The Spandex Closet: 10 Superheroes Who Need To Come Out
Superhero comics have a diversity problem. The leading characters are largely male, mostly white, and overwhelmingly straight. By definition, well-established characters come from an era when the culture was even straighter, whiter and more male than it is today, and as a result the characters fail to represent the diversity of their audience.
It’s tough for minority characters to break through. The first significant female heroes emerged in the ’40s. There were no black heroes until the ’60s and no gay heroes until the ’80s. The appearance of a few minority characters did not open the floodgates in any of those eras. Creators and editors have tried to address the problem by building on the appeal of existing heroes with female versions of male heroes or racially diverse inheritors of white heroes’ helms, and sometimes it works. Usually it doesn’t. The female versions tend to remain second-stringers. The black, Asian and Hispanic heroes get reset to white at the next reboot.
But gay heroes are different. Gay heroes don’t need to be new versions of established characters. Gay heroes can come from the established cast, from eight rich decades of superhero history. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual heroes can come out. I have a few suggestions for characters who could do exactly that. Coming out is how it works in the real world. Everyone is presumed straight until proven otherwise. People can seem straight and live straight for years before coming out as bisexual or gay.
In comics we would call it a retcon, but some characters are coded or rumored as gay or bisexual long before they come out. It took Northstar 14 years to publicly acknowledge his sexuality; Rictor and Shatterstar took 16 years to confirm their relationship on the page. Even a character who was never conceived as or hinted to be gay could plausibly come out.
As gay, lesbian and bisexual characters become a more familiar part of the genre, characters coming out ought to be part of that picture. With that in mind, here are ten characters or couples that could and perhaps should come out of the spandex closet.
WONDER WOMAN (DC COMICS)
We’ll start with the obvious choice. One might argue that a single-sex society in which women forge lives, families and community without the conventions and prejudices of an oppressive patriarchy must take homosexual relationships for granted. Or, one might argue that an island full of beautiful women without any men around should all be having sex with each other. Whether you take the high road or the low road, we can all agree that there are lesbians on Paradise Island. It’s not a stretch to think that the most famous Amazon might count among them.
The Sapphism of Wonder Woman is a widely agreed-upon secret among readers, editors, writers and artists. For example, writers Robert Kanigher and Gail Simone have both acknowledged the character’s potential bisexuality off the page. Yet the comic never puts it on the record, and the idea of establishing one of DC’s Big Three (the other two being Superman and Batman) as gay probably gives the marketing folks at parent company Warner Bros. palpitations.
But let’s be frank; Wonder Woman has always struggled to find an audience, and she’s always been hugely popular with gay audiences. It probably wouldn’t do her image or her popularity any harm for DC to be open about her sexuality. That’s not the reason to do it — the reason to do it is to be honest — but it’s a pleasant bonus.
While we’re on the subject of Greek mythology, here’s a character whose same-sex relationships belong to a canon much older than Marvel Comics. The mythic Hercules had many same-sex lovers, including Philoctetes, Nestor, Abderus, Euphemos, Admetos, Iphitos, Elacatas, Eurystheus and Hylas, to name a few.
Only recently in Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente’s Incredible Herc did we get a hint that Hercules’ male lovers were in Marvel continuity, thanks to a brief revisitation of the story of Hylas that alluded to their relationship. Since then we’ve had one other reference to Hercules’ bisexuality, when it was implied at his funeral that he had slept with Northstar.
It might have been a nice gag if Marvel had been explicit about Hercules swinging both ways, but being coy and coded about it made it look like something everyone should be embarrassed about. Marvel previously used jokes to establish that Living Lightning is gay and that Elektro developed a taste for sodomy in prison (it was a Mark Millar comic), while Rawhide Kid was one long joke.
It’s been a while since Green Lantern got away with calling an Inuit character “Pieface,” yet gay characters are still in their Pieface era. Sexuality is still used as a diminishing comedy stereotype. Now that Hercules is back in action, I want to see him carousing with fellas as well as fillies, and not as a punchline.
