The "Orientation Police" Want To Know Who Gets To Call Themselves Gay
If you're a gay man who tends to date transgender men, are you gay enough? Artist Bill Roundy has been tackling sex and identity politics for years, but his latest comic "The Orientation Police" has struck a chord and gone viral as a result.
Bill Roundy's first customer of the day is a middle-aged mom. She's drawn to Roundy's postcard ads which feature a Dr. Who TARDIS, a common selling point at the New York City Comic Con. Roundy has a half a table to sell his books, mostly zine-style stapled comics, at the Geeks OUT! booth, a queer nerd group that dots the table with stickers bragging "I'm Going to Skip Ender's Game." There's one comic of Roundy's that everyone has been looking at recently, and soon enough the mom is looking at it too. It's titled "Orientation Police" and features two men making out on its cover and the titular policeman, with trademark mustache, declaring "Nope. Doesn't count. Not gay enough.
"Is this your journey?," she asks. Her daughter has been going through "a thing," she tells Roundy. Her daughter is bi. Or maybe she's not bi, maybe she's queer? The mom isn't sure but she knows her perception of her daughter is changing, and is trying to learn and adjust. Roundy has a friendly, energetic nature, eager to explain. Although he isn't the type to the use a word as epic as 'journey', yes, he responds. "Orientation Police" is true life, not so much a narrative story as it is an explanation of Roundy's preference for dating transgender guys and the various reactions he's gotten to that. So this book might not be specifically helpful. She buys a copy all the same.
"I follow [the cartoonist] Kate Leth, Kate or Die, on Tumblr, and my own comic came up on my dashboard," Roundy says, remembering the moment he knew "Orientation Police" went huge. "At that point, it had ten thousand notes. I didn't put it there, someone I still don't know put it up. But there was a link to my site, and I was like, 'Okay, I'll put this on my own site'. It went from 10,000 to 20,000 [notes] in about five hours. Last time I checked, it was up to around 70,000." "Orientation Police" struck a powerful chord online although its origins are in a book that's not even out yet, an anthology titled Anything That Loves.
It's worth noting that Roundy has tackled this particular issue, dating transgender guys, a few times before. Years ago, in a vastly more simplistic style, he released "Man Enough," a fictional story about a trans guy and a cisgender guy going on a first date. Having not actually dated any transgender guys at that point, Roundy cops science-fiction language and calls "Man Enough" "speculative fiction." Having drawn almost exclusively autobiographical comics since 2003—"it's my wheelhouse" Christensen also points to two "Adventures" comics that were direct influences on "Orientation Police."
Neither of those comics drew any sort of attention beyond the e-zine circles they for which they intended, especially compared viral sensation that "Orientation Police" has become. Roundy describes the feedback as "85 -15", the scale leaning heavily towards the positive. Like the unhappy families at the beginning of Anna Karenina, people have been have been negative for a variety of reasons. There have been the predictable homophobes, of course— "[w]hen I found the comic appearing on a white supremacist site, I had to make sure they weren't being sarcastic."
"Orientation Police" was supposed to be twelve pages initially, but time constraints halved it to six. It's a story that "challenges readers to stop clinging to and enforcing categories of gender and sexuality", says Zan Christensen, editor of Northwest Press and the Anything That Loves anthology. "Orientation Police" is friendly yet authoritative— it explains how three out of Roundy's last four boyfriends have been transgender, and discusses the reactions to that fact. It's strictly personal with an eye towards the universal—it uses cutesy policemen and an ex-boyfriend as stand-ins for vast cultural debates, the type last publicly seen when Chelsea Manning revealed her identity: Who gets to be called a man? Can gender ever be separated from sexuality?"
It also ends with a scene of Roundy about to have sex. "It's a little weird," he admits over drinks a few days after Comic Con, that a scene of him enthusiastically responding to the question "Ready to take my cock?" has gone viral. He's had requests to take the scene out for sex and gender classes at colleges, but he's refused— "if they're in college, they should be able to understand what sex is" But Roundy' very comfortable discussing issues related to both gay sex and himself. A one-time Arts Editor of the now-folded gay-alt weekly New York Blade, author of "The Amazing Adventures of Bill," a diary comic strip ten years in the making, contributor to previous gay-comic anthologies like Bottoms in Love, and self-publisher of an irregularly released Bill Newsletter (the first issue published in 1999 on MS Publisher), Roundy's had over a decade of practice in getting comfortable facing an issue straight on.
"It's been interesting to see how people frame it, because I feel like a lot of the negative reactions I've gotten have come from that framing", Roundy says. Some have told him that it's far too focused on himself. Figuring that the comic would stay with readers of Anything That Loves, subtitled Comics Beyond Gay and Straight, he took the advice of early readers who suggested that he remove a lot of "trans 101 stuff." That left the primary focus on him, and once it got beyond it his own website, Roundy says he found lots of comments wondering "'Why is this guy talking about himself so much? It's all about me, me, me!' And it's like… it's my comic, man."
There's a fine line, though, between telling one's own story and claiming to speak for a larger group. Roundy is careful in our discussions to point out that he doesn't want anyone to think he's speaking for anyone else. He's had a more expansive idea for a while of a "Cisgender Guy's Guide to Transgender Guys," but is reluctant to take the lead on such a project—"my experiences are probably atypical." He's hesitant to become the face of any sort of movement— "maybe I should lay off the topic of trans men. I don't want to be that cis-guy who keeps talking about trans guys. Another criticism I've gotten is that I'm getting so much attention for this while there are trans men are drawing comics who are not getting this sort of attention, although I don't know of anyone of who is specifically talking about trans-cis male relationships in comics." He's since added links to a few trans comics on his site.
Another "sticking point for a lot of people" has been the comic's use of the term 'Gold Star Gay'. It's a key moment in the strip, featuring Roundy holding onto the idea that he's only had sex with men, visually represented with a gold star. After being read a comment from reddit's /r/transgender message board, which gives the comic a "big demerit for perpetuating the divisive, exclusionary, biphobic and heterophobic term", Roundy admits, "fair enough, all those things are true." He's used the term "exclusively as joke. I've never heard anyone actually take it seriously. It's come up when gay men are discussing their high school girlfriends— 'Oh, did you sleep with her? No? Well look at you, you get a gold star!' But apparently there are people who do take it seriously... I thought it was exaggerated enough that it would be nothing that I take really seriously, I thought it would be a good visual metaphor."
It's not a question that comes up at Comic Con, though. After the intense early conversation with the mom, the rest of the artist's day is pretty relaxed. Roundy has a very earnest apathy towards his sales—the Con is there to sell comics but it's also an opportunity to see old friends from different comic scenes around the country. Every now and then a stranger stops by, looks at "Orientation Police" and the few other comics he's got for sale (including cute and sexy versions of monsters from Dungeons and Dragons), and buys one or two, but on the fourth day of Comic Con Roundy primarily socializes and slips high-quality booze into his overpriced Coke Zero. It's a place in which he feels very comfortable— people behind various booths are calling out to him wherever he walks.
Behind "Orientation Police" are Roundy's personal experiences, to be sure, but following him at Comic Con makes it clear that those experiences, and the ability to make and sell a comic based on them, are also partially reliant on the strength of community that Roundy has been able to accumulate through his decade-plus years in New York. A comic-scene lifer gone viral, everyone's happy to see him. And among those people who stop by the Geeks OUT! booth and have never seen the bald guy with nail polish before, their reactions are all pretty similar: a quick run of the merchandise, and then a pause. "Hey, do I know you from the Internet?"