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.
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!
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.
I’ve been on an ancient history kick lately so, if I were you, I’d expect the next few posts here to be about ancient queer people. To that end, I’m starting us off by bringing us back to ancient Rome. And also ancient Egypt. And all over the place, actually. I am, of course, talking about the story of Emperor Hadrian and Antinous.
So Hadrian was born on January 24, 76 CE in present-day Spain, where his family had moved from present-day Italy. His father was first-cousin to soon-to-be-emperor Trajan. Hadrian entered a career in politics and public service. At the encouragement of Trajan’s wife, and a few other politically influential people in Rome, Hadrian married Trajan’s grand-niece (and therefore, his own second cousin once removed) Vibia Sabina early in his career (around 100 or 101 CE). The marriage was purely political and is almost universally described as being an unhappy one. Around the time of the wedding, he was serving as essentially the liaison between the emperor and the Senate. Afterwards, he had posts in numerous places around the Empire — he was archon of Athens for many years, and even held Athenian citizenship, and also served as governor of Syria.
Meanwhile, in Turkey sometime around 111 CE, Antinous was born. Virtually no solid facts are known about his childhood, but its guessed he was born in November — possibly November 27. Some time in the Renaissance it began to be claimed by historians that Antinous was born into slavery, but modern historians are pretty agreed that that’s unlikely because contemporary Roman historians would almost certainly have mentioned that, given how the rest of his life turned out and how much more of a controversial figure Antinous would have become.
In the year 117 CE, Trajan died from a stroke, leaving no heirs. Adoption papers “proving” Hadrian was his adopted son, and therefore heir, appeared shortly thereafter — signed by Trajan’s wife, and dated the day after Trajan’s death. Making this even more hard to swallow was the fact that she was in Rome and Hadrian was still in Syria. This was a huge irregularity, as a Roman adoption required all three parties to be present — both parents and the adoptee. Nevertheless, the Roman legion quickly claimed him the legitimate emperor, so as to avoid a power vacuum. Hadrian thanked them with a monetary bonus, which may sound like a bribe but was apparently the custom of the time. (I guess that doesn’t really mean it wasn’t a bribe…) With the legion on board, the Senate didn’t take too long to confirm that Hadrian was emperor.
At the start of his reign, Hadrian remained in Syria — as there was a Jewish revolt in Judea and other parts of the Middle East that he needed to attend to. And by attend to I mean, historians now refer to it as the Kitos War and that sort of undersells the violence. In his defense, Hadrian was trying to find a more peaceful solution to the problem — but the war had begun under Trajan’s rule and the combatants were not willing to let go of the fight. Hadrian gave up a lot of the area Trajan had conquered to the east in order to stabilize the region. Then he quietly stripped Lusius Quietus — the commander of the Roman forces in Judea — of his rank. Lusius Quietus died the following year under suspicious circumstances. It’s likely that Hadrian quietly stripped him of his life too.
With that behind him, Hadrian embarked on a tour of the empire. Perhaps the most significant stop, and one of the earliest, on this tour was the province of Britannia — Great Britain. Major conflicts were common in the region, and the Roman military was not doing well. In 122 CE, Hadrian ordered the construction of a wall to separate the Roman territory from the unclaimed parts of the island. An enormous 73 mile long wall, as it turns out, was cheaper than an enormous border army. It wasn’t the Great Wall of China or anything, but Hadrian’s Wall was still kind of a big deal. Part of the wall still stands.
In June of 123 CE, he reached the city of Claudiopolis (now Bolu) in present day Turkey — where Antinous lived. It is believed by many historians that they met at this point and, while they did not become lovers now, it certainly had an impact on Antinous. It was probably a big part of why Antinous decided to go to pursue his education in Rome.
Hadrian returned to Rome in September 125 CE. Over the next three years, a relationship formed between Antinous and Hadrian. Antinous became the emperor’s “personal favorite” and was seen in Hadrian’s company more than his wife. Historians actually note that there is no evidence whatsoever that Hadrian ever expressed romantic or sexual interest in any women — which is kind of remarkable since usually historians are quick to “straightwash” gay people in history. Hadrian was too gay even for that. Contemporary records indicate that Hadrian and Antinous’ relationship was clearly sexual, and Hadrian wrote erotic poetry about him, though none of it survives today. There was significantly more to the relationship though. Hadrian had several “favorites” but he particularly described Antinous as being incredibly wise, and they enjoyed hunting together and — as you’ll see shortly — traveling together. Antinous, for his part, also seems to have truly loved Hadrian despite their significant age difference. There is no evidence he ever tried to use the relationship for any kind of personal gain.