CATMAN (DC COMICS)
This is an easy pick, because the character has already been Dumbledored — which is to say, he’s been outed by author diktat, but not on the page. Secret Six writer Gail Simone revealed the character’s bisexuality on her Tumblr back in October, before DC’s “New 52″ reboot that ended Secret Six, but the character hasn’t appeared since.
Catman would be a welcome addition to the ranks of queer characters, not just because he’s one of comics’ more sexually self-confident guys, but because he would be the first high profile bisexual male in the DC Universe. (John Constantine arguably counts, but there are distinct DCU and Vertigo versions of the character, and only the “mature readers” Vertigo imprint version is confirmed as bisexual.)
SHRINKING VIOLET & LIGHTNING LASS (DC COMICS)
Some fans would argue that this couple is already out. Writer Paul Levitz hinted at their relationship in last year’s Legion of Super-Heroes annual when one of them referred to the other as “love,” though where I come from “love” is something you get called by shopkeepers and barmaids.
The trouble with hints is that they allow for selective reading. Hinting at a gay relationship puts an Easter egg in the text for readers who want to find it but gives everyone else — including future writers — the option to ignore it. These are not choose-your-own-adventure stories (“turn to page 56 to fight the manticore; turn to page 57 to be a lesbian”), and this is not the Chris Claremont era when coded gay relationships were the only gay relationships. Equality means treating all relationships the same way.
Reboots give publishers a unique opportunity to take gay characters off the board, as seemed to happen with Legion members Element Lad, Chemical King and Invisible Kid. DC has had another big reboot since last year’s Legion annual, and for once it looks like the Legion was largely unaffected, but nothing can be taken for granted. Characters like Shrinking Violet and Lightning Lass need to come out unambiguously in the new continuity.
STEEL STERLING (ARCHIE COMICS)
Steel Sterling got his powers when he was dipped in molten steel. I’m telling you this because I think it’s fun (but not advisable), and because you’ve probably never heard of him. Steel Sterling is an obscure 1940s strongman character — comics’ other man of steel. As such, he’s an odd choice for a possible gay character. There’s no established reason for Sterling to be gay. It could as easily be Shield, or the Comet or Jaguar.
All of these characters are part of Archie Comics’ planned digital reboot of their Red Circle/New Crusaders stable of heroes. The publisher is giving them a fresh start with legacy versions of the original characters. That means any one of them could be gay. Archie Comics has put Marvel and DC to shame with its embrace of Riverdale gang cast member Kevin Keller, the first gay teen character to get his own title. Given that precedent, it seems plausible and consistent that Archie Comics should include a gay superhero among the lead characters in its new universe.
Storm is now a married lady. Presumably her union with the hero-king Black Panther is a committed and closed marriage, whatever strain the current Avengers vs X-Men series might put on it. Still, everyone knows that when she went through her awesome mohawk-and-leather phase it was sparked in large part by her relationship with sexy thief Yukio. It was coded lesbianism from the king of the trope, Chris Claremont.
Storm is not the sort of character who would be coy about her bisexuality, though she also wouldn’t kiss and tell. Even if she’s never going to stray from Black Panther, it would be nice to have her past relationship with Yukio properly acknowledged. It doesn’t mean she now has to have a girlfriend as well as a husband.
HARLEY QUINN & POISON IVY (DC COMICS)
I’m told Harley Quinn co-creator and longtime Batman writer Paul Dini is on the record about these two bad girls being sometime lovers, though I can’t find the record it’s on. There are obvious problems in putting these two together as a couple; Harley is in love with “Mistah J,” and femme fatales like Ivy aren’t meant to be in committed relationships. But making them queer, and gal pals with benefits, doesn’t mean they have to be hopelessly devoted.
