How do you learn about your history? You might be taught History in school but, for most of us, that’s not our history. Initiatives like the Black, LGBT and Women’s History Months may be working hard to correct the balance, but History largely remains the preserve of the few. A lot of us that are left out of the history books turn to our families, looking for our past in their stories and traditions. It’s different for queer folk. Many of us aren’t in contact with our families, for one reason or another; the vast majority of those that are, were raised in cis, straight families. Our parents may have lived through the advent of gay liberation or the AIDS crisis, but they weren’t the defining events they are to us.
Of course, we in the LGBTQ+ community have a long and storied tradition of forming our own families. However, as our family homes have moved increasingly away from the physical realm to online spaces, are we losing those older voices that were a part of our history? Is that why we so easily forget our past? HIV rates are on the rise in the LGBT+ community, we embrace figures that only a few years ago denounced us and our rights, and erase those who fought – and continue to fight – for them if they don’t fit the white, cis and male mould.
All this was on my mind as I read through No Straight Lines recently. The collection, compiled by teacher and cartoonist Justin Hall and published in 2013, showcases queer comics from the late sixties up until the late noughties. Some are the work of well-known LGBTQ+ creators like Alison Bechdel or Howard Cruse, while others have been out of print for decades, or appear in English for the first time. It’s a fantastic, unique collection, and was instrumental in writing my recent guide to the history of queer comics.
It was in writing that guide that I really realised how little connection I actually had to my LGBTQ+ history. I’m a historian by nature, and I’ve done my research – I can reel off names, and dates, and legislation – but I had no idea what it was really like to be queer throughout most of the twentieth century. Documentaries like How to Survive a Plague or After Stonewall will always be made with the benefit of hindsight, and even the iconic Paris is Burning can only show you queer subculture through the eyes of an outsider. I don’t know anyone who was there; even if I did, memories fade, and become corrupted.
No Straight Lines is so important for existing as a record of what it meant to be queer when each of these creators put India ink to paper. Whether fiction or non-fiction, every comic is a testament to an aspect of the queer experience that’s often since been lost. The queer newspapers and bookstores that nurtured these comics, as well as the gay and lesbian bars that dominate their stories, are dying out; the AIDS epidemic is a half-forgotten spectre of the past; marriage equality has been won in countries around the world, and, for many in the queer community, mainstream assimilation is neither a goal nor a threat but an everyday reality. At the same time, however, comics about lonely childhoods, hookups, and HRT could have been written today. For all that society and our understanding of our identities has changed over the last four decades, the past isn’t really all that distant.
The section of the book dedicated to artistic responses to the AIDS crisis hit me hardest. Creators respond to their own and their friends’ diagnoses, the terror of the queer community in the face of both the plague and the homophobic backlash, and its determination to carry on. The focus here isn’t on activism or the dead, but simply on living through an epidemic as it’s happening. It’s a perspective you can never recreate.
However, I found the comics by queer women throughout the book just as important to me. Among them are some of the most expressly political comics in the collection, taking aim at everything from the patriarchy and mainstream assimilation to biphobia and transphobia within the community. Feminist activism of the seventies and eighties is frequently subsumed beneath the whorephobia and transphobia of those few figures that are still prominent; the comics in No Straight Lines are tangible proof that there were women fighting the same fight, and having the same struggles, that my community and I are today.
No Straight Lines is a glimpse into LGBTQ+ history, with all that entails. Some of the comics and their creators are problematic by modern standards, and while Hall has clearly made a concerted effort to include as diverse a range of creators as possible – in admirable contrast to many of the ‘gay comics’ collections that have been released in recent years – the collection is inevitably largely dominated by white, cis lesbians and gay men until the book’s final section takes it into the 21st century.
Overall, though, I’m incredibly grateful to No Straight Lines for giving me a new understanding of those that came before me. Some of the creators in the collection are still working; some passed away or left the industry years ago. However, every one of their comics speaks to an experience that we as queer folk in some way share today.