Hadrian, unlike previous emperors, did not choose to stay in Rome and rely heavily on reports from abroad. Hadrian spent more than half of his reign traveling the empire. When he left Rome again in 127 CE, he took Antinous with him as a part of his personal retinue. This may have been partially because Hadrian fell ill during this year, with a mysterious chronic illness that baffled the doctors of the time. They traveled through parts of Italy, North Africa, and even made their way to Athens for a time. At a certain point they were initiated, together, into the Eleusinian Mysteries. Afterwards, they traveled to the Middle East, visiting Antioch, Judea, Syria, and Arabia. Hadrian grew concerned that the Jewish population was failing to “Romanize” so he built a Temple of Jupiter on the site of former Jewish temple and made circumcision illegal.
From there they headed to Egypt. In Alexandria, Hadrian made some unpopular decisions about appointing people to certain positions. Rumors began to spread about his sex life, particularly when it came to Antinous. Unperturbed by the pettiness, Hadrian and Antinous went to hunt a lion that was causing trouble in Libya. During the hunt, Hadrian saved Antinous’ life — he was so proud of this event that he made certain it was recorded in multiple histories, had it depicted on bronze medallions, had a poem commissioned, and even had a tondo (or circular artwork) made of it. Various tondos depicting Antinous and Hadrian together, including the one of the lion hunt, eventually ended up on the Arch of Constantine, where they still remain to this day. This tondo is considered particularly significant as it is the first place that Antinous is no longer shown as a thin youth but a muscular, hairy truly full grown man — leading historians to suspect that his relationship with Hadrian was probably changing.
A month or so later, Hadrian and his retinue sailed up the Nile as part of a flotilla. Antinous was with him, as was Lucius Ceionius Commodus who some historians say Antinous viewed as competition for Hadrian’s affections (but who never seems to have actually had a romantic relationship with the emperor). During this sort of Nile parade, Antinous fell into the river and died. The death is viewed as highly suspicious particularly because in all of the surviving documents there is not one place where the death is described as an accident. And there’s quite a bit of documentation that has survived. It is, of course, still possible the death was an accident, but here’s some of the other theories that are out there.
Some theorize that Antinous killed himself, possibly over losing Hadrian’s affections. The trouble with this theory is that Hadrian’s reaction to the death doesn’t seem like his affection was waning.
Some have suggested he was murdered as part of a conspiracy. There’s actually no evidence for this, and Antinous’ lack of political influence over Hadrian also kinds of makes this one a “meh” theory. But it’s very dramatic, so that’s fun at least.
It’s also been suggested that it was a human sacrifice, that Antinous might have volunteered to sacrifice his own life as a means of helping finally cure Hadrian of the illness he’d been suffering for three years. However, Hadrian was opposed to human sacrifice and had strengthened laws against it throughout the empire. This theory also was never even presented until 80 years later, despite the fact that rumors spread like wildfire when the death occurred.
Another theory is that Antinous died in a botched castration, that he may have volunteered for to keep his youth. However, again, Hadrian was very much opposed to castration and Antinous was too old (since he’s only somewhere around 19 years old at this point) to get much effect from it anyways.
As you can see, all of the theories leave something to be desired and whatever the case may be, Hadrian was absolutely beside himself with grief (and possibly also with guilt, depending on what actually happened). Egyptian priests immediately identified Antinous with the Egyptian god Osiris — dying in the Nile helped with that — and set about embalming and mummifying his corpse in the Egyptian tradition. Hadrian remained in Egypt until the following year, probably not willing to leave until his lover had been finally laid to rest.
Royston Lambert wrote a biography of Hadrian in 1984, where he described Hadrian’s feelings for Antinous as a “a mystical-religious need for his companionship.” And that’s, perhaps, underselling it. Hadrian formally declared Antinous a deity, and ordered a city be constructed at the site of his death. The city, called Antinoöpolis, was built over the city of Hir-we and all of the buildings from that city except the Temple of Ramses II were destroyed so the new city could be built. Aside from being an over-the-top memorial, the city was also a move to help integrate Greek and Egyptian cultures — Hadrian permitted Greek and Egyptian inhabitants of the city to marry, and gave incentives for Greeks to move there. Games were held there annually for several hundred years in an event called the Antinoeia. Hadrian allowed the primary god of Hir-we to continue to be worshipped — the Egyptian god Bes — alongside worship of the Osiris-Antinous deity.
It was not unheard for a person to be declared a god but it was super rare for it to be someone who wasn’t, y’know, an emperor or someone otherwise incredibly important to the world at large. It’s not clear what became of Antinous’ body, but it is hinted by an obelisk was buried at Hadrian’s country estate in Italy. Hadrian continued to surround himself with sculptures and depictions of Antinous for years to come. Over the following years, an innumerable number of sculptures of Antinous were found through the empire (in no small part because of his status as a god). 115 of those sculptures still exist — 22 of those were found in Hadrian’s country estate. Although there are various styles of these sculptures, they all clearly depict the same person so it is believed that Hadrian released an official version of what Antinous was supposed to look like, that sculptors could replicate.
