Firstly, I really want to apologize for the lack of articles this month (Pride month of all months!), my job has been insanely busy lately and, unfortunately — I’m sure you’ve all noticed and are probably upset by this too — queer people still have to work in June. So, while I was really trying to get this post up three weeks ago….I’m doing the best I can right now. (And honestly, this could have — maybe should have — been a lot longer but…life is getting in my way.)
Anyways, you all probably noticed earlier this month a lot of attention being paid to the 40th anniversary of the official beginning of the AIDS crisis in the United States. And while its certainly true that June 5th was when the CDC published its first report, it wasn’t the first time the growing epidemic had been publicly written about. Dr. Lawrence D. Mass had covered it nearly a month earlier.
Lawrence D. Mass was born in Macon, Georgia on June 11, 1946. I can’t really find anything about his childhood, so I assume it was pretty uneventful — which is pretty good considering he was growing up gay and Jewish in Georgia in the late 1940’s and 50’s. He graduated from the University of California at Berkley in 1969 with a B.A. and then attended the Abraham Lincoln School of Medicine at the University of Illinois, graduating with his M.D. in 1973. Following that, in association with Harvard Medical School, he completed a residency in anesthesiology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
In 1973, the American Psychiatry Association changed its classification of homosexuality, so it was no longer considered a mental illness. Unfortunately, that didn’t change the homophobia of many of the people practicing psychiatry at the time. Mass went up for a residency in psychiatry in Chicago, but mentioned in the interview that he was gay — and the response was, well, not good. It was the first of multiple interviews over several years where this happened. So Mass changed his whole career trajectory — he moved into activism and journalism. (And, not to be grateful for a bunch of homophobic jerks in Chicago or anything, but that turns out to have been a good thing for all of us.)
With homosexuality’s declassification as a mental illness, that did mean that gay practitioners could come out of the closet. Before long, the Gay Caucus of Members of the American Psychiatric Association was formed (now called the Caucus of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Questioning/Queer Psychiatrists.) Lawrence Mass became the editor of their newsletter. He was not afraid to feature politically charged articles in that newsletter — the first issue featured the article “Psychoanalytic Statute Prevents Legal Entry of Gay Aliens,” which exposed public policies that relied on out of date theories for justification. At the same time, he began contributing to a number of newspapers and magazines catering to the LGBTQIA+ community — using his expertise in medical fields to better inform his writing. His first piece was published in Boston’s Gay Community News.
Using his medical background and his insight into the American Psychiatric Association (through the caucus), Mass became — as he would put it — “a chronicler of a critical shift in scientific thinking about sexuality.” But he wasn’t just looking at how psychiatry was viewing homosexuality, he was watching shifts in a whole bunch of fields — not just medical science, but social science and political science. He interviewed a lot of leaders in the shift occurring across numerous fields of research, including Judd Marmor, Mary Calderone, John Boswell, Martin Duberman, and many others. Most of these interviews would go on to be compiled in his Dialogues of the Sexual Revolution collections. They provide important insight into the major cultural shift that was taking place in the USA in the decade following the Stonewall Uprising.
Mass also brought his medical background to discussions about sexual health in the gay community during the 1970’s in these same publications, covering the spread of STDs and even topics concerning fetish and kink — like 1979’s “Coming to Grips With Sado-Masochism” in The Advocate.
After a few years of that, it’s little wonder that rumors about an unusual illness afflicting gay men were brought to him. His best efforts to investigate met with little success — he’d talked to a friend who worked in a New York City emergency room, and learned of eleven cases (albeit only five or six of the patients were gay men). While that was promising, both the New York State Health Department and the Center for Disease Control assured him the rumors he was pursuing were baseless. Though he didn’t have all the information he was looking for, Mass went to print — hoping that laying out the facts as he had learned them would help keep his community informed and keep the rumors from starting any kind of panic. On May 18, 1981 his article “Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded” appeared in the pages of The New York Native which was, at the time, the most influential gay newspaper in the country. Although no one knew it at the time, it was the first published document about AIDS (at least in the US — though I haven’t found anything published earlier anywhere else either). The story would get picked up by the L.A. Times in June, with hardly any more answers that Mass had already gotten (as the L.A. Times article was published the same day as the CDC’s report.)
