Today’s post comes to you by popular demand — which makes sense because she was very popular, and she also knew what she wanted and demanded it! Well, okay, mostly she just got it herself. She knew exactly who she was from a remarkably young age and never wavered.
Isabel Vargas Lizano was born on April 17, 1919 to Francisco Vargas and Herminia Lizano in San Joaquin de Flores, Costa Rica. As far as I can tell, it was a pretty unremarkable event. She was frequently called “Chavela” by her family. Despite that affectionate nickname, things would take a turn for the worse — her very religious parents were embarrassed by Chavela’s tomboy-ishness, going so far as to hide her when they had visitors to their home. They ultimately divorced, leaving her to be raised by her uncle, and then she contracted polio. Chavela managed to survive the illness relatively unscathed — she and her family credited this to the rituals and talismans of shamans and witches, rather than the scientific medicine of doctors.
By seventeen years old, Chavela was fully aware that she wanted a career in music and — since there weren’t many musical opportunities in Costa Rica — she moved to Mexico. Initially, she sang on the streets — dressed in traditionally masculine clothing, wearing the red poncho (or more specifically a jorongo) that would become a signature part of her performance “look” in her professional years. The look was a conscious decision — Chavela felt she looked “like a transvestite” in women’s clothing and had trouble walking in heels. To fit into the masculine music scene she was attempting to break into, she began smoking cigars, drinking heavily, and making sure to keep a gun on her at all times. During this period of her career, sometime in the mid-1940s, she had an affair with Frida Kahlo — the romance was relatively brief, but intense. Chavela even lived with Frida and her then-husband Diego Rivera for more than a year. And Frida expressed in letters to her friends that she was very attracted to Chavela. (And yet, there are — of course — scholars who are certain they were just good friends.)
In her thirties, she became a professional, becoming known for her own unique take on ranchera — singing solo, with only her guitar as accompaniment instead of a mariachi band, and slowing down the tempo for more dramatic tension or so they could come across as more humorous and, y’know, suggestive. These songs were typically sung from a man’s perspective ( a straight man’s, I should say) and Chavela Vargas refused to change the genders in the songs when she sang them. While her homosexuality certainly would not have been approved of offstage, on stage it was all part of an entertaining act that audiences embraced.
Towards the end of the 1950’s, her reputation began to expand greatly — particularly in artistic circles. She was a popular performer in Acapulco, singing in the champagne room of La Perla, frequently in front of tourists from other parts of the world. She was so well regarded that she was hired to sing at the wedding of Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd on February 2, 1957. Chavela would later claim that she slept with Ava Gardner at that wedding — I haven’t found an corroboration of that, nor have I found any other examples of Ava Gardner having dalliances with women, but I suppose we all have to experiment at least once in our lives and if Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding isn’t the time and place to do it, when is? She is known to have had numerous romances after this — including, apparently, with some very famous people, but she would never share their names. A few have stepped forward, including American author Betty-Carol Sellen, but Chavela was very careful to keep these things private (particularly, I assume, because very few if any of them would have been open about their sexuality at the time!)
In 1961, with the help of José Alfredo Jiménez, Chavela’s first album was released: Noche de Bohemia. This was the first of more than 80 albums that she’d release over the course of her career. Later that year she released Con el cuarteto Lara Foster. Rumor has it that although her career was just beginning to take off, Chavela began a short-lived affair with Arabella Árbenz Villanova in 1964 after their paths crossed coincidentally — the problem being that Arabella was also having a torrid romance with Televisa executive Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, also known as “El Tigre.” When El Tigre learned of this affair he was infuriated and tried to destroy her career. Despite his pretty powerful influence in Mexico, he very nearly did. although Chavela Vargas is — as far as I can tell — still banned from appearing on Televisa in any capacity.
Her next album, Hacia la vida was released in 1966. By the time her fourth album Corridosde la revolución came out in 1970, Chavela had become quite popular, though she still wasn’t invited to headline concerts — but as her popularity grew, so did her alcoholism. Despite her struggle with drinking, Chavela managed to release three albums in 1973 and one more in 1975. However, due to her constant battle with addiction and El Tigre’s continuing campaign against her — Chavela was forced to retire and completely disappeared from the public eye.
The details are a little bit sketchy here, but according to Chavela while she was “submerged in an alcoholic haze” — as she would later describe it — she was found and taken in by a family of Native Mexicans who attempted to help nurse her back to health. It would be decades before the public learned any of this, and at the time many assumed she had died. She had very little money at this time, and sometimes only ate when friends invited her to their homes for meals.
On September 2, 1988, at the request of mutual friend Patria Jiminez, lawyer Dr. Alicia Elena Pérez Duarte arrived at Chavela Vargas’ home in order to stop her from drunkenly signing some legal documents. This began an intense romantic relationship, which both Chavela and Alicia would describe as “something greater than love.” Chavela moved in with Alicia and her four kids — but Chavela’s reliance on alcohol, and her great attachment to firearms, put a heavy strain on the relationship. Although Chavela did manage to quit drinking — which she credits to a shamanistic ritual (though Duarte has publicly disagreed with that statement) — it turned out her violent streak and penchant for guns was not dependent upon alcohol at all. Alicia ended the relationship, though she remained Chavela’s legal representation.
In 1989, a couple of Chavela’s albums were rereleased, sparking renewed interest in the singer. When the nightclub El Hábito opened in Mexico City in 1991, they invited her to perform after spotting her in their audience. Eventually, she agreed — though it was her first time performing on a stage since the 70’s and she was 72 years old at the time. It was also her first ever sober performance. This launched a full revival of her career, which involved several more albums and also international fame the likes of which she had not experienced before. She performed not just in Mexico but even performed numerous sold out shows in Spain and France. And finally, she was the headliner of these shows — an honor she had certainly earned.
She also provided music for several films during this period, primarily at the behest of Pedro Almodóvar who was a fan, a friend, and a champion for her career after meeting her in Madrid in 1992. Chavela once described him as “my husband in this world.” He traveled the world with her, pushing greater and greater opportunities towards her. Despite his best efforts, she insisted that she did not want to begin a career as an actress — although she did appear in the 2002 biographical film Frida about her former lover Frida Kahlo, singing her song “La Llorona.”
That was the same year Chavela published her autobiography Y si quieres saber de mi pasado (which translates to And if you want to know about my past). Although her sexuality had been a fairly open secret for decades — her relationships with women were fairly well known rumors, not to mention her refusal to ever change the genders or pronouns in the songs she sang — it was within the pages of her autobiography that she finally, publicly came out as a lesbian.
The following year on September 15, at age 83, Chavela Vargas had her debut performance at Carnegie Hall. The performance was recorded and released as an album creatively entitled Chavela at Carnegie Hall. The performance was considered groundbreaking given her age and sexuality in a musical genre that generally would have denied her for either of those, and in 2019 the album of the recording was named on Mitú’s list of Spanish-language albums that “Changed the Face and Feel of the Music Industry” calling it “the stuff dreams and legends are made of.”
In 2012, just months after releasing her final album Luna grande, the 93-year old Chavela Vargas was hospitalized in Cuernavaca, Mexico for respiratory problems. Several weeks later, on August 5, she passed away. It’s comforting, I think, that when she did pass away she knew it was coming and seemed to have made peace with it. She spent her final days making statements like “My name is Chavela Vargas, don’t let them forget!” Her final words, according to her Facebook page, were “I leave with Mexico in my heart.”
But truthfully, it’s hard to “leave” if your music is as significant as hers remains to this day, and there’s certainly no way to forget her. Aside from the longevity of her own music, she’s received a lot of tributes — Joaquín Sabina’s song “Por el Boulevard de los Sueños Rotos” is dedicated to her, Juan Carlos created a series of portraits of Chavela which were presented at the Centro Cultural de España en México in Mexico City in 2012. One of the characters in Sergio Ramírez Mercado’s novel La Fugitiva is based off of Chavela. And in 2017, the biographical documentary Chavela was released. She’s even had a Google Doodle in her honor! In 2019, she was commemorated on the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco, which is a “walk of fame” type of thing for LGBTQ+ people who have “made significant contributions in their field.” Given that she essentially reinvented ranchero music, opening it up to women performers, I’d call “significant contributions” an understatement. She remains one of, if not the, most celebrated lesbian in Mexican history.
Okay, so, this is kind of embarrassing, right? I just found out about some stuff that’s going to happen in June that was announced by DC Comics a whopping three days before I published the first part of the Queers in Comics series — the last piece of which I just published yesterday.
So, first of all — and this is pretty big — but the Justice League has a new member who is non-binary and has taken on the mantle of the Flash. Their name is Jess Chambers. Granted, they’re part of this Future State event that’s been going on which is surely an alternate future that will somehow be erased or avoided. But it’s still a big step in representation, especially for DC Comics. Also, this Flash has already jumping across alternate timelines and such, despite only appearing four times so far, so….there’s no reason they wouldn’t become a permanent feature of DC even when this event is over.
DC Comics has real big plans for this coming Pride month — next month, actually. That includes a new anthology series called DC Pride (not to be confused with DC Pride the, y’know, Pride festival in Washington D.C.) which is going to feature LGBTQ+ characters from all over the DC Comics universe. This series is also going to feature the comic book introduction of Dreamer, a transgender superhero from the CW’s Supergirl television series. Her story in DC Pride is going to be written by Nicole Maines, the actress who plays the role on TV.
Aside from the new series, during Pride month DC is also going to publishing some of its books with “DC Pride” variant covers — some of which are kind meh (there’s barely a rainbow in the cover for Wonder Girl #2) but some of which I absolutely, absolutely love. (The covers for Nightwing #81 and Superman #32 are my personal favorites of what I’ve seen so far.)
On top of all that, DC is also going to be launching a series called Crush & Lobo starring a daughter-father duo, of which the daughter (Crush) is a lesbian. They’ll also be publishing Suicide Squad: Bad Blood which has already been nominated for a GLAAD Media Award, as well as Poison Ivy: Thorns which is going to be a romance, and a graphic novel called I Am Not Starfire which I know nothing about except that it was part of all of this Pride month stuff that DC announced even though it’s coming out in July.
Also pretty notable, DC has racked up three other GLAAD Media Award nominations in 2021 with Lois Lane, Far Sector and You Brought Me the Ocean. None of which I’ve read (yet) but good for them. Bless them, they do love getting those awards.
Anyways, now that I’ve told you everything that is in it, you can read the whole announcement for yourself here. I don’t think anything they’re doing is particularly groundbreaking by itself, but this is the biggest Pride celebration I’ve ever seen a comic book publisher engage in so that’s pretty exciting.
Okay, so, we left off last time and, frankly, things were looking up for queer people in comic books, right? All the major comic book publishers were telling stories about LGBTQ+ people, they’d not shied away from talking about the AIDS crisis and other issues that were important to the queer community. So things are looking up right? Well buckle up, this ride is about to get bumpy.
There’s a pretty strong start to these years — Judd Winick created the non-fiction graphic novel Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned about his friendship with AIDS activist Pedro Zamora, a friendship spawned by their time together on The Real World: San Francisco. The work would go on to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and actually win eleven other awards including the GLAAD Outstanding Comic Book Media Award and the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Honor Award.
Dark Horse Comics had begun publishing comic books telling additional Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel stories. Willow Rosenberg and Tara Maclay appeared in both series of comics, beginning in 2001, giving some much needed lesbian representation to the brand.
DC apparently did not take well to not getting the Outstanding Comic Book award, as the following year in Green Lantern (vol 3) #137 Kyle Rayner’s assistant Terry Berg came out of the closet. The book did earn DC another Outstanding Comic Book award from GLAAD. (Green Lantern would actually win it two years in row, after Terry survives a brutal hate crime in issue #154.) DC also published an arc in their American Century series about the Red Scare, and how it ended up being wielded against the gay community. This didn’t end up winning any awards, but it is a pretty insightful piece on an often overlooked aspect of that part of US history.
Shortly after finally officially confirming that Mystique and Destiny were lovers in X-Treme X-Men #1, Marvel handed off the reigns of their series X-Force to Peter Milligan, who created a number of queer characters including Bloke, who died pretty much right away, and Vivisector and Phat who pretended to be in a relationship for media attention and then both realized they were actually gay in a storyline that carried through 2002. When X-Force was cancelled, they were introduced in the new X-Statix series to continue that plotline. In fact, 2002 was a pretty gay year for Marvel all around. In Citizen V and the V Battalion, they revealed that “best friends” Roger Aubrey and Brian Falsworth — classic heroes from the 1970s, the latter of whom had died in 1981 — were actually lovers. Retroactively, that made them Marvel’s first gay characters. Meanwhile, Moondragon began a romantic relationship with her female roomie Marlo — which means that old storyline about Cloud turning into a man because they were in love with Moondragon is actually even worse than we knew, but clearly Marvel has put in a lot of effort to move past that. Meanwhile, Image Comics was busily churning out Age of Bronze, a comic book retelling of the Trojan War, which included Achilles and Patroklus, and it did not make any effort to straightwash them.
In 2002, DC introduced a superhero team designed like a law firm, the Power Company led by Josiah Powers, who also had a relatively quiet domestic life with his partner Rupert. Meanwhile, in Hellblazer #173 John Constantine actually landed a boyfriend named Stanley Manor. Like all of Constantine’s relationships, it ends badly (in the very next issue). But we have much, much, much bigger news to cover in topic of “gay things DC published in 2002.” On July 1, 2002 The Authority #29 was released….after the team defeated their latest “big bad,” Midnighter and Apollo got married! Not only is it super sweet in a way that’s kind of weird for that particular series, it also has the distinct honor of being the first same-sex marriage in mainstream comic book history.
Much like the Comics Code Authority, underground comix were fading out as well — partially because distribution had changed in the 90’s, and it was easier to have things published “above ground” so to speak. Paige Braddock had been publishing Jane’s World independently for some time, but in 2002 she started her company Girl Twirl Comics primarily to get her work more widely distributed. It worked. Also, by now, a lot of self-published or independently published comics were just being distributed as online comics — like the online strip Young Bottoms in Lovewhich began in 2002 as well. It was an anthology strip collecting a lot of creator’s work, edited primarily by Tim Fish (who also did a lot of the artwork).
In 2003, Marvel began releasing a sort of reimagined Rawhide Kid miniseries, which was an Old West comic series that originally debuted in 1955, produced by the now defunct Atlas Comics. Marvel had taken over the series in the 60’s, and turned him into a soft-spoken but energetic gunslinger from a fairly standard wild west action hero and then left the title abandoned for a while. With the new series, Marvel decided to add one more characteristic to set the hero apart from other heroes of the genre: they made the Rawhide Kid gay. Although they definitely played off of stereotypes for laughs, the presentation was generally applauded for its positive portrayal of a gay man in a genre that we really hadn’t been part of before. (I’m not entirely sure we’ve been a part of it since, to be honest.)
Other than continuing the aforementioned storyline between Phat and Vivisector, Marvel really only dabbled a bit in other LGBTQ+ stories in that year — revealing that the Black Cat was bisexual, and having the Punisher have some dealings with a gay sheriff. It was also kind of a quiet year for DC, aside from the aforementioned hate crime story in Green Lantern, though they also gave Dick Grayson (the most objectified man in comic books) a story pretending to be the romantic partner of his police partner Gannon Malloy to protect him from homophobic harassment from other cops. The more stunning moment was in the pages of Gotham Central #6 — the last panel of which showed a picture of Renee Montoya kissing a woman, outing her as a lesbian to the rest of the precinct. The story would continue on for several issues, revealing it was done by an old enemy, Marty Lipari, as part of an even larger scheme by Two-Face. (Renee, interestingly, is the first of the characters created in Batman: The Animated Series to make their way into the comics and end up an iconic queer character. Not the last though!) There’s also a neat juxtaposition when compared to the Dick Grayson storyline, since Renee’s captain on the force is none other than Maggie Sawyer so she had a lot more support than Gannon Malloy did.
One other pretty big thing that happened in that year was the formation of Prism Comics, which is a non-profit organization to help LGBTQ+ comic creators network, and to spread information and increase availability of LGBTQ+-related comics. They do a lot of panels at conventions like San Diego Comic Con and New York Comic Con. They also award the Prism Comics Queer Press Grant to an aspiring comic creator every year. And their web site was also one place I got a fair amount of the information that I’ve been presenting to you over this whole series of posts, so you should probably check it out.