Because of the identification with Osiris, the cult of Antinous had little trouble spreading in Egypt. But Hadrian wanted Antinous to be worshipped through the entire empire. To that end, he turned to Greece. In 131 CE, he traveled there and integrated Antinous with the god Hermes — in much the same way that the Egyptians had joined him to Osiris. He founded a temple in Trapezus to Hermes-Antinous. Despite Hadrian’s best efforts, however, the Greeks associated Antinous with the god Dionysus instead and worship of Dionysus-Antinous could be found throughout much of the empire within just a few years. Although in some cases people worshipped Antinous just to make their emperor happy, archaeologists have found a significant amount of evidence suggesting Antinous was also worshipped in the privacy of people’s homes. That means people actually, genuinely liked worshipping Antinous. The cult appears to have been most prolific in Egypt, the Middle East, and Greece but evidence of the cult has been found in 70 cities and some of that is even as far away as Britain where Antinous appears to have been conflated with the Celtic sun god Belenos.
Six years later, 136 CE, Hadrian adopted Lucius Ceionius Commodus and made him his heir (as Hadrian and his wife never had kids.) However, Lucius died two years later while Hadrian was still alive so he never actually got the crown. Later that year, on July 10 138 CE, Hadrian passed away in his villa — finally losing the battle with his own health but managing to name an heir in Antinous shortly before his death. Hadrian had ruled the Roman Empire for 21 years.
Antinous’ cult would continue even longer, but would receive harsh criticisms from other pagan cults. The philosopher Celsus, for instance, criticized it — saying that its worshipers were debaucherous and immoral. That’s also how he viewed Christians, as it turns out. Christians, meanwhile, viewed the cult of Antinous as a rival religion and they vocally condemned it — insisting that it was immoral to worship a mortal human, and pointing out that he was only in that position because of his sexual activities with Hadrian. (That part at least is kind of valid.) In the 4th century, as conflicts between Christians and pagans deepened, pagans in general began to champion Antinous. Not in the sense that they worshiped him necessarily, though his cult was clearly still active, but in that he became something of a symbol against Christianity. New images and depictions of him began to be made, including a set of seven bronze medallions. Statues were broken, rebuilt, moved, damaged, repaired…..and the struggle continued until 391 CE when Emperor Theodosius officially banned paganism, and all images of Antinous were removed from public places.
Antinous, understandably, became something of an icon for the homosexual subculture of later centuries. During the Renaissance, queer art was generally focused on the mythological figure of Ganymede but — especially by the 18th century — that fascination had been turned onto Antinous. Who was, y’know, at least real. That fascination grew into the 19th century. In 1865, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs wrote about Antinous in one of his pamphlets, and Oscar Wilde spoke of Antinous in The Young King, The Sphinx, and in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The homophile newspaper The Artist began selling cast statues of Antinous about this time as well. Even straight authors were catching on — in the novel of Les Miserables, author Victor Hugo describes the character of Enjolras as “an untamed Antinous” who seemed “not to be aware of the existence of a creature called woman.”
And while Antinous may not still have quite that level of ubiquitous popularity in queer culture, he has not exactly been forgotten either. Sarah Waters included a costume ball in her novel Tipping the Velvet where the lesbian protagonist dressed as Antinous. Rufus Wainwright‘s 2018 opera Hadrian is about the emperor’s response to Antinous’ death. Even in sports they’re still remembered — the Hadrian Cup, an LGBTQ+ inclusive rugby tournament, introduced the Antinous Plate just this year in March 2020 and awarded it to the Aberdeen Taexali Rugby Club. (But, to be honest, I don’t know anything about rugby so I can’t tell you exactly what the Antinous Plate is awarded for.)
I’m not saying Hadrian set the bar too high for the rest of us, but would your lover declare you a god after you died in a river under suspicious circumstances — making you a relevant historical figure for thousands of years to come?
Alright, Nellyarda, this one’s important. It’s all about how we communicate — or, how we did. Today, we’re going to talk about Polari. Polari was a secret, coded slang language (or “cant language”) that was used by gay men (and also, only occasionally, by lesbians) in England up until the late 1960’s. A way to hide who you were and what you were talking about when out and about in public places where it wasn’t legal to be openly gay.