Mass’ article stressed that there was no reason to believe that whatever was (or was not happening) was linked to the gay community. One theory put forth in his research was that it was a new virulent strain of a fairly common microscopic organism, and such a thing obviously wouldn’t be tied to just one community. As Mass continued to publish articles as the epidemic unfolded, he stood by this — it was not a gay illness. While it certainly had a profound impact on the gay community, it’s true that we were not the only ones afflicted. Diseases don’t discriminate, and Mass was well aware of that.
By 1982, it was becoming increasingly clear as HIV/AIDS was found in more people than just gay men. Nevertheless, he joined Larry Kramer, Edmund White, Paul Rapoport, Paul Popham, and Nathan Fain in formally founding Gay Men’s Health Crisis (or GMHC) he was the last hold out on the organization’s name — insisting it was not a gay disease. He was overruled, something for which he later said he was grateful because the name works for the organization, even if it isn’t just a gay man’s disease. To this day GMHC remains one of the biggest and most important AIDS organizations in the world. Mass wrote all four editions of GMHC’s Medical Answers About AIDS.
Mass committed himself to providing up to date and accurate information about the AIDS epidemic and combatting AIDS denialism, but early in his research he was confronted with an incident of overt anti-Semitism — the first he’d experienced as an adult. The event was traumatic, and led him to realize that he’d been surrounded by anti-Semitism his whole life, and even internalized a lot of it. Ultimately, this led to his publishing an autobiographical collection of essays in 1994, entitled Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite. (“Wagnerite” because Mass was a big fan of Wilhelm Richard Wagner, the German composer. As Mass began to broach more subjects in his writing during the 90’s, his love of music became one of his chosen topics.)
The years of research into anti-Semitism helped give Mass a unique insight into the subject of his next major publication: We Must Love One Another or Die: The Life and Legacy of Larry Kramer, published in 1997. Mass was an editor for the book, taking contributions from notables like Anthony Fauci and Tony Kushner, but his own contribution — at the beginning of the book and entitled “Larry vs. Larry” — details a tumultuous friendship, but also recalls how inspiring Mass found Kramer’s personal voice in his writing was.
About that time, the late 90’s, Mass also found himself writing regular articles for gay publications about public health issues facing the gay community other than HIV/AIDS — crystal meth addiction, anal cancer. As the decade came to a close, he began writing specifically regarding bear subculture, publishing articles in American Bear Magazine and in A Bear’s Life Magazine.
Much of Lawrence Mass’ work has been collected and archived by the New York Public Library. That said, Mass is still listed as a contributor on the Huffington Post, but all of his most recent writings have been on Medium. He is presently living in New York City with his partner, activist Arnie Kantrowitz. Sounds like a happy ending, and after everything he (and Arnie, but that’s another story) have done for our community, I think that’s very well deserved.
Okay, so, we left off last time and, frankly, things were looking up for queer people in comic books, right? All the major comic book publishers were telling stories about LGBTQ+ people, they’d not shied away from talking about the AIDS crisis and other issues that were important to the queer community. So things are looking up right? Well buckle up, this ride is about to get bumpy.
There’s a pretty strong start to these years — Judd Winick created the non-fiction graphic novel Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned about his friendship with AIDS activist Pedro Zamora, a friendship spawned by their time together on The Real World: San Francisco. The work would go on to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and actually win eleven other awards including the GLAAD Outstanding Comic Book Media Award and the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Honor Award.
Dark Horse Comics had begun publishing comic books telling additional Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel stories. Willow Rosenberg and Tara Maclay appeared in both series of comics, beginning in 2001, giving some much needed lesbian representation to the brand.
DC apparently did not take well to not getting the Outstanding Comic Book award, as the following year in Green Lantern (vol 3) #137 Kyle Rayner’s assistant Terry Berg came out of the closet. The book did earn DC another Outstanding Comic Book award from GLAAD. (Green Lantern would actually win it two years in row, after Terry survives a brutal hate crime in issue #154.) DC also published an arc in their American Century series about the Red Scare, and how it ended up being wielded against the gay community. This didn’t end up winning any awards, but it is a pretty insightful piece on an often overlooked aspect of that part of US history.
