7.23.2008

Aside from the Spandex and Leather, Are the X-Men Gay? Part Two

by Devin

Today we continue Devin's three-part essay. Read part one here.

But by this time, the Civil Rights Acts and Brown vs. Topeka were over a decade old. The commentary would be a little too late if this was to be an allegory for African Americans. Racism had moved from the law books to the much murkier area of socio-economic statuses and people not trusting a black guy because “he doesn’t smile enough.” On the homosexual front, however, anti-gay laws were plentiful. Not only were there laws barring gay marriage or adoption--as there still are today--but many states still had anti-sodomy laws and did not have laws banning discrimination on sexual orientation or gender identity. Sexual orientation was also not a factor in a hate crime and many states did not recognize same-sex couples in cases of domestic abuse. The gay rights movement had only begun a few years ago with the Stonewall Riot and it was still a risky topic to touch. Two decades would have to pass before every pre-pubescent girl knew the complete score to Rent and any housewife could tune in weekly to Will and Grace without a second thought. The fledgling gay-rights movement was an issue worth notice, but the only way that comics could even consider touching it was by wearing a mask (or a ruby-quartz visor…okay, I’ll stop). Hence, “gay” was changed to “mutant.”

Another interesting aspect of this time is a partial reversal in gender roles. Think back to the days of Stan and Jack. Scarlet Witch’s and Marvel Girl’s powers were far weaker than they would later become, relegating the two girls to the job of standing in the back and pointing at the action to use their powers. However (even though there might be, ahem, other reasons as well), the women of Claremont’s X-Men were not damsels in distress just waiting for the villains to capture them. They were powerful fighters, often saving the day. Phoenix saves the universe in “The Phoenix Saga” and Storm frees the team from Magneto in “Magneto Triumphant.” The famous “Dark Phoenix Saga” shows that women cannot only be impressive heroes, but fearsome villains. The idea of the strong woman figure has been popular among the gay community for years. Some people speculate that the change of sexual roles resonates with the queer community as a rebellion against a heteronormative society. Others just think that strong women merely appealing to the “diva side” of the average gay man.

With all of these powerful women though, one in particular stands out: Mystique. The shape-shifting villain, who first appeared in X-Men #141, gains fame as, among other things, the first bisexual character in comics. Though he could not say it at the time due to censorship reasons, Chris Claremont (Mystique’s creator) has admitted in recent interviews that he intended Mystique and another member of the Brotherhood of Evil mutants, Destiny, to be lesbian lovers. He even wanted to go as far as to make Nightcrawler (who often remarked on Mystique’s resemblance to him) their child (with Mystique having transformed into a man to impregnate Destiny).

There are multiple hints of their love throughout his run, getting more blatant much later. At one point Destiny says of Mystique, “This is Raven as I know her, the spirit-soul within my dearest friend--full of strength and courage and passion--that I have loved from the moment we met.” Another noticeable hint appears when Shadow King refers to Mystique as Destiny’s leman, an archaic term for lover that the censors did not catch. In more recent issues, their relationship has been openly spoken of, since gay characters are not quite as taboo (in fact, they almost seem mandatory in every new comic, whether they fit or not). While of course the presence of lesbians does not automatically signal that all of the X-Men are supposed to be queer, one cannot ignore that the writer at the time had an open enough mind to wish to include that concept.

This idea resurfaced in the ‘90s when Northstar (a mutant member of Alpha Flight, a title which spun off from X-Men) became the first “out” mainstream comic book superhero. But he was only a small part of the mutant movement to once again become socially relevant in the ‘90s. The time-traveling villain Trevor Fitzroy introduced the Legacy Virus into the X-Universe in 1993. From this origin, one may roll their eyes at the connection of this plot device to AIDS, but similarities do exist. Effects of the Legacy Virus include loss of weight and skin lesions. It is a long-term disease that one can live with for years, but ends up being fatal in the end. Most importantly, in the beginning, the public believes that the Legacy Virus only infects mutants. As the issues went on though, humans became capable of contracting it and dying from it as well. If one continues to keep up the allegory of mutants as queers, this directly mirrors AIDS. Originally, most people ignored AIDS, since they believed that it only affected the homosexual community. But as time passed, heterosexuals found themselves infected with the virus and discovered that AIDS is a human disease, not just a gay disease.