Now, if you’re sitting there wondering who “Nellyarda” is — that’s a good sign you live in a place where these hidden languages aren’t still in use. “Nellyarda” isn’t a person, it’s a verb — it just means “listen.” Fortunately, in much of the world, talking to other gay people about gay things isn’t a crime and you don’t need to speak in code (although we still have a lot of slang that leaves people in mainstream culture scratching their heads. To be honest, sometimes even I scratch my head — what the heck is a “squirrel friend” anyways?) But while we delve into the history of Polari, I want you to keep in mind that there are places in the world today where these coded languages are not history — where they are still used but are still vital to the survival of the underground LGBTQ+ culture there. Bahasa binan is still spoken in Indonesia; in South Africa and Zimbabwe gay English-speakers are probably familiar with Gayle language, while Bantu speakers are using IsiNgqumo. Those are just a couple examples, but there’s a whole lot of these types of languages which people examining queer language (otherwise called “Lavender linguistics“) might want to take a look at. I promise to touch on more of them in the future.
Anyways, back to Polari. The roots of Polari can be traced back to 16th century — to the traveling entertainment troupes of commedia dell’arte — a really old form of professional, kind of vaudevillian theater that originated in Italy. While traveling around Europe, entertainers developed a sort of jargon of their own, which they called “parlyaree” from the Italian word “parlare” meaning “to talk.” Parlyaree expanded a bit, started to get used by sailors — and as it expanded it picked up words from other places — thieves cant, backslang, etc; and other languages from all across Europe too, including Yiddish, French, Shelta, and others. It became popular amongst all of the undesirable parts of society — criminals, Romani travelers, prostitutes….
And, of course, “undesirables” also meant “the gays.” Most likely it was traveling gay entertainers that brought parlyaree to Britain, as a version of parlyaree was commonly used in Punch & Judy puppet shows. Many of the words were innately sarcastic or sexualized in their meanings. Speakers would often pick campy nicknames for themselves, gay men often using names that were effeminate. The language created a cultural attitude that was strong and resilient in the face of brutal abuse and discrimination. Polari was particularly useful for two things: gossip and finding men to hook up with.
Polari, coming full circle, found its way into British entertainment — adopted by the Punch & Judy shows that had brought it to the British Isles to begin with, and — much much later — in the radio comedy series Round the Horne which began airing on March 7, 1965. Round the Horne was wildly popular, and the characters of Julian and Sandy — the two characters who spoke simplified Polari — were especially popular. The good news is that they helped British society become more accepting of homosexuals. That said, gay sex was still a crime and it was certainly not great for the gay community’s safety to have the mainstream culture, including members of law enforcement, hearing their hidden language on the radio each week. This was probably one of the early contributing factors in the decline of Polari. By 1967, anti-sodomy laws in the UK began to be repealed, which meant the necessity of Polari significantly decreased.
By the 1970s, Polari had fallen so out of favor that the gay magazine Lunch called it “ghettoising”. By 2000, when Paul Baker of Lancaster University surveyed 800 gay men, roughly half of them had never even heard of Polari. But Baker was just ahead of a resurgence of interest — a curiosity from both linguistic scholars and from queer people looking at their own history. In 2003, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, collaborating with Tim Greening-Jackson (AKA Sister Matic de Bauchery) created a Polari translation of the Bible. Although it’s available online (see that link in the previous sentence!) a leatherbound copy was displayed in a glass case at John Rylands Library in Manchester. In 2012, that copy was read aloud in the world’s longest reading of the Polari Bible — performed at a Manchester art gallery.
Despite being essentially a dead language, the more recent ties to religion have stirred up a lot of controversy. In 2017, Wescott House — a college that trains priests for the Church of England — held an evensong entirely in Polari, led by trainees from the college. The intent, according to the trainees, was to sort of “queerify” their evening prayer service, to make room within their faith for queer people. That’s a noble intent, but of course not everyone appreciated the way it was done (particularly because in Polari, “the Lord” translates to “the Duchess”) and ultimately the Church of England issued a public apology calling the event “hugely regrettable.”
Although it’s technically considered a dead language, there are some words and phrases that were definitely part of the Polari vocabulary that we still commonly use today — “drag” and “trade” are still part of our popular slang with their meanings virtually unchanged, “zhoosh” meaning “to style”, most recently popularized by Carson Kressley in the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy television series. Polari was a constantly changing language, and as such it’s difficult to research and there’s no complete dictionary of terms anywhere. I think that makes it more important to preserve the words we still know were used — so I am going to try to make a complete dictionary for this site. Stay tuned!
Arr, me hearties! Let me spin ye a yarn about some high seas homosexuality! Okay, I’m giving up on talking like a pirate. Too much of a land lubber, I guess! But we’re still going to talk about pirates. I’ll admit, I’ve been on a little bit of a “Golden Age of Piracy” kick and why not? Pirates are fantastic — swashbuckling adventurers, sailing across the ocean! And the thing is….they’re also pretty queer. Like, queer coded in movies and such, I mean.