Shortly after finally officially confirming that Mystique and Destiny were lovers in X-Treme X-Men #1, Marvel handed off the reigns of their series X-Force to Peter Milligan, who created a number of queer characters including Bloke, who died pretty much right away, and Vivisector and Phat who pretended to be in a relationship for media attention and then both realized they were actually gay in a storyline that carried through 2002. When X-Force was cancelled, they were introduced in the new X-Statix series to continue that plotline. In fact, 2002 was a pretty gay year for Marvel all around. In Citizen V and the V Battalion, they revealed that “best friends” Roger Aubrey and Brian Falsworth — classic heroes from the 1970s, the latter of whom had died in 1981 — were actually lovers. Retroactively, that made them Marvel’s first gay characters. Meanwhile, Moondragon began a romantic relationship with her female roomie Marlo — which means that old storyline about Cloud turning into a man because they were in love with Moondragon is actually even worse than we knew, but clearly Marvel has put in a lot of effort to move past that. Meanwhile, Image Comics was busily churning out Age of Bronze, a comic book retelling of the Trojan War, which included Achilles and Patroklus, and it did not make any effort to straightwash them.
In 2002, DC introduced a superhero team designed like a law firm, the Power Company led by Josiah Powers, who also had a relatively quiet domestic life with his partner Rupert. Meanwhile, in Hellblazer #173 John Constantine actually landed a boyfriend named Stanley Manor. Like all of Constantine’s relationships, it ends badly (in the very next issue). But we have much, much, much bigger news to cover in topic of “gay things DC published in 2002.” On July 1, 2002 The Authority #29 was released….after the team defeated their latest “big bad,” Midnighter and Apollo got married! Not only is it super sweet in a way that’s kind of weird for that particular series, it also has the distinct honor of being the first same-sex marriage in mainstream comic book history.
Much like the Comics Code Authority, underground comix were fading out as well — partially because distribution had changed in the 90’s, and it was easier to have things published “above ground” so to speak. Paige Braddock had been publishing Jane’s World independently for some time, but in 2002 she started her company Girl Twirl Comics primarily to get her work more widely distributed. It worked. Also, by now, a lot of self-published or independently published comics were just being distributed as online comics — like the online strip Young Bottoms in Lovewhich began in 2002 as well. It was an anthology strip collecting a lot of creator’s work, edited primarily by Tim Fish (who also did a lot of the artwork).
In 2003, Marvel began releasing a sort of reimagined Rawhide Kid miniseries, which was an Old West comic series that originally debuted in 1955, produced by the now defunct Atlas Comics. Marvel had taken over the series in the 60’s, and turned him into a soft-spoken but energetic gunslinger from a fairly standard wild west action hero and then left the title abandoned for a while. With the new series, Marvel decided to add one more characteristic to set the hero apart from other heroes of the genre: they made the Rawhide Kid gay. Although they definitely played off of stereotypes for laughs, the presentation was generally applauded for its positive portrayal of a gay man in a genre that we really hadn’t been part of before. (I’m not entirely sure we’ve been a part of it since, to be honest.)
Other than continuing the aforementioned storyline between Phat and Vivisector, Marvel really only dabbled a bit in other LGBTQ+ stories in that year — revealing that the Black Cat was bisexual, and having the Punisher have some dealings with a gay sheriff. It was also kind of a quiet year for DC, aside from the aforementioned hate crime story in Green Lantern, though they also gave Dick Grayson (the most objectified man in comic books) a story pretending to be the romantic partner of his police partner Gannon Malloy to protect him from homophobic harassment from other cops. The more stunning moment was in the pages of Gotham Central #6 — the last panel of which showed a picture of Renee Montoya kissing a woman, outing her as a lesbian to the rest of the precinct. The story would continue on for several issues, revealing it was done by an old enemy, Marty Lipari, as part of an even larger scheme by Two-Face. (Renee, interestingly, is the first of the characters created in Batman: The Animated Series to make their way into the comics and end up an iconic queer character. Not the last though!) There’s also a neat juxtaposition when compared to the Dick Grayson storyline, since Renee’s captain on the force is none other than Maggie Sawyer so she had a lot more support than Gannon Malloy did.
One other pretty big thing that happened in that year was the formation of Prism Comics, which is a non-profit organization to help LGBTQ+ comic creators network, and to spread information and increase availability of LGBTQ+-related comics. They do a lot of panels at conventions like San Diego Comic Con and New York Comic Con. They also award the Prism Comics Queer Press Grant to an aspiring comic creator every year. And their web site was also one place I got a fair amount of the information that I’ve been presenting to you over this whole series of posts, so you should probably check it out.