The allegory even carried over to the popular cartoon show featuring the characters that aired from 1992 to 1997. One issue that often arises in the gay community is that of gay pride and how far does it go. Would some people turn straight if they could? Or should they be proud of their sexual identity? This concept is reflected in the character of Rogue. While some of the mutants revel in their mutant powers, Rogue (who is unable to touch anyone due to her mutation) views hers as a curse. In a storyline in the first season, Rogue discovers a doctor who claims to have found a way to “cure” mutants of their powers. There do exist “get straight” camps, which claim to show “confused” teenagers the “right path” of sexuality. When Rogue declares her intention to get the treatment, she faces some opposition, with some of the X-Men saying that she should be proud of who she is. By the end of the dialogue, they sound like a billboard for gay pride. This story has since been rehashed by Josh Whedon when he took over the X-Men. When Beast talks about getting a treatment that will get rid of mutation, Wolverine reacts rather violently to it and by the end brings up the idea of “mutant pride”:

Wolverine: She said you were like a billboard. Like neon. Big neon sign, flashing: “I wanna get off. I wanna get out.” Is that how it goes, McCoy? You've had enough? You wanna see how the other half lives their half-lives?

Beast: The truth is that I don't know what I want. And that is none of your damn business.

Wolverine: Wrong answer.

Beast: I don't know what I am. I used to have fingers. I used to have a mouth you could kiss. I would walk down the street and...maybe this is the secondary stage of my mutation, or maybe Cassandra Nova was right. Maybe I'm devolving. I am a human being.

Wolverine: Wrong. You're an X-Man. Some weak sister in the freshman dorm wants to drop his powers, I could care less. But an X-Man...one of us caves and it's over. It's an endorsement stamp for every single mutant to be lined up and neutered. And you know that. You know that!


As the nineties progressed, the X-Men began to turn from social commentary again into a string of overblown crossovers and endless spin-off titles. Northstar’s sexuality was barely addressed after he came out. All of this changed in 2001 when Grant Morrison was given control of the X-Men universe and Peter Milligan decided to make a drastic change to X-Force. By this point in time, queer culture was seeping into the mainstream. Will and Grace was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed sitcoms on television and a show that actually called itself Queer as Folk was building a strong following as an even more risqué Sex and the City. Straight men were starting to find that women perceived them as more attractive if they dressed “like a gay man.” These straight men were coined as metrosexuals and a little over a year later, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy would shove this in the public eye.

With all stated above going on, these two writers chose not to give a simple message of “everyone is the same inside.” Instead, they decided to actually comment on what was going on. Queer culture was entering the mainstream…but was it happening in the right way?

Check back Friday for the rest of Devin's look at the X-Men as allegory for the gay struggle.

5 comments:

Vocal Minority said...

The Legacy virus was so very much AIDS. And probably the one good thing to come out of that whole x-cutioner's song crossover.

I'm actually disappointed they got rid of it. I'd have preferred to see it as something that became treatable, or live-able with, but remain a threat. Rather like AIDS itself; still dangerous and arguably moreso for the lack of active attention it gets these days.

The General said...

The Legacy Virus is similar to M-Day in that they are both great ideas conceptually, but where fumbled pretty seriously in their delivery because the creators never seemed to want to really focus on and examine them closely. Instead they were both introduced an then shuttled off to the fringes of the X-verse until they were needed in some obtuse manner.

As far as the Legacy Virus' resolution goes, I thought that the death of Colossus was a great character moment and the story was well done. But, at the same time, it did undermine some the potential to deal with some of the concepts that Mr. Minority mentions.

Vocal Minority said...

I agree about the death of Colossus. Actually, it was a shame that arguably the best use of the virus was in getting rid of it.

(Although the method itself was just silly. Just inject a rabbit. Or if you need a human ask a terminally ill patient or something.)

The General said...

I thought it was the activation of a mutant ability that activated the cure. That it wasn't the fact that Colosuss injected it into himself that activated the cure, it was when he turned into his metal form. The mutant power worked as the catalyse... or some similar silliness.

Devaishwarya said...

Very insightful article(s)...and speaking as a gay man AND an X-men fan...most apropos. Looking forward to the last installment.