But it turns out, pirates were actually pretty queer. A lot of it can certainly be chalked up to “situational homosexuality” — so much so that in 1645 the governor of Tortuga imported 1,650 prostitutes so that he could get the pirate men to sleep with women — but that certainly doesn’t explain all of it. For example, pirates also had something called “matelotage” which was essentially same-sex marriage. Now, there’s a lot of debate about whether or not matelots were sexual but its generally agreed that at least some of them definitely were. And even those that weren’t were very much like marriage, in terms of legal rights. If you died, your matelot got all of your share of the plunder, and any death benefits a captain might have offered to his crew. If you moved to a different ship, your matelot went with you. And matelots were frequently symbolized by gold rings worn by both parties. I mean, I know married couples that don’t sound this married.
Many pirate captains kept excellent records. Unfortunately, that’s excellent records of their plunder and not so much of crew relationships. Nevertheless, we do know something about a relationship between two pirates: that of Captains Robert Culliford and John Swann.
Culliford was born in England sometime around the year 1666. By 1689, he had found himself a member of the crew of the French privateer crew of the Sainte Rose. He was one of seven British people aboard — including William Kidd and Samuel Burgess. After they heard word that there was a war going on (the Nine Years War or — as it was called then the War of the Grand Alliance), the crew staged a mutiny and wrested control of the ship from its captain, Jean Fantin. Kidd was elected captain and the ship was renamed the Blessed William. If that less-than-subtle name change made you a little irritated, try living on the ship. It must not have been particularly awesome (despite making a whole lot money in privateering) because a year later, in 1690, Culliford led another mutiny against Kidd. Afterwards, William Mason was elected captain.
Mason and his crew (Culliford included) did some fairly standard piracy in the Caribbean — you know, attacking towns and ships and stealing booty. Then they scooted up the coast of North America to sell their ill-gotten gains in New York. While they were there, Mason procured a letter of marque from the acting governor Jacob Leisler — basically, giving them official permission to engage in piracy. (Which made them “privateers” not pirates.) So they sailed up to ransack two French-Canadian towns…but like, officially, on behalf of New York, and then they captured a French ship called L’Esperance.
Mason gave L’Esperance to Culliford, officially making him a pirate — I’m sorry, privateer — captain. He renamed the ship the Horne Frigate because nothing says “this is my first boat” like putting the type of ship it is in the name of the ship. The ship didn’t stay in his command long, and the two ketches that were carrying most of Mason and Culliford’s loot ended up getting attacked and stolen by French privateers. Mason and Culliford ended up having to return pretty much empty-handed to New York aboard a different French ship they managed to steal, the Jacob. In December of 1690, Mason and his crew — with Culliford now serving as quartermaster — left New York aboard the Jacob once more.
By 1692, the Jacob had made its way to India. They robbed the people of Mangrol in the state of Gujarati, but the authorities were not putting up with this at all. Culliford and seventeen of his crewmates were captured and held in a Gujarati prison. Culliford was held there for four years before he made his escape, with a handful of his comrades. They made it to Bombay, and signed onto the crew of an East India Company ship called the Josiah. The ship made it as far as Madras (still in India — not far at all!) before Culliford led his crewmates in hijacking the ship. They sailed for the Bay of Bengal, and began engaging in piracy again.
Unfortunately for Culliford, most of the crew of the East India Company ship liked, y’know, not being pirates. So they retook the ship and left him stranded on an island near the Nicobar Islands. Ralph Stout, captaining the Mocha, found Culliford and rescued him. He was dead within the year and Culliford became captain of his ship. (Half the reports on his death say he was killed by natives of the Laccadive Islands, and half of them say he was killed by his crew when he said he wanted to retire from piracy. I’m not saying I’m suspicious, but I am going to point out that Culliford had mutinied before. Draw your own conclusions.) After this point, the ship is sometimes still called the Mocha and sometimes is called the Resolution so Culliford may have changed the name, but I can’t tell you for sure when that happened. I think the reason for the inconsistent use of the name Resolution is because there was another pirate ship sailing around in other parts of the world with the same name — but that ship is also totally inconsequential in regards to this article, so I’m going to take to calling the ship by its new name that doesn’t make me want a coffee.
Culliford sailed alongside the Charming Mary for a time, but ultimately Culliford broke off the partnership to go ransack ships on his own. That was going fine, until he set out to loot the British ship the Dorill. The Dorill, however, was not some defenseless ship and instead opened fire and broke off the Resolution‘s main mast. Culliford turned tail and headed for Île Sainte-Marie off the coast of Madagascar to lick his wounds — on the way, he still managed to plunder a French ship for a cargo worth £2,000 (which, according to my sources, would be over 400,000 American dollars today) despite his ship being fairly crippled and only having a crew of about twenty people.
