by Connie Mandeville
When I told my partner she was lucky enough to be my date to a musical that had a lesbian lead character, she was less than thrilled. “A musical?” she asked. Her skepticism was understandable. Accurately portraying the complexity of coming out on a stage through song and dance seems farfetched. But as we watched Alison Bechdel’s story unfold, we both saw parts of our own stories, our own struggles, but also our own victories in her experiences.
Fun Home depicts the story of a queer woman who grew up in a rural Pennsylvania town during the 1960s and 1970s. It also follows her journey of discovering her sexual orientation as a college student at Oberlin College in the 1980s. Based on the tragicomic memoir, the story is told by an adult Alison (performed by Robin Gottlieb) while she forces herself through both the happy and painful memories of growing up and coming out of the closet ultimately to write her book. These memories are portrayed through flashbacks with a small Alison (performed by Clare Kerwin) and a college-aged Alison (performed by Cassidy Spencer), and as revealed in the opening scene, these flashbacks are clouded by her father’s (performed by Paul Kaufmann) suicide. Although Alison is the center of the narrative, Fun Home is also the story of her parent’s tumultuous relationship because of her father’s bisexuality and extramarital affairs which led to his death. Her father’s experience living in the closet is touching, but her mother (performed by Marybeth Gorman) triumphs as the tragic hero of the tale because of the sacrifices she made not only to maintain appearances of a perfect nuclear family, but also to keep her family together.
What is so refreshing about the coming out story and queer experience in Fun Home is the balance of both the blissful excitement and the excruciating heartbreak of discovering one’s sexual orientation. It is not an exploitation of queer pain, but instead a celebration of self discovery which is emphasized by solos wonderfully performed by Kerwin and Spencer. From Alison’s nervousness and excitement to attend her first Gay Straight Alliance meeting, to her feelings of validation at her very first sighting of a butch woman, this is more than just the story of her parent’s rejection when she first came out to them. Alison even has a moment of complete ecstasy the first time she sleeps with another woman, a moment so groundbreaking she burst out into song about changing her major to sleeping with her new girlfriend. Although the pains and pleasures of coming out are weaved together to create an accurate representation, Alison’s masculine gender expression is often conflated with sexual orientation which is inaccurate and borderline transphobic. A young girl rejecting dresses and other gender stereotypes does not always lead to a lesbian identity, and there are many transmen who date men.
In the wake of the MeToo Movement, there were aspects of Fun Home that were problematic. Her father is a teacher who had sex with male students who were underage, which is not only statutory rape, but it also perpetuates the stereotype of gay men preying on young men. Her father’s predatory behavior is never fully addressed except for one flippant comment from her mother. It is understandable to overlook her father’s abuse of power not only because of the circumstances of his death, but also because it is difficult to fairly judge someone you love so much. Additionally, Fun Home, both the tragicomic and musical, was created before the MeToo Movement went viral so the writers most possibly lacked the social context to delve into Alison’s father’s crimes.
Despite the tragedies of Alison’s life, Fun Home is not a depressing tale. Instead, the brutally honest depiction of coming out as a lesbian in a rural area was the queer musical I did not know I needed.