Superheros Come Out: Breaking the Taboo of Homosexuality in Superhero Comics

Superman-Comic_lSince the emergence of the superhero comic in American society, romantic relationships have played a pivotal role in the lives of almost every single protagonist. Male superheroes have been represented as celebrations of stereotypical masculinity, employing their great, brute strength in order to complete great acts of bravery and valor, and then after inevitably defeating their foes, they further prove their masculinity by obtaining the attention of female love interests. Superman has his Lois Lane, Bruce Wayne has a string of lady loves throughout the series, and even Peter Parker, who is not your stereotypically masculine hero, has his Mary Jane. Likewise, female superheroes like, Wonder Woman, who are portrayed as successful and independent role models also usually have a male love interest to go home to. Both men and women take part in romantic relationships in almost every superhero comic, and yet for many years only heterosexual superheroes could be found in American comics.

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Holy homoerotic subtext, Batman!

 

The idea of homosexuality in the superhero realm was first debated by Dr. Frederick Wertham in his controversial book Seduction of the Innocents (as was mentioned in a previous blog written by Phantommiriag), when he asserted that superheroes in comics were perverting the minds of America’s youth through their perverse homosexual agenda. He specifically focused on Robin from the Batman comics, saying that he was clearly a homosexual character bent on corrupting the fragile, juvenile psyche due to his usual role as the “damsel in distress” as well as his proclivity to don bright green underwear in lieu of pants. Wertham also went so far as to describe Batman and Robin’s life in the mansion as “like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” (x) Wertham’s subsequent censorship campaign led to the establishment of the Comic Book Code of 1954, which stated a few rules subtly forbidding the portrayal of homosexuality in comics.  The code stated that “the treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage” (aka, marriage between  man and a woman). Then to further clarify their point, they declared that “sex perversion or by any inference to same [was] strictly forbidden.”  The implication is clear today, and it certainly would have been understood in the 1950s as well. This stigma existed for many decades, and it was unheard of to create a comic with a homosexual character or even any kind of reference to homosexuality at all. This discouragement coupled with a societal oppression of open homosexuality were responsible for the lack of homosexual characters in superhero comics.

 

Thankfully, our society has changed substantially since Wertham’s crusade, and although there are many heated political and societal debates regarding homosexuality, the comic community has been very proactive in updating the superhero universes by adding several homosexual characters. The main audience of these types of comics are children and teenagers, two age groups which could benefit immensely from the positive representation of homosexuality, especially when considering the heated and often ugly political debates over the matter. In 1992, Marvel Comics not only revealed that the X-Men character, Northstar, was gay but he actually came out, which is a very important process in understanding, accepting, and valuing one’s sexual identity and can be a very frightening prospect for any young person. Northstar’s revelation is delivered in a strong and confident manner, while he’s pulverizing some villains, and after coming out, he goes on to lecture his foe about the importance of AIDS awareness. To say the least, pretty badass coming out story.

Northstar is Gay

 

 

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Then, in 2012, in Marvel’s revamped X-Men comics, they had Northstar propose to his boyfriend, Kyle, then they were married in a later issue. This storyline was discussed as far back as 2011, when gay marriage was legalized in New York City, where Northstar (Jean-Paul Beaubier) and Kyle live in the comics. The marriage between Kyle and Jean-Paul that we see at the top left is a celebrated affair in a very public, outdoor area and they are being cheered on and supported by many of their superhero friends. The portrayal of other, heterosexual superheroes as accepting of the marriage is also very important because children are more likely to be understanding and accepting of ideas that they see their favorite heroes encouraging. Likewise, in DC Comics’ newer version of the Green Lantern comics in 2012, Alan Scott is portrayed as a gay man. Scott is seen in the panel on the bottom left, kissing his boyfriend in exactly the same way a male character would kiss a female love interest. No attention is drawn to the fact that they are both men, and their public displays of affection are not kept behind closed doors so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities some readers might possess; their relationship is out in the open and it is displayed in a very positive light.  The modern takes on the sexuality of these two classic superheroes seems like a way that DC is evolving to fit a new, more progressive readership that values the presence of homosexual role models in their comics.

In addition to the portrayal of male gay relationships in modern superhero comics, there have been some recent portrayals of lesbian superheroes as well. Batwoman, or Kate Kane, is one of the most notable examples, due to her popularity among fans and is another example of DC Comic’s revamping of older characters in their new series. When the original Batwoman, Kathy Kane, first showed up in the Batman comics back in the Golden Age of comic books (1930s-1950s), there was no hint of her homosexuality, but again to appeal to a different audience, the character was re-imagined for the DC’s new series, The New 52 as a lesbian. Kate’s explicitly reveals  her sexuality to a commanding officer in the army, thus violating the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and resulting in a forcible discharge. At one point, Kane was also in a long-term relationship with Renee Montoya, (aka: The Question), although they eventually split up. Then, very recently in February 2013’s issue of Batman #17, Batwoman proposed to her girlfriend, Maggie Sawyer. It has not yet been revealed if Maggie will accept Rennee’s proposal, but considering the results of Green Hornet and Northstar’s proposals, it seems likely that there will be another superhero wedding.**

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The addition of homosexual superheroes in comics has definitely helped them to connect to a new audience, and also the portrayal of accepted, encouraged homosexual relationships in a genre that is read by many children and teens can only help to dissuade homophobia and provide comfort and support to any young person dealing with the issues illustrated in these comics.

 

(For a more complete list of homosexual comic characters, check out this webpage.) 

(**Special thanks to Cottontail, who brought to my attention some inaccuracies in the fifth paragraph regarding Batwoman and the Question! It has been edited accordingly.) 