In 2004, DC tried launching an imprint called “DC Focus” that wasn’t going to tell superhero stories. It didn’t sell, but one of their series — Hard Time — was about a men’s prison. One of the inmates was actually a transgender woman named Cindy Crane. While her placement in the prison suggests that she’s been misgendered by the system, the inmates all treat her and refer to her consistently as a woman. Also, in the Vertigo imprint’s series Y: The Last Man they revealed that one of their three leading characters, Dr. Allison Mann was not just queer but also real sassy about it.
Meanwhile, Marvel was starting to dabble with making some of their classic X-Men characters queer — they made Angel gay in an alternate universe set in the year 1602, and set the stage for a romantic relationship between Northstar (who, I guess, is gay in every universe) and Colossus in their Ultimate Universe. They also created the, as far as I know, first ever pansexual superhero in the shapeshifting genderfluid Xavin in Runaways (vol 2) #7. (Runaways in general is a pretty queer series, with two of the major characters being lesbian and literal rainbow Karolina Dean and bisexual witch Nico Minoru.) But maybe the most memorable thing that Marvel did was in 2005 — which was to re-introduce us to Billy Kaplan, better known as Wiccan. I say “re-introduce” because his history with Marvel goes back to 1986 but he wasn’t actually real, and then he died….it’s a long story. But it would have to be when your mother is Scarlet Witch and your dad is Vision. Anyways, his reintroduction was in Young Avengers #1 and by Young Avengers #6 he was in a romantic relationship with his teammate Hulkling. While at the time this was just adding two new gay characters to their existing repertoire, they rapidly became fan favorites, and their inclusion earned Young Avengers the 2006 Outstanding Comic Book award from GLAAD, and also got them a Harvey Award for Best New Series.
DC dove hard into its sassy lesbian thing that it had begun with Allison Mann, by revealing Scandal Savage was a lesbian in a relationship with fellow supervillain and teammate Knockout. The following year, in their 52 series they brought back a new incarnation of an old character: Katherine “Kate” Kane. While the previous Batwoman had been established pretty much solely to prove how straight Bruce Wayne was, this Kate Kane was like….almost an apology to the queer community for erasing us during the decades they followed the Code. While they didn’t give too much information about Kate all at once, one of the very first things they revealed was that she was Renee Montoya’s ex-girlfriend, but eventually as her backstory was revealed readers learned that Kate was an out and proud lesbian who’d been booted from the military thanks to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And unlike the previous Batwoman, this Batwoman was a very independent superhero who seldom crosses over with others — even Batman only worked with her a handful of times.
That was the same year, by the way, that Alison Bechdel released her autobiographical comic Fun Home: A Family Tragicomicwhich focused on her relationship with her closeted father. The graphic novel was critically acclaimed, being officially listed as one of the best books of 2006 by The New York Times, The Times, Publisher’s Weekly and Amazon. Entertainment Weekly said it was the best non-fiction book of the year, but Time said it was the best book of the year, period. It was nominated for a whole mess of awards I won’t even list, but it won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book, the Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work, the Stonewall Book Award for non-fiction, the Publishing Triangle-Judy Grahn Nonfiction Award, and the Lambda Literary Award in the Lesbian Memoir and Biography category. It got turned into a musical, which launched off-Broadway in 2013 and has also won and been nominated for a ton of awards. And the praise and attention have barely slowed down since — in 2019, The Guardian placed Fun Home at #33 in its list of the 100 best books of 21st century. Most mainstream comics about straight people can’t even garner that much attention, and this was getting noticed by everyone, from comic book fans to literary academics. So, when I say that Fun Home is an important piece of LGBTQ+ history and culture….believe me, and go read it or see it on stage. Or better yet, read it and then see it on stage.
I guess everyone was pretty lesbian-ed out after 2006, though, because barely anything happened with queer women in comics the following year. However, Midnighter got his own series by DC’s WildStorm imprint at the very beginning of 2007 which focused heavily on his relationship with Apollo and with their adopted daughter. It was the first mainstream series with a queer character’s name as the title, the first mainstream solo superhero series with a queer lead, and the first mainstream series with a gay man as the lead. (Well, okay, technically, Northstar had gotten his own miniseries in 1994, but it completely ignored his sexuality which is why I ignored it. And I stand by that decision.) So, y’know, kind of a big deal. Apparently this gave publisher’s the idea that queer characters could be strong enough to be leads in their own right — the end of the following year Top Cow Comics released a story arc in Witchblade wherein the lead, Danielle Baptiste, would question her sexuality and begin a relationship with her roommate Finch. IDW Publishing confirmed the homosexuality of Duncan Locke in Locke & Key – Head Games #4 only four months later. As far as I can tell, those were the first queer characters for either of those companies and both of them are leading characters.
Marvel even decided, by 2009, that it might just be time to make some of their longstanding X-Men characters actually be queer in their primary universe, instead of just in alternate ones. In June, they introduced Kyle Jinadu, who is (I believe) main continuity’s Northstar’s first ever actual boyfriend since he came out of the closet over a decade prior! X-Factor (vol 3) #45 featured the first kiss between characters Rictor (who’d been introduced in 1987) and Shatterstar (who’d been introduced in 1991). I’d like to say this made a big splash — I have been a fan Shatterstar specifically since about 1991, so I was certainly charmed. but it simply couldn’t compete with what DC was doing with their queer characters that year.
At literally the same time as that kiss, Kate Kane made waves again by taking the leading in Detective Comics. That’s big because Detective Comics is one of — if not the — longest running comic book series in history. And it’s still going after launching in 1937. It was literally the series that founded DC Comics. (DC is short for Detective Comics — which makes the company’s name actually Detective Comics Comics if you think about it.) It was an anthology series for a while, until they introduced Batman in 1939 in issue #27 (which is the most valuable comic book in history) and he was essentially the star of the series after that. For seventy years and 827 issues. In 2009, the series took a brief hiatus for three months because of various other story arcs going on with the Bat family, and then they released issue #854, with Batwoman taking the lead. There was also a ten page back up strip featuring Renee Montoya, who was now the superhero known as the Question. So, yeah, they took essentially the most important series in DC Comics and handed it over entirely to lesbian characters. Batwoman remained the lead until issue #863.
In 2010, one of the last major American comic book producers finally introduced its very first LGBTQ+ character. That would be Archie Comics, who finally gave us Kevin Keller in Veronica #202. I gotta be honest, I can’t tell you too much about him. I don’t read Archie Comics much. But, in 2012 — just two years later — in Life with Archie #16, which is a sort of flashforward to adulthood series — Kevin Keller got married in the second same-sex marriage in mainstream comics. (Except for a nameless gay couple getting married in Ex Machina #10, technically they were second. But they didn’t have names.) Kevin, and his husband Clay Walker, also had the first same-sex interracial marriage in mainstream comics. So, they may have gotten a slow start with queer characters, but they really decided to jump in and go straight to doing something that Marvel comics had still not done. That issue, by the way, was boycotted by the One Million Moms because it was sold in Toys’R’Us stores which led to the comic completely selling out, and subsequently inspiring Kevin to get three solo comic book series. Thanks One Million Moms!
As a side note, the Comics Code Authority — which had ben increasingly irrelevant has it was abandoned by publisher after publisher, some of whom were adopting a ratings system that Marvel had created essentially out of spite when the CCA had demanded changes to an X-Force story in 2001. DC Comics, which was only submitting some stories to the CCA by this point, announced they were completely discontinuing use of the CCA on January 20, 2011. That left Archie Comics as the only publisher still using the CCA….for exactly one day before they also announced they were stopping that practice. So that was, at long last, the end of that.
Anyways, it was only a matter of months after Kevin Keller’s wedding when Marvel would go ahead and have their first same-sex marriage. Although Wiccan and Hulkling got engaged first (in Avengers: The Children’s Crusade #9 — also their first depicted kiss), the first wedding would actually be between Northstar and Kyle Jinadu. Here’s the thing, and maybe it’s because I was mostly a Marvel fan at the time, or maybe I’m having some Mandela effect thing, but I really recall Marvel advertising Astonishing X-Men (vol 3) #51 as being the first gay marriage in comic books. They sent out “Save the Date” cards. They made it a really big deal. And I can give them a pass on not including anything from underground comix but…really, they were third (or fourth, depending on if we’re counting that nameless couple in Ex Machina.) They didn’t even manage to have the first interracial same-sex wedding. Still, it was a first for Marvel and for Marvel fans and specifically Northstar fans, this was pretty exciting and it was very cool that Marvel made an extremely big deal about the fact it was happening. They had like….basically every superhero that had ever been in any comic book Northstar was ever in appear, or at least show up on the cover. (I’m not even sure if Kyle actually had any guests at the wedding, just all Northstar’s superfriends.) This was such a big deal, the original proposal for the splash cover art sold on eBay for more than $2,100.
Also by Marvel, and I’m including it here solely because the second panel is so great, in Avengers Academy #23, the character Striker came out to his bisexual teammate Lightspeed. Just look at her face. (And in case you weren’t convinced about how very LGBTQ+ this all is, Lightspeed’s superpower involves leaving a rainbow behind her when she flies.)
So, you may be wondering, what was DC doing right about now? Right? Well, as it turns out, rebooting their entire continuity. Okay, technically that began in 2011 but this is like a whole thing to talk about so I wanted to get those marriages out of the way first. So, basically, DC does this every once in a while where they kind of “start over” their whole universe, and this time in 2011 they also merged it with some of their offshoot imprints like WildStorm and some of their Milestone and Vertigo content. This led to some good stuff for queer people in comic books….and it also led to some bad stuff. I’m going to dissect that in entirely too much detail for you right now.
So, to start with, part of this “The New 52” branding they were doing as they reset the continuity was that they were launching with only 52 series to like establish their remade universe. (And to be clear, “resetting” doesn’t mean, in this case, erasing all of the history of every character and starting from scratch. A lot of important and memorably storylines and moments were kept as part of their character’s backstory – like they did not retell Batman’s origin story.) One of the first of these series was Stormwatch — starring, among a handful of others, Midnighter and Apollo. Unfortunately when they decided to reset the continuity….DC also decided to drop their wedding from their history, they’re just dating. It’s fine, it’s not like that was a major moment in their character’s histories and also an important moment in LGBTQ+ comic history… And for the record, as of my writing this in 2021, they still have not married again. (Maybe that’s why Marvel advertised Northstar and Kyle’s wedding the way they did, since DC had already been like “no wait, that never happened.”)
The next week after launching that series, they launched Batwoman (vol 2) — a permanent solo series, not miniseries like volume 1 had been, all about Kate Kane who remained pretty much exactly as she was prior to the reset. This series also included Maggie Sawyer, with whom Kate begins a relationship. Two weeks after that, the new Teen Titans series began which would quickly introduce Bunker, a gay Latino character, as one of their team members. That was released roughly the same time as Justice League Dark which brought back John Constantine. So they relaunched with four series, pretty much right off the bat, featuring LGB characters in leading roles. And that’s it — that’s the good news. Pretty much none of their otherwise established queer characters were anywhere to be found until 2012, when they brought back the Pied Piper, and in their series about Earth 2 (which is an alternature universe) they did reveal that the Green Lantern Alan Scott was gay. But, if you were noticing, there’s still a demographic that was completely missing: they now had no transgender characters. At all. And only one of their LGB characters wasn’t white. So what I’m saying is, it kinda seems like a backslide, right?
In fact, there wouldn’t be a transgender character in DC Comics at all until Batgirl #19 in 2013, when Barbara Gordon’s roommate Alysia Yeoh came out. She was a minor character, and was both a lesbian and transgender, as well as being Asian. DC apparently thought this scored them major diversity points (I guess it actually kind of did) and so they went on to advertise her as their first ever transgender character….despite the fact that they’d previously had a whole bunch like Coagula, Lord Fanny, and Shvaughn Erin. As a side note, this was about the time DC’s character Tremor stated she was asexual in The Movement (vol 1) #10 — something that I believe was actually a first, because I can’t find any other superhero (or even comic book character) who had claimed that identity for themselves before that.
2013 was also the year that Kate Kane and Maggie Sawyer got engaged — exciting! The first mainstream same-sex marriage between two women! But DC co-publisher Dan DiDio pulled the plug on that plotline, causing enough of a stir that Batwoman writers J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman quit the series. DC’s public explanation was, essentially, that superheroes can’t get married so their books don’t end up being about their marriages. While there’s a certain argument there that I can follow, it was pretty gross to cancel that same-sex marriage in comics so soon after retconning out the first same-sex marriage. (It looks even worse when you consider that married heterosexual heroes Adam and Alanna Strange were introduced in Justice League United #0 the very next year.) Like I said, a backslide.
Fortunately, DC wasn’t the only comic book game in town. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published Nicole George‘s memoirs in comic book form with Calling Dr. Laura. Image Comics gave us Betty — essentially a queer gnome — in their new fantasy adventure series Rat Queens. The following year, Fantagraphics published Julio’s Day — a story that follows a fictional, closeted Mexican-American man and his family for 100 years. Parts of it had been published previously, but the story had never been completed until this. Shortly after that, Northwest Press began their 1940’s noir series Dash — the main character of which was gay private eye Dash Malone. Hill and Wang finished up 2014 by releasing Second Avenue Caper, based on a true story of a group of friends illegally importing experimental HIV medicines from Mexico during the beginning of the AIDS crisis.
That year, DC gave us the first glimpses of an extremely open romantic relationship between longstanding Batman villain Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn — a villain imported to the comic books from Batman: The Animated Series (just like Renee Montoya was!) in the pages of Harley Quinn (vol 2). In 2015, Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) got a new roommate after Alysia moved out to live with her new girlfriend. This new roommate, Frankie Charles, was openly bisexual. If it seems like Batgirl is going to be the salvation of DC Comics though — guess again! Just two issues later, they’d kick up a whole mess of controversy by giving us a story in which a guy dressed up as Batgirl and attempted to replace her. It seemed to play off the deeply inaccurate and offensive idea, often trotted out anytime one of those “bathroom bills” gets proposed by conservative politicians, of men dressing as women to commit crimes. In the end, the creators of the story apologized for the story. Just a few issues later Alysia Yeoh would get married to her girlfriend Jo Muñoz in the pages of Batgirl (vol 4) #45 — marking the first same-sex wedding in the new DC continuity, between two minor characters in a book that is almost entirely focused on Barbara Gordon’s relationship with Dick Grayson. If that sounds like I’m judgey and bitter, like when I talk about it I’m thinking about how great a Maggie Sawyer/Kate Kane wedding would have been and it would hav focused on the people actually getting married….well, there’s a reason for that. (The reason being that I’m judgey and bitter.)
I have to be honest. This is pretty much where the sources I’ve been using stop. But a lot has happened in the past few years, so there’s more to tell. So I’m going to go off of my very fallible memory. Like, I’m going to research the things I remember, but like…if I don’t remember that it happened, it’s going to be tough for me to research. And I pretty much only read DC and Marvel so….I’m sure other publishers had things they did. I just don’t really know what it was. So, there’s going to be probably a lot of things I’m missing. (Not that I covered literally every moment before this, either.) If you know of something that I’m missing (or something that got skipped over even before this in the series), please leave a comment about it and let us all know!
Anyways, 2015 was also the year we sort of kind of got second ever pansexual superhero. Supervillain? Depends on the day. That would be Marvel’s Deadpool. Deadpool himself, of course, had been around since 1991. And he’d been flirting with, y’know, everyone since pretty much that time. And it had been said before by Deadpool writers that his type was “anyone with a pulse” but in 2015 was the first time his sexuality was actually given a label — on Twitter, when writer Gail Simone confirmed that she had “always thought of Deadpool as pansexual.” Granted, in the actual pages of comics, Deadpool’s love interests have always been women or female-presenting cosmic entities. But that hasn’t stopped him from flirting with well, basically everyone but most especially Spider-Man and Wolverine. And Cable. And Colossus. And Thor. And….yeah, everyone.
