Okay, we’re going to do something really different today from what I usually do, because I think it is an important piece of history that nobody really knows. But it’s not the history of a person or a place or an event….it’s the history of a word.
We’re talking about the history of the singular pronouns they(/them/their).
Now, another thing that I’m going to do that is different today is I’m going to give you a source for all of the information I’m about to impart. I don’t usually do that because this is a hobby, not a college dissertation. I really don’t want it to feel like work, y’know? Yes, that makes all of this amateur, and I’m generally okay with that. But you know who’s not amateur? The Oxford English Dictionary. So, if you think you know the English language better than the Oxford English Dictionary, please feel free to argue. With them. (I am also dipping into the Merriam-Webster dictionary and some literary analyses.)
Anyways, let’s talk history. The first time the singular “they” appears in written language was in 1375 in the story William and the Wolf, the English translation of the French Guillaume de Palerme. Now, I’ll grant you, we know next to nothing about the person who translated it and there’s no dictionaries at this point in history, let alone standardized spelling. Technically, we’re still speaking Middle English and not Modern English for another 95 years. In fact, in 1375 we were still using some words that haven’t been in common usage for centuries, like “thou.”
Right. “Thou” the singular form of “you” because “you” was a plural pronoun. But in the mid-17th century we changed it so that “you” could mean any number of people — one, two, a dozen, any number. We’ve been happily using context clues to figure out the number of people “you” was referring to for like the past 400 years. At which time, for the record, we were very much using modern English.
But I digress and now I’ve skipped ahead — past an awful lot of very respectable examples. Geoffrey Chaucer used it in “The Pardoner’s Prologue” in The Canterbury Tales. Singular “they” is even in the King James Version of the Bible — check Philippians 2:3. And I wouldn’t dream of ignoring the writings of the Bard, William Shakespeare himself. He used singular “they” kind of a lot, actually. He would even use the singular “they” when the gender of the subject is known. For one example, in Hamlet, he wrote:
“‘Tis meet that some more audience than a mother— Since nature makes them partial—should o’erhear”
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 3
Now I think most of us would agree that Shakespeare had a good handle on the English language but it’s certainly true he made up hundreds of words (like “amazement”), and in his time — even though we were using (early) modern English — we still didn’t really have things like dictionaries or standardized spelling. So, okay, maybe Shakespeare isn’t the best judge on what’s correct.
So we’ll skip ahead to 1755 when A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson was published, giving us standardized spelling and moving us firmly into Modern English. (Until the Oxford English Dictionary came about in 1857, Johnson’s dictionary was basically the final word on the English language.) Johnson’s dictionary is actually online and while it does define “they” as plural, interestingly enough it provides in its definition an example of its use as a singular pronoun (from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, no less!)
Must now confess, if they have any goodness
The trial just and noble.”
This is why we needed an OED to step up and clarify things, you know?
But what is really clear is that the singular “they” remained in common use, even among the most noted authors of the English language. Jane Austen uses the singular “they” 109 times across her various works. As did numerous other authors — just for a handful examples, you can find it used in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), Lord Byron‘s Werner, or The Inheritance: A Tragedy (1822) Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby (1839), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad (1880), Jack London’s Martin Eden (1909), Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed (1974). There’s an even longer list of examples, which includes excerpts, over at UPenn’s Language Log if you’re interested.
So with all of this, why did it become commonplace for us to say that “they” is plural if that’s never been true in practice? Well, to be quite frank, because of sexism. 1795 is the first time that anyone begins arguing that pronouns for people needed to be “sex definite” and of course, that meant if you didn’t know the sex you should be using “he” as that was the superior sex. I’m not kidding or exaggerating here, the entire basis for the argument hinged on grammar rules written by William Lily as he was teaching Latin students in 1567. The rule?
“The Masculine Gender is more worthy than the Feminine, and the Feminine more worthy than the Neuter.”
Aside from that seeming pretty ridiculous even in Latin, this rule is about word classification and not actual people’s genders. But in 1795, some “grammar experts” decided it should apply to English pronouns for people.
That idea didn’t last long without being challenged. It was being pointed out pretty quickly that always using “he” was erasing women from roles they often filled. Samuel Coleridge was arguing for using “it” instead as early as 1808. “It” of course is fairly dehumanizing, as that’s a pronoun typically used for objects, and that was being said pretty much immediately after Coleridge made his suggestion. That landed us with “he or she,” which has also been pretty universally decried as sounding clunky and awkward. And so the academics and grammarians have argued on and on for more than 200 years. Pretty much the entire time this discussion has been going on, people have been trying to create new gender neutral pronouns as well — “ou” being the first, appearing in the 1790s, with “ze” and “zir” being much more recent attempts. It’s an admirable idea, but none have caught on yet. Meanwhile even the most celebrated of authors continued using the singular “they” so you kind of have to wonder why this has been argued so long. The OED had realized this was kind of a pointless discussion by at least 1998, when they officially included a singular definition of “they” in that year’s New OxfordDictionary of English.
The point is, it’s not new to use singular “they.” The idea of “they” being a singular pronoun predates any argument that it can’t be singular by centuries. And the most celebrated and respected users of the English language have continuously ignored that argument. The only thing that’s “new” is that we have so many people who don’t feel like they fit into the gender binary but do feel supported enough and free enough to tell us that. That’s a really great change, and even though that is something that probably is worth changing our language over….we don’t even need to.
Last time, we talked about the Bronze Age of Comics and the declining influence of the Comics Code Authority. I left you off in 1984 because according to comic book historians (that’s a thing) that was the end of the Bronze Age, and 1985 is the beginning of the Modern Age of Comics. The only real difference between 1984 and 1985 that I’m aware of though is that by the end of 1984, every major comic book publisher had introduced at least one gay character (kind of). I’m not saying that we’re the defining feature of the Modern Age of Comics, but I’m also not not saying that.
Eclipse continued not caring whatosoever about the Code, publishing a story called “Dance on a Razor’s Edge: A Ballet on the Death of Yukio Mishima” in Night Music #2, including an erotic dream by Mishima about Saint Sebastian (who is a Catholic saint the gay community has kind of co-opted.) The comic story also included Mishima’s seppuku, which he committed in 1970. The whole Night Music series was created by a still-closeted P. Craig Russell.
Underground comics were still light years ahead of mainstream comics — in 1986, the space opera series A Distant Soil revealed that D’mer and Reiken/Seren two of its leading characters, both men, were in a non-exclusive romantic relationship with each other which became a central part of the series. The series was written by Colleen Doran, and published — at the time — by WaRP Graphics, though it was reprinted (at least once entirely from scratch) a handful of times and is currently being re-released by Image Comics.