It used to be problematic to make villains queer, because typically they were the only queer characters around, and their sexual difference was presented as a symptom of moral deviancy. Once you have gay heroes in your universe, gay villains should follow, so long as they aren’t monstrously outdated predator stereotypes. DC has put enough gay female heroes in its books that I think it can comfortably get away with a few more gay female villains, and these two would be an obvious and popular choice.
There’s no in-character scene or moment that suggests that Gambit is bisexual, yet every fan I speak to just knows that he is. He has a Casanova quality and a laissez-faire attitude, two traits that combine into the attractive idea of a guy everyone finds sexy, who finds everyone sexy.
Gambit is that rarest of things; a superdude who is deliberately sensual. It’s a trait that forthcoming series writer James Asmus happily embraces, and it’s a big part of his appeal. His appeal would only be enhanced by establishing his bisexuality. It’s an increasingly apparent truth that a lot of women enjoy male/male romances. Whenever we talk about making books that appeal to women, the conversation seems to be about female characters. I’m willing to bet that giving Gambit a tortured same-sex romance would bring in more female readers than changing Power Girl’s outfit ever could.
TIM DRAKE aka ROBIN III aka RED ROBIN (DC COMICS)
DC doesn’t have a prominent queer teen the way Marvel does with Wiccan and Hulkling. And Karolina Dean. And Julie Power. And Anole. And Graymalkin, and Xavin, and Striker. Basically all of Marvel’s teen team books have at least one gay or bisexual member. DC has Bunker. They’re a little behind the trend.
Yet DC has a chance to leapfrog all of Marvel’s gay teens by outing a prominent member of the Batman family. Making Tim Drake, one of the former Robins, gay would instantly give DC the most high profile gay teen character in comics. Batman himself will never be more than conceptually gay, but there’s no good reason for Tim Drake to be straight. He’s young enough to still be coming to terms with his sexuality (though there’s actually no upper age limit on that), and in his twenty year history he has never had a truly significant relationship with a woman.
This would be a controversial coming out, to be sure, because a whole generation of readers regard Tim as someone they grew up with. That actually makes his coming out more realistic, and would give those readers the experience of coming to terms with a friend’s sexuality. For readers who defiantly prefer their Robins straight, there’s still the older one. And the younger one. And the other one.
Previous to DC’s line-wide superhero reboot, a lot of readers wanted Superboy to be gay as well so that he and Tim could be a couple. I’m not against the idea. But I also don’t object to a bromance that remains a bromance, and a gay/straight bromance would be a refreshing change of pace.
CAPTAIN AMERICA (MARVEL)
A shocking suggestion, right? There is nothing gay about the Sentinel of Liberty. Sure, he represents America, all of it, even the gay bits, but that doesn’t mean he has to be gay any more than he has to be a snake-handling Appalachian evangelical or a zither-playing Portland hipster in an ironic pork pie hat.
But in a perfect world, a tolerant world, a world that typifies the idealistic American aspiration towards life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Captain America could be gay, and no-one would think it outrageous. In that sense this would be superhero comics’ ultimate coming out story, and a terrific It Gets Better. Captain America should come out because it would be a great leap forward.
If a gay Steve Rogers is too much to ask for, there is an option B. In the mid-80s Rogers was replaced as Captain America by one John Walker, who later operated under the codename U.S. Agent. He has generally been portrayed as more conservative than Cap, and he’s never had much of a love life. Making him gay could be a timely story about a self-loathing right wing closet case, or a rare positive representation of a gay Christian conservative. It might even be a humanizing story for an unpopular character.
Those are my suggestions, but I could probably make a list five times as long. I think some of these characters really need to come out because their queerness has been so heavily hinted at; others have always previously been straight, and will likely remain so, but they are examples of characters who could believably be rewritten.
The key point is that I think we need more diversity in superhero comics, and having some established characters come out should be a part of that. New LGBTQ characters are always welcome as well, but they’re hard to get off the ground. Out of the hundreds of established characters that exist, it seems sensible and fair to move a few of them into the gay or bisexual column.