother had asked him for a divorce two weeks before” and “the copy of Camus’s A Happy Death that he’d been reading and leaving around the house in what might be construed as a deliberate manner.”
Pretty thin stuff, inspector. Bechdel allows, in her memoir, that Camus (along with Proust and Fitzgerald) is exactly the type of novelist that her dad, a high school English teacher and funeral director, was always reading. Moreover, the truck driver who hit Bruce Bechdel said that Bruce, while clearing brush away from the yard of a farmhouse he was restoring, unexpectedly leaped backward into the road, as if he had seen a snake. Who embarks on a day of brush-clearing and suddenly interrupts it to commit suicide by stepping into traffic?