That same year, Last Gasp released Watch Out! Comix by Carl Vaughn Frick (sometimes just called “Vaughn” or “Vaughn Frick”), which was a satire about the gay community of San Francisco. Starblaze Graphics published the graphic novel Fortune’s Friends: Hell Week by Kay & Mike Reynolds, the lead character of which was gay. But, perhaps most importantly, 1986 was the year that Meatmen was launched by Leyland Publications — it was an anthology book of primarily erotic gay comics. It would run continuously until 2004, and during its run it is said that they featured “every gay male cartoonist of note who has worked since the 1970s.” This includes a lot of artists we’ve already talked a bit about — Tom of Finland, Howard Cruse, Joe Johnson, Donelan, Al Shapiro, Jeff Krell, Carl Vaughn Frick, and many many many many others. By the end of its run, there were 26 issues published.
But it wasn’t all good news — as queerness became more prevalent and more accepted in comics, the enemies of the LGBTQ+ decided to try to wield the medium as a weapon. And so Homosexuality: Legitimate, Alternate Deathstyle came to be published — a “non-fiction” book claiming to be “the facts” but in actuality a whole bunch of propaganda about how evil homosexuals were. You know, the usual. This was the first comic book published at actively speak out against the LGBTQ+ community and sadly, it wouldn’t be the last.
The series Watchmen, which has seen a great deal of success as a movie and now as a TV series, came out in 1986. It was still seeking Code approval, and so the only openly homosexual character was the minor character of Silhouette. There were implications (later confirmed by the creators) that the two minor characters Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis were gay and in a relationship together. The character Rorschach, frequently assumed to be asexual, also referred to the character Ozymandias as “possibly homosexual.” Watchmen did its best to be as queer as possible, while still getting a CCA seal of approval.
While not strictly queer, Megaton Comics did make a bit of a splash in their comic Megaton #4. In the story, the hero Matt Scott — trying to get work as an actor after years in a coma, discovers tabloids are saying that he is dying of AIDS. These rumors, it turns out, are flying around because he had worked on a film with Rock Hudson right before his coma. This was possibly the first time AIDS was mentioned in a mass-produced comic book. In 1986. Yeah, even Ronald Reagan got to it first. So, it’s kind of a shame Megaton Comics would fold within the next year.
Ivan Velez Jr., working with the Hettrick-Martin Institute, began releasing the series Tales of the Closet in 1987, which was praised for its quality despite not being published by a LGBTQ+ youth outrach organization rather than a publishing company. It followed eight queer teens as they sort of…stumbled their way through high school, dealing with all of the things that make that period of life complicated and more complicated for an LGBTQ+ kid trying to find themselves. Unfortunately only eight issues were published and the story has never been completed (so far!) That same year, Blackthorne Publishing released Danse— which featured the first lesbian lead character in a mass-produced comic book….but it only had one issue.
Eclipse wasn’t making things less gay either, even going so far as to produce a three issue miniseries called Hotspur which includes a gay barbarian named Suu of Xoo — a clear parody of Conan the Barbarian, I think. I’m mostly mentioning this because I wanted to include the panel here (on the right). It makes me laugh. Was it groundbreaking or historically important? Not really. Especially not for Eclipse. Was it full of sarcasm and sass? You bet. At about the same time as that series began, First Comics published Jon Sable, Freelance #45, wherein the title characters accompanies his gay friend Gray Adler on a yacht to Cannes – it’s a complicate storyline, but it involves closeted gay actors and people dying of AIDS. The next year in Sable #1, Gray Adler convinced Sable to help a gay man dying of AIDS return to Iran before his death. They also made on the lead characters in their series Phaze a gay man named Artemus John who had a lengthy history of gay rights activism prior to the beginning of their story.
Meanwhile at Marvel Comics, the writing of Alpha Flight had been handed off to Bill Mantlo. Mantlo was also committed to Byrne’s idea of making Northstar gay, and so continued dropping those hints. In 1987, Northstar contracted a mysterious illness that — reportedly — was planned to be HIV (and they were going to kill off Northstar). The Code would not allow this, so the storyline was dropped and so then they ended up having Loki tell him that he was sick because of his magical biology, because instead of being a mutant….Northstar was actually an elf. That’s right, that made him a literal fairy. The hints about his sexuality were being dropped as subtly as cartoon pianos. (Within two years, they decided that Loki was lying, because that’s a thing he does, so Northstar is not an actual fairy anymore. Comic books can be so hard to keep up with.) Alpha Flight, around this time, also had a storyline about their character Sasquatch being killed and his soul being transferred to a woman’s body and….it sounds like an effort to recreate that Sir Tristan plotline, but like…more confusing, because Sasquatch still could transform into this like yeti-ish form….that was male. I don’t know. A for effort though. On the other hand though, Marvel also began dropping kind of heavy-handed hints that Mystique and Destiny were in a romantic thing together in Marvel Fanfare #40, which dropped in 1988.
1988 was maybe the first really big year for gays in comics. A lot happened — more than Marvel’s less than subtle hints. The big news of the year would mostly come from DC Comics, who introduced their first gay superhero Extraño (real name Gregorio de la Vega) in the issue Millienium #2. Extraño exemplified virtually every stereotype of gay men, which was an intentional effort by his creators to get the point across without using any language that would violate the Code. While it worked and Extraño’s introduction was CCA-approved, the LGBTQ+ community did not particularly love him. Neither did the Latinx community, of which he was also representative. It got worse, when his team battled a vampire called Hemo-Goblin, who infected people with HIV by scratching them. That storyline was also heavily criticized because that is not how HIV is spread and it definitely did not help the rampant stigma that made people not want to even shake hands with HIV-positive people. (I will say, I think Hemo-Goblin is a pretty clever name for a vampire supervillain though.) However, after Extraño and another of his teammates test positive for HIV after the battle, he admits he had actually contracted HIV well before their battle. How is never actually revealed, despite the fact that that particular story didn’t get Code approval anyways so they may as well have told us. (I think we’re all assuming the same thing though.) In the following issue of The New Guardians, the team attends a support group at an HIV clinic and runs into protestors outside. Honestly, it was handled pretty well minus the whole vampire part of it and the embarrassing stereotypes surrounding every part of Extraño’s character. Extraño appeared numerous times in 1988, then practically disappeared from comics altogether for quite some time.
But don’t worry! DC also introduced Maggie Sawyer in that year — a bad ass police officer who would become a staple of their superhero books (and television adaptions) in the following decades. Maggie was a very popular character, and in the March 1988 issue of Superman (vol 2) #15 — under the writing of John Byrne, whom you may recall was insistent on Northstar being gay — she became the first openly lesbian character in DC comics. That issue also introduced Maggie’s daughter, making her the first homosexual parent in a mainstream comic book. DC also redeemed themselves from that Extraño mess by having Dr. Fate defend a gay rights rally in The Spectre #11, and having the Green Arrow investigate anti-gay hate crimes in Green Arrow #5. As if that all wasn’t enough to make us forgive them, they also introduced us to minor gay characters (of course without using the word — they had to consider the Code!) in Ray Monde (in Hellblazer #3) and Tony Mantegna (in Action Comics #624). Tony, by the way, was also a deaf character which is a also much-needed bit of intersectional diversity.