  9 comments for “Superheros Come Out: Breaking the Taboo of Homosexuality in Superhero Comics

  1. rcrow
    March 29, 2013 at 11:31 pm

    Thank you so much for blogging about this. I had no idea that popular comics were addressing homosexual identities in respectful and tasteful ways (or at all, really). That such content is coming from top publishers such as DC and Marvel really marks a moment of social change. If these companies aren’t afraid of losing readership (sales) over the depiction of same sex marriage, then that tells me they are confident that the vast majority of the people who buy these comics are probably in support of such content, or at least open to it. As art and reality reflect back and forth our culture progresses and history is recorded. It’s exciting for me to think that twenty years from now someone will be able to track the representation of homosexual identities in comics the way I like to look at the progression of female roles in comics.

    • kwilsher
      March 30, 2013 at 7:31 pm

      Thanks, rcrow, it was a really interesting topic to delve into! I had heard about DC re-imagining Green Lantern as a gay man, but I only found out about the other gay characters after a bit of research, and I was really surprised too! Something I really liked about the attitudes of these big companies, especially DC, was that they didn’t just make some of their characters gay for appearances sake so that they would be seen as more “progressive,” but they just thought it was time to have a more accurately diverse comic universe. In case you were wondering, there has been some backlash against DC and Marvel–here’s one article about a Christian group that is a “bit” upset about the Green Lantern. However, this kind of opposition has done nothing to deter DC in their portrayal of their character. Good show, DC!

      I sincerely believe that Marvel and DC are paving the way for even more homosexual characters to appear in their comics, and I also would love to keep up with their progression throughout the coming years!

      Thanks for you comment and ideas!

  2. bleuskeyes
    April 2, 2013 at 10:25 pm

    I am so happy to see this blog post. I have oftentimes wondered how homosexuality was being represented in comics today. I do not keep up with most comics, so seeing this and the amount of time and effort you put into writing this made me so happy (and better informed). I think it is wonderful that both DC and Marvel are revamping some of their characters now to represent more faces of society. I do think it is a shame that they are receiving backlash for it though; however, that can only be expected when you’re dealing with a “controversial” issue I suppose. I think it is wonderful that they are creating characters who actually go through the same steps that a “real” person would when coming out and that they portray their friends lovingly accepting them for who they are. It is important to teach acceptance of all human beings, and I think comic books are a fantastic medium to do that through.

    • kwilsher
      April 3, 2013 at 11:30 pm

      Yeah, more often than not gay characters in popular media are not shown going through issues such as coming out, and I’ve noticed that a lot of shows/movies make a joke of them instead of treating them as if their issues and relationships are just as important and relevant as those of the heterosexual characters. It’s so refreshing to see popular comics like these portraying gay characters in a positive, realistic light. Also, like I said in the blog, the main audience for these types of comics are going to be children and teenagers, and for someone of this age struggling to accept their sexuality, it’s comforting to see how accepting some people (although they are in the realm of the comic) can be of homosexuality. Likewise, this is very helpful to children and teens because it normalizes homosexuality instead of making a spectacle of it; it’s shown as something natural and beautiful and worthy of encouragement and acceptance. Thanks a lot for your comment, I really appreciate the feedback!

      • bleuskeyes
        April 4, 2013 at 9:18 pm

        It’s true, a lot of media does make a joke about coming out, when in reality it is not joke at all. I can understand them trying to lighten a situation that might seem testy to some people, but at the same time they tend to go above and beyond “lifting” the mood around it. I think that if more mediums treated homosexuality as a way of life for some people, rather than making a joke out of it or overgeneralizing it, that it will be easier for the younger generation to accept what is a natural part of life to many people. I think it’s beautiful. I really enjoyed this blog!

  3. cottontail
    April 2, 2013 at 10:27 pm

    This is a great post, and I’m glad you decided to explore this subject.

    Just a few notes: Renee Montoya’s superhero identity is actually the Question. Batwoman herself is Kate Kane, a reimagined version of an older character DC had long since abandoned, while Renee had appeared as a member of the Gotham City police force for some time. Her sexuality had been known to readers and to other characters, but she was outed without her consent (http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lp5xk4u4Dh1qh4t2eo1_500.jpg); Kate actually chose to reveal her own orientation while in the military, resulting in her being discharged under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy (http://robot6.comicbookresources.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Batwoman-origin.jpg).

    • kwilsher
      April 3, 2013 at 11:18 pm

      Ahhhh thank you so much for bringing this to my attention! Unfortunately, I don’t have much personal experience with either Batwoman or The Question; I only read a segment from a comic featuring both characters and I just completely misunderstood the scene! I’ll definitely fix that so no one else is misled.

      I was not aware that poor Renee had been outed against her will, but unfortunately it happens all too often in real life and I like that they’ve addressed this issue with her character. Also, now I’m curious if this has happened to any other characters in comics. Regarding Kate’s refusal to comply with the “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell” policy, I think this could show the creators’ personal opinions of the whole ordeal. This also would be really interesting to look into.

  4. Rachel
    April 5, 2013 at 9:52 am

    I’m really glad you chose to make this post. I’d heard about Billy Kaplan and Teddy Altman from the Young Avengers being gay, but I’d assumed that allowing characters to be anything other than straight was a relatively new phenomenon. I was really surprised that DC was willing to tackle such controversial issues as gay marriage and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell without fear of alienating their fans. I wonder how you would view their more progressive stance for gay rights against their history of portraying characters in very stereotypically feminine or masculine ways (the ridiculous poses for women, etc.).

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