Anytime a piece of media includes members of minority groups within its cast of characters, there are inevitably discussions of how well that media handles issues of representation. There are questions of whether the characters are written to be sympathetic, or if they are in one way or another made into an example of some sort of negative “other.” There are questions of if the characters adhere to stereotypes, to what degree they defy them, and to what degree defying stereotypes should always be a goal. Ironically, the lack of minority characters in media could possibly have an inverse relationship with the amount of time spent discussing how well they are represented.
Intuitively, creating more diverse character casts creates more room for diversity within characters belonging to the same groups. Is there anything inherently wrong with a gay character who speaks with a pronounced lisp, wears all pink, has some manner of “untraditional” hair, and has more than a little bit of swivel in their step?
Fuck no! The degree to which a character is problematic is determined by more than just their personality traits and visual characteristics. Off the top of my head, there are three major recurring themes that turn stereotypical characters into problematic representations: stale writing, character as comedy piece, and a lack of differing characters.
For the purpose of this specific column, I’ll be discussing these themes in terms of gay characters, and especially gay superheroes. As a gay child and adolescent, I wanted more gay people in my life. This meant more gay people who I could know, talk to, relate to, and look up to. It meant friends as well as heroes. This desire for heroes extended into the fictional realm as well. I would have loved to have had more gay superheroes to latch onto growing up. Even as series like X-Men carried themes of diversity and tolerance, they presented little in terms of actual gay representation.
This mattered to me so much growing up (and still does today) due to the way that lack of representation was mirrored in my own life. When I came out in the eighth grade, I was the first boy to come out as gay in the history of my middle school. There were a couple of other gay men at my high school, but not many, and by and large I did not care for them much. There were next to no options for connecting with people at school who understood the specific emotions and societal expectations placed upon gay people. My life outside of school offered little remedy for this situation. The local PFLAG group was full of adults far older than myself, and no groups I were a part of were ever particularly gay-friendly. Or at least, not particularly gay-friendly in a way that didn’t feel forced and like I was still some sort of alien, even if I was received in different ways. (I’m speaking specifically of my time attending a Unitarian Universalist church, full of Democrats and so-called liberals who did little to make me feel more accepted than their Republican, conservative Christian counterparts from the churches I had previously attended.)
I’m going to go ahead and resort to clichés for a moment: life imitates art, and vice versa. Art imitates the culture from which it comes. Even in cases where art is counter-culture, its existence and nature are dependent on that culture. There is no escaping context, only various means and levels of masking it. Growing up, I felt alone as a gay person. I felt like there was no one I could talk to about the feelings I kept entirely to myself, and like coming out would inevitably result in backlash. In some ways, I was right. There was backlash, even if I found more accepting friends than I expected. I still existed as a statistical minority, an “other,” and I did not even have company in fiction. Gay characters seldom appeared in anything mainstream, and when they did they were almost always punch lines or Oscar bait waiting to be killed at the end of their movies. Movies which, in turn, led to more punch lines. (If you have ever made a Brokeback Mountain pun and considered yourself witty and original, consider this an invitation to reevaluate things.)
But, as I talked about more extensively in the first week of this column, I grew up reading comic books nonetheless. Even if there were few gay characters, and even fewer I liked, I loved the medium. Now, years later and having found my love for the medium again after a long break, I find myself much more satisfied with the state of its gay characters than I was a decade ago.
As I mentioned earlier, many unlikable gay characters suffer from being flatly written, or made into punch lines. For example, the minor character Living Lightning was identified as being gay, but solely for the purpose of a gag. Many gay characters failed to impress me due to a quality they shared in common: they never fucking did anything. As a kid, the main gay male hero I knew of was Northstar. I don’t want to bash on the character himself, as he’s not terrible, but when I was reading comics as a child he almost never showed up. A C-list X-Man was not the kind of representation I was looking for.
I’ve since found multiple gay male superheroes that I like, and who stand as answers to the question of what I want from a gay hero to begin with. The fact that I now have multiple gay male comic book characters I like speaks to my primary desire: to have gay characters who didn’t feel like C or D-list tokens. With more characters around, none of them have to shoulder the weight of being the only notable gay character. They actually have story-lines now, and I can like them all as different characters who happen to be gay. A.K.A.: what I’ve wanted this whole time.