While the comic book company Archie Comics wasn’t nearly ready to include actual queer characters, they did include a PSA in The New Archies #5 advising that the best weapon against AIDS is education, and reminded readers that AIDS could impact people from “all ages, in all walks of life.”
By this point, the presence of queer characters in comic books was undeniable, unavoidable and unstoppable. Andy Mangels wrote a two piece article called “Out of the Closet and Into the Comics” which appeared in Amazing Heroes #143 and #144 in 1988. (The title was also a play on “out of the bars and into the streets” — a rallying cry of the gay rights movement.) That same summer, he moderated the first Gays in Comics panel at San Diego Comic Con. The Gays in Comics panel has occurred every year since, though the name was eventually changed to “Out in Comics.” Yes, it even occurred last year as an online panel during the COVID-19 pandemic! Andy Mangels has moderated all but four of the panels in its history.
So, underground comics by 1988 are producing so much LGBTQ+ content that like…if I tried to give it all to you, this article would basically turn into just a really long list. (In fact, I’m sure I’ve already skipped over several.) So I’m just going to hit some highlights, but believe me there is plenty more. One key book was Strip AIDS USAwhich was an anthology published by Last Gasp with a lot of work by some of the biggest names in comics at the time — Garry Trudeau, Frank Miller, Will Eisner, for some examples — which was sold to raise money for the Shanti Project. Black Kiss was a twelve-issue series about a transgender prostitute named Dagmar and her lover Beverly breaking into the Vatican’s pornography vault, which (obviously) quickly became mired in controversy. Meanwhile Donna Barr began publishing The Desert Peach — a comic book series detailing the World War II adventures of Erwin “The Desert Fox” Rommel’s fictional gay brother Manfred Rommel. There were 32 issues published, and the series also spawned a novel and a musical. A collaborative effort by queer artists from the UK, the US, and Canada resulted in AARGH! (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia), which was released in the UK that year, in order to raise money to fight against the anti-gay legislation Clause 28.
The next year the comic strip The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green by Eric Orner began to be published, which would run for 15 years. It was syndicated to a number of gay newspapers and magazines, and later a movie was made based on it. The graphic novel Homo Patrol was released, tackling issues surrounding AIDS and homophobia. Leyland continued adding to its library by releasing Castro Comics— a flip book featuring “Between the Sheets!” by Bruce Billings and “Under the Covers” by Kurt Erichsen. John Blackburn began self-publishing his gay erotic comic series Coley. Meanwhile, Eclipse Comics adapted two of Clive Barkers horror stories, “Human Remains” and “In the Hills, the Cities”, into comics for the first two issues of their new horror anthology series Tapping the Vein.
Robert Triptow put together Gay Comics, a history of well, everything you’ve read about here so far — the history of gays in comics. It featured a lot of reprinted comics. Shortly afterwards, Jericho Wilson and Mark Phillips founded the first gay amateur press association (or APA) which they called Northstar after, you know, Northstar. The first such organization, and while I don’t know what inspired that name I have a sneaking suspicion it might have been a certain superhero we’ve already discussed. A matter of months later, Andy Mangels and Roger Klorese founded the second gay APA which they called The APA That Dare Not Speak Its Name (after the infamous Oscar Wilde speech). The two APAs appear to have joined forces now, at least on Facebook.
With all of this attention, it was only a matter of time until the CCA had to respond. And they did, towards the end of 1989, by completely dropping all of their rules against LGBTQ+ content. Instead, they replaced them with a rule that required all social group — including homosexuals — to be portrayed in a positive light, and that derogatory references to sexual orientation could only be used for dramatic purposes. A complete 180 but a very welcome one! And things in the world of comics would change almost immediately.
Things changed in mainstream comics almost immediately. DC’s Doom Patrol combined their heroes Negative Man and Negative Woman, making them a non-binary intersex character called Rebis and the creators of Wonder Woman finally confirmed what we’d all known to be true (and that even Dr. Frederic Wertham had said), that there were lesbians among the Amazons of Paradise Island. Nobody was surprised but it’s good to know all the same.
With the only real institutional barriers against LGBTQ+ content lifted, creators were about to tap into a whole well of untold stories — and they were going to wholeheartedly embrace that…..which we will discuss next time!
So, last time we talked about the Golden Age of Comics and the subsequent Silver Age of Comics — the era ruled over by the Comics Code Authority. When the Code loosened up in 1971, the world of comic books entered a new era: the Bronze Age of Comics. (I don’t know who decided that all these periods needed to be named like this, but…it’s getting to be a bit much, isn’t it?) The Code was still not ready for LGBTQ+ people to appear in the pages of comic books…but the people making underground comics did not care. They were ready to go for it — and queer artists, emboldened by the growing gay rights movement — were ready to push the envelope even farther.
In October of 1971, artist Rand Holmes tackled the homophobia in the book Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) — which we will some day talk about in greater detail some day when I tackle the sordid history of conversion therapy — stating that it sets psychiatry back by 50 years, and going so far as to have the lead character of his “The Continuing Adventures of Harold Hedd” engage in explicit oral sex with another man before blatantly calling out the book’s author David Reuben M.D. by saying “you are rilly fucked up man.” I’m not sure if word ever got back to David Reuben but the whole thing was a pretty fantastic call out.
The following year, the feminist comic book Wimmens Comix began its run — being published initially by Last Gasp though it would change hands over the years. As if to exemplify how much they did not care about the status quo, the first issue included a story called “Sandy Comes Out” by Trina Robbins — featuring the first openly lesbian character in comics. Despite breaking new ground, the comic was not especially well received by the LGBTQ+ community — in part because Trina Robbins is a straight woman, but mainly because it simplified the complexities of coming out. And so in 1974, Mary Wings entered the world of underground comix by self-publishing the entirely lesbian-focused book Come Out Comix.
1974 was also the year that Steve Glanzman’s story “Toro” was published — one of his U.S.S. Stevens stories that were printed in Our Fighting Forces by DC. Toro is a tragic story — and ostensibly a true on (as all of Glanzman’s war comics are believed to be), but there’s little question that the character it is about is not a straight man. Being published by a mainstream publisher, this was toeing the line of what the Code would allow. It managed to eke out a Code seal by never really going farther than referring to the character as a “fairy” in a way that might have implied that he was magic rather than gay.