This was the same year that Marvel went fully into their “make a classic X-Men gay” thing they’d dabbled in with alternate universes before. This time, they picked Iceman. They’d hinted, once, kind of obtusely, that he wasn’t straight back in 1994 and then completely dropped it ever after. In 2015, they had the original X-Men team — as teenagers — brought forward in time which led to a lot of confusion when you’re trying to tell someone about what plotlines were happening, so bear with me. Jean Grey telepathically learned that Iceman was gay, and told him so. This led teen Iceman to ask a very good question: “how can my older self not be, but I am?” And, honestly, LGBTQ+ readers like myself were kind of nervous about what Marvel was getting at. In November of that year we actually found out, when teenage Iceman confronted adult Iceman and adult Iceman finally came out in the first issue of his own series, Iceman #1. Honestly, it’s a pretty great scene but it’s kind of important because it’s Marvel’s first queer-led solo series. But it was also a game changer in that Iceman had been a main character in their comic books since 1963, one of the original five X-Men. And, frankly, it was seamless, it made perfect sense with the decades of character development he’d had — given that his parents had been portrayed as ultra-conservative that whole time. Five issues later, Iceman told his parents he was gay… and it didn’t go well. (This all, once again, retroactively changed who Marvel’s first gay character was!)
Speaking of first gay characters, DC made a bold move in 2016 by bringing a completely reenvisioned Extraño back into the picture in Midnighter & Apollo (vol 1). This was actually an incredible move on their part — no longer the flamboyant mashup of offensive stereotypes, now he chose to go exclusively by his real name Gregorio de la Vega, and was a much more serious and in many ways jaded sorcerer. But! He was married to Tasmanian Devil — the first member of the Justice League to come out! And despite the fact that I don’t think they ever interacted, I somehow feel like that’s perfect. Anyways, Midnighter & Apollo needed a character with mystical powers for the story arc they were telling and they could very easily have gone with anybody. Even if they specifically wanted a queer one, Constantine would have been an obvious choice. But the writers decided they wanted to bring more queer people into the new continuity — something desperately needed — so they dipped into DC’s history and brought us some. Aside from his appearances in that series, Gregorio has since shown up in issues of Justice League and Justice League Dark.
Over the next few years, Marvel would introduce a bunch of LGBTQ+ characters. None of them come to mind as being especially noteworthy, but I’ll highlight a few. First, from Marvel: former Dora Milaje (who MCU fans should be familiar with) soldiers Ayo and Aneka abandoned their positions in 2016’s Black Panther: World of Wakanda #1 to join together both as lesbian lovers and freedom fighters. In 2017, America Chavez would become Marvel’s first queer woman to lead a solo series in America, which also explained her backstory as being from an entirely female alternate reality. In 2018, we were introduced to Darnell Wade — a mutant with teleportation powers and also an NYC drag queen who became one of the X-Men and would go on to emcee Iceman’s birthday celebration — and Dr. Charlene McGowan — a transgender woman whose skills as a scientist have made her an invaluable ally to the Hulk. The book’s creators brought in Crystal Frasier to help make sure they had an authentic trans voice behind the character. The next year, Mystique and Destiny were confirmed to have gotten married at some point “offscreen.”
In 2019, there was confirmation — first on Twitter and then in the X-Factor and Lords of Empyre books — that Tommy Shepherd, aka Speed, Scarlet Witch and Vision’s other reincarnated kid, was bisexual, and recently has been dating X-Factor’s Prodigy. Speaking of X-Factor, this latest incarnation of the team is led by none other than Northstar which, if I’m not mistaken, makes him the first queer superhero to officially be a team leader. Also, back to discussing Scarlet Witch and Vision’s kids, Vision made a daughter with a robot named Virginia who was programmed with Scarlet Witch’s brainwaves, right? That daughter, named Vivian, declared in 2019 that while she hadn’t fully explored what her sexuality might be that she was absolutely not attracted to boys. She later followed that up by kissing her female teammate Ironheart. That’s three for three on Vision and Scarlet Witch having queer kids. (They’ve have other kids who’ve all died before their sexualities were explored at all. So we can just assume they must’ve been queer too.) Get those two to a PFLAG meeting asap. If they needed to have a straight child to save the world, that would be the end. I love them. And Billy and Hulkling — who, remember, got engaged in 2010 even before Northstar did — finally actually tied the knot in 2020. Just a ten year engagement. (The reason I’m focusing on these kids is because WandaVision was the impetus for me writing this whole series.)
Not everything Marvel has decided to do has been great, or met without controversy. They announced the introduction of their first non-binary superhero in a sibling duo featuring the non-binary Snowflake and their twin brother Safespace. And, like, okay, I get what Marvel was trying to do by kind of reclaiming those terms that are often used to disparage liberals. But doing that with what you’re advertising as your first non-binary character? There was TONS of criticism that it actually implied that non-binary people were the oversensitive types of people the term “snowflake” is often meant to attack. The book they were supposed to be in has yet to appear, and might have been cancelled. Thing is….they also are not the first non-binary character Marvel’s had. This year they quietly introduced two character named Cam and Monica Sellers, two young mutants who identify as non-binary. Minor characters I’ll grant you, but they exist. Not to mention that a lot of the shapeshifters in the Marvel universe — Xavin, Mystique, Loki, etc — are pretty clearly genderfluid, and have been for a long time.
While Marvel was finally diving into introducing plenty of LGBTQ+ characters, DC was actually focusing more on the already established queer characters. I mean, they definitely introduced new ones too, don’t get me wrong. But the highlights, for me at least, were putting lots of effort into Midnighter’s adventures, and a lot of development of the unconventional open relationship between Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy — including giving them a wedding in 2020’s Injustice: Year Zero series (that’s in an alternate universe, not the mainstream one). They also took some longstanding characters like the villain Cheetah and gave her a romantic history with Wonder Woman supporting cast member Etta Candy. They did bring Doom Patrol’s Rebis back as a non-binary hero, though eventually the “component parts” split up and they just became Negative Man and not non-binary. In 2018, they reintroduced Alan Scott in the prime continuity, and made him gay (again…or still….alternate timelines can be so confusing.) One thing they did, which I have to assume was a sweet homage to the work of Neal Pozner and Phil Jiminez, was make their newest incarnation of Aqualad, Jackson Hyde, a gay teenager. They’ve also recently reintroduced some of their queer characters from before the 2011 reset, such as Obsidian. Despite that, as of my writing this, there is still not even one transgender superhero in DC’s new continuity.
So while I’ve been churning out this series, Marvel made one big announcement that I have to include even though, technically, nothing has come to fruition yet. Apparently, this June, someone new will take on the title Captain America in a new series called United States of Captain America and this time it’s going to be gay teenager Aaron Fischer, a character created by Jan Bazaldua — one of only a handful of openly transgender creators at Marvel. This looks like they’re going to dive into a story about homeless queer youth — a really serious issue that has, to my knowledge, never really been address in comics before. It is an issue that primarily effects queer people of color, and it looks like Aaron’s white, but I guess we have to start somewhere? So, I do have high hopes for this and we’ll just have to see where that goes. But, I do think it’s a very cool full circle kind of moment to give the title to a gay guy, when that series was where Marvel first began giving our community any real representation way back with Arnie Roth in 1982.
So, now that you’re pretty much all caught up to where we are now….let’s talk about where we should go from here — in the hopes some head honcho from a major publishing company is reading this…. Here’s what I think needs to happen, and if you have your own ideas, tell me about them in a comment.
Hire more transgender creators. Marvel has only ever had 7 openly transgender creators and 4 non-binary creators. DC has had one single non-binary creator, and also only 7 transgender staff members.
Bring queer characters back from the dead. Everyone dies in comics, so I’m not going to complain about the number of queer characters who’ve died. However, there’s a saying I came across a lot while I researched this series: “The only people who stay dead in comics are Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben.” But two of those people have come back from the dead. And you know who hasn’t? A long, long, long list of LGBTQ+ characters.
But especially, DC, bring back Coagula or Lord Fanny. Or both. Don’t just ignore that before you reset continuity, you had some awesome trans superheroes and since you reset your continuity you have free reign to bring them back. (While we’re on the topic of bringing people back, bring back Fade too.)
The vast majority of LGBTQ+ characters in comics are white, cisgender, and wealthy or at least middle class. There needs to be more diversity than that, there’s so many more stories to tell. I can’t stress this one enough.
We need more human transgender, genderfluid, or non-binary characters. Like, there’s not that many out there already and a significant number of them are aliens or actual shapeshifters, or both. Just don’t name them Snowflake, and it’ll be fine.
DC, you gotta give us a wedding between either Midnighter and Apollo (to get them back where they were) or Kate Kane and Maggie Sawyer (to make up for teasing us so!) One or the other. Or both. Just give us something.
This might only be on my wishlist, but I’d love to see a mainstream publisher give us an all queer superhero team. Found families are such an important part of the queer community and queer experience, I’d love to see that reflected in comics.
Okay! Phew! We made it. This is the end. I don’t usually do this because it can make this blog, which is a hobby, feel like a job, but in case you want to look at some of the things I skipped over or breezed past without much detail, I’ll give you the main sources I used. Also the places where I snagged a lot of the images — usually I just do a Google image search and call it a day, but this series was way more work than I thought it was going to be. But also lots of fun, so it was worth it! Anyways, those sources are: Queer Comics History, Gay League, and Prism Comics. I also dipped into the Marvel Database and DC Database, mostly to confirm dates of issues of their comics. If you’re interested to know the pretty much complete list of every LGBTQ+ character that’s been in those company’s comics, they do have categories for those characters to make them easy to find. Here’s Marvel’s. Here’s DC’s.
Anyways, we’ve come a really long way in comic books since characters were changing genders because they were bored on Mars. And that’s largely because of queer creators making their voices heard, even if they had to do it underground spaces. Now, with no Code and online distribution making it publishing even easier, I’m sure we have a lot more quality queer content on the way, and I for one can’t wait to read it.
With the Comic Code Authority’s giant switch in regards to LGBTQ+ content, things changed pretty immediately in the industry — instead of being forbidden, or being considered “adult” suddenly queer issues and queer stories were an untapped wellspring of fresh plot ideas.
Andy Lippincott returned to Doonesbury in 1989. While the character had appeared off and on since his introduction in 1976, this time he became a staple of the strip — appearing pretty frequently over the course of the next year. The story arc began withAndy’s friend, and one of the main characters of the strip, Joanie Caucus learning that Andy was in the hospital with AIDS. Over the next year, the comic would revisit Andy — touching on the stigma of the disease, the stigma of homosexuality, the medical community’s confusion over the disease’s unpredictability, the difficulty of getting into experimental treatments, and many other topics and issues facing AIDS patients. 900 newspapers carried Doonesbury at the time. Only three of them refused to publish this story arc, saying it was “in bad taste.” But for readers of those other 897 newspapers, all over the country, it brought the very real tragedy that so much of the LGBTQ+ community was dealing with into their homes every day. And then, finally, on May 24th, 1990, Andy Lippincott became the first comic character to die of AIDS complications. I gotta tell you, I read his whole arc in researching this article and I cried. I read it all at once, which….I don’t recommend. Give yourself a little time in between the strips, okay? But its understandable that people had an emotional reaction, and some people were galvanized to take action. Garry Trudeau received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for the story arc (well deserved, in my opinion). In Doonesbury, Andy Lippincott has a panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. A real panel was created by G. Scott Austen, Marceo Miranda and Juan-Carlos Castano which hangs in the NAMES Project Foundation’s offices (rather than being sewn into the actual quilt itself.) As far as I know, he is the only fictional character to have a panel in their honor.
With the Code having reversed its position on gay people, Marvel decided that 1990 was the year they were going to have someone with superpowers really actually come out in the pages of their comic books! So, at the end of Captain America #368 they included a short story in which the Machinesmith revealed that he was gay! But only for male robots like Vision (which is fine because Machinesmith has put his mind in a robot body himself.) But then again, like, we saw Vision in Wandavision and I’m kind of on board with Machinesmith for that one. Except that he was evil at the time which is how they justified the events of Avengers #325, wherein Machinesmith manages to knock Vision unconscious and has his way with him. However robots do that. And later his villainous cohorts find him spooning with the unconscious android. So, just to recap, Marvel’s first super-powered truly openly gay character is an evil robot and a rapist. What were you thinking, Marvel?
Marvel wasn’t the only kind of missing the mark when it came to positive LGBTQ+ representation that year. Around this time Dark Horse Comics was making waves, having steadily grown for years. In Dark Horse Presents #40, they began a story set in a dystopian future where homosexuality had taken over and heterosexuality was criminalized. It was making a really valid point, but still didn’t exactly paint gay people in the best possible light. The story was never finished. Still, there was worse happening that year. Mark Millar, in his first published work, wrote a series called Saviour for Trident Comics — the lead character was the antichrist and he was not above raping men. In particular, a priest (who he promptly also murdered.) Millar would go on to be a really significant comic book creator for both DC and Marvel, and some of his works for other companies are now successful movie franchises, like Kingsman and Kick-Ass. Rick Veitch self-published a limited series called Brat Pack, a really dark satire of mainstream comic books, sort of akin to Watchmen in some ways but like….worse. In it, the Batman analog Midnight Mink was a flamboyant gay man who sexually abuses his sidekicks. But never fear, because DC Comics would not let us down, giving an emotional moment to The Brain in Doom Patrol #34, when he confesses his love for Monsieur Mallah before his body promptly exploded. Okay, they’re villains, but it was still a heartfelt moment.
In 1991, LGBTQ+ people pretty much cornered the market when it came to telling queer stories in comics. Roberta Gregory created her landmark character Bitchy Bitch for the series Naughty Bits — accompanied shortly thereafter by a lesbian character named Bitchy Butch. Robert Kirby began publishing his long-running series “Curbside” in various LGBTQ+ newspapers and magazines, and released the first issue of his antholoy Strange Looking Exile. Celebrated German cartoonist Ralf König had the first of his work — Kondom des Grauens (or, translated, The Killer Condom) — translated into English in this year and released in the United States and in Canada. Diane DiMassa published the first twenty issues of Hot Head Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist. That series would continue running until 1998, and was described (on Wikipedia) as “rage therapy for the marginalised.”
By this point, you may have noticed, Marvel Comics was clearly falling behind when it came to LGBTQ+ representation. I mean, DC has more queer characters than I can count on one hand and has even tackled gender dysphoria (twice). But they were starting to get it — in December of 1991, in The Incredible Hulk #388, dealing with Tyler Lang‘s AIDS diagnosis. Lang’s father is a mob boss, who hires the supervillain Speedfreek to kill his son’s lover, Jefferson Wolfe for infecting him. Over the course of the book, it was revealed that major recurring character Jim Wilson — a friend of the Hulk and the nephew of Sam Wilson (better known as the Falcon, who MCU fans should recognize) — was HIV positive and managing an AIDS Clinic. Tyler Lang became the first Marvel character to die of AIDS complications in that issue. (Jim Wilson would ultimately meet the same fate three years later.)
DC comics spent that year fully embracing the new Code rules regarding LGBTQ+ characters by first having the former supervillain Pied Piper come out as gay in the opening pages of The Flash (vol. 2) #53 — which would win the first ever GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book the following year, despite it really having nothing at all to do with the main story of the issue. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series — published by DC’s Vertigo Comics — went on to introduce three queer characters, including Wanda Mann, a transgender woman. They kept that trend going in 1992 putting the reformed villain Lightning Lord in a gay relationship, and implying that the heroic duo Shrinking Violet and Lightning Lass were a couple, and Justice League Quarterly #8 casually mentioned that Tasmanian Devil was gay (not the Looney Tunes one, I know you were thinking it) by having him express how accepting the team was. In Hellblazer #51, John Constantine — the lead character of the longrunning series — casually mentioned that he’d had “the odd boyfriend” — the first official reveal of his bisexuality. They also did a whole story arc to finally deal with the rumors that had been circulating for decades about their character Element Lad and his romance with Shvaughn Erin by having it turn out that Shvaughn was a transgender woman, who had transitioned with the help of a sci-fi drug called “ProFem”. With this revelation, Element Lad declared that what they’d had together was “in spite of the ProFem, not because of it.” Because alien invasion interrupted the supply of ProFem, Shvaughn was forced to de-transition but the two stayed a couple. (Until DC rebooted their entire universe and retconned virtually everything about these two characters, but that’s beside the point.)
