Friends of Dorothy

In my naive youth, I had no idea what a “friend of Dorothy” was; in-group descriptors, after all, are always known to members of the in group (and allies) long before they are known to the general public. “Friend of Bill W.” and “M.O.T.” may be familiar examples. I’m not quite sure when I first heard the phrase “friend of Dorothy,” but I know that I have heard the other two from high-school students, so a brief excursion is called for before we examine the book under review:

I first heard “friend of Bill W.” when two young men were having an obviously not-private conversation right in front of me a couple of decades ago. They were probably saying more about their families than they should have, but perhaps not. Anyway, one of them described his dad as “a friend of Bill W.,” and the other asked what that meant. The first student explained that it meant that his dad was an alcoholic, a member of AA, therefore a “friend” of Bill Wilson, the founder of AA — technically keeping the last name anonymous.

“MOT” goes back much earlier in my experience (no, not auto inspection, if you happen to live in Britain, where it stands for “Ministry of Transport”). Way back in 1959, when I wasn’t even a teenager yet, I was visiting a friend’s house along with a mutual friend of ours. One of them started to say something about preparing for his forthcoming Bar Mitzvah, and then interrupted himself to glance at me and ask the other boy “Is he an MOT?” As he later explained, he was asking our friend whether I was Jewish (“Member Of the Tribe”) in a slightly coded way. Now flash forward to 2015, and I had an almost identical experience, though of course the details were all different. A group of freshmen and I were standing outside the door to Room 14, waiting for another class to leave so our class could enter, and two freshmen girls were chatting about something that had happened in a Jewish organization to which they both belonged. I made some comment (I don’t remember what) and one girl turned to the other and whispered “Is he an MOT?”, nodding in my direction. It was an eerie flashback to so many years before. This time I knew what it meant.

OK, time to transition from the excursion to the review. Persecuted minorities always need code words so that they can identify each other without alerting outsiders. This need exists for all these examples and many others. (You may or may not consider Jews, alcoholics, and gays to be persecuted minorities, but that’s a topic for another day. According to an article in PRRI, “a majority (55%) of Americans believe gay and lesbian people experience a lot of discrimination in the U.S., a 13-point drop from 2013, when nearly seven in ten (68%) Americans said the same.”)

If you didn’t know what the title of this book referred to, you could look at the rainbow flag, or you could read the subtitle: Why Gay Boys and Gay Men Love the Wizard of Oz.

Author Dee Michel has written a meticulously researched work of non-fiction exploring the topic indicated in that subtitle. It’s definitely not light reading! It’s a meticulously scholarly piece of writing, carefully documented with evidence everywhere. As the author has a Ph.D. in library science, I should not be surprised. What he has written is practically a textbook — I say “practically” because it’s not actually quite as dense as a typical textbook, but it still rewards slow, careful reading. The final hundred pages or so consist of notes and documentation, including full texts of questionnaires! The evidence not only shows the special appeal of the Wizard of Oz to gay readers and viewers, but also examines (and usually rejects) alternative hypotheses about the appeal, such as the claim that the Dorothy in question is Dorothy Parker or some possibility other than Dorothy Gale, or the claim that it was based on Judy Garland personally rather than Baum’s story. Most interesting is the analysis of just why this story would appeal especially to gays. For example:

Young fans identify with Dorothy because she ran away from bullies and searched for a better place. Oz symbolizes a place away from the oppression of being a gay child, a safe harbor from teasing, and a place of refuge where one can be oneself. The stories are about misfits with unusual identities who find imaginative and courageous ways to get away from persecution, and end up being respected and famous. Oz stories give a young gay boy a glimpse of another way his life could be. They offer happier endings to ones own story.

Do you want to read this book? Yes if you’re interested in the treatment of a minority that gets too little attention. Yes if you appreciate evidence in a time of too many unsubstantiated allegations. No if you just want to continue to appreciate the Oz books as light works of fantasy.

Categories: Books, Life, Linguistics, Movies & (occasionally) TV