Anyways, by this point Captain Kidd had turned from piracy into pirate hunting. And he also headed to Île Sainte-Marie, knowing it sometimes served as a refuge for pirates. He found Culliford there — and I’m sure he was delighted, given their history. There’s two differing accounts of what happened next: in one account, Kidd made peaceful overtures towards Culliford — acting as though he still considered him a brother, trying to lull him into a false sense of security. In the other account, Kidd thought that Culliford had a full crew and hid from him until two more ships full of reinforcements arrived. Kidd’s crew jumped ship (literally) to join Culliford’s crew. (The score is now Culliford: 2; Kidd: 0.)
This new, large crew set off in June of 1698 to leave Kidd, his thirteen remaining crewmen, and his ship (which had been ransacked of anything worth value) abandoned on Île Sainte-Marie. Culliford joined forces with Captains Dirk Chivers and Joseph Wheeler and in September they took down the ship the Great Mohammed in the Red Sea — taking for themselves treasure worth £130,000 (which is the equivalent of over 23 and a half million US dollars today.) Captain Nathaniel North of the Pelican also claimed to take part in this, but the other three captains refused to share the plunder stating that he and his crew hadn’t actually participated. Afterwards, Culliford and his allies parted ways, with the Resolution heading back to Île Sainte-Marie (and taking down another ship on the way).
Either because of his now pretty incredible wealth, or because he was seriously wanted at this point, Culliford decided to lay low and settle down on Île Sainte-Marie. Living with him, as his consort, was the little-known, pretty much inconsequential pirate captainJohn Swann. (See, we got to him eventually!)
Now, okay, here’s the thing. So John Swann was — in my opinion — undoubtedly Culliford’s lover. But that is — of course, as always — a matter of some debate. Swann is referred to as a “great consort” of Culliford’s in the deposition of a pirate named Theophilus Turner. Now, “consort” was also used to refer to pirate captains or crew that sailed together on separate ships, so lots of historians insist that no, this was just a platonic relationship. I don’t think that’s what “consort” means in this context for a few reasons — first of all, in that definition of consort, Culliford’s “great consorts” would be Chivers and Wheeler who helped him against the Great Mohammed. A score for which Swann was not present. Secondly, Swann and Culliford weren’t sailing together, they were literally settling down on land together. And, in fact, Swann was retiring from piracy altogether. So, while I agree that in piracy terms, “consort” doesn’t always mean lovers, I just don’t see the other use of the term applying here.
A number of Culliford’s crew left Île Sainte-Marie to go settle in Nassau. Swann may have been among them, traveling under the alias “Paul Swan.” Which is, frankly, a pretty terrible alias. Other testimonies, which I’m more inclined to believe, claim that Swann was still on the island when four British warships arrived, offering royal pardons to all of the pirates there. Swann and Culliford both accepted, and then made their way to Barbados where they parted ways. At that point, Culliford decided to return to the open sea and headed back to the Indian Ocean. He was arrested shortly thereafter, and sent to Marshalsea Prison in London. His royal pardon was promptly thrown out because the ransacking of the Great Mohammed was, apparently, not actually included in the pardon he’d received (tricky legal loopholes, I guess) and he was all set to be hanged from the neck until dead….until Captain Samuel Burgess — former crewmember of Captain William Kidd — was arrested. Culliford testified against Burgess in exchange for a pardon, and then completely disappeared. Rumors indicate he may have settled in Boston, Massachusetts, though that has never been confirmed.
With both Swann and Culliford dropping off the grid, this story leaves us with more questions than it answers. But I think the best question we can ask is….why isn’t this a movie yet?
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of fairly recent events and people in LGBTQIA+ history — heck, I just wrote about two people who are still alive. In a row! So, to veer away from people with Instagram accounts, I’ve decided to go much further back. After all, one of the reasons I’m doing this is to detail queer history back to the beginning of human history. I’m not going quite that far back today though.
Fernandez is not by any means the first intersex person in the world — intersex people appear in Sumerian mythology that predates written language and is consistently mentioned as being a thing that exists in virtually all societies thereafter. But Fernandez is one of the earliest intersex people who’s name has survived in records to today.
Now, Fernanda Fernandez was born in 1755 in either Baza or Zújar — but definitely in Granada in Spain. There is nothing written or discussed about her childhood up until she took her vows to become a nun of the Capuchin Poor Clares in April of 1774 — at which time she was either seventeen or eighteen, depending on who you ask. It really depends on what month she was born in, but there doesn’t seem to be any decisive record of that.
In 1787, Fernandez began noticing that she appeared to be becoming more masculine in some ways and was starting to get sinful lustful feelings for her fellow nuns. Fernandez was a devout believer, was not trying to rock the boat, and just wanted to do right by society and God. So she reported it and asked to be separated from the other nuns. At first, everyone assumed she was going crazy. Nobody did anything.