Though 1975 was something of a quiet year — with the exception of a lesbian being introduced in the second issue of Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp by Lee Marrs, and the character Pudge getting almost arrested at a gay rights rally. Howver, 1976 was a banner year for gay comics. It kicked off in February with the first recurring openly gay character in mainstream comics — comic strips, that is — when Garry Trudeau introduced the character of Andy Lippincott to his daily strip Doonesbury.
That same year Howard Cruse had the continuing character of Headrack come out in the second issue of Barefootz Funnies. Headrack, while not the central character, was the best friend of the central character and so was a continuous presence in the series. Which meant, officially, the first gay recurring character had appeared in comic strip and comic book format. Pretty important, but there was more ahead for 1976. Roberta Gregory — one of the contributors to Wimmen’s Comix — began self-publishing her own work, centered around lesbian characters, called Dynamite Damsels and Larry Fuller put together an anthology series featuring all gay male characters called Gay Heart Throbs. All of these, of course, were underground comic that did not need to meet the Code’s standards and intentionally did not. So, despite the fact that 1976 was a pretty impressive, groundbreaking year….most of the United States only knew about Andy Lippincott.
In 1977, Gerard Donelan (often just called “Donelan”) — a fan of Joe Johnson‘s cartoons — submitted work to The Advocate, disappointed that they weren’t continuing to run Johnson’s work. After they ran his first cartoon, they hired him to create a regular strip called “It’s a Gay Life” — which would run for 15 years. This, perhaps, was the inspiration Rupert Kinnard needed to begin creating “Cathartic Comics” for Cornell College’s student newspaper, which featured the Brown Bomber and Diva Touché Flambé — the first gay and lesbian (respectively) black characters in comics. This is often overlooked, because there’s no actual crime fighting or supervillains in the strips, but Brown Bomber is also the first gay superhero — he transforms into his superheroic identity through the power of magic hiccups. Of course.
The following year, a book of gay cartoons from the magazine Christopher Street was released. It was advertised as “The World’s First Gay Cartoon Book!” which, as we’ve seen, was not strictly speaking true. But I’m including it in this article primarily because the title of the book makes me laugh every time I see it: And God Bless Uncle Harry and His Roommate Jack Who We’re Not Supposed to Talk About. Other gay magazines, such as In Touch For Men would also soon release their own cartoon collections in 1978. But without the funny titles.
Meanwhile, still in 1978, DC was working hard to counteract various rumors about some of their characters being gay. To that end, they introduced a woman named Shvaughn Erin — an officer of the Science Police, very capable woman — to be the love interest of Element Lad who had been continuously subjected to rumors of being gay since his creation. Despite this, the rumors persisted. It’s like the people at DC had never heard of a beard before.
Anyways, with queer cartoonists taking the lead in telling queer stories with underground comix, Denis Kitchen decided his publishing company, Kitchen Sink Press, could help get those stories out there even more. In 1979, he asked Howard Cruse to help him put together Gay Comix — an anthology series exclusively featuring LGBTQ+ stories by openly LGBTQ+ artists. Gay Comix would run for 26 issues, ending its run in 1998. It would go on to feature Jerry Mills‘ series “Poppers,” and so many others I could probably write a whole article just on it.
By 1980, the Code itself had lost much of its sway. Major publishers were starting to get books sold at comic book stores without with the CCA seal, simply by marketing them as “for mature audiences”, and the CCA was putting its stamp on books that would never have been allowed before. Eclipse Comics published the graphic novel Detectives Inc.: A Remembrance of Threatening Green (by Don McGregor), which featured lesbian characters and Stewart the Rat (by Steve Gerber) which also featured a little bit of queer content. Even Marvel, I guess, tried to dabble in queer content. Kind of. It was a deeply offensive story (especially if its your first time having gay men in a story) called “A Personal Hell” from Hulk! #23, written by Jim Shooter. Again, deeply offensive, so we’re going to breeze on past it. I wish we could pretend it never happened but….we’re not done with Jim Shooter yet.
Kitchen Sink Press and Eclipse Comics both, apparently, discovered they could make money from unabashedly presenting queer characters. In 1981, Kitchen Sink Press introduced a recurring strip called “Omaha, the Cat Dancer” in its anthology series Bizarre Sex. Several characters engaged in homosexual activities throughout the course of the strip, but it kicked off with the openly bisexual character Shelley Hine in that very first strip.
Also in 1982, Marvel comics tried the whole “gay characters” thing again, with much more success. They introduced the character Arnie Roth, who had been friends with Steve Rogers before he became a superhero, defending him from neighborhood bullies. Arnie ran into Captain America, revealing that he had long ago guessed Cap’s secret identity. Captain America and Arnie set off on an adventure to rescue Arnie’s “roommate” Michael Bech. When they succeed and Arnie and Michael are reunited, Captain America figures out pretty quickly that they’re actually a couple. It’s a sweet little story, and gives Arnie Roth the distinction of being Marvel’s first gay character. And, because he’s a minor character and he’s not shown kissing, and because Michael is consistently called his “roommate”…he also has the distinction of being the first gay character to have his story told with a CCA seal of approval. (Marvel made a recent announcement regarding Captain America while I was researching this…which I found particularly interesting because of this…but that’s for the end of this series. If I talked about it while it was news, it wouldn’t be history, right?)
DC began publishing stories without the CCA seal — marketing them as being for “mature readers.” These included Camelot 3000, in which the Knights of the Round Table are reincarnated in the year 3000 AD. The knight Sir Tristan, when his memories awaken, finds he has been reincarnated in the body of a woman named Amber. Tristan gets more upset when he discovers Isolde, his great love, has also been reincarnated…also as a woman. Isolde helps Tristan come to terms with the situation and the two become lovers again. Despite the fact that Tristan has kind of medieval attitudes about sex, gender, and sexuality (which is kind of understandable since Tristan is from that time period) it’s actually like pretty good transgender representation. A gigantic leap forward since the last major transgender representation in comics was decades earlier and was….oh right….a bored guy on Mars.
Also in 1982, something new and important happened very quietly in the underground comix scene. Gay Comix #3 incuded a story entitled “I’m Me!” by David Kottler appeared, his only credited work in comics of any kind, at least under that name (as far as I’ve found). The story is a brief one about his transition. David seems to have been the first openly transgender comic creator and the first to tell a story about an actually transgender person (not some wacky sci-fi/fantasy genderbending hijinks) in that format.
Not to be outdone, in December of that year, Eclipse Comics series SABRE by Don McGregor introduced two gay characters, named Deuces Wild and Summer Ice, who were presented as lovers basically as soon as they appeared. A year later, the same series featured the first gay kiss in mass-produced comics — by the same characters, unsurprisingly. Underground comix had, of course, had plenty of gay kisses by this point, but those were not mass produced by any definition. Eclipse Comics was operating somewhere between underground and mainstream — they were able to mass produce comics but, obviously, did not care at all about the Code. Their books would sell anyways.