Marvel’s Northstar officially, finally came out in the page of Alpha Flight #106 in 1992! This was actually a pretty big deal, it even though everyone had already known for years. Seriously. If there was ever a superhero I would not trust to keep a secret…. Anyways, the plot, essentially, is that Northstar — in his public persona as a former Olympian — adopted a baby named Joanne, who had AIDS. This garnered a great deal of public sympathy. This made Major Mapleleaf (the Canadian version of Captain America, who was never in a comic before this and….) pretty mad because his gay son had died of AIDS and been blamed for it, because of the stigma surrounding both AIDS and gay people. So Major Maplelead attacked the hospital Joanne was in, quickly coming to blows with Northstar — venting his frustration during the fight. So, Northstar says he knows the hardships gay people face, since he is gay….and that makes Major Mapleleaf even angrier because Northstar isn’t using his fame to help gay people or act as an AIDS activist. The issue received a ton of acclaim from the LGBTQ+ community for tackling the AIDS crisis so well, dealing with HIV stigma and homophobia simultaneously, and finally getting Northstar out of the closet. They did a lot. And it just goes to show that when Marvel is trying they can do actually great LGBTQ+ representation! If you want to read the Major Mapleleaf fight sequence for yourself, I found it on Imgur here.
So, while this was all happening, the sci-fi TV show Quantum Leap was having additional “episodes” published as comic books. Andy Mangels wrote the ninth of these, published early in 1993, in which the lead character Sam Beckett leapt into the body of a lesbian photographer in New York City, in June of 1969. You know where this is going right? The issue touches on almost everything happening in NYC leading up to the Stonewall Riots — police corruption, mob run gay bars, Andy Warhol, Judy Garland — and leaves off right before the police raid begins. Quantum Leap, on television, had handled queer characters before (in fact, the lesbian photographer was a character in one of the TV episodes) this issue did not shy away from getting political. You can actually read the issue online for free here.
In March of 1993, Lynn Johnston’s syndicated comic strip “For Better or For Worse” — running in daily newspapers since 1979 — began a story in which long-running character Lawrence Poirier came out of the closet, becoming the first openly gay teenager and first gay person of color (as his father is Brazilian) in a syndicated newspaper comic strip. The story was inspired partially by the murder of Johnston’s friend Michael Boncoeur. Lawrence’s coming out was a four week set of strips, in which — to briefly summarize — he comes out to his friend Michael, then to his family, is rejected by everyone and then when he goes missing (after getting thrown out of his house), they all go looking for him, and in the end everyone comes around to accepting him for who he is. It’s pretty sad, until the end of the arc which is a much more upbeat ending than a lot of gay kids find with their families and friends even now. I think part of the hope was that by showing it in the strip, it might inspire some parents to come around to accepting their own kids. The publisher, Universal Press, was fully on board with the story, but when it was sent out to the various newspapers who ran the strip forty of them refused to run it. The response to the strip was overwhelming, and powerful — and much more negative than what I’ve read that Andy Lippincott’s reception was (perhaps because Doonesbury is inherently political and tends to lean to the liberal side of things?). Newspapers had to install new phone systems to handle the volume of calls, and Johnston began to be inundated with hate mail — including death threats. Nineteen papers stopped running “For Better or For Worse” altogether. Papers who were running the strip were attacked for it, and papers that refused to run it were accused of censorship. Within a couple of weeks, however, the tide changed — Johnston began receiving heartfelt letters of gratitude from the LGBTQ+ community. By the time the “coming out” story had finished, and the letters she’d received were sorted, more than 70% of the feedback Johnston received was positive.
In other comic strip news, one of the four leading characters of Doonesbury, Mark Slackmeyer, also came out of the closet as a gay man in that year. Rock ‘n Roll Comics #62 included a biography of Elton John — and by this point, there is so much LGBTQ+ themed work appearing in underground comics, I can’t even cover it all or this series will go on for forever. (Some of you probably already think it’s too long!) I just have to start hitting the highlights. But the biggest news of the year — for queer people anyways — was not actually in what was published, but what was won. The Comic Creators Guild awarded Gay Comics(formerly Gay Comix) its Best Anthology Award. After years of circulation, that bit of recognition was a big deal.
In comic books, Marvel gave the first-in-mainstream-comics explanation of the difference between sexuality, gender, and cross-dressing in Nomad #11, when the main character got into drag to investigate a series of murders in which the victims were all cross-dressers. Once again, Marvel goes to show that they can handle the queer stuff pretty deftly if they feel like it.
At the same time, under its Vertigo brand, DC was giving the gays everything. They created a mini-series called Sebastian O, the lead in which was basically a gay James Bond (and I don’t know about you but I’m dying for the film adaptions!) In Enigma #4, the Enigma entity awakened the latent homosexuality of its host Michael Smith — it was only an eight-issue series but it was still the lead character for the series grappling with his own sexuality. And then, just to confirm they had not been playing around by John Constantine’s casual coming out, in Hellblazer #69 depicts Constantine sharing a bed (well, a mattress on the floor) with a male prostitute. In Milestone Media — which published and distributed its comic books through DC — superhero Fade was outed by a telepathic supervillain in Blood Syndicate #8 — making him the first black gay superhero by a mainstream comic book publisher, even though he never really embraced who he was.
However, arguably DC’s most important queer character of the year was one we now often overlook — Coagula, who became a recurring character on Doom Patrol until about 2002. Coagula was the first transgender superhero (because Shvaughn Erin is technically not a superhero, she’s a just a regular cop), which she’d gotten her powers while working as a prostitute on the streets, after being hired by Doom Patrol’s Regis. She had first applied to join the Justice League and been rejected — something that seems to fly against previous statements by the Tasmanian Devil about how open-minded that group was. Whatever the case may be, she ended up joining the Doom Patrol and stayed with them until her death in 2002. But the most important thing about Coagula is her creator, Rachel Pollack — the first openly transgender writer to have worked for DC Comics. There have only been four others. The series Blood Syndicate would sort of reveal in their tenth issue that their shapeshifting character Masquerade was a transgender man, but they were just a few months after Coagula’s introduction.
One last important queer comics moment in 1993 that I wanted to touch on was when Malibu Comics Entertainment offered us a pretty harsh critique of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy three months before the Clinton administration enacted it, in The Strangers #5, in which the character Spectral comes out to the rest of the superhero team. They’re immediately accepting. (This also made Spectral the first gay character for Malibu Comics but since they were only going to be around another year before being absorbed into Marvel and basically forgotten, that’s kind of incidental.)
In 1994, a piece of anti-gay legislation appeared in the state of Washington. In order to combat it, Hands Off! Comics by Over 35 Artists Collected to Fight Discrimination and Homophobia! was published with all proceeds donated to Washington Citizens for Fairness. Advice columnist Dan Savage also took that year to dabble in comics, releasing two issues of Savage Love. The idea of gay superheroes took hold in underground comics, with Go-Go Boyby Neil Johnston and Leatherboy by Craig Maynard both being released.
In Marvel’s New Warriors #48, a time-traveling Justice would discover that his father — up to this point painted as a pretty unsympathetic abusive father character — was a closeted homosexual. And while that could have been dealt with really terribly, instead it was dealt with really compassionately, with Justice starting to come to terms with who his dad is and why. It’s kind of touching, but it doesn’t come close to what Marvel was gonna do next.
In The Incredible Hulk #417, Hector came out as gay and talked about how it wasn’t his choice. This set off an interesting relationship with his teammate Ulysses, who was homophobic. This would become particularly relevant later in the year when the two came to blows during The Incredible Hulk #420 — that issue revisited Jim Wilson’s AIDS in what is generally considered one of the best issues of the series. Aside from Jim’s storyline and ultimate death to AIDS complications (after being caught up in some violence at a protest over a student being expelled from school for being HIV positive), there’s a subplot wherein Betty Banner (the Hulk’s wife) tries to convince a straight white guy who’s just been diagnosed with HIV not to commit suicide — and she fails. Comic books often included letters from the fans at the end, but this issue instead had a number of comic book creators write a little bit about their own experiences with AIDS (all of which are in this really great article about the issue). The issue’s cover was used as an HIV awareness poster, so there’s a good chance you might recognize it even if you’ve never read it.
If it seems like DC was slacking off that year…well, not really. In the miniseries Fighting American, in which they were pretty blatantly parodying Captain America, they had their main character pursuing a relationship with a woman named Mary who turned out to be lesbian in the last issue. Shadow Cabinet revealed two of its female superheroes, Donner and Blitzen, were together, and in Static #16, the main character’s best friend Rick Stone came out after surviving a brutal gaybashing at the hands of white supremacists. The series The Invisibles introduced Lord Fanny, a transgender shaman from Brazil. The series Deathwish began, and one of the leads of the series was Marisa Rahm a transgender woman serving on the police force. Perhaps more notable is that Deathwish was written by Maddie Blaustein — a transgender woman herself, although she hadn’t changed her name yet. (Fun fact: Maddie also voiced Meowth on the first eight seasons of Pokémon.)
In 1995, the Atlanta AIDS Survival Project began including the strip “HIV + ME” by Chris Companik in their newsletter, which carried on into 2011. Kitchen Sink Press released….I mean just the most delightfully sacrilegious comic in Taboo #8, in which Jesus Christ and Lucifer have a philosophical debate that leads them to understand they have a lot in common. And then they kiss. The book was a collaborative effort between two openly gay creators P. Craig Russell and David Sexton, both of whom are fairly big in the comic industry.
That year would also see even more gay superheroes — Malibu Comics, recently acquired by Marvel, wrote superhero Turbocharge coming out in Prime (vol. 1) #21, becoming the first gay teenage superhero in mass produced comics. In Gen 13 (vol. 1) #2 by Image Comics, Native American superhero Rainmaker came out as bisexual. In DC’s Black Lightning (vol 2) #5, the hero Jefferson Pierce learned that his recently killed co-worker Walter Kasko was gay. Howard Cruse, best known so far for underground work, published a historical graphic novel called Stuck Rubber Baby for DC Comics, which dealt with the intersectionality of race and sexuality during the Civil Rights Movement. DC also released Chiaroscuro: The Private Lives of Leonardo Da Vinci, a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci that left in all the juicy gay parts that usually get dropped. They also gave Maggie Sawyer her own series — despite not being a superhero herself — called Metropolis S.C.U. — which was the first time a lesbian character was the lead in a mass produced comic book series that lasted for more than one issue (for which they would be awarded the GLAAD Outstanding Comic Award).
In 1996, DC, under their Vertigo Comics brand, published the autobiographical graphic novel 7 Miles a Second by David Wojnarowicz — four years after his death from AIDS. The book told his entire journey, not shying away from anything — from working as a teen prostitute, to his drug use, to his struggle with HIV — and especially his anger with the government for ignoring the epidemic. The call out of the government itself in a comic book is particularly significant. That same year, in the pages of Justice League of America #110 and #111, two different team members (Obsidian and Ice Maiden) told Nuklon about their queer sexualities. Just a couple of months later in DC’s series The Spectre (#45) in a story called “Acts of God”, the Spectre (and his alter-ego Jim Corrigan) learned to overcome his own homophobia and stand up against anti-gay violence being done in the name of religion. That story was nominated for a GLAAD Outstanding Comic Award, but lost to Neil Gaiman’s Death: The Time of Your Life — also published by DC. That miniseries follows a lesbian couple in which one is a popular musician on tour, tackling a whole lot of issues about public and private identities.
The following year, the character Hero came out about his homosexuality in the pages of Superboy and the Ravers #13. Supergirl (vol. 4) #10 introduced readers to Andy Jones — an angel made up of a man and a woman…it’s very reminiscent of Cloud only without having Andy’s attraction to Supergirl have any impact whatsoever on their gender presentation at any given time, which makes a lot more sense. (That’s Linda Danvers Supergirl not Kara Zor-El Supergirl…you know what? It’s a little confusing.) And the two did eventually have a relationship, albeit fairly short lived. Andy’s recurring appearances would score Supergirl a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Comic in 1999 — the fourth time DC won that award.
It seems like as soon as the Code said it was okay to do, DC was like “here’s all these queer issues we want to talk about, and a whole bunch of queer characters!” And they just went for it for most of the 90s. A big part of that can probably be credited to Neal Pozner, who was the Creative Director for DC Comics for a time and who was an HIV-positive gay man. He died from AIDS complications in 1994, and his romantic partner Phil Jiminez, who was a writer and artist for DC, began penning the miniseries Tempest shortly afterwards. It was based around Aqualad, a character Pozner had created a new costume for when he was writing Aquaman in the 80’s. At the end of the fourth issue of Tempest, which was published in 1997, Jiminez included an editorial in which he dedicated the miniseries to Pozner and publicly came out as a gay man — believed to be the first time a creator came out in the pages of a comic book. DC received over 150 supportive letters in response. Jiminez has gone on to great success since then and is arguably one of the more important comic book creators of the Modern Age.
Other openly gay creators, such as Maurice Vellekoop, began getting serious recognition for their work, even outside of underground circles. Drawn & Quarterly, one of the largest and most successful comic book publishing companies in Canada, collected a decade’s worth of Vellekoop’s works and published them in a book entitled Vellevision: A Cocktail of Comics and Pictures in November of 1997.
That was the same year that Disney animator Elizabeth Watasin debuted her character Magical Witch Girl Bunny in Action Girl Comics #13. Only a few years later, that character would be leading her own series called Charm School — of which nine issues have been published, and a tenth is currently on the way. Meanwhile, Andy Mangels and Michael A. Martin attempted to another franchise lagging in queer representation into the future by introducing the lesbian character Etana Kol into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine #10 — a comic book series created by Marvel Comics to tell additional adventures based on the TV series. I’m a big Trekkie myself, so let me tell you: it’s really a shame that these comic books aren’t considered canon because there wouldn’t be an actual lesbian in actual canon Star Trek for another 22 years. That’s another post I’m probably going to write at some point…
In 1998, Mangels and Martin introduced a gay man named Yoshi Mishima to Star Trek in Marvel’s Star Trek: Starfleet Academy #17 — still not canon, still about 18 years before actual Star Trek would have its first actual gay man. But a good effort all the same. Other than that 1998 mostly saw our representation in underground comics like Havoc Inc. — a comedic sci-fi adventure series starring Chester Magreer and Chris Deck, a gay couple who operate a space freighter business together with their adopted daughter. The series ran for nine issues, ending in 2001. The comic strips “Troy” (by Michael Derry) and “Chelsea Boys” (by Glenn Hanson) — both of which would end up published in various gay newspapers and magazines — both launched that year as well.
The following year seemed like it would be much the same — mostly queer artists telling queer stories in underground and alternative comic books. Julian Lake‘s cartoons were released in a collection called Guess Who’s ComingOut at Dinner, Samuel Delaney published an autobiographical graphic novel called Bread and Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York, Jennifer Camper put out the first strips of “Subgurlz.” And then San Diego Comic Con International happened — the first edition of Out in Comics, a guide to the work of LGBTQ+ comic creators, was released by Andy Mangels and an ashcan edition of Gay Force Quarterly appeared at the convention as well, creating quite a stir (until no finished issues were ever released. Oops.)
But even that paled in comparison to what would happen in December when DC, under their WildStorm imprint (which they had just acquired), released The Authority #8, wherein it was revealed that Midnighter and Apollo — basically the Batman and Superman of that comic universe, who’d been fairly central characters in two series for the past year — were a couple. (And when I say “revealed” I really mean “confirmed for people who really can’t read between the lines” — they were naked in a bedroom together in their very first everscene, for crying out loud.) There was nothing truly “first” or groundbreaking about them — two white male superheroes being gay together. What made it important was that they were already so important. And they’d be even more important in the coming decades….
Last time, we talked about the Bronze Age of Comics and the declining influence of the Comics Code Authority. I left you off in 1984 because according to comic book historians (that’s a thing) that was the end of the Bronze Age, and 1985 is the beginning of the Modern Age of Comics. The only real difference between 1984 and 1985 that I’m aware of though is that by the end of 1984, every major comic book publisher had introduced at least one gay character (kind of). I’m not saying that we’re the defining feature of the Modern Age of Comics, but I’m also not not saying that.