Worried she wouldn’t be able to resist the temptations she was feeling, she started actively avoiding the other nuns. She also started a routine of strict penitence, flagellating herself spiked chains. (I guess there is kind of a case to be made that she was going crazy, but it’s probably only because people thought she was going crazy.) Doctors, to help her deal with the craziness, prescribed regular bloodletting. Let’s just take a moment to be thankful that nowadays, doctors who incorrectly think someone is going crazy usually just prescribe pills.
Within the next several years, Fernandez started becoming visibly more masculine. So an investigation was begun. She was isolated from the rest of the nuns. Doctors were called in, theologians, even the archbishop. She explained again what was happening, but this time they actually listened (kind of). A midwife examined her and discovered what she’d been telling everyone all along — that she was developing male characteristics. Including a functional, albeit small, penis. They declared her a man and took steps to make that declaration formal and legally binding.
On January 21, 1792 Fernandez was expelled from the nunnery — technically, this is what she’d asked for back in 1787, but she certainly wasn’t happy about it. She actually liked being a nun. On February 11, she was formally released from her vows and sent back to her parents, who were definitely living in Zújar at that time. (What’s kind of amazing is, this is all pretty well documented except for like who are the parents?) She was forced to change her name to “Fernando” and required to begin wearing exclusively male clothes. Despite this, she continued to occupy her time with the duties and skills of women of the time, and missed her life in the nunnery. Nothing else is recorded about her after 1792, so it’s a little tough to say, but it seems like she identified as a woman, and was likely pretty freaked out about growing a penis in her twenties. I’m sure none of what she went through helped with that.
What’s interesting is the follow-up. There are other cases in Europe and even Spain where medical examinations revealed similar findings, and it was argued that the person in question was committing fraud, pretending to be something they weren’t, and had always been the sex that was uncovered. But no such arguments were made in Fernanda’s case — it was widely acknowledged and accepted that she had been a woman and changed into a man. This is something doctors of the time widely stated was impossible. But they never denied that it happened to Fernanda Fernandez and given where medical science was at the time, that was pretty open minded of them.
Aside from how important queer representation in the media is, it’s also something that fascinates me. And part of that discussion, routinely, is who gets to play these characters. In an ideal world, where any queer person would be considered evenly for any role alongside cisgender and straight actors, that shouldn’t matter. But that’s not the world we live in. It stands to reason, that if transgender actors wouldn’t get considered for cisgender characters, the the reverse should be true. That’s often not the case even now. So, let’s take a moment to consider what it must have been like to be a transgender actor in the 1970’s.
Carol Byron was born in Balmain, New South Wales, Australia on September 2, 1943. She was assigned the male gender at birth and named “Richard” by a mother who ultimately abandoned her four months later, placing her child in the care of a woman named Hazel Roberts. Her new mother enjoyed teaching her song and dance routines. At eleven years old, however, her mother Evelyn came back into the picture with a new husband, and took custody of their son. This new stepfather physically abused their kid. Carol dropped out of school at 15 years old, and began working, taking a job putting makeup on mannequins and arranging the displays at David Jones. A year later, she ran away from home to avoid the abuse — but continued her job. At the age of seventeen, she took on the name Carol and began transitioning to live life as a woman.
She was arrested for crossdressing, but actually beat the charge based entirely on being flippant. Not a strategy I recommend, but when she came before the judge she asked what the “offensive behavior” was — the judge explained, dressing as a woman. And she responded, “You have a wig and robe on.” The case was dismissed.
She took on the stage name Carlotta, apparently from Empress Carlota of Mexico (who I will admit I know almost nothing about) and set about establishing herself. About this time, Lee Gordon — an promoter with a resume that included names like Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland — was opening what may have been Australia’s first drag club, the Jewel Box Revue Club in King’s Cross, Sydney. They hired Carlotta as a performer. Before too long, the club changed its name to Les Girls Restaurant and kept Carlotta on for its Les Girls caberet act. The cast was advertised as exclusively men in drag, though some — like Carlotta — were transgender women. Carlotta quickly became the star of the show. Because of that, she earned the nickname “Queen of the Cross”. Although Gordon was no longer one of the owners at this point, he continued helping Carlotta as her manager.
In 1970, she had her first film appearance — credited as appearing as herself in a movie called The Naked Bunyip. This wasn’t exactly a big break, but it did open some doors. The movie was, apparently, fairly influential. One of those doors was for her to be cast as Miss Robyn Ross on a show called Number 96 — a show that had already broken ground with gay character Don Finlayson (played by Joe Hasham) the year before. The character of Robyn Ross was the new girlfriend of character Arnold Feather (played by Jeff Kevin), and appeared in four episodes in 1972. Ultimately, it was revealed that she was a transsexual showgirl — a fact which led to the end of the romance, and the end of her storyline on the series. Here’s her “coming out” scene — the language is, obviously, not what we would currently use. To keep this scene, and the end of this storyline a surprise, her scenes were all shot on a closed set and she was initially credited as “Carolle Lea“.