In 2004, DC tried launching an imprint called “DC Focus” that wasn’t going to tell superhero stories. It didn’t sell, but one of their series — Hard Time — was about a men’s prison. One of the inmates was actually a transgender woman named Cindy Crane. While her placement in the prison suggests that she’s been misgendered by the system, the inmates all treat her and refer to her consistently as a woman. Also, in the Vertigo imprint’s series Y: The Last Man they revealed that one of their three leading characters, Dr. Allison Mann was not just queer but also real sassy about it.
Meanwhile, Marvel was starting to dabble with making some of their classic X-Men characters queer — they made Angel gay in an alternate universe set in the year 1602, and set the stage for a romantic relationship between Northstar (who, I guess, is gay in every universe) and Colossus in their Ultimate Universe. They also created the, as far as I know, first ever pansexual superhero in the shapeshifting genderfluid Xavin in Runaways (vol 2) #7. (Runaways in general is a pretty queer series, with two of the major characters being lesbian and literal rainbow Karolina Dean and bisexual witch Nico Minoru.) But maybe the most memorable thing that Marvel did was in 2005 — which was to re-introduce us to Billy Kaplan, better known as Wiccan. I say “re-introduce” because his history with Marvel goes back to 1986 but he wasn’t actually real, and then he died….it’s a long story. But it would have to be when your mother is Scarlet Witch and your dad is Vision. Anyways, his reintroduction was in Young Avengers #1 and by Young Avengers #6 he was in a romantic relationship with his teammate Hulkling. While at the time this was just adding two new gay characters to their existing repertoire, they rapidly became fan favorites, and their inclusion earned Young Avengers the 2006 Outstanding Comic Book award from GLAAD, and also got them a Harvey Award for Best New Series.
DC dove hard into its sassy lesbian thing that it had begun with Allison Mann, by revealing Scandal Savage was a lesbian in a relationship with fellow supervillain and teammate Knockout. The following year, in their 52 series they brought back a new incarnation of an old character: Katherine “Kate” Kane. While the previous Batwoman had been established pretty much solely to prove how straight Bruce Wayne was, this Kate Kane was like….almost an apology to the queer community for erasing us during the decades they followed the Code. While they didn’t give too much information about Kate all at once, one of the very first things they revealed was that she was Renee Montoya’s ex-girlfriend, but eventually as her backstory was revealed readers learned that Kate was an out and proud lesbian who’d been booted from the military thanks to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And unlike the previous Batwoman, this Batwoman was a very independent superhero who seldom crosses over with others — even Batman only worked with her a handful of times.
That was the same year, by the way, that Alison Bechdel released her autobiographical comic Fun Home: A Family Tragicomicwhich focused on her relationship with her closeted father. The graphic novel was critically acclaimed, being officially listed as one of the best books of 2006 by The New York Times, The Times, Publisher’s Weekly and Amazon. Entertainment Weekly said it was the best non-fiction book of the year, but Time said it was the best book of the year, period. It was nominated for a whole mess of awards I won’t even list, but it won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book, the Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work, the Stonewall Book Award for non-fiction, the Publishing Triangle-Judy Grahn Nonfiction Award, and the Lambda Literary Award in the Lesbian Memoir and Biography category. It got turned into a musical, which launched off-Broadway in 2013 and has also won and been nominated for a ton of awards. And the praise and attention have barely slowed down since — in 2019, The Guardian placed Fun Home at #33 in its list of the 100 best books of 21st century. Most mainstream comics about straight people can’t even garner that much attention, and this was getting noticed by everyone, from comic book fans to literary academics. So, when I say that Fun Home is an important piece of LGBTQ+ history and culture….believe me, and go read it or see it on stage. Or better yet, read it and then see it on stage.
I guess everyone was pretty lesbian-ed out after 2006, though, because barely anything happened with queer women in comics the following year. However, Midnighter got his own series by DC’s WildStorm imprint at the very beginning of 2007 which focused heavily on his relationship with Apollo and with their adopted daughter. It was the first mainstream series with a queer character’s name as the title, the first mainstream solo superhero series with a queer lead, and the first mainstream series with a gay man as the lead. (Well, okay, technically, Northstar had gotten his own miniseries in 1994, but it completely ignored his sexuality which is why I ignored it. And I stand by that decision.) So, y’know, kind of a big deal. Apparently this gave publisher’s the idea that queer characters could be strong enough to be leads in their own right — the end of the following year Top Cow Comics released a story arc in Witchblade wherein the lead, Danielle Baptiste, would question her sexuality and begin a relationship with her roommate Finch. IDW Publishing confirmed the homosexuality of Duncan Locke in Locke & Key – Head Games #4 only four months later. As far as I can tell, those were the first queer characters for either of those companies and both of them are leading characters.