Eclipse continued not caring whatosoever about the Code, publishing a story called “Dance on a Razor’s Edge: A Ballet on the Death of Yukio Mishima” in Night Music #2, including an erotic dream by Mishima about Saint Sebastian (who is a Catholic saint the gay community has kind of co-opted.) The comic story also included Mishima’s seppuku, which he committed in 1970. The whole Night Music series was created by a still-closeted P. Craig Russell.
Underground comics were still light years ahead of mainstream comics — in 1986, the space opera series A Distant Soil revealed that D’mer and Reiken/Seren two of its leading characters, both men, were in a non-exclusive romantic relationship with each other which became a central part of the series. The series was written by Colleen Doran, and published — at the time — by WaRP Graphics, though it was reprinted (at least once entirely from scratch) a handful of times and is currently being re-released by Image Comics.
That same year, Last Gasp released Watch Out! Comix by Carl Vaughn Frick (sometimes just called “Vaughn” or “Vaughn Frick”), which was a satire about the gay community of San Francisco. Starblaze Graphics published the graphic novel Fortune’s Friends: Hell Week by Kay & Mike Reynolds, the lead character of which was gay. But, perhaps most importantly, 1986 was the year that Meatmen was launched by Leyland Publications — it was an anthology book of primarily erotic gay comics. It would run continuously until 2004, and during its run it is said that they featured “every gay male cartoonist of note who has worked since the 1970s.” This includes a lot of artists we’ve already talked a bit about — Tom of Finland, Howard Cruse, Joe Johnson, Donelan, Al Shapiro, Jeff Krell, Carl Vaughn Frick, and many many many many others. By the end of its run, there were 26 issues published.
But it wasn’t all good news — as queerness became more prevalent and more accepted in comics, the enemies of the LGBTQ+ decided to try to wield the medium as a weapon. And so Homosexuality: Legitimate, Alternate Deathstyle came to be published — a “non-fiction” book claiming to be “the facts” but in actuality a whole bunch of propaganda about how evil homosexuals were. You know, the usual. This was the first comic book published at actively speak out against the LGBTQ+ community and sadly, it wouldn’t be the last.
The series Watchmen, which has seen a great deal of success as a movie and now as a TV series, came out in 1986. It was still seeking Code approval, and so the only openly homosexual character was the minor character of Silhouette. There were implications (later confirmed by the creators) that the two minor characters Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis were gay and in a relationship together. The character Rorschach, frequently assumed to be asexual, also referred to the character Ozymandias as “possibly homosexual.” Watchmen did its best to be as queer as possible, while still getting a CCA seal of approval.
While not strictly queer, Megaton Comics did make a bit of a splash in their comic Megaton #4. In the story, the hero Matt Scott — trying to get work as an actor after years in a coma, discovers tabloids are saying that he is dying of AIDS. These rumors, it turns out, are flying around because he had worked on a film with Rock Hudson right before his coma. This was possibly the first time AIDS was mentioned in a mass-produced comic book. In 1986. Yeah, even Ronald Reagan got to it first. So, it’s kind of a shame Megaton Comics would fold within the next year.
Ivan Velez Jr., working with the Hettrick-Martin Institute, began releasing the series Tales of the Closet in 1987, which was praised for its quality despite not being published by a LGBTQ+ youth outrach organization rather than a publishing company. It followed eight queer teens as they sort of…stumbled their way through high school, dealing with all of the things that make that period of life complicated and more complicated for an LGBTQ+ kid trying to find themselves. Unfortunately only eight issues were published and the story has never been completed (so far!) That same year, Blackthorne Publishing released Danse— which featured the first lesbian lead character in a mass-produced comic book….but it only had one issue.
Eclipse wasn’t making things less gay either, even going so far as to produce a three issue miniseries called Hotspur which includes a gay barbarian named Suu of Xoo — a clear parody of Conan the Barbarian, I think. I’m mostly mentioning this because I wanted to include the panel here (on the right). It makes me laugh. Was it groundbreaking or historically important? Not really. Especially not for Eclipse. Was it full of sarcasm and sass? You bet. At about the same time as that series began, First Comics published Jon Sable, Freelance #45, wherein the title characters accompanies his gay friend Gray Adler on a yacht to Cannes – it’s a complicate storyline, but it involves closeted gay actors and people dying of AIDS. The next year in Sable #1, Gray Adler convinced Sable to help a gay man dying of AIDS return to Iran before his death. They also made on the lead characters in their series Phaze a gay man named Artemus John who had a lengthy history of gay rights activism prior to the beginning of their story.
Meanwhile at Marvel Comics, the writing of Alpha Flight had been handed off to Bill Mantlo. Mantlo was also committed to Byrne’s idea of making Northstar gay, and so continued dropping those hints. In 1987, Northstar contracted a mysterious illness that — reportedly — was planned to be HIV (and they were going to kill off Northstar). The Code would not allow this, so the storyline was dropped and so then they ended up having Loki tell him that he was sick because of his magical biology, because instead of being a mutant….Northstar was actually an elf. That’s right, that made him a literal fairy. The hints about his sexuality were being dropped as subtly as cartoon pianos. (Within two years, they decided that Loki was lying, because that’s a thing he does, so Northstar is not an actual fairy anymore. Comic books can be so hard to keep up with.) Alpha Flight, around this time, also had a storyline about their character Sasquatch being killed and his soul being transferred to a woman’s body and….it sounds like an effort to recreate that Sir Tristan plotline, but like…more confusing, because Sasquatch still could transform into this like yeti-ish form….that was male. I don’t know. A for effort though. On the other hand though, Marvel also began dropping kind of heavy-handed hints that Mystique and Destiny were in a romantic thing together in Marvel Fanfare #40, which dropped in 1988.
1988 was maybe the first really big year for gays in comics. A lot happened — more than Marvel’s less than subtle hints. The big news of the year would mostly come from DC Comics, who introduced their first gay superhero Extraño (real name Gregorio de la Vega) in the issue Millienium #2. Extraño exemplified virtually every stereotype of gay men, which was an intentional effort by his creators to get the point across without using any language that would violate the Code. While it worked and Extraño’s introduction was CCA-approved, the LGBTQ+ community did not particularly love him. Neither did the Latinx community, of which he was also representative. It got worse, when his team battled a vampire called Hemo-Goblin, who infected people with HIV by scratching them. That storyline was also heavily criticized because that is not how HIV is spread and it definitely did not help the rampant stigma that made people not want to even shake hands with HIV-positive people. (I will say, I think Hemo-Goblin is a pretty clever name for a vampire supervillain though.) However, after Extraño and another of his teammates test positive for HIV after the battle, he admits he had actually contracted HIV well before their battle. How is never actually revealed, despite the fact that that particular story didn’t get Code approval anyways so they may as well have told us. (I think we’re all assuming the same thing though.) In the following issue of The New Guardians, the team attends a support group at an HIV clinic and runs into protestors outside. Honestly, it was handled pretty well minus the whole vampire part of it and the embarrassing stereotypes surrounding every part of Extraño’s character. Extraño appeared numerous times in 1988, then practically disappeared from comics altogether for quite some time.
But don’t worry! DC also introduced Maggie Sawyer in that year — a bad ass police officer who would become a staple of their superhero books (and television adaptions) in the following decades. Maggie was a very popular character, and in the March 1988 issue of Superman (vol 2) #15 — under the writing of John Byrne, whom you may recall was insistent on Northstar being gay — she became the first openly lesbian character in DC comics. That issue also introduced Maggie’s daughter, making her the first homosexual parent in a mainstream comic book. DC also redeemed themselves from that Extraño mess by having Dr. Fate defend a gay rights rally in The Spectre #11, and having the Green Arrow investigate anti-gay hate crimes in Green Arrow #5. As if that all wasn’t enough to make us forgive them, they also introduced us to minor gay characters (of course without using the word — they had to consider the Code!) in Ray Monde (in Hellblazer #3) and Tony Mantegna (in Action Comics #624). Tony, by the way, was also a deaf character which is a also much-needed bit of intersectional diversity.
While the comic book company Archie Comics wasn’t nearly ready to include actual queer characters, they did include a PSA in The New Archies #5 advising that the best weapon against AIDS is education, and reminded readers that AIDS could impact people from “all ages, in all walks of life.”
By this point, the presence of queer characters in comic books was undeniable, unavoidable and unstoppable. Andy Mangels wrote a two piece article called “Out of the Closet and Into the Comics” which appeared in Amazing Heroes #143 and #144 in 1988. (The title was also a play on “out of the bars and into the streets” — a rallying cry of the gay rights movement.) That same summer, he moderated the first Gays in Comics panel at San Diego Comic Con. The Gays in Comics panel has occurred every year since, though the name was eventually changed to “Out in Comics.” Yes, it even occurred last year as an online panel during the COVID-19 pandemic! Andy Mangels has moderated all but four of the panels in its history.
So, underground comics by 1988 are producing so much LGBTQ+ content that like…if I tried to give it all to you, this article would basically turn into just a really long list. (In fact, I’m sure I’ve already skipped over several.) So I’m just going to hit some highlights, but believe me there is plenty more. One key book was Strip AIDS USAwhich was an anthology published by Last Gasp with a lot of work by some of the biggest names in comics at the time — Garry Trudeau, Frank Miller, Will Eisner, for some examples — which was sold to raise money for the Shanti Project. Black Kiss was a twelve-issue series about a transgender prostitute named Dagmar and her lover Beverly breaking into the Vatican’s pornography vault, which (obviously) quickly became mired in controversy. Meanwhile Donna Barr began publishing The Desert Peach — a comic book series detailing the World War II adventures of Erwin “The Desert Fox” Rommel’s fictional gay brother Manfred Rommel. There were 32 issues published, and the series also spawned a novel and a musical. A collaborative effort by queer artists from the UK, the US, and Canada resulted in AARGH! (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia), which was released in the UK that year, in order to raise money to fight against the anti-gay legislation Clause 28.
The next year the comic strip The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green by Eric Orner began to be published, which would run for 15 years. It was syndicated to a number of gay newspapers and magazines, and later a movie was made based on it. The graphic novel Homo Patrol was released, tackling issues surrounding AIDS and homophobia. Leyland continued adding to its library by releasing Castro Comics— a flip book featuring “Between the Sheets!” by Bruce Billings and “Under the Covers” by Kurt Erichsen. John Blackburn began self-publishing his gay erotic comic series Coley. Meanwhile, Eclipse Comics adapted two of Clive Barkers horror stories, “Human Remains” and “In the Hills, the Cities”, into comics for the first two issues of their new horror anthology series Tapping the Vein.
Robert Triptow put together Gay Comics, a history of well, everything you’ve read about here so far — the history of gays in comics. It featured a lot of reprinted comics. Shortly afterwards, Jericho Wilson and Mark Phillips founded the first gay amateur press association (or APA) which they called Northstar after, you know, Northstar. The first such organization, and while I don’t know what inspired that name I have a sneaking suspicion it might have been a certain superhero we’ve already discussed. A matter of months later, Andy Mangels and Roger Klorese founded the second gay APA which they called The APA That Dare Not Speak Its Name (after the infamous Oscar Wilde speech). The two APAs appear to have joined forces now, at least on Facebook.
With all of this attention, it was only a matter of time until the CCA had to respond. And they did, towards the end of 1989, by completely dropping all of their rules against LGBTQ+ content. Instead, they replaced them with a rule that required all social group — including homosexuals — to be portrayed in a positive light, and that derogatory references to sexual orientation could only be used for dramatic purposes. A complete 180 but a very welcome one! And things in the world of comics would change almost immediately.
Things changed in mainstream comics almost immediately. DC’s Doom Patrol combined their heroes Negative Man and Negative Woman, making them a non-binary intersex character called Rebis and the creators of Wonder Woman finally confirmed what we’d all known to be true (and that even Dr. Frederic Wertham had said), that there were lesbians among the Amazons of Paradise Island. Nobody was surprised but it’s good to know all the same.
With the only real institutional barriers against LGBTQ+ content lifted, creators were about to tap into a whole well of untold stories — and they were going to wholeheartedly embrace that…..which we will discuss next time!
So, last time we talked about the Golden Age of Comics and the subsequent Silver Age of Comics — the era ruled over by the Comics Code Authority. When the Code loosened up in 1971, the world of comic books entered a new era: the Bronze Age of Comics. (I don’t know who decided that all these periods needed to be named like this, but…it’s getting to be a bit much, isn’t it?) The Code was still not ready for LGBTQ+ people to appear in the pages of comic books…but the people making underground comics did not care. They were ready to go for it — and queer artists, emboldened by the growing gay rights movement — were ready to push the envelope even farther.
In October of 1971, artist Rand Holmes tackled the homophobia in the book Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) — which we will some day talk about in greater detail some day when I tackle the sordid history of conversion therapy — stating that it sets psychiatry back by 50 years, and going so far as to have the lead character of his “The Continuing Adventures of Harold Hedd” engage in explicit oral sex with another man before blatantly calling out the book’s author David Reuben M.D. by saying “you are rilly fucked up man.” I’m not sure if word ever got back to David Reuben but the whole thing was a pretty fantastic call out.
The following year, the feminist comic book Wimmens Comix began its run — being published initially by Last Gasp though it would change hands over the years. As if to exemplify how much they did not care about the status quo, the first issue included a story called “Sandy Comes Out” by Trina Robbins — featuring the first openly lesbian character in comics. Despite breaking new ground, the comic was not especially well received by the LGBTQ+ community — in part because Trina Robbins is a straight woman, but mainly because it simplified the complexities of coming out. And so in 1974, Mary Wings entered the world of underground comix by self-publishing the entirely lesbian-focused book Come Out Comix.
1974 was also the year that Steve Glanzman’s story “Toro” was published — one of his U.S.S. Stevens stories that were printed in Our Fighting Forces by DC. Toro is a tragic story — and ostensibly a true on (as all of Glanzman’s war comics are believed to be), but there’s little question that the character it is about is not a straight man. Being published by a mainstream publisher, this was toeing the line of what the Code would allow. It managed to eke out a Code seal by never really going farther than referring to the character as a “fairy” in a way that might have implied that he was magic rather than gay.
Though 1975 was something of a quiet year — with the exception of a lesbian being introduced in the second issue of Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp by Lee Marrs, and the character Pudge getting almost arrested at a gay rights rally. Howver, 1976 was a banner year for gay comics. It kicked off in February with the first recurring openly gay character in mainstream comics — comic strips, that is — when Garry Trudeau introduced the character of Andy Lippincott to his daily strip Doonesbury.
That same year Howard Cruse had the continuing character of Headrack come out in the second issue of Barefootz Funnies. Headrack, while not the central character, was the best friend of the central character and so was a continuous presence in the series. Which meant, officially, the first gay recurring character had appeared in comic strip and comic book format. Pretty important, but there was more ahead for 1976. Roberta Gregory — one of the contributors to Wimmen’s Comix — began self-publishing her own work, centered around lesbian characters, called Dynamite Damsels and Larry Fuller put together an anthology series featuring all gay male characters called Gay Heart Throbs. All of these, of course, were underground comic that did not need to meet the Code’s standards and intentionally did not. So, despite the fact that 1976 was a pretty impressive, groundbreaking year….most of the United States only knew about Andy Lippincott.
In 1977, Gerard Donelan (often just called “Donelan”) — a fan of Joe Johnson‘s cartoons — submitted work to The Advocate, disappointed that they weren’t continuing to run Johnson’s work. After they ran his first cartoon, they hired him to create a regular strip called “It’s a Gay Life” — which would run for 15 years. This, perhaps, was the inspiration Rupert Kinnard needed to begin creating “Cathartic Comics” for Cornell College’s student newspaper, which featured the Brown Bomber and Diva Touché Flambé — the first gay and lesbian (respectively) black characters in comics. This is often overlooked, because there’s no actual crime fighting or supervillains in the strips, but Brown Bomber is also the first gay superhero — he transforms into his superheroic identity through the power of magic hiccups. Of course.
The following year, a book of gay cartoons from the magazine Christopher Street was released. It was advertised as “The World’s First Gay Cartoon Book!” which, as we’ve seen, was not strictly speaking true. But I’m including it in this article primarily because the title of the book makes me laugh every time I see it: And God Bless Uncle Harry and His Roommate Jack Who We’re Not Supposed to Talk About. Other gay magazines, such as In Touch For Men would also soon release their own cartoon collections in 1978. But without the funny titles.