Four episodes, of course, doesn’t seem like a big deal. Especially on a soap opera, which churns out new episode practically every day. But these four episodes were a very big deal because they were the first time that a transgender person played a transgender character on television anywhere in the world.
Afterwards Carlotta decided to undergo sex reassignment surgery (also known, now, as a gender confirmation surgery). Prior to the surgery, a board attempted to cure her — putting her through torturous testing including electric shock therapy on her, though she tore the wires off of her. She also, reportedly, threw a shoe at the doctors engaging in the tests. The feisty outburst worked and she was able to get the surgery. She was not, as is sometimes reported, the first person in Australia to have the procedure. She was, however, the first person in Australia that was publicly reported as having the procedure.
Some time afterwards, she was invited to do a drag performance in London. She jumped at the opportunity, the show was hugely successful, but found she didn’t enjoy it and soon returned to Australia. Where she married a guy who’s name is nowhere to be found but since I see some places where her name is reported as Carol Spencer so I’m guessing his last name was Spencer. She tried out a life of “domestic bliss” as a housewife, but it doesn’t last too long.
Carlotta showed up on film again in 1982 playing Ron in a movie called Dead Easy. I don’t know if that character was transgender or not, it’s a fairly minor role and I haven’t seen the film.
In 1987, she toured New Zealand with a touring production of Les Girls. Short after that, her marriage ended — she left him so that he could have the opportunity to become a parent. So she resumed working at Les Girls until 1992. With her off and on career with them, she had performed with them for an impressive 26 years.
In 1994, she published her first book — He Did it her Way: The Legend of Les Girls with James Cockington. That was the same year the iconic movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was released. Carlotta was one of the inspirations behind the movie — and it, in turn, inspired her. She attempted to start her own show: Carlotta & Her Beautiful Boys which launched in 1996. This was a popular show but not a financial success and ended up bankrupting her after three years.
But Carlotta is not a woman who can be kept down. In 1997, she began appearing as a recurring panelist on the show Beauty and the Beast. (I’m linking to the Wikipedia page on this one because, personally, I was a little confused when that didn’t have to do with fairy tales and talking furniture.) On the show, the panelists answer letters from viewers and Carlotta’s life up to that point made her invaluable to the show. Kids, particularly queer kids, from all over Australia wrote the show specifically in the hopes of getting her advice. Here’s a clip of her on the show in 2001 (not talking about queer issues though, I can’t find any clips of that.)
She was popular on Beauty and the Beast and that led her to more appearances as a television personality. In 2003, she appeared on the short-lived comedy talk show Greeks on the Roof. She also published another book, entitled Carlotta: I’m not that Kind of Girl. Two years later, Carlotta launched a show that was a half-million dollar production based on her recent book Carlotta’s KingsX. She subsequently appeared on Good Morning Australia and on the music quiz show Spicks and Specks.
Also in 2005, the cast of The Naked Bunyip reunited for a short video “In a Funny Sort of Way” which discussed the movie and its impact on Australian cinema. So, 2005 was a very busy year for Carlotta. In 2006, she appeared in four episodes of the documentary series 20 to 1. That was also the year that Australian National Portrait Gallery purchased a portrait of Carlotta and incorporated it into their collection.
Carlotta later launched a touring one-woman show called Carlotta: Live and Intimate. In 2013, she began appearing as a regular guest panelist on the morning news show Studio 10. The following year, a made-for-TV movie about her life was made called Carlotta. The film was criticized for only hinting at the harsher parts of Carlotta’s life as a transgender woman. Carlotta was played by cisgender actor Jessica Marais and while I would like to criticize that choice, but Carlotta was actually involved in the casting.
In 2018, she was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Her doctors caught it early, performed surgery, and she made a full recovery and jumped right back into her career. In 2019, she continued touring with her musical revue Carlotta: Queen of the Cross which features a wide variety of music, especially from other queer artists like Peter Allen (whom she had been friends with) and Stephen Sondheim.
On January 26, 2020 she was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to the LGBTQ+ community and to the performing arts. Although this is the most recent and most impressive recognition Carlotta has received for her decades of work, she’s also been recognized with the King’s Cross Award, the Drag Industry Variety Award (in 1997) and a Australian Club Entertainment Lifetime Achievement Award (in 2018). That last one may have to get given to her again, as Carlotta is still performing, and no doubt has much more that she will achieve.