Doing it Right: Equality, Gay Rights, and Comic Books

- 05-22-12Comics, Featured Posted by Jason Tabrys

“Homosexuality or any suggestion of it by illustration, dialogue, or text was strictly forbidden” – A 1974 memorandum from the Comics Magazine Association of America, aka the group behind The Comics Code.

We certainly have come a long way — from pretending that homosexuality doesn’t exist in comics to the announcement of a marriage between two male characters. Gone now are many of the stereotypes that plagued the first gay characters like Extraño (whose name literally translates to strange, or queer), DC’s flamboyant magician who was, at one point, infected with HIV by an AIDS vampire named Hemo-Goblin. Yes, things are decidedly different now, but are these recent changes, that are built on top of decades of slow progress, going to find the impact they seek?

For Marvel, the wedding of Northstar and Kyle feels organic, not something done as a stunt. Will it capitalize on recent events like President Obama’s affirmation of his support for gay marriage and efforts to both harm and further the cause of marriage equality? Sure, but Northstar is regarded as among comicdom’s first gay heroes, with his sexuality at first implied from 1979 to 1992, and then confirmed by Scott Lobdell in Alpha Flight #106, and he has been in a relationship with Kyle for quite some time.

If Northstar was straight and had proposed to a woman, no one would care or bat an eye and that marriage would be viewed as standard, but in this unjust and under-evolved world, same sex couples cause fear, controversy, and anger and there is a wall impeding their pursuit of that standard.

In real life, that wall stands due to prejudice and archaic legislation and in comics, it stands due to a fear of reprisal from the loud voices of small people. Big voiced, small people who have hindered the ability of writers, creators, and somewhat gutless publishers for almost 25 years since the Comics Code changed and the blockade on addressing homosexuality in comics was lifted.

In those two decades though, there have been plenty of out characters, but other than Northstar and Batwoman, most gay characters have been used in minor roles like Phat, been humiliated like Wing, quickly discarded like The Freedom Ring, or been a total embarrassment like the previously mentioned Extraño. Yesterday though, news broke that DC Comics would go against prior statements and change the sexual orientation of one of their existing characters in an effort to add another major out gay character to the landscape, with co-publisher Dan DiDio (the author of those prior statements) saying that that character would become one of DC’s “most prominent gay characters”.

Naturally this set off a firestorm, with most blogs and comic news sites (including this site) openly (and somewhat immaturely) speculating on who the new gay member of the DCU was, or as one site put it, “who is this mystery gay?” Hell, Fox News even weighed in, speculating on if the new out DC character could be Superman, that unyielding symbol of American virtue and value (save for that time he denounced his citizenship).

I for one don’t really care who it is, I care how it’s done. As I said up top, Northstar and Kyle’s engagement and pending nuptials developed organically, the timing is a touch curious, but it doesn’t really feel like a hollow gimmick. On the other hand, DC’s decision to suddenly mess with a characters origin story and switch their sexuality could very well feel exactly like that if it isn’t done properly.

Too many characters have been turned gay to get a bounce in readership and then left to fade away or pretend that this massive part of their lives doesn’t exist. I’m not saying that a characters sexuality should be ever present in all things that they do, I’m not personally interested in overly sexual characters regardless of their orientation, but I think the intelligence level of the average reader is high enough that writers can move beyond the habit of portraying gay characters as little more than a checked box on a diversity survey, or a eunuch. Let reality be a guide, and let these characters be truly multi-dimensional, because anything else is going to come off as DC trying to get some cheap attention, betray an origin story, and tweak Marvel as they try to break a barrier.

Sources: ScienceFiction.comThe AdvocateBleeding Cool, Seal Of Approval: The History of the Comics Code by Amy Kiste Nyberg

 

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