Meanwhile, still in 1978, DC was working hard to counteract various rumors about some of their characters being gay. To that end, they introduced a woman named Shvaughn Erin — an officer of the Science Police, very capable woman — to be the love interest of Element Lad who had been continuously subjected to rumors of being gay since his creation. Despite this, the rumors persisted. It’s like the people at DC had never heard of a beard before.
Anyways, with queer cartoonists taking the lead in telling queer stories with underground comix, Denis Kitchen decided his publishing company, Kitchen Sink Press, could help get those stories out there even more. In 1979, he asked Howard Cruse to help him put together Gay Comix — an anthology series exclusively featuring LGBTQ+ stories by openly LGBTQ+ artists. Gay Comix would run for 26 issues, ending its run in 1998. It would go on to feature Jerry Mills‘ series “Poppers,” and so many others I could probably write a whole article just on it.
By 1980, the Code itself had lost much of its sway. Major publishers were starting to get books sold at comic book stores without with the CCA seal, simply by marketing them as “for mature audiences”, and the CCA was putting its stamp on books that would never have been allowed before. Eclipse Comics published the graphic novel Detectives Inc.: A Remembrance of Threatening Green (by Don McGregor), which featured lesbian characters and Stewart the Rat (by Steve Gerber) which also featured a little bit of queer content. Even Marvel, I guess, tried to dabble in queer content. Kind of. It was a deeply offensive story (especially if its your first time having gay men in a story) called “A Personal Hell” from Hulk! #23, written by Jim Shooter. Again, deeply offensive, so we’re going to breeze on past it. I wish we could pretend it never happened but….we’re not done with Jim Shooter yet.
Kitchen Sink Press and Eclipse Comics both, apparently, discovered they could make money from unabashedly presenting queer characters. In 1981, Kitchen Sink Press introduced a recurring strip called “Omaha, the Cat Dancer” in its anthology series Bizarre Sex. Several characters engaged in homosexual activities throughout the course of the strip, but it kicked off with the openly bisexual character Shelley Hine in that very first strip.
Also in 1982, Marvel comics tried the whole “gay characters” thing again, with much more success. They introduced the character Arnie Roth, who had been friends with Steve Rogers before he became a superhero, defending him from neighborhood bullies. Arnie ran into Captain America, revealing that he had long ago guessed Cap’s secret identity. Captain America and Arnie set off on an adventure to rescue Arnie’s “roommate” Michael Bech. When they succeed and Arnie and Michael are reunited, Captain America figures out pretty quickly that they’re actually a couple. It’s a sweet little story, and gives Arnie Roth the distinction of being Marvel’s first gay character. And, because he’s a minor character and he’s not shown kissing, and because Michael is consistently called his “roommate”…he also has the distinction of being the first gay character to have his story told with a CCA seal of approval. (Marvel made a recent announcement regarding Captain America while I was researching this…which I found particularly interesting because of this…but that’s for the end of this series. If I talked about it while it was news, it wouldn’t be history, right?)
DC began publishing stories without the CCA seal — marketing them as being for “mature readers.” These included Camelot 3000, in which the Knights of the Round Table are reincarnated in the year 3000 AD. The knight Sir Tristan, when his memories awaken, finds he has been reincarnated in the body of a woman named Amber. Tristan gets more upset when he discovers Isolde, his great love, has also been reincarnated…also as a woman. Isolde helps Tristan come to terms with the situation and the two become lovers again. Despite the fact that Tristan has kind of medieval attitudes about sex, gender, and sexuality (which is kind of understandable since Tristan is from that time period) it’s actually like pretty good transgender representation. A gigantic leap forward since the last major transgender representation in comics was decades earlier and was….oh right….a bored guy on Mars.
Also in 1982, something new and important happened very quietly in the underground comix scene. Gay Comix #3 incuded a story entitled “I’m Me!” by David Kottler appeared, his only credited work in comics of any kind, at least under that name (as far as I’ve found). The story is a brief one about his transition. David seems to have been the first openly transgender comic creator and the first to tell a story about an actually transgender person (not some wacky sci-fi/fantasy genderbending hijinks) in that format.
Not to be outdone, in December of that year, Eclipse Comics series SABRE by Don McGregor introduced two gay characters, named Deuces Wild and Summer Ice, who were presented as lovers basically as soon as they appeared. A year later, the same series featured the first gay kiss in mass-produced comics — by the same characters, unsurprisingly. Underground comix had, of course, had plenty of gay kisses by this point, but those were not mass produced by any definition. Eclipse Comics was operating somewhere between underground and mainstream — they were able to mass produce comics but, obviously, did not care at all about the Code. Their books would sell anyways.
1983 was also the year that Alison Bechdel began publishing her comic strip series “Dykes to Watch Out For” in the magazine Womannews. If Bechdel’s name sounds familiar, that’s either because you already know her work, you love the Broadway musical Fun Home, or because the Bechdel Test is widely used to sort of gauge the quality of female representation in pieces of media. The test — if you haven’t heard of it — is basically, are there two named female characters who speak about something other than a man. That test is named after her, despite her crediting her friend Liz Wallace for the idea, because it was first described in — you probably guessed this already — the strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” (But not until 1985, at which point Bechdel was self-syndicating the strip.) The strip would run continuously until 2008, at which point Bechdel decided to retire it, except for occasional special ones like the “Postcards from the Edge” story she published in 2017 for the “Ides of Trump” campaign.
Bechdel was not the only queer artist putting out new, gay work in 1983, however. In the UK, David Shenton published his first graphic novel, Stanley and the Mask of Mystery. Howard Cruse, though still producing Gay Comix began publishing a strip called “Wendel” in issues of The Advocate, and the series “Jayson” by Jeff Krell began appearing in Philadelphia Gay News (it would later be published in Gay Comix and Meatmenas well.)
Also in 1983, was the first issue of Alpha Flight — a Marvel comic book series about a Canadian superhero team. They’d been introduced as enemies of the X-Men back in 1979, but now they were getting their own series. And one of their founding members was Northstar. Now, one of the problems with taking bad guys from a single comic book issue four years prior and making them stars of their own book series was….you had to make up backstories for them. Creator John Byrne was convinced that Northstar was a closeted Olympic athlete — and also secretly a superhero, and was determined to tell that story. Now, the Code and also executives at Marvel — primarily editor-in-chief Jim Shooter (I told you we weren’t done with him) — prevented him from telling it as plainly as he’d have liked. It’s been said that Shooter was determined to have “no gays in Marvel Comics.” The comics were full of hints about how Jean-Paul Beaubier (that’s Northstar’s secret identity) was too busy with Olympic training to be interested in girls, how he would ignore his throngs of female fans, etc. Like, it wasn’t spelled out but it was hard to miss. But outside of the pages of the comic, Byrne would tell pretty much anyone that Northstar was gay. As a result, Northstar is pretty widely considered to be the first gay superhero from a mainstream comic book publisher (despite not actually be out in the comic book).
But one thing Marvel did manage to do in this year without any concern about the Code was to use the word “gay” — meaning homosexual — for the first time in a mainstream comic book. It’s a subtle little thing — a bit of dialogue I’m sure many straight women will have lived through themselves. It appears in Fantastic Four #251, when the characters of Julie D’Angelo and Sharon Selleck are discussing their new friend Grey Landers (whom Julie is all about) right before Johnny Storm — the Human Torch — comes over to ask her out. They’re setting up a whole love……some sort of geometric shape….but, alas, a purely heterosexual one.
The next year, in Vigilante #5 DC introduced the freelance mercenaries Henry Cannon and Marschall Saber (or simple, Cannon and Saber). Although their being a gay couple was presented as like a minor detail that didn’t matter, probably to sneak it by the Code, really the whole plotline wouldn’t work if they were not. Despite the subtlety, they didn’t get this approved by the Code. The story is, basically, that a D.A. has arranged for them to go into witness protection together if they kill each other’s bosses. They do so, but before they can be entered into Witness Protection, they get attacked in their home by the Vigilante. In the ensuing fight, Cannon and Saber were actually winning until the fight was interrupted by the Electrocutioner. The story almost managed to get a CCA seal, primarily because the gay characters were villains but their relationship is actually pretty wholesome — they work as a team, they protect each other over anything else, and they support each other’s goals. There are good guy gay couples in the media now that don’t have relationships this healthy.
Marvel, meanwhile, revealed that their character Cloud was transgender…..uhm….kind of. You see, they introduced a plotline wherein Cloud was falling in love with Moondragon, one of her female teammates on the Defenders…..so she began shapeshifting into a man. This story did not get approved by the Code, but still managed to get sold in stores. Some stores, anyways. It would later turn out that Cloud was actually a nebula from space that had taken on human form, lost their memories, and become a superhero. The Marvel Database officially lists Cloud as “genderfluid” and, in this sense, that’s pretty literal. Still don’t think this storyline was quite up to par with the one in Camelot 3000 but that’s not up to me, is it?
There was a bit of a minor shakeup in the comic book world, as two new publishing companies were trying to make room for themselves in the industry. One of them was Megaton Comics — who we’ll follow up with later — and the other was First Comics. Among the various hurdles First Comics was dealing with was their own unwillingness to abide by the rules of the Code. For example, in Sable (vol 1) #15, the lead character Jon Sable assured Grey Adler, his love interest’s best friend, that he didn’t judge homosexuals. Grey would become a major recurring character, leading Sable into various adventures pertaining to issues facing the gay community.
Though Marvel and DC were just beginning to put their toes into the big LGBTQ+ representation pool, the underground comics scene was really getting the hang of it. 1984 was the year that Tim Barela debuted his strip “Leonard & Larry” in Gay Comix. The strip would later also be published in The Advocate and Frontiers— and it would run in Frontiers until 2002! The strip featured a wide variety of characters, all falling under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, and was praised for its depiction of queer families and for the fact that the characters in it aged realistically over the years.
By the end of 1984, there had been at least one queer character introduced in virtually every area of comics — there was still a long, long, long way to go between where we were then and where we are now (and where we still need to go!). And we’ll go over more of that journey in the exciting next episode!
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have spent a whole lot of time this past year of lockdown enjoying some nice escapism in fictional worlds with fictional people. A lot of what I’ve delved into has been comic book shows — catching up on those Arrowverse shows on the CW, and — of course — watching Wandavision. And while those universes aren’t real and the people in them aren’t real, the representation of queer people in those universes is very real. So I’ve decided to do a series on the history of queer representation in the media — starting with comics. (As a disclaimer, comic books exist all over the world, and they all have histories as they relate to our community. For the purposes of this post, at least, I’m focusing on the United States.)
So, when comic books really began to be a thing in the United States, they were just collections of strips that had been run in newspapers. As a result, pretty much all comic books were kind of mainstream — and that meant any queerness was only going to be implied. The exception to that was the Tijuana bibles which were small, illegal books which depicted major comic characters (we’re talking Donald Duck, Betty Boop, Dick Tracy, Popeye, etc) in explicit sexual situations of every kind — including homosexual ones. These started appearing in the early 1930’s — incorrectly believed to be smuggled in from Mexico (hence the name). While these were the not hiding any homosexual activity in them, the characters weren’t actually queer characters — they weren’t even characters belonging to the people who made these books. It was basically just erotic fanart.
Meanwhile, the Golden Age of Comics was taking off for the mainstream comic world. And although it was sometimes tough to see, a handful of actual queer characters were hiding in plain sight — like we’ve done everywhere else throughout history, right? One particular strip, Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff, featured a cross-dressing villainous French woman named Sanjak — who was pretty heavily implied to interested in the protagonist’s girlfriend April. Though the strip began running in 1934, Sanjak didn’t show up until the strip published on February 12, 1939. She’s widely considered the first lesbian in comics even though it was never blatantly stated.
While transgender representation was utterly nonexistent, comics discovered that they loved to tell stories about crossdressing or genderswapping, genderbending, etc. In 1940, the crimefighting Madam Fatal was introduced in Crack Comics #1 — her alter ego was a man named Richard Stranton. This appears to be the first time comics did something like this, but they sure jumped on the bandwagon. Months later, an ongoing supporting cast member from All-American Comics and the comedy series Scribbly — Mrs. Abigail Mathilda “Ma” Hunkel began cross-dressing as the parody superhero Red Tornado. (Later, more serious, incarnations of Red Tornado would go on to be quite successful — Ma Hunkel’s incarnation is mostly forgotten despite possibly being the first female superhero.) That same year, Superman’s enemy the Ultra-Humanite — typical mad scientist type — had his brain transplanted into a woman’s body. A movie star, actually, so that worked out really well for him. (And then his brain was transplanted into an albino gorilla, of course.) It wouldn’t be comic books if there wasn’t something ridiculous like that happening, right? Even Wonder Woman had her own gender-reveal plot twist in 1946 when her enemy Blue Snowman turned out to be a woman. They really learned to love this trope but still managed to have no transgender characters.
The closest that comics actually got to an actual transgender character was in Space Adventures #3, published by Charlton Comics in 1953. This issue included a story called “Transformation,” said to be inspired by Christine Jorgensen, in which a Dr. Lars Kranston and his girlfriend/assistant Betty crash on the planet Mars. They’re separated, and each thinks they are the only survivor. Dr. Lars, thinking he’s going to go insane without something to occupy his time, goes digging through the wreckage of the ship and discovers and experimental gender reassignment process. Which he undergoes to irreversibly become a woman…because — and I cannot stress enough that this is the actual reason in the story — because he needs something to do with his time or he will lose his mind from boredom. Let me repeat that: Dr. Lars Kranston transitions to life as a woman to avoid being bored. Meanwhile, Betty fights her way through the hostile terrain of this inhospitable desert planet to get back to the ship only to discover that her lover became a woman instead of looking for her. Someone thought this was a good story to tell. Someone thought this was how people we would want to read about would behave. Someone thought this story wouldn’t make me shout obscenities at my computer screen while I was researching this post. Someone was deeply mistaken. I’m still shouting.
Anyways, there’s no need to worry about comics latching onto this “become a woman so you won’t be bored” thing — there was no time. See, while all of this was going down, a man/possible real life supervillain named Dr. Frederic Wertham was campaigning against the comic book industry. He had a whole bunch of, ahem, “research” to prove that they were corrupting the young people of the country, that they were leading to the moral degradation of the United States of America, that Batman and Robin were homosexual lovers, Wonder Woman was a lesbian (though to be fair, early Wonder Woman books had a lot of bondage imagery between women), and — most importantly — that the comic book industry were such fascists that they made Adolf Hitler look like an amateur. I know that’s offensive, and I wish I was exaggerating but he actually said that. And, honestly, I think it’s important that we all know he was that outlandish and that people still believed him. A lot of people. People actually believed that Captain America — Nazi-punching Captain America — was a tool for fascist propaganda. And Dr. Wertham put this all in a book called Seduction of the Innocent which came out in 1954. (As a side note, in 2013 Professor Carol Tilley went through Wertham’s research and found that almost none of it was up to scientific standards and a whole bunch of it was straight up falsified. Utterly unsurprising, if you ask me. But no one knew that yet.) He was promptly called before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency who he managed to convince of his findings. They said, basically, that the comic book industry could regulate themselves to get their “morality” on track… or the government would step in and do it for them.
And so the major comic book publishers banded together and created the Comic Code Authority (CCA) — or, as it was more often called: The Code. Now, the Code was not some authoritative set of rules that publishers were obligated to follow — but comic book stores would not sell books that did not bear the CCA stamp of approval. And this is an era before the Internet — you couldn’t download a book from the publisher’s web site. You had to go somewhere to get it. So even though the Code didn’t have any real legal authority of any kind, it was absolutely in the best interests of publishers to adhere to it if they wanted to make money.
That was easier said than done, of course. The Code was SO over the top — like SO SO SO over the top. First and foremost, virtually anything sexual was out. Anything outside of the strict gender binary was out. No more cross-dressing Red Tornado (although Jimmy Olsen was allowed in drag on a couple of occasions in the 60’s, but I don’t know the details of how that was permissible.) No more lesbian pirates. But also, no more sympathetic villains — this is why the “moustache-twirling evil villains” became such a thing in comic books — and no villains that were sexy or glamorized being a criminal. So, that meant….bye bye Catwoman! (They may have had a point there — I mean, have you ever seen a Catwoman you didn’t want to be?) There could be no swears or bad language and words like “flick” (where the ink from the “L” and the “I” might run together to make it look like a “U” to accidentally create a naughty word) were also completely forbidden. Love interests for heroes had to be wholesome, of the opposite sex, and model citizens. Romances were meant to “emphasize the value of home and the sanctity of marriage.” And there were so so so so so so many more rules, even stating what could and could not appear in titles — and they also had a rule stating that anything they found was not in the spirit of the Code could be prohibited at their discretion. Here is a good list of the entire Code if you’re interested.