Marvel even decided, by 2009, that it might just be time to make some of their longstanding X-Men characters actually be queer in their primary universe, instead of just in alternate ones. In June, they introduced Kyle Jinadu, who is (I believe) main continuity’s Northstar’s first ever actual boyfriend since he came out of the closet over a decade prior! X-Factor (vol 3) #45 featured the first kiss between characters Rictor (who’d been introduced in 1987) and Shatterstar (who’d been introduced in 1991). I’d like to say this made a big splash — I have been a fan Shatterstar specifically since about 1991, so I was certainly charmed. but it simply couldn’t compete with what DC was doing with their queer characters that year.
At literally the same time as that kiss, Kate Kane made waves again by taking the leading in Detective Comics. That’s big because Detective Comics is one of — if not the — longest running comic book series in history. And it’s still going after launching in 1937. It was literally the series that founded DC Comics. (DC is short for Detective Comics — which makes the company’s name actually Detective Comics Comics if you think about it.) It was an anthology series for a while, until they introduced Batman in 1939 in issue #27 (which is the most valuable comic book in history) and he was essentially the star of the series after that. For seventy years and 827 issues. In 2009, the series took a brief hiatus for three months because of various other story arcs going on with the Bat family, and then they released issue #854, with Batwoman taking the lead. There was also a ten page back up strip featuring Renee Montoya, who was now the superhero known as the Question. So, yeah, they took essentially the most important series in DC Comics and handed it over entirely to lesbian characters. Batwoman remained the lead until issue #863.
In 2010, one of the last major American comic book producers finally introduced its very first LGBTQ+ character. That would be Archie Comics, who finally gave us Kevin Keller in Veronica #202. I gotta be honest, I can’t tell you too much about him. I don’t read Archie Comics much. But, in 2012 — just two years later — in Life with Archie #16, which is a sort of flashforward to adulthood series — Kevin Keller got married in the second same-sex marriage in mainstream comics. (Except for a nameless gay couple getting married in Ex Machina #10, technically they were second. But they didn’t have names.) Kevin, and his husband Clay Walker, also had the first same-sex interracial marriage in mainstream comics. So, they may have gotten a slow start with queer characters, but they really decided to jump in and go straight to doing something that Marvel comics had still not done. That issue, by the way, was boycotted by the One Million Moms because it was sold in Toys’R’Us stores which led to the comic completely selling out, and subsequently inspiring Kevin to get three solo comic book series. Thanks One Million Moms!
As a side note, the Comics Code Authority — which had ben increasingly irrelevant has it was abandoned by publisher after publisher, some of whom were adopting a ratings system that Marvel had created essentially out of spite when the CCA had demanded changes to an X-Force story in 2001. DC Comics, which was only submitting some stories to the CCA by this point, announced they were completely discontinuing use of the CCA on January 20, 2011. That left Archie Comics as the only publisher still using the CCA….for exactly one day before they also announced they were stopping that practice. So that was, at long last, the end of that.
Anyways, it was only a matter of months after Kevin Keller’s wedding when Marvel would go ahead and have their first same-sex marriage. Although Wiccan and Hulkling got engaged first (in Avengers: The Children’s Crusade #9 — also their first depicted kiss), the first wedding would actually be between Northstar and Kyle Jinadu. Here’s the thing, and maybe it’s because I was mostly a Marvel fan at the time, or maybe I’m having some Mandela effect thing, but I really recall Marvel advertising Astonishing X-Men (vol 3) #51 as being the first gay marriage in comic books. They sent out “Save the Date” cards. They made it a really big deal. And I can give them a pass on not including anything from underground comix but…really, they were third (or fourth, depending on if we’re counting that nameless couple in Ex Machina.) They didn’t even manage to have the first interracial same-sex wedding. Still, it was a first for Marvel and for Marvel fans and specifically Northstar fans, this was pretty exciting and it was very cool that Marvel made an extremely big deal about the fact it was happening. They had like….basically every superhero that had ever been in any comic book Northstar was ever in appear, or at least show up