1983 was also the year that Alison Bechdel began publishing her comic strip series “Dykes to Watch Out For” in the magazine Womannews. If Bechdel’s name sounds familiar, that’s either because you already know her work, you love the Broadway musical Fun Home, or because the Bechdel Test is widely used to sort of gauge the quality of female representation in pieces of media. The test — if you haven’t heard of it — is basically, are there two named female characters who speak about something other than a man. That test is named after her, despite her crediting her friend Liz Wallace for the idea, because it was first described in — you probably guessed this already — the strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” (But not until 1985, at which point Bechdel was self-syndicating the strip.) The strip would run continuously until 2008, at which point Bechdel decided to retire it, except for occasional special ones like the “Postcards from the Edge” story she published in 2017 for the “Ides of Trump” campaign.
Bechdel was not the only queer artist putting out new, gay work in 1983, however. In the UK, David Shenton published his first graphic novel, Stanley and the Mask of Mystery. Howard Cruse, though still producing Gay Comix began publishing a strip called “Wendel” in issues of The Advocate, and the series “Jayson” by Jeff Krell began appearing in Philadelphia Gay News (it would later be published in Gay Comix and Meatmenas well.)
Also in 1983, was the first issue of Alpha Flight — a Marvel comic book series about a Canadian superhero team. They’d been introduced as enemies of the X-Men back in 1979, but now they were getting their own series. And one of their founding members was Northstar. Now, one of the problems with taking bad guys from a single comic book issue four years prior and making them stars of their own book series was….you had to make up backstories for them. Creator John Byrne was convinced that Northstar was a closeted Olympic athlete — and also secretly a superhero, and was determined to tell that story. Now, the Code and also executives at Marvel — primarily editor-in-chief Jim Shooter (I told you we weren’t done with him) — prevented him from telling it as plainly as he’d have liked. It’s been said that Shooter was determined to have “no gays in Marvel Comics.” The comics were full of hints about how Jean-Paul Beaubier (that’s Northstar’s secret identity) was too busy with Olympic training to be interested in girls, how he would ignore his throngs of female fans, etc. Like, it wasn’t spelled out but it was hard to miss. But outside of the pages of the comic, Byrne would tell pretty much anyone that Northstar was gay. As a result, Northstar is pretty widely considered to be the first gay superhero from a mainstream comic book publisher (despite not actually be out in the comic book).
But one thing Marvel did manage to do in this year without any concern about the Code was to use the word “gay” — meaning homosexual — for the first time in a mainstream comic book. It’s a subtle little thing — a bit of dialogue I’m sure many straight women will have lived through themselves. It appears in Fantastic Four #251, when the characters of Julie D’Angelo and Sharon Selleck are discussing their new friend Grey Landers (whom Julie is all about) right before Johnny Storm — the Human Torch — comes over to ask her out. They’re setting up a whole love……some sort of geometric shape….but, alas, a purely heterosexual one.
The next year, in Vigilante #5 DC introduced the freelance mercenaries Henry Cannon and Marschall Saber (or simple, Cannon and Saber). Although their being a gay couple was presented as like a minor detail that didn’t matter, probably to sneak it by the Code, really the whole plotline wouldn’t work if they were not. Despite the subtlety, they didn’t get this approved by the Code. The story is, basically, that a D.A. has arranged for them to go into witness protection together if they kill each other’s bosses. They do so, but before they can be entered into Witness Protection, they get attacked in their home by the Vigilante. In the ensuing fight, Cannon and Saber were actually winning until the fight was interrupted by the Electrocutioner. The story almost managed to get a CCA seal, primarily because the gay characters were villains but their relationship is actually pretty wholesome — they work as a team, they protect each other over anything else, and they support each other’s goals. There are good guy gay couples in the media now that don’t have relationships this healthy.
Marvel, meanwhile, revealed that their character Cloud was transgender…..uhm….kind of. You see, they introduced a plotline wherein Cloud was falling in love with Moondragon, one of her female teammates on the Defenders…..so she began shapeshifting into a man. This story did not get approved by the Code, but still managed to get sold in stores. Some stores, anyways. It would later turn out that Cloud was actually a nebula from space that had taken on human form, lost their memories, and become a superhero. The Marvel Database officially lists Cloud as “genderfluid” and, in this sense, that’s pretty literal. Still don’t think this storyline was quite up to par with the one in Camelot 3000 but that’s not up to me, is it?
There was a bit of a minor shakeup in the comic book world, as two new publishing companies were trying to make room for themselves in the industry. One of them was Megaton Comics — who we’ll follow up with later — and the other was First Comics. Among the various hurdles First Comics was dealing with was their own unwillingness to abide by the rules of the Code. For example, in Sable (vol 1) #15, the lead character Jon Sable assured Grey Adler, his love interest’s best friend, that he didn’t judge homosexuals. Grey would become a major recurring character, leading Sable into various adventures pertaining to issues facing the gay community.
Though Marvel and DC were just beginning to put their toes into the big LGBTQ+ representation pool, the underground comics scene was really getting the hang of it. 1984 was the year that Tim Barela debuted his strip “Leonard & Larry” in Gay Comix. The strip would later also be published in The Advocate and Frontiers— and it would run in Frontiers until 2002! The strip featured a wide variety of characters, all falling under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, and was praised for its depiction of queer families and for the fact that the characters in it aged realistically over the years.
By the end of 1984, there had been at least one queer character introduced in virtually every area of comics — there was still a long, long, long way to go between where we were then and where we are now (and where we still need to go!). And we’ll go over more of that journey in the exciting next episode!
I’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?
Queer history, as we all know, can be difficult to track down. Sometimes that’s because the language we use now didn’t exist, so it’s hard to identify queer people. Sometimes it’s because people actively tried to suppress the information. And sometimes, unfortunately, its because no one was paying attention. The Sydney Cliff Murders are one such instance — even today, this doesn’t even have a half-assed Wikipedia page. (Yet. I’m betting that will change after this though. Fingers crossed anyways.)
The Sydney Cliff murders were a string of murders from the 80’s through the 90’s against gay men in the of Sydney, Australia which may have had as many as 90 victims — primarily in Marks Park at the top of the Bondi Beach cliffs, which was a popular cruising spot for gay men, but also in some other areas that were popular “gay beats”. The police hardly ever investigated the crime scenes, just took a cursory glances and declared them suicides or accidents. Those weren’t totally off-the-wall or impossible suggestions, but let’s be honest: the police would have actually investigated them anyways if it weren’t for who the victims were and where the victims were. According to retired High Court justice Michael Kirby, the police viewed gay men as low level criminals (even though sodomy was decriminalized there in 1984) and thought that homosexuals should pretty much expect to be hurt or killed.
