I’m a long-time reader of the comic strip pages in newspapers. Peanuts and Doonesbury were favorites growing up. Nowadays I like Luann and Pearls Before Swine. And of course I’m thrilled that Berke Breathed has revived Bloom County. Even back in the day, I tried reading myself into some of the characters. I wasn’t so much looking for black characters, but gay ones.
I had a secret thrill whenever Marcie called Peppermint Patty “Sir.” My closeted queer eyes saw them as a butch/fem couple long before I knew those words or what they meant. Peanuts Wikia states that Charles Schultz denied any relationship between the two, writing “the characters are supposed to be very young children and they both have crushes on Charlie Brown.” A fascinating statement. On the one hand, they have a crush on Charlie Brown. But on the other hand, they are “very young children.” This appears to fit the trope that homosexuality is an adult thing and that children have no sexuality or gender identity, unless it’s cis-heterosexual, of course.
The pickings for queer characters in newspaper comics has been slim. Doonesbury had Andy Lippincott, but he died of AIDS. Later, Mark Slackmeyer came out of the closet and even had a relationship with a conservative character named Chase. Fairly recently, in 2014, Scott Adams had long-time intern Asok come out in Dilbert. This was in response to the Indian Supreme Court upholding an anti-gay law. The character’s homosexuality has not been much of an issue since. I always thought (hoped) that nerdy Gunther in Luann would come out, but instead a newish character named Pru declared herself a “thespian lesbian.” It was a plot device meant to show that she was not going after Luann’s then-boyfriend, Quill, like everyone thought.
And this is all well and good, but apart from Doonesbury, none of these characters have had major issues revolving around their sexuality or how it impacts the characters’ lives.
A friend of mine on Facebook shared a comic strip from Tumblr I found quite arresting and moving. Created by artist Panic Volkushka, it depicts a gay couple at couples counseling: Bart Simpson and Chris Griffin, all grown up. My 12 year-old self started doing cartwheels reading these two well known characters done up in a queer setting. But Volkushka did more than just play with their sexual orientation. He gave them depth by showing how their abusive childhoods wrecked their adult lives. It’s a story all too common in the queer community. Their counselor is R. J. Hill, aka Bobby from King of the Hill. I always loved Bobby, one of the most developed characters of that show. Volkushka rightly notes that despite his father’s inability to understand his son, he still loved him and treated him well. I also like how Volkushka maintains the mystique around Bobby’s own sexuality, a quality that made him such a good character.
This sort of character development does what good fiction needs to do: put a mirror to society to tell truths. Instead of gay caricatures, Volkushka created people trying to overcome realistic problems. I had a very strong reaction reading his cartoon because he made me care about the characters. This is why it is important to have well-developed queer characters in fiction, even the funny pages. Such depictions will help turn queer folks from being “others” to being humans.
We need such symbolism now just as much as 40 years ago, when I was growing up. Kids today may have more examples of queer folks living happy lives, but the backlash continues to be fierce. The US House of Representatives just killed an amendment to a bill that would have protected the civil rights of LGBT people working for government contractors. The amendment had passed, but the Republican leadership extended the voting time so that its members had a chance to switch their vote. Just enough did so to kill it.
This is but one example. The other obvious example has been the rush to pass anti-LGBT rights laws in states all over the country, particularly law denying the right of transgender people from using the restroom of their choice.
So while comic strips might not seem like a battleground for civil rights, in a way they are, the same way all media are. Representation matters. Lack of representation maintains invisibility. And invisibility, like silence, equals death.