Friday, June 27, 2014

Coming-Out Party: On Loving Women

Diane Obomsawin's biographical series of stories, On Loving Women, (Drawn and Quarterly) is one of the most tender, heartfelt and amusing books I've ever read on the subject of first loves and coming out. Employing a simple line and anthropomorphic characters, she tells the stories of a number of women, many of whom grew up in an era where it was far more difficult to be gay than it is now. The stories are alternately sweet, awkward, painful and even hot, depending on which woman was telling her story and how much detail she cared to share. Mathilde's story was one of the sweetest and oddest stories, as she first told the reader how obsessed she was with horses and then revealed that the women she wound up being attracted to happened to be horse-faced. She also noted that her first real community of lesbians all happened to be deaf, which spurred her to learn sign language.

Bars play an important role in this book. Maxine noted that bars in Canada were the first place to offer safe zones and the ability to express oneself freely, especially for butch lesbians. For October, being older than she looked allowed her to get into a pub and establish contact with a woman she had her first sexual encounter with. In a twist that would seem crazy if it wasn't true, she ran into this woman years later on the street. October had a girlfriend but asked if she could fool around with her ex from time to time. This scenario seemed to be going fine until she "made the mistake of introducing her to my girlfriend" and October found herself on the outside looking in. M-H's story was very much about the urge to feel desired; she knew that as a sexually aggressive person, she would also be able to sleep with someone at a straight bar. At lesbian bars, that gaze of desire was nowhere near as strong, making her relatively shy. When she finally hit it off with a woman at a bar, it seemed like things would be going nowhere when her crush had a girlfriend--until all three of them went home together and had a drunken threesome.

Obomsawin's line may be spare, but it is remarkably effective in expressing emotion and moments of humor. In Maxime's story, she draws its protagonist as being in a "state of shock" by drawing a giant frying pan bonking her in the head. In Sasha's story, she draws the "love-struck" protagonist with saucer-sized eyes. There's a superb two page sequence later in the story where she comes out to her high school classmates, suddenly prompting all of her friends to be confused--with a roomful of students looking thoughtfully up at the ceiling, their chins perched on their hands. On the next page, we see her in a huge college auditorium, which she describes as a "whole other story", because "everybody wanted to have a lesbian experience". There's a hilarious panel where we see Maxime in the center, with every girl in the room from the first panel turned around to stare at her. The story ends with her being annoyed by being pursued by girls who weren't after love, just a new experience.

There are also less whimsical and amusing stories, as Marie was sent away to live with her aunt on account of her fooling around with girls. Catherine talked about how she acted out in school because she didn't know a safe way to express her sexuality. On the other hand, Charlotte's story saw her make love with her best friend in high school and get served breakfast the next day by her mother! While there aren't any truly harrowing stories in the book (the sort that L.Nichols notes in Flocks, her own coming-out series) involving violence or huge family schisms, there is still tension, pressure and a great deal of confusion. Asking older women about their experiences meant talking to survivors who wound up thriving and had perspectives on their past that younger people might not have had. This book also provides a space specifically for women's coming-out stories, which is not uncommon in poetry and literature but quite rare in comics.

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