But it wasn’t a rash of suicides plaguing the gay community of Sydney. It was murder. And, no, it wasn’t a serial killer on the loose or anything nearly that dramatic — it was groups of violent, homophonic teenagers who knew that crimes against gay men would never be taken seriously by the police. For the most part they were right — only a handful were arrested for the murders specifically, though a number were arrested for other crimes and then later were discovered to have been involved in a murder at Bondi Beach. “Poofter bashing,” as it was called, was something of a sport.
The earliest one of these deaths that I can find is that of David Williams. He was found, naked, at the bottom of the cliffs in the area of Manly. His clothes were neatly folded at the top of the cliffs. No investigation was made, no coroner made any report about his body.
Scott Johnson was a 27 year-old American “brilliant” mathematician (some of us can do math! Not me, but….some of us!) who had graduated the University of Cambridge and moved to Sydney in 1986 to be with his partner Michael Noone. He had applied for permanent residency and had nearly completed his PhD at the Australian National University by the end of 1988, when his naked body was found at the bottom of the North Head Cliffs in Manly. His clothes were in a folded pile, with his student ID, a ten dollar bill, and his watch nestled on top of them. Police called it a suicide. Neither Michael Noone or Scott’s brother Steve believed that for a minute and made sure the police of New South Wales knew it.
On July 22, the following year, Ross Warren — a discreet but not exactly closeted television news anchor — disappeared. His car was found near Marks Park, and his keys were found in rocks at the top of the cliffs. Police reasoned he must have accidentally fallen off the cliff into the water, and on July 28 they announced they expected his body would wash up soon. It didn’t. Nevertheless, police declared that his death had been accidental, there was no foul play, and he also hadn’t faked his death. His mother Kay began writing frequently to the police, insisting they actually investigate his disappearance. Warren’s body has still never been found.
On November 23 of 1989, John Russell — a local Sydney bartender — was found dead at the bottom of the cliffs on the Bondi Beach side of Marks Park. Police investigated enough to discover he had a high concentration of alcohol in his system, and ruled he had accidentally fallen off the cliff. Not quite a month later, on December 18, Alan Boxsell was attacked by a group of teenagers in Marks Park. He managed to flee his assailants and even, surprisingly, reported the attack to the police. He identified some of the bashers. Days later on December 21, David McMahon was assaulted by a group of teenagers in almost the same place where Russell would have fallen from — one of the attackers even suggesting “Let’s throw him off where we threw the other one off.” McMahon managed to escape, and identified some of his assailants to police. Some of them were the same people identified by Boxsell. None of them were arrested due to a “lack of evidence.”
In 1990, a Thai man named Krichakorn Rattanajurathaporn was attacked with a hammer and knocked off the cliff. This one — as a nice change — was investigated and three teenagers were arrested. They would be known as the “Tamarama Three.” Despite the fact that one of those teenagers was reported saying to the police “The easiest thing with a cliff is just herding them over the edge” the police didn’t begin investigating the rash of murders.
Five months later, in December of 1990, eight boys discovered a phone number written in the toilets in Alexandria Park, and used it to lure Richard Johnson to the park after dark. There, they beat him to death. The eight boys — who would be called the “Alexandria Eight” were arrested and eventually convicted of the crime. Homicide detective Steve McCann secretly recorded conversations the boys had with each other and other inmates — they bragged about killing gay men at the cliffs at Bondi Beach. Despite this, only McCann was interested in looking into the deaths of gay men in that area. His investigation was hampered by resistance from his fellow police officers. He turned to lawyer, and official liaison between the New South Wales police and the gay community, Sue Thompson for help but even so there was only so much they could do. Through their investigation they learned that “poofter bashing” was something of a widespread sport — a gang of at least thirty teenage boys and girls, called the “Bondi Boys” frequently engaged in it as a form of initiation.
As an aside, there’s a lot of victims or possible victims here. I could not talk about them all while also talking about the police action (or lack of action, as the case may be) and keep this post to a relatively reasonable size. But I don’t want to overlook them, as so many of them have been continuously overlooked. So I am promising that there will be a follow-up post (posts?) about the victims. All 88 if I can find all of their names. I’m still making working on that list. Anyways, back to what the police were doing….
By 2000 — after eleven years of hearing from Kay Warren — one of her letters (which contained copies of all of her previous letters) caught the attention of the police. It was handed off to Detective Steve Page. He noticed what McCann had noticed — a lot of gay men were dying or disappearing around Marks Park. He picked up where McCann’s investigation had left off. Page was able to prove, through reenacting the scene with a dummy on December 9 2001, that John Russell was thrown from the cliff he was found at the bottom of — there was nothing accidental about his death after all. This opened the doors on many more closed “investigations” (if you can really call them that). Revisiting these cases was a major undertaking, and so it became a full-fledged project named Operation Taradale. The task force interviewed the Tamarama Three and the Alexandria Eight — all of whom denied any involvement in killing John Russell, Ross Warren, or any of the others
In 2012, at the request of Steve Johnson — now a wealthy former AOL executive — and his family, an inquest was made into the death of Scott Johnson. It was determined that the original investigation had not been thorough, and that the death should be re-investigated. As a result of this, the New South Wales police began Operation Parrabell, a review of 88 investigations into various deaths of gay men — trying to determine if the crimes should be classified as hate crimes. That list of 88 deaths is based on recommendations by Sue Thompson and criminologist Stephen Tomsen going as far back as David Warren’s death, but Parrabell met criticism — even from Sue Thompson — for their methodology. Of the 30 unsolved deaths in that list, she and Tomsen found compelling evidence of foul play in 22 cases. The Operation Parrabell task force for unsolved homicides accepted eight of those as potential anti-gay hate crimes that needed to be investigated. Those eight did not include Scott Johnson.
In 2015, another inquest into Scott Johnson’s death was made — also recommending the case be investigated again, as a homicide. In November of 2017, a third inquest formally declared that Johnson had been the victim of a hate crime. As a result, the following month a reward of one million Australian dollars was offered by the Australian government for any information leading to conviction. With no information forthcoming, the Johnson family doubled the reward in March 2020 — and in May, a man named Scott Price was finally arrested for the murder of Scott Johnson.
These cases inspired a television miniseries in Australia called Deep Water. A documentary was also made that year, to go alongside the fictionalized show, called Deep Water: The Real Story.
As of now, 22 of the Sydney cliff murders remain unsolved. A parliamentary inquiry regarding the New South Wales police’s response to hate crimes against LGBTQ+ individuals in Sydney between 1970 and 2010 is currently underway. We may never see justice for all of those many queer individuals who were lost in these murders, but I take some comfort in knowing that, finally, there are at least some people who are trying.
