House Of Xavier: How The X-Men Represent Queer Togetherness [Mutant & Proud Part I]
Mutants, Marvel Comics' best known superhuman minority group, have long served as an imperfect analogue for real world minority struggles and injustices, from the concentration camps of Days of Future Past to the segregationist society of Genosha.
Yet it's when X-Men stories are not trying so hard to draw parallels that they come closest to representing the experiences of one particular marginalized group. In the first of three essays in observance of LGBT Pride Month, I'll look at the special resonance that mutants have with LGBT readers, starting with an examination of the X-Men as a representation of queer family and queer community.
In their first iteration, the X-Men created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby might have passed for blood relatives. It was 1963, and a uniform Anglo-Saxon whiteness was de rigueur for superheroes. That team did not follow a familial model at that time -- that was the Fantastic Four's gig -- so what actually set the first X-Men apart was that they were classmates. Even so, a class photo would show five students who could well be natural cousins from a non-variegated family.
That changed in 1975 with the team's "second genesis". The team introduced in Giant-Sized X-Men #1 by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum were an international and multi-racial class that featured the first non-white X-Men, the first non-American X-Men, and the first X-Men who couldn't "pass" for a traditional organic family.
Yet under new writer Chris Claremont the X-Men became a true family for the first time. Storm's way of referring to her team mates as brothers and sisters -- Colossus especially was her "little brother" -- was an acknowledgement of the bonds of loyalty that defined the team. They did not only serve and study together; they also lived together in a grand palatial home, where they teased each other, played softball together, and shared their pains and joys.
Most of these characters were orphans, exiles, and outcasts. The X-Men became their surrogate tribe. That they did not look like a natural family served to underline the idea that these people chose each other.
All of this is a gay fairy tale -- and a perfected version of what is, for many, a gay reality.
Though all minority experiences are different, there is one experience that's especially common among LGBT people that is perhaps especially uncommon to people from most other minority identities. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people do not typically come from lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans families or communities.
With the caveat that none of this is universally true, it is the case that most young women are related to other women or have other women in their lives. Most persons of color are related to other persons of color. People from cultural or religious minority groups are typically born into those communities.
Yet people with LGBT identities routinely grow up isolated from other LGBT people. I didn't knowingly meet another gay person of around my own age until I went to university. I didn't have any close gay friends until I was in my twenties.
Adding to this isolation, a lot of families and cultures stigmatize LGBT identity. There are non-queer people who grow up different from their parents or families -- many people with disabilities, for example, or adopted children, or people with interracial identities -- but they're not as likely to expect the rejection by their families that many LGBT kids fear.
So growing up lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, carries with it a heightened version of a common adolescent fear; the fear of being an outcast, of being alone. This is not only because we are unlike our families and our communities, but because there is ample precedent for believing that our families and our communities may reject us.
That precedent is well illustrated in Jennie Livingstone's celebrated 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. Shot in the mid-to-late '80s, the film explores New York's "ballroom" scene, a subculture that allows LGBT people in major American cities -- especially disadvantaged gay or trans people of color -- to forge together under new identities.
The kids on the ballroom scene form houses under house mothers, and often take on new identities that may include the house name as their new surnames. Within these houses they compete in dance and drag contests at specially organized balls. The scene still exists to this day, but it enjoyed its peak in the '70s and '80s.
Pepper LaBeija, a New York drag queen and the mother of House of LaBeija, observed in the documentary, "When someone has rejection from their mother and father, their family ... they search for someone to fill that void. ... I've had kids come to me and latch hold to me like I'm their mother or like I'm their father."
This is how the ballroom scene emerged. Kids rejected by their families sought out new families and new communities with other outcasts, other exiles, other orphans. These houses became their families. Ballroom became their community. The ballroom scene is just one of the many ways in which LGBT people have created their own support networks, united by their common fears and dreams.
That is the fantasy that the X-Men represents.
Like LGBT people, mutants are not necessarily born of mutants. Their siblings are not necessarily mutants. Their children are not necessarily mutants. They are not born into mutant communities. They are not born into a mutant culture. They are anomalous even within their own families.
Like LGBT people, mutants face a heightened fear of being hated by the people who ought to love them the most.
Out of that shared truth, perhaps organically, the X-Men came to represent a grand up-scale version of the constructed families that LGBT exiles create for themselves in the real world. The Westchester School is its own New York house for runaways; the glamorous House of Xavier, with house mother Storm. Even the term "School for Gifted Youngsters" has the right ring of fabulous defiance to it. It serves up some Ivy League realness; some eleganza mutante.
Like the kids at the drag balls, Xavier's kids take on new names and new identities and dress themselves up in new costumes. They even take on their house's name -- not as their own surname, but as the name of their team -- X-Men -- and as a motif on their costumes. The X-Men and their impressive high-tech mansion are an aspirational version of running away from home.
This is not meant to imply that running away from home and forging a new family is a universal experience for gay teens. Rates of homelessness and estrangement are higher for LGBT kids -- one in five homeless youths in the U.S. are LGBT -- but it's not the majority experience.
It is, I think, a nearly universal fear. Even those born into loving and tolerant families can't know how their identity will be received by their parents, their siblings, their wider family, friends, and community. Even those of us who aren't thrown out of our homes will of course leave them eventually, as we all must, and when we do we want to know that we'll finally find people like us. A family of outsiders. Mutants like us. Our X-Men.
I don't think I understood when I was fourteen years old why the X-Men resonated with me so much. I know in retrospect that this portrait of a constructed family of outcasts offered the hope that my future would not necessarily be one of loneliness and rejection.
In their diversity the X-Men also help normalize the feeling of being a freak. That second genesis in Giant Sized X-Men #1 brought together mutants from different parts of the world, from Africa and Europe and Asia. This not only visually demonstrated that they were a constructed family, it also demonstrated that being different from their families did not mean that they were alone. Mutants came from everywhere. If you think you don't fit in, you only need to change your perspective.
That is a powerful reassurance for a queer kid. Because most of us have to seek out people like us rather than being born to people like us, we have a global culture rather than a tribal culture. Our history is shared across borders. We can and should find commonalities with people who are, in many other regards, very unlike us. That gives us a sort of radical freedom when it comes to building our identities and defining a common heritage.
This is something the X-Men are actually better at than the Western gay community typically manages to be. White gay able-bodied men tend to dominate our mainstream movements, and they've been slow to accept their commonalities with gay women, bisexual people, transgender and genderqueer people, gay people of color, and gay people with disabilities.
The X-Men still aren't great when it comes to bisexual or trans representation -- in fact they're nowhere to be seen on trans representation -- but they had women, people of color, people with disabilities, on their team long before they admitted their first openly gay member, Northstar, in 2002.
In this way the X-Men are a model for the strengths of a diverse constructed family. They don't just fight for love and tolerance; they exemplify it.
For a kid growing up with the fear of estrangement from the people they love the most, the possibility that someone else out there might see enough good in them to take them in -- not regardless of their differences, but in celebration of them -- is as empowering as a superhero story can get.
That is why I love the X-Men; because they gave me hope when I needed it most.