The other week, I went to Steel City Con, the Pittsburgh Area’s valiant attempt at a comic con. Lots of vendors, bunch of B- and C-list TV celebs, usually two or three A-listers (last year I got autographs from Shannen Doherty AND Holly Marie Combs!!!), and of course: tons of passionate, weird, lovable pop culture junkies, God love ’em. As I went through through my loot, I realized I had had a gay ol’ time. My two biggest gems? Action figures of Willow and Tara, and All New X-Men #17: aka newly-out Iceman’s first, big (I’m talking full-page panel) gay kiss. This is exceptional, you guys: Iceman has been part of the X-Verse since its very beginnings in 1963, one of the original five X-Men. So how did we get to this place fifty-four years later? It’s the long line of the quirkiest comic team family expanding its inherent diversity. Let’s take a look.
Now comics have certainly shifted from their old days. Regretfully, I am pretty out of touch with the full scope of diversity gains; there are gays aplenty in various titles that I sadly never had time to truly follow, like Batwoman and Young Avengers. So I’m going to focus on the eXtended family nearest and dearest to my heart (see what I did there?)—the X-Men et al. The X-Men have always been the “queerest” comic family in many ways. For a time in the ’60s they even had the tagline “The Strangest Teens of All!” (Have they met theatre kids though?) They have always been about the outcasts, the rejects, the weird ones. The Avengers are the clean-cut, All-American heroes and the Fantastic Four are a spin on the nuclear family (pun unintended), but the X-Men are the cast offs, misunderstood and feared, even rejected by their own families for “being different”. More than once has the struggle for mutant rights and acceptance been compared to that facing the LGBTQ+ community. Until recently this was purely at a metaphorical level, but finally we are seeing characters in the X-titles who are actually queer.
One of the first characters to come out and, for better or worse, become the “token gay” of the Mavel-verse, is Northstar, Jean-Paul Beaubier. Originally in Alpha Flight (Canada’s very own super-powered team that was related to the X-Men via Wolverine and the Weapon X projects… but I digress…), he has been cemented as a fixture in the X-World for some time, even taking a professorship at the school for gifted youngsters at one point. He came out in the comics back in 1992, which is really exceptional! At the height of the AIDS crisis, the X-Family did not shy away from including such an “outcast” as a bona fide homosexual in their midst. He’s continued to be out and proud as both a mutant and a gay man, and even got gay married in 2012 (in an interracial relationship, nonetheless!).
Another young queer character, Anole (real name: Victor Borkowski), has been a pretty significant character in the new wave of young recruits in the early 2000s. He’s actually probably one of the most developed of the large influx of new students at the Xavier Institute and one to retain his powers after M-Day, and he’s been out and proud for the next generations of mutants. Our aforementioned gay guru Northstar takes the young man under his wing, in a great example of LGBTQ+ role models helping the next generation. Anole even shows gays come in many different colors—green, in his instance. The X-Men don’t shy away from people with physical mutations that make them very different-looking, and this can be a sort of intersectional burden: he’s a mutant and one who looks patently non-human, that is, a disliked minority within a disliked minority. While this can be a nod to intersectional realities (i.e., a white gay man and a gay woman of color have very different realities), it would be better to include more intersections that exist in the real world. Luckily, we have someone who fits the bill in the person of Karma.
Karma, née Xi’an Coy Manh, is a long-standing character stretching all the way back to the New Mutants of the 1980s (remember how much I love the New Mutants?) who has been through a lot—having to kill her evil brother, almost dying and then being possessed by the Shadow King who took control of her body and ruined her health—but who was also brave enough to come out as a lesbian in 2003. Karma is thus an actual queer woman of color, not just allegorically like Anole; as a Vietnamese woman she has undoubtedly faced real-world racial prejudice. Her Vietnamese heritage is an important part of her character, from the importance of family in her first backstory to her somewhat antiquated use of French (she’s from 1980s Vietnam, not 1880s). She is also the user of a prosthetic leg since a battle injury in 2010, making her one of a small but not negligent group of comic characters with a disability. Queer, Asian, and a prosthetic user, she is an underappreciated triple-hitter for diversity.
Iceman’s coming-out story is more than convoluted enough: it’s actually his younger self from an alternative dimension/timeline who is now stuck in our time who came out, you see… oh just comic book things. My biggest issue with this is that it can fall into the ol’ “retcon” debacle—Iceman was known as “straight” for 50 some years of publication, having relationships with women exclusively. However, in addressing this “newfound” homosexuality, he admits that he hid this part of himself because in the ’60s, just being a mutant was being different enough—being a mutant and gay was almost unthinkably much to bear, again showing the weight of intersecting prejudices and their affect on an individual. This is not an unrealistic possibility, but I still think they could have made him bisexual so as to not feel like a “hard reset” on the character, but rather keeping his prior heterosexual relationships and having him finally exploring this other part of himself. Media in general could use more bi representation, especially of bisexual men.
The X-Men (and extended titles) is the home for the “other”, a place where those rejected by society can come together to form a community. This is why I believe that of the most mainstream, household-name comic franchises, they were the best place to introduce queer characters; in fact, I’d say they had to be the title to do so. It is ingrained in the very essential core of the X-Men to accept those persecuted for being different. I think that’s why the X-World has always been my favorite corner of the Marvel Universe, the only one I’ve truly managed to keep up with in-depth. The safe place for mutants was a safe place for me, as someone who grew up feeling so out of place in so many ways. aching to understand that it was okay to be different, that there are groups of people who embrace and celebrate differences instead of fear and hate them. And now with more gay characters in the titles, to see my particular brand of “different” reflected explicitly instead of just in analogy in a comic world that’s always been important to me—well, that’s just eXhilirating.