As I’m sure you all know, if you’ve been reading this site for a while, there’s alotofriots in queer history. Today, I’m going to tackle another — the White Night Riots of May 21, 1979.
I do have to start with a little backstory, so let’s rewind a bit. There’s a whole long very gay history going back to the founding of San Francisco but I’m not going to go back there (today, anyways) — suffice it to say that San Francisco was considered something of a haven for LGBTQ+ people in the United States, particularly gay men. An estimated 25% of the city’s population was LGBT. That didn’t change the laws of the country, though, and being openly gay in San Francisco still led to being arrested, losing your job, etc — it just meant there was a louder, larger community that had your back if those things happened. Which, of course, meant that there had been more than a couple mostly peaceful conflicts between the police and the queer community of San Francisco.
In 1972, Harvey Milk moved to San Francisco and opened Castro Camera, and — with political expertise and a lot of charisma — quickly became one of the leaders of the gay community of the city, which was centered in the Castro District (and I believe still is). In that position, Milk ultimately made himself very unpopular with the police — after one incident on Labor Day in 1974 where police beat dozens of gay men on Castro Street, and arrested 14 of them for “obstructing the sidewalk”, Milk hit them with a lawsuit for $1.375 million. In 1977, Milk won an election to the city Board of Supervisors (making him the first openly gay person elected to any office in the United States, yes, and I’d focus on that more but really it needs its own post.)
Also on the Board of Supervisors was Dan White — a former police officer who now owned a restaurant. He was a conservative in a city that was turning more and more liberal, and his restaurant was having serious financial problems. He resigned on November 10, 1978. Shortly after that, he met with the Board of Realtors and the Police Officers’ Association — both organizations encouraged him to ask for his position back, correctly realizing that his vote was essential in preventing more liberal policies that they opposed from being implemented in the city. So White asked for his position back — the liberals on the Board of Supervisors did not want him to get his position back. Milk and Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver led them in encouraging Mayor George Moscone not to reinstate White. And ultimately, on November 26, Moscone announced that he had agreed not to reinstate White. On November 27, White broke into the city hall through a basement window, went into the Mayor’s office, argued with him and then shot him three times — twice in the head. He then went to his former office, called for Milk to join him there, and shot Milk four times — twice in the head. Their bodies were found by city supervisor Dianne Feinstein.
White was arrested, obviously, for the double homicide. The prosecutor, Thomas Newman, sought charges for first degree murder with special circumstances, so he could ask for the death penalty. Meanwhile the San Francisco police and fire departments raised $100,000 for White’s defense, and they attended the trial wearing shirts that said “Free Dan”. As this was going on, police attacks against the gay community began to gain momentum. In March of 1979, drunk off-duty members of the police squad attacked a lesbian bar called Peg’s Place in the Richmond District of San Francisco. Tensions between the city’s LGBTQ+ community and the police had never been higher.
The defense attorney, Douglas Schmidt, played a recording of Dan’s confession to the jury where he ranted about the amount of pressure he was under — which some members of jury actually cried after hearing — and had a psychiatrist stated that White had diminished capacity due to a poor mental state. The evidence of this poor mental state was the amount of junk food he’d been eating — something which came to be known as the “Twinkie defense”. The jury found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter, and was sentenced to seven years and eight months in prison with the possibility of early release.
News of the verdict reached the Castro Distract. Activist Cleve Jones announced the news to a crowd of about 500 people, saying “Today, Dan White was essentially patted on the back. He was convicted of manslaughter—what you get for hit and run. We all know this violence has touched all of us. It was not manslaughter. I was there that day at City Hall. I saw what the violence did. It was not manslaughter, it was murder.” The people there were fairly convinced that the prosecution and the police had worked together to ensure White would not have a severe sentence (although Newman denied this until his death and no proof has ever come to light of such a conspiracy.)
The crowd started marching, shouting “Out of the bars and into the streets” down Castro Street. Each time they passed a bar, people answered the call. They circled through the district until the crowd had roughly tripled in size — and then they started towards city hall. By the time they got there, the crowd was about 5,000 people. There were only a handful of police and they had not dealt with a crowd this large and angry before — they attempted to hold the mob back but to no avail. The crowd started vandalizing city hall, tearing gilded ornamental work off of the iron gates of the building and using them to bust open windows. Some activists attempted to calm things, including Milk’s longtime partner Joseph Scott Smith.
Police reinforcements arrived, attacking the crowd with nightsticks. (Absolutely exactly the wrong thing to do. This is ten years after Stonewall, they really should have known better.) The crowd started setting police cars on fire — ultimately, thirteen police cars and eight other vehicles would be set ablaze. As the last of the police cars was set on fire, the man who did it told a reporter on the scene “make sure you put in the paper that I ate too many Twinkies.”
These burning cars became such an iconic symbol, that the punk rock band Dead Kennedys used a photograph of a burning police car from that night as the album cover of their debut album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables in 1980. Members of the crowd also stole tear gas cannisters from these police vehicles, and threw them at the police. The crowd pulled down the cables for the trolleys, disabling them.
Inside city hall, Police Chief Charles Gain — at that moment the most gay friendly police chief in the city’s history (and one of the most hated by his subordinates) ordered his men to stand their ground but not to attack the crowd. Meanwhile, Mayor Dianne Feinstein and Supervisor Carol Ann Silver attempted to calm down the crowd by sympathizing with them — Silver even stated “Dan White has gotten away with murder. It’s as simple as that.” Some sort of object, can’t find good records as it what it was, got thrown at Silver, injuring her.
After three hours of rioting, the police launched a full offensive — their badges covered with black tape to hide their identities (sound familiar?), particularly as they were not following orders. They also used tear gas — but the rioters fought back, using anything they could get their hands on as a weapon, including pieces they tore off of city buses and pieces of asphalt they ripped out of the street itself. Nevertheless, the crowd did eventually disperse.
And then the police defied their orders from Chief Gain and attacked the Castro District in retaliation — they began at a bar called the Elephant Walk, which they vandalized — breaking windows and beating the patrons inside. After fifteen minutes, they left the bar and began indiscriminately attacking people in the streets of the district. This carried on for two hours before Chief Gain heard about it and went to the Elephant Walk. Upon seeing the damage, he immediately ordered the police to withdraw.
Mike Weiss — a freelance reporter who had been covering the trial of Dan White and would publish the book Double Play: The San Francisco City Hall Killings in 1984 — stated that he encountered a couple of police officers at a bar later that night, drinking and laughing. One officer reportedly told him, “We were at City Hall the day the killings happened and were smiling then. We were there tonight and we’re still smiling.” Now, it’s true that Weiss is the only source for this, but he did win a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Baltimore riot in 1968 so he does have some credibility.