And thus ended the Golden Age of Comics.
Mainstream publishers like DC Comics were working hard to undo the damage Wertham had caused, and so characters were axed and new ones were created. While getting rid of Catwoman certainly helped with some things, she was the female love interest for Batman….who was already being accused of being too gay. First, they gave him a dog to make him more family friendly — Ace the Bat-Hound. It wasn’t enough to curb the rumors. And so, a year later, in 1956, Kathy Kane came on the scene — acting as his sidekick and love interest Batwoman! Her neice Betty Kane became the first Batgirl and a love interest for Robin. And so they became the official Bat Family. (A term still used for Batman and his cohorts — who I promise we’ll get back to later on!) This didn’t stop speculation — particularly about new characters. The character Element Lad, created in 1963, spent decades having fans interpret him as gay despite the best efforts of his creators. We’ll talk more about him later on too.
The point I’m trying to get to here, really, is that the Code wasn’t just bad for queer representation is was bad for comic books in general. But, yeah, it was also really bad for queer representation….unless you weren’t particularly concerned about profit. The Code also created an entire underground or alternative comic book industry — known colloquially as “underground comix.” Small independent publishers, or independent people just publishing their own work and passing it around or selling them in stores that weren’t actually comic book retailers — like smoke shops. These comics often explored complex social issues and political issues. But sometimes they were just erotic or trying to thumb their nose at Code itself. Queer artists like Tom of Finland and Bill Ward were relegated to drawing pictures for bodybuilding magazines like Physique Pictorial — a good way to show off homoerotic art, but not a great venue to tell a story in. Queer artist Joe Brainard self published two anthology books entitled C Comics — the first in 1964 and the second the following year — but neither featured any overtly queer characters or content. I’m inclined to think, because of this, that even in underground comics it was believed that LGBTQ+ content simply wouldn’t have an audience.
As a result, comics were pretty much devoid of queer content until 1964 with the introduction of Harry Chess, created by Allen J. Shapiro. Harry was introduced in a one-shot comic appearing in Drum, a magazine for gay men. For months later, Shapiro began publishing a strip in each issue of Drum entitled “Harry Chess: That Man From A.U.N.T.I.E.” The comic strip was spoof of the popular The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series, but also parodied political issues of the time and dealt with serious issues facing the gay community. These strips only lasted until 1966. While Drum was running those strips, The Advocate attempted to get some strips of their own running — theirfirst effort was with Joe Johnson penning strips about his characters Miss Thing and Big Dick.
The success of these characters seemed to make it a little bit more acceptable to start having homosexual content in comics. In 1968, Zap Comix #3 included a story by Steve Clay Wilson called — and I swear I’m not making this up — “Captain Pissgums and His Pervert Pirates” which included explicit homosexual sex scenes in an effort to make underground comic artists deal with more culturally taboo topics — which, after all, was the entire purpose behind underground comics! Ultimately, it wasn’t Captain Pissigums that spurred underground artists into creating gay content but it was about to happen.
It was actually the Code itself. By 1971, the Stonewall riots had come and gone and virtually every area of LGBTQ+ culture had changed as a direct result — we were inspired to start standing up for ourselves, being loud, taking up space. But not in comics, not yet. Due primarily to mainstream publisher’s pushing the envelope in the late 60’s, the Code was revised in 1971. Some of the restrictions were loosened up, a few were done away with entirely. This spelled the beginning of the end for the Code — and the actual beginning for queer comic books.
Imagine, for a moment, if you will, that you’re watching the (fantastic) animated film Anastasia, right? And at the end of the movie, the credits roll, and then you see the disclaimer that tells you that it was fictional and none of the characters were intended to be like real people. You probably roll your eyes and chuckle a little — obviously Rasputin didn’t have a talking bat sidekick, right? But what you probably didn’t know is that that disclaimer is actually kind of a piece of queer history at play, and that it’s partially due to Rasputin that it’s there at all. But mostly it’s because of Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov, Count Sumarokov-Elston.
Felix was born on March 23, 1887 in the Moika Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russia. His mother Zinaida Yusupova was last of the incredibly wealthy Yusupov family, and his father was Count Felix Felixovich Sumarokov-Elston. The Yusupovs had more money than the Romanovs who, y’know, ran all of Russia. They had four palaces in Saint Petersburg along, three palaces in Moscow and 37 estates elsewhere in Russia. Not just old money sitting around gathering dust either — they were raking it in with coal mines, iron mines, oil fields….all kinds of industries that were booming at the time. So, the point I’m trying to drive home here is….he was born into money. He just had to inherit it.
Standing in the way of that inheritance was his older brother Nicholas Felixovich Yusupov. Nicholas was a lady’s man and a womanizer, but someone Felix looked up to as a child — but was also deeply jealous of him. According to Felix’s memoirs Lost Splendour, Felix lost his virginity while abroad with his family in Contrexeville, France in a chance encounter with an Argentinian man, who’s name never came up, and his girlfriend when he was still pretty young. He confided the experience to Nicholas, but — to Felix’s frustration — his elder brother ignored him, convincing Felix to keep such stories to himself in the future. (I think it’s relevant to note that, whenever this encounter comes up in his memoirs it is always the Argentinian man he talks about and the woman is just “his girlfriend.”)
Felix also soon discovered a penchant for dressing in women’s clothes for parties — he discovered he enjoyed the clothes, and the attention he received from men. Nicholas encouraged this, and brought Felix — in dresses — out to debaucherous parties with him. He began performing in drag at a cafe in Saint Petersburg called The Aquarium — until his mother recognized him during one of his shows that she happened to attend. Although the scandal was kept secret, it ended Felix’s performance career. He continued to dress in drag for parties, however, until his father learned of these “pranks” and furiously threatened to send him to a Siberian convict settlement.
Nicholas was killed in a duel at 26 years old on June 22, 1908. The duel, which was over the affections of a married woman, was something of a surprise to most of the family — Felix, however, had been warned about it (by the woman in question) well in advance and made no moves whatsoever to prevent it from happening. As a result, Felix no longer had to split the family fortune. And before you say I’m being cynical, I present to you this excerpt from Felix’s own memoirs, immediately following his brother’s death: “The thought of becoming one of the richest people in Russia intoxicated me.”
Although Felix clearly came out ahead, there were a lot of people who lost in that duel. Nicholas died. The married woman left her husband and joined a convent, so he still lost his wife. Felix’s mother battled severe depression for the rest of her life, brought on by the death of her eldest son. And then there’s Maria Golovina, a woman who had been in madly love with Nicholas and mostly ignored by him. She latched onto Felix as, essentially, her new best friend to help her through grieving. Her family, however, decided she needed “professional help” from self-proclaimed holy man Grigori Rasputin. When they met, Felix was not impressed by Rasputin, and immediately believed him to be a depraved con artist, writing “The young woman was too pure to understand the baseness of the ‘holy man.'”
From 1909 to 1912, Felix attended University College at Oxford, studying forestry and English. He was essentially forced there by his family, who believed it would help ground him. Not so much. While there, he did found the Oxford Russian Club, which was something I suppose, but Felix was still living extravagantly. He was a member of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club — which was basically a dining club for rich boys — and employed a full staff at his residence, including a chef, a valet, a housekeeper, as well as housing numerous pets including a bulldog, three horses, a bear cub, and a macaw. According to the University College Oxford website, he spent more money while attending the school than almost any other student. He spent most of his free time partying with friends like Oswald Rayner (remember that name!), and ultimately became very good friends with pianist Luigi Franchetti and Jacques de Beistegui. I’m hesitant to say that there was anything physical or romantic about his relationship with either, because I can’t find any information about who they were outside of what I’ve just said, but they did both move into his English home at 14 King Edward Street. I’m not saying anything definitive but there’s an awful lot of people (and animals) in what is, by all outside appearances anyways, not a particularly large residence. Little bit crowded in there even if people are sharing beds, that’s all I’m saying.
Anyways, in 1912 Felix returned to Russia without graduating, writing that he was too busy in Russia to return to school. He developed a relationship with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich — something heavily implied in his own memoirs to be more than a friendship, but less than a romance. There’s no evidence that Dmitri felt the same way about Felix. Felix rejected the advances of one of Dmitri’s friends, and Dmitri was sent elsewhere — effectively ending whatever their relationship may have been for the time being. Felix was pretty quickly married off to Princess Irina Alexandrovna, the only neice of Tsar Nicholas II. Their wedding was on February 22, 1913 and although the wedding was described as modest, don’t worry, it’s not a “real people” version of a modest wedding — Irina was wearing a veil that had once belonged to Marie Antoinette. You know, nothing like getting “something borrowed” and “something old” out of the way at the same time. For their honeymoon they went to Jerusalem, London, and Bad Kissingen in Germany.
They were both still in Germany when World War I began in August of 1914. They were detained in Berlin. Because European royalty is pretty much all one really weird family tree, Irina reached out to her relative the Crown Princess of Prussia to try to help them get back to Russia, but Kaiser Wilhelm II was not about it, and instead offered them their choice of one of three German estates to reside in for the duration of the war. However, Felix’s father intervened by way of the Spanish ambassador to Germany, and the newlyweds were allowed to return to Russia as long as they went there by traveling through Denmark and Finland.
On March 12, 1915 Irina gave birth to their first and only child — a daughter named Irina Felixovna Yusupova — nicknamed Bébé. Irina and Felix found they were both utterly incapable of actually taking care of a child, and so Felix’s parents did most of the parenting. Nevertheless, Bébé was very close with her father and quite distant from her mother. This was probably because Felix and his parents spoiled her rotten. There’s also a distinct possibility that Irina wasn’t thrilled with Felix’s, in his words, “love affairs of a special kind” which were, y’know, with men. He once wrote “One may censure those relationships but not the creatures for whom normal relationships against their nature are impossible.”
Around this time, Felix decided to use some of his vast fortune to help out with the war, converting part of Liteyny Palace into a hospital for soldiers. Felix did not have to actually serve as a soldier because there was a law that stated only sons did not have to serve — nevertheless in February 1916 (after a scathing letter from the Grand Duchess Olga to Tsar Nicholas II called him a “downright civilian” and “a man idling in such times”) Felix began attending the Page Corps military academy.
Meanwhile, concern began to grow that Russia would concede to Germany in the war. Part of this was due to Russia’s economic decline, which many people — particularly those loyal to the monarchy — blamed, at least in part, on Grigori Rasputin and his undue influence with the tsar’s wife Alexandra Feodorovna. Felix, for his part, remained convinced that Rasputin was drugging the tsar in order to slowly weaken him and eventually make the tsarina the regent even at the time of writing his memoir.
What actually transpired is a bit of a mystery. While the official accounts, as told by Felix and his cohorts, match up with each other reasonably well albeit not perfectly, the autopsy reports tell a drastically different story. And further evidence from British Intelligence indicates yet a third different story. But since this is an article about Felix, I am going to focus on his version of events as explained in his memoirs.
It was little wonder that when he received a letter from Vladimir Purishkevich proposing that Felix join him and the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich (whom Felix still pined for) in assassinating the Rasputin, that Felix joined in eagerly — although he insisted on being involved in mapping out the scheme itself. Purishkevich also recruited Doctor Stanislaus de Lazobert and contacted Samuel Hoare at the British Intelligence Service, which is perhaps why MI6 operative and Felix’s college-friend Oswald Rayner visited with Felix a number of times the week that the plot unfolded. Meanwhile, Felix recruited lawyer Vasily Maklakov and an army officer named Sergei Mikhailovich Sukhotin, who was recuperating from an injury sustained in the war.
Felix worked through his friend Maria Golovina, who had introduced him to Rasputin years before, to ingratiate himself to the tsarina’s advisor. It was quite successful and easy — particularly laying the trap. Felix lured Rasputin in with an invitation to the Moika Palace, with a promised invitation to meet his wife Irina, who was actually in Crimea at the time. Dr. Lazovert prepared cyanide crystals, sprinkling them over the tops of cakes and leaving some to be poured into Rasputin’s drink. Lazovert was convinced that it was enough cyanide to instantly kill several men.
Felix brought Rasputin to his home, all of his other cohorts hiding upstairs from the dining room. encouraged Rasputin to partake of the cakes and poured him three poisoned glasses of wine. The cyanide, however, had no effect discernible effect (though the wine slurred his speech.) Excusing himself, Felix went upstairs to discuss this surprising lack of a turn of events with his friends, and they ultimately determined the next course of action had to be to shoot Rasputin. Upon returning to the room, Felix shot Rasputin in the chest. Dr. Lazovert rushed in and, after a brief examination, determined he was in fact dead.
The last part of the plan involved Sukhotin bringing Rasputin back to home, so as to avoid arousing suspicion. However, as they prepared to do so, Rasputin leapt to his feet and charged at Felix — who was forced to hit Rasputin with a rubber club to escape his grasp. Rasputin began crawling out the door into the courtyard, and disappeared into the night. Purichkevich fired two shots into the dark after him. They pursued Rasputin into the courtyard, and Purichkevich shot him two more times.
The gunshots, of course, aroused police suspicion. Felix tried to convince the investigating police officer that it was just a drunken friend firing a gun — but Purichkevich proclaimed that he had killed Rasputin. The police officer agreed not to turn them in. After all of this excitement, Felix passed out and his servants put him to bed. He was later told that Dmitri, Sukhotin, and Lazovert took Rasputin’s body, wrapped it in linen, placed it in a car, drove it to a bridge, and dumped it in the water (breaking the ice as they did).
Although that police officer did not report Purichkevich’s confession, the police investigating Rasputin’s disappearance found the unusual gunshots happening at the same night, at the home of someone acquainted with the missing person to be suspicious. Felix was questioned the next day. The police let Felix go, as he repeated the story about a drunk friend, but rumors flooded Saint Petersburg that Felix had killed Rasputin at the Moika. The tsarina ordered the police to search the Moika — but, because Irina was a Romanov, such a search could only be ordered by the tsar himself. A lucky break, as it gave Felix and his servants time to clean up all of the blood. After that task was completed, the conspirators met for lunch to decide on a story. They all agreed to stick to the story Felix had already told the police.
Though they stayed with this story, and were questioned without arrest a handful more times, Felix and Dmitri were forbidden from leaving Saint Petersburg. The tsarina was already calling for their execution, despite no evidence linking them to a crime. The body took days longer to recover, but it was eventually found. Police were sent to protect Dmitri and Felix, who had made things easy on both their protectors and the multitude of people who wanted to kill them by taking up residence in the same palace. As much as that must’ve been nice for Felix, as I said before, there’s no evidence Dmitri returned his feelings and at this point they were both pretty focused on the aftermath of the assassination they’d committed.
Now, the autopsy of the body revealed a lot that doesn’t add up to Felix’s version of events. They found Rasputin had been shot by three different guns — one of which was the standard issue for British Intelligence operatives. The same type of gun, in fact, carried by Oswald Rayner. (Although the memoirs note that Oswald was aware of the plot to kill Rasputin, it only mentions him checking in on Felix the day after the murder.) The examination of the body also indicated that Rasputin had been severely beaten, and that someone had tried to castrate him. Tried, and failed — not sure how that works but okay. None of that was mentioned in Felix’s story and that lends some credence to the theories that he wasn’t actually involved at all.
Anyways, unable to find evidence proving anyone else killed Rasputin, and unable to find enough evidence they had killed Rasputin, Dmitri and Felix were exiled from Saint Petersburg. Dmitri was sent to Persia, ordered to remain there under the supervision of the military general commanding troops there. Felix was sent to his family’s estate in Rakitnoye. (It helps to have like forty residences, right?) Felix was really heartbroken to be separated from Dmitri. I guess he thought after they assassinated one of the most influential people in Russia, he and Dmitri would live together forever?