My absolute favorite gay male character in comics right now is Billy Kaplan. He’s gone by the monikers Asguardian, Demiurge, and Wiccan, and is, for all intents and purposes, everything I would want to be as a superhero. A mage with beautiful costumes involving dramatic red capes who deals with anxiety issues but still follows his own moral compass and does what he believes to be right, even when opposed by other superheroes. He’s everything I would want to be if I had powers, and he has a great relationship to boot. His boyfriend, the superhero Hulkling, is a shapeshifting badass, and the two characters’ relationship has developed well in the decade since the two characters first appeared.
Technically, I knew of Wiccan and Hulking as a young teen. They were introduced shortly before I stopped reading comics, and I enjoyed what I read regarding them, but they were also fairly low-priority characters in terms of comics as a whole. I can’t say that there are really any high profile gay men in comics even today by my standards. There are characters I like a lot, but none that headline their own solo title by one of the big two comics publishers.
Midnighter had a title briefly, and is currently starring alongside his husband Apollo in a miniseries, so he’s probably the closest thing to an exception to the rule. Midnighter and Apollo could perhaps be summarized as gay versions of Batman and Superman who love each other. Their characters are deeper than that and I don’t mean to say they’re just rip-off characters, but they are clearly reminiscent of DC’s most iconic heroes. Midnighter wears all black, is proficient in hand-to-hand combat, and is the “grittier” of his duo, whereas Apollo is larger than life with incredible powers. Their characters and dynamics are interesting and I’ve grown to like the two of them.
Then there’s Rictor and Shatterstar. They were a very likable male-male couple form Peter David’s X-Factor run, where their relationship issues were depicted wonderfully and made for a realistic-feeling depiction of romantic struggles. Shatterstar is a particular favorite of mine, both insanely cool in a very traditional macho action hero sense, but also marked by impactful emotional conflicts.
Other than the three pairs of boyfriends I’ve just mentioned…there aren’t really many major gay characters in mainstream comics right now. Technically, one could list off all the more minor gay characters (Obsidian, Living Lightning…) but that wouldn’t really rebuke my point. Iceman of the X-Men has recently been confirmed as gay as well, and though he’s probably the most well-known gay man in comics, his sexuality has barely been addressed since his coming out. To which one could argue the degree to which it should be, but I digress.
There are gay men in comics besides the ones I talked about, but the six I’ve mentioned are the ones I’m most fond of. I set out to write this column as a response to the question, “Why do I want gay superheroes and what do I want from them?” This in turn led me to consider what I thought of the gay characters who are most prominent right now and over the last decade. Perhaps it is a sad testament that my initial thought was “There are so many more likable gay characters now!” when I can only think of six that have done much of note anytime recently. Other comic readers may disagree of course, and that’s fine. There are also LGBT characters besides the gay men I’ve been focusing on due to my personal experiences, but they may be even fewer and far between. As far as lesbian characters go, Batwoman is the main one, and then the list immediately drops to C-listers. The descent into obscurity is even quicker for bisexual and trans characters.
Which brings me back to my initial question: what do I want from gay characters? I want them to be something that is less hard to find. I want them to be more common. I want them to be more notable and receive more attention, let I want their sexuality to be less notable. I want them to be characters that kids can see growing up and identify with.
I want them to be something I grew up with. By and large, that wasn’t case. But even though I didn’t have them then, I have them now. And even if they are just characters, reality and fiction mirror one another. The mere existence of stories centered on the likes of Wiccan and Shatterstar make me feel a bit more existent myself. They make me feel a bit less alone. I want my gay superheroes to kick ass, and I want to follow suit.
Eric Cline is a gay poet, 2016 Best of the Net nominee, and the founding editor-in-chief of Calamus Journal. His debut chapbook, “his strange boy eve”, was published by Yellow Chair Press in September 2016. He tweets @ericclinepoet.