The rioting caused hundreds of thousands of dollars of property damage in just a few hours. Adjusted for inflation it’s estimated this damage would have been over a million dollars were it to happen today — making this, as far as I know, the most expensive riot in queer history. Certainly putting the Stonewall Riots to shame. Aside from the property damage, 140 protesters were injured — with 100 of those needing to be hospitalized — as well as about 61 police officers.
The next day, the leaders of the gay community in San Francisco held a press conference. The media was expecting that these officials would condemn the violence and apologize. Instead, Harry Britt, who had replaced Milk as city supervisor for the Castro district, issued this statement: “Harvey Milk’s people do not have anything to apologize for. Now the society is going to have to deal with us not as nice little fairies who have hairdressing salons, but as people capable of violence. We’re not going to put up with Dan Whites anymore.” They made it abundantly clear to the people of the Castro that no one was ever to apologize for the riot at all. As of this day, no one has — of course, neither have the police.
That night, an estimated 20,000 people rallied in the Castro District. May 22 was Milk’s birthday, so the rally had been planned long before the rioting. The rally managed to stay peaceful, although the entire city was tense. If anything, Cleve Jones can be credited with keeping it that way — laying out contingency plans, coordinating with Chief Gain, and having 300 monitors to keep an eye on the crowd. However, the point of the rally originally had been to have a celebration of Milk’s life and that had not changed. Despite the underlying anger, there was still plenty of dancing and partying in the streets.
A grand jury was convened to determine who had ordered the attack on the Elephant Walk — but there was no real evidence, so it remains a mystery. No officers ever faced consequences for the police action. With Feinstein looking to win a full term election as mayor, she spent a lot of money campaigning in the Castro district — courting the still politically powerful gay community. Her primary promise to them was to appoint more gay people into public offices. After her election, she kept this promise — even replacing Chief Gain with the openly gay Cornelius Murphy. Murphy overturned some of Gain’s less popular policies (namely, the colors that police cars were painted) which won him some popularity with the police force, but insisted on progressive policies regarding the gay community. By the following year, one out of every seven new police recruits in San Francisco was gay or lesbian.
The riots had received national attention and, if anything, stressed the need for minorities to be represented in government. Gay and lesbian people began to be elected or appointed to public office all over the country. The legacy of those riots lasted for decades. In 2009, fearful of what the verdict might be, as the California Supreme Court deliberated on the case of Strauss v. Horton, the then Mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom asked the court not to announce their decision on May 21. Although the court actually decided in favor of LGBTQ+ rights, they still agreed not to publicly announce their decision on the 30th anniversary of the riots, waiting until May 26.
Unfortunately, of all the things that have changed in the 41 years since the White Night Riots, police brutality in the United States is really not one of them. This week we’ve seen historic protests over this issue — and a lot of controversy about riots. We cannot, as a community, forget where we’ve come from. I’m not saying we all need to go out and start riots right now, but I am saying that our community already fought this battle with decades of rioting. There are people still fighting this battle, people our community has left behind. We need to support them now.
There’s been a lot of conversation lately about the beginning of the new movie It Chapter 2 because — spoiler alert/trigger warning — it opens with the murder of a gay man. This scene is taken pretty much directly from Stephen King’s novel It but that, in turn, is taken pretty much directly from an actual hate crime that took place in Bangor, Maine in 1984.
Charlie Howard was born on January 31, 1961 and was raised in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He was fairly effeminate and suffered from asthma as a child, so he was bullied pretty relentlessly throughout his youth. He even skipped his high school graduation in order to spare his family from witnessing the bullying he received. After high school, he left New Hampshire and headed to Maine — eventually finding his way to Bangor. He joined the local Unitarian church, and became involved in the gay rights and support group Interweave.
Charlie was not quiet about his sexuality — which was unusual for that time in the 80’s. He would wear jewelry, accessories like earrings and a purse, and make-up if he felt like it. (Frankly, that’s pretty brave even now — thirty-five years later.) Unfortunately, this got him a good deal of negative attention from the general population — he was harassed by locals teens, and in one trip to a grocery store a woman chased him out shouting things like “You pervert!” at him. One time, while leaving his apartment, Charlie found his pet kitten strangled to death. Charlie learned quickly to be wary of locals — but he never toned down his queerness.
On July 7, 1984, Charlie attended a potluck at Interweave — he and his friend Roy Ogden left the party at about 10:00 pm. The two were crossing the Kenduskeag River Bridge on State Street, when they were spotted by a car full of teenagers — two girls, and three boys: Shawn Mabry, Daniel Ness, and Jim Baines. They stopped the car, and the three boys got out. Charlie and Roy ran — the teenage boys chased them. An asthma attack hit Charlie, making him easy to catch. The boys began to beat him, and then decided to throw him over the side of the bridge — despite Charlie’s pleas that he could not swim. He tried to grab a hold of the railing on the bridge, but the boys pried his hands loose. Shawn Mabry gave the final push that sent Charlie into the water below.
As they were leaving the scene of the crime, they spotted Roy Ogden and threatened his life should he tell anyone. That didn’t stop him from pulling the nearest fire alarm he could find to summon the police. Charlie’s body was pulled from the river at about 12:10 am. The autopsy would show that he died from drowning, with an acute asthma attack contributing.
The next day, with news that Charlie had died, one of the boys turned himself in to the police. The other two were quickly arrested. They were remanded to their parents custody and tried as juveniles. They claimed that a few days earlier, Charlie had made passes at them. The “gay panic” defense did not work — mostly because they’d previously told police they’d just wanted to “beat up a faggot” and that that was something they’d done before. All three ultimately pleaded guilty to manslaughter. They were each sentenced to the Maine Youth Center for an indeterminate length of time not to exceed their 21st birthdays. Juvenile records are sealed but it has been reported that Mabry served 22 months, Baines serve two full years, and there is no public record of how long Ness served. After his release, Baines has spoken to many groups across Maine about his involvement in the murder, and about how dangerous intolerance and hatred can be. Edward Armstrong wrote about Baines story in Penitence: A True Story — published in 1994. Baines did not receive any royalties for his participation.
The murder had a lasting impact on the community of Bangor, Maine. Every year since the attack, they have thrown flowers off of the bridge where it occurred. They constructed a monument in honor of Charlie along the banks of the Kenduskeag Stream. Partly as a reaction to the killing, the Maine Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance (now EqualityMaine) was founded. The Maine Speakout Project keeps the Charlie Howard Memorial Library open to the public in Portland, Maine.
Aside from being the source for the hate crime in the beginning of Stephen King’s 1986 novel It, the crime also inspired the novel The Drowning of Stephan Jones by Bette Green, published in 1991. Mark Doty also wrote about the murder in the poem “Charlie Howard’s Descent.” But, perhaps, instead of the focus on his murder, we should all be focusing more on his willingness to be himself openly and unapologetically — no matter the cost.