This was January of 1917, however. So anyone who knows Russian history at all knows what’s about to happen to the tsar who ordered that exile. The February Revolution began on March 8, by March 12 buildings in the capital were ablaze and by March 15, Tsar Nicholas II had given up the throne of Russia. This ended Felix’s exile from Saint Petersburg but overall made things very complicated for him. His wife was a Romanov, but most of the population thought Felix was a revolutionary because he’d murdered Rasputin. He spent some time kind of playing both sides, clearing out valuable possessions from his family estates, trying to keep below the radar of the new provisional government (who were very much trying to keep an eye on him) and trying to help the imprisoned Romanovs with whatever influence he still had. When the Bolshevik government fully came into power, Felix and Irina headed to Yalta to stay even further below the radar — but be closer to one of the places where some of the Romanovs were being kept in the hopes of somehow improving their situation.
However, when that proved impossible, Felix and Irina went into permanent exile from Russia. They traveled to Italy, but ultimately settled in Paris, France. They began a couture fashion house called IRFE, and Felix became known for his charitable giving towards France’s Russian immigrant community. He published his memoirs, Lost Splendour: The Amazing Memoirs of the Man Who Killed Rasputin in 1928. Rasputin’s daughter promptly sued him, but the case was dismissed as the French courts had no interest in dealing with a political assassination that had occurred in Russia in any capacity whatsoever. The stock market crash of 1929 (and some poor financial decisions Felix had made) led to IRFE being closed.
In 1932, Felix and Irina sued MGM for invasion of privacy and libel for their portrayal of Irina (as “Princess Natasha”) in the film Rasputin and the Empress. In the film, Princess Natasha is seduced by Rasputin. The English courts sided with the Yusupovs and awarded them $127,373 in damages (over $2 million when adjusted to today’s values!) The court specifically mentioned that text appearing at the beginning of the movie made it seem like it was intended to be a retelling of actual events and worked against MGM’s arguments. As a result, MGM began attaching a disclaimer to each of their films, declaring it as a work of fiction with no intended similarity to any person living or deceased. Numerous other studios followed suit — and to this day, that boilerplate disclaimer shows up on almost every American movie. He was involved in a handful of other, less consequential lawsuits over the next few decades and Felix passed away on September 27, 1967.
Felix remains somewhat of a controversial figure — not because it’s his fault that movies have to explain that they’re fictional in a disclaimer, and not just because he may have murdered Rasputin. Also because, I’m sure you guessed this, his sexuality is often called into question. Per usual, a lot of historians claim he could not have been bisexual. His Wikipedia page even falsely claims that he outright denied being bisexual in his memoirs. I just read his memoirs for this article, they’re available online for free right here. The closest I found to any such denial is this quote: “I have often been accused of disliking women. Nothing is further from the truth. I like women when they are nice.” Nothing about that is a denial of bisexuality especially since right before it is this statement: “I thought it quite natural to take my pleasure wherever I found it, without worrying about what others might think.”
So there you have it, the story of Russia’s bisexual, drag-performing, accidental revolutionary, clumsy assassin prince and how he changed both Russian history and cinematic history forever.
Okay, so, this one isn’t ancient like I’ve been doing but it’s pretty old. More importantly, I believe I’m venturing into a part of the world I haven’t talked about before, so that’s kind of exciting.
Sarmad Kashani, often called just Sarmad (in the same way that Cher is just Cher — you know you’re famous when you just need one name), was born around the year 1590 in Armenia. He was born into a family of Jewish merchants and, as such, he became fluent in Persian early on in his life because, well, you needed that language to sell things in Armenia back then. (His family was also pretty clear fluent in Persian before his birth, because Sarmad is a Persian name.) Before leaving his family to travel, he produced a Persian translation of the Torah.
It is believed that Sarmad converted to Islam, probably while he was studying under Mulla Sadra and Mir Findriski. He studied mysticism and philosophy and poetry with them. In 1634, Sarmad moved to present-day India which was, at the time, part of the Mughal Empire. He was still working as a merchant and had learned that art was being sold at high prices there — he brought his wares and set up shop.
Sarmad also continued to practice mysticism and began to gather disciples. One of his early disciples was a Hindu boy named Abhay Chand. Very little is actually known about Abhay. Most sources don’t even describe how they met at all, but I did find a story in the gay magazine DNA India that describes it. Abhay and Sarmad met at a Sufi shrine, where Abhay was performing as a singer. Sarmad would return to the shrine every evening to hear Abhay sing. Sarmad began teaching Abhay different languages — Hebrew and Persian specifically. Then he was hired by Sarmad to create translations of the Torah and of the Old and New Testaments. There is some evidence Abhay converted to Islam. The exact nature of the relationship between Abhay and Sarmad is pretty hotly debated, but the biography of Sarmad that was published by caretakers of his shrine outright states that Sarmad had fallen in love with him, and that, despite initially opposing their relationship, Abhay’s father eventually permitted them to have a relationship. Frankly, I think that should pretty much settle the debate, but whatever.
At some point — probably after this — Sarmad abandoned religion altogether, favoring spirituality instead, and also gave up all his material possessions — including clothing — stopped cutting his hair or nails, and began wandering the city streets naked. (I should probably note that mystics wandering around naked wasn’t actually that uncommon in India at this time. There’s at least two active sects where this was practically a basic tenet.) He was in a state called mazjub, which is apparently a state of “divine intoxication” in which one has no control over their own senses. From all accounts, Abhay Chand was still with him throughout this. There’s no actual records from the time indicating this, but its generally agreed that Sarmad traveled from Thatta to Lahore, then to Hyderabad, and then finally to Delhi.
It was during these travels that the crown prince of the Mughal Empire Dara Shikoh heard about Sarmad, and decided to invite him to appear in his father’s court. There, Sarmad impressed Dara Shikoh and he decided to become a disciple of the mystic — while still being the chosen heir to the throne of the empire.
So, fun fact about the Mughal Empire, they did not have the sort of tradition for line of succession where the eldest son (which was Dara Shikoh) was guaranteed to take the throne. Instead, they had the sort of tradition for line of succession where sons would overthrow their dads, kill their brothers, and take the throne for themselves. But, barring that, the empire’s ruler — Shah Jahan in this case — could always pick his favorite (which was Dara Shikoh). Now, Shah Jahan had four sons. They did not love that they were not picked. So, I’m sure you can guess, this led to thesort of transition where the sons went to war. When the dust settled in 1661, Dara Shikoh was not the last one standing. Instead, his brother Aurangzeb was victorious.
And for Sarmad, this was very bad news — for two reasons. The first of which was that Dara Shikoh was a prominent, and loud, disciple of Sarmad. Everyone knew he was a disciple of Sarmad. That meant Sarmad was sort of a rallying point for the population that still wanted Dara Shikoh to be the shah of the empire. The other was that Sarmad had prophesied Dara Shikoh’s victory….which means, his credibility as a mystic was ruined. He tried to salvage it by claiming that he meant Dara Shikoh would be a king in the afterlife, but you can only do so much damage control, right? So, Aurangzeb put Sarmad on trial. Aurangzeb wanted to prove that Sarmad was a heretic and, to that end, demanded that he affirm his Islamic faith by reciting the kalima (an Islamic creed). But Sarmad stated that he could not, that he was “drowned in negation” and would be lying if he said the entire kalima. That was enough for his conviction and an execution. A huge crowd gathered to watch his beheading.
Legend goes on to say that his severed head recited the full kalima, and that then his body got up and danced with his head. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that did not actually happen. Pretty sure that would have been a much bigger deal in the history books.
Sarmad was buried in a simple grave, which has now been painted red — to represent that he is a martyr of love — and turned into a somewhat more elaborate dargah (or saint’s tomb). Sarmad’s writings, the Rubaiyat-e-Sarmad (Quatrains of Sarmad) have gone on to be translated many times, but never more famously than by Maulana Azad. Azad was a leader in the movement for Indian independence from Britain, and considered Sarmad to be a hero, an example of freedom of thought and expression at work. Not only did he translate Sarmad’s writings, he also wrote a length essay on the mystic that has been very insightful for both historians interested in Sarmad and historians interested in Azad.
As for Abhay Chand? I have no idea. The last thing I can find about him is that he was still with Sarmad when he came to Delhi. Much like the whole beginning of his life, the end of it is a mystery.
We’ve talked before about how the ancient Chinese story about the bitten peach became a euphemism for homosexual love, but it isn’t the only ancient Chinese story about an emperor and another guy falling in love that has essentially been trimmed down to a short coded phrase — in this case “the passion of the cut sleeve.” I know, I know, it sounds like it’s about an enthusiastic but inept tailor. It’s not — it’s about Emperor Ai of Han.
Born as Liu Xin in 27 BCE, his father was Prince Liu Kang of Dingtao and the brother of the childless Emperor Cheng. Xin was never raised by his parents, however, but was instead put in the care of his grandmother Consort Fu. Kang died in 23 BCE with only one heir — the four year old Xin, who became the Prince of Dingtao. For several years, he seemed to be just flying under the radar until 9 BCE when he visited his dear old uncle Emperor Cheng. Typically, a prince would bring an escort of teachers along for such a visit — Xin, however, brought his teacher, the prime minister of his principality, and a military commander. When asked, Xin quoted the exact regulations that not only permitted this but — in Xin’s opinion — required it. Cheng was impressed, and became even more impressed when Xin began discussing Shi Jing, a one of the Confucian classics.
The following year, Cheng gathered together his advisors to settle on who Cheng could adopt to be his heir. It was pretty quickly decided that it should be Xin. This was not without it’s problems however — Cheng was determined that Xin should act as though Cheng was his only parent. He banned Consort Fu and Consort Ding (Xin’s mother) from the capital Chang’an, so they could not see the Crown Prince Xin. He did eventually relent (after much coaxing from his own mother) and allow Consort Fu to visit, under the rationale that she had served as a wet nurse.
Although this caused some tension, it was short lived because Cheng died in 7 BCE either from a stroke or from overdosing of unnamed aphrodisiacs given to him by his favorite Consort Zhao Hede. At 20 years old, Crown Prince Xin became the Emperor Ai of Han and his reign started very well. He immediately took a much more hands on approach to ruling than his predecessor, cut government spending, and took efforts to reduce involuntary servitude by limiting the number of servants members of the nobilty could have and freeing all servants over the age of 50.
However, Ai’s reign was soon rocked by controversy. Ai was still caught between loyalty to Cheng’s family, into which he had been adopted in order to become emperor, and the family that bore and raised him. In order to soothe the emperor, his step-grandmother Grand Empress Dowager Wang created titles for some of his relatives including Consort Fu who became Empress Dowager Gong of Dingtao. While this did help Ai, it created a rivalry between the Fu clan and the Wang clan — many members of the Wang clan were mad at the creation of titles for these relatives of the emperor, whereas Fu herself believed that her title was subpar and was really determined to hold onto a grudge. Although Ai attempted to stay out of it, ultimately he accepted the resignation of Wang Mang — the highest ranking Wang (outside of the Grand Empress Dowager herself) in his administration and the whole family soon lost most of their political influence.
Fu’s ability to hold a grudge would create even further controversies for Ai in 6 BCE. Long story short, she ordered an investigation into the family of a former romantic rival of her — the investigation was brutal and ultimately led to seventeen deaths including the death of her former rival. Meanwhile, Ai himself was frequently ill with some kind of chronic illness — an effort seems to have been made to keep this quiet, so there’s very little information. Ai was also developing a reputation for harshly punishing people in his administration and then changing his mind about it a short time later and conversely, promoting people into his administration and then abruptly firing them for little or no apparent reason.
And then came Dong Xian. It is generally agreed that most emperors of the Han dynasty, although married to women, took on male lovers and it is generally agreed that the relationship between Emperor Ai and Dong Xian was one of these kinds of relationships. Their relationship began in 4 BCE, at which point Dong Xian was a very minor court official. Dong was 19 years old and was also married to a woman. Emperor Ai started throwing all kinds of promotions and honors at Dong — at a rapid rate that unnerved everyone else. However, anyone who opposed this was severely punished. A palace secretary general named Zheng Chong, for instance, was arrested and died in prison. Sun Bao — who had not objected to Dong Xian’s rewards but had attempted to free Zheng Chong from prison, was removed from his station.
Dong and his wife moved into the imperial palace pretty quickly in the relationship, but soon Ai ordered a lavish residence — as lavish as the imperial palace — be constructed for Dong and his wife. He gave Dong the most expensive jewelry in the imperial treasure and the best weapons in the armory. (The security chief for the capital city, Wujiang Long, tried to block the weapons from being given and was subsequently demoted to be security chief to a little area on the outskirts of the empire.) Emperor Ai even ordered that a tomb be constructed for Dong right beside his own tomb.
By 3 BCE — oh, right, all of that was in the first year of their relationship — Emperor Ai was intent on promoting Dong Xian to the rank of marquess. Now, the year prior a eunuch name Song Hong had reported that a prince was using witchcraft — the prince was demoted to the rank of a commoner and ultimately killed himself. To justify promoting his lover, Emperor Ai gave Dong the credit for reporting this crime. The following year, the prime minister Wang Jia — who had already tried to block the promotion — wrote a carefully worded letter saying he was concerned about what might befall Dong Xian if Emperor Ai should die first. It, predictably, didn’t go over well and Wang Jia was imprisoned under false charges, and then he killed himself. Anyone in the administration who grieved for him after his death was removed from their offices — including the emperor’s own uncle Ding Ming who was commander of all of the empire’s military forces.
Ding Ming was replaced by a man named Wing Shei — however, Wing Shei died from an illness within the year. And So Emperor Ai made Dong Xian the commander of the empire’s military. In doing so, Ai issued an edict which said “Heaven gave you to be the helper for the Han Dynasty. I know your faithfulness, and I hope that you can guide the great affairs of the empire and follow what is good.” This alarmed a lot of members of the court, because it echoed famous words used by Emperor Yao when he passed his throne to Emperor Shun.
Despite his new position, however, Dong Xian remained with the emperor in the palace at all times and did not do any actual commanding of the military. Meanwhile, a whole bunch of Dong Xian’s relatives were given important positions in the government — some of them even replacing members of the emperor’s own family.
It was some time around this period — when Dong Xian was the head honcho general — when the famous story that would make its way into the romantic hearts and minds of China’s imagination was said to take place. According to the story, Emperor Ai and Dong Xian fell asleep together on a straw mat. When the emperor awoke, Dong Xian’s head was on his sleeve. In order to allow him to continue sleeping (after a hard day of not actually commanding the military), the emperor cut off his sleeve and left it under Dong Xian’s head. It is a really sweet story, if you ignore the absolute havoc their relationship was causing in Emperor Ai’s administration.
The next year, 1 BCE, Emperor Ai’s chronic illness — whatever it was — got the best of him. On his death bed, he decreed that his heir was Dong Xian. When he passed away a short time later, everyone — and I mean everyone, including Dong Xian — ignored this decree. Dong Xian, for his part, may not have been totally ignoring it but he was in so much shock he failed to do anything. The Grand Empress Dowager Wang, however, was not so shocked — she immediately grabbed the imperial seal to prevent Dong Xian from getting the throne. Then, she reinstated her relative Wang Mang (remember him?) and transferred command of the military to him.
Wang Mang used his newfound power to accuse Dong Xian of failing to attend to the emperor while he was dying and banned him from the palace. The next day, Dong Xian was stripped of his titles. He and his wife committed suicide that night. Although they were buried quickly, Wang Mang had Dong disinterred and reburied in a prison. Not in the fancy tomb that got built in the first year of their relationship together, in a prison. (This is why you should always wait to build a tomb for your new boyfriend!) The entire Dong family was banished and all of their assets were taken by the imperial treasury. This, by the way, was pretty much exactly the sort of thing that Prime Minister Wang Jia had been warning about in his letter. Oops.
Anyways, much like the previously mentioned bitten peach thing, the story of Dong Xian and Emperor Ai and the cut sleeve was passed down for centuries, and was often used to describe homosexuality. In fact, “Cut Sleeve” is even the title of a short story by Pu Songling in the third edition of Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, about a homosexual romance. It was first published in 1740 CE which is one thousand seven hundred forty-one years after Dong Xian’s death. As much as this was not a charming love story for the Chinese empire at the time it was happening, and as much as they moved way too fast, there’s not a lot of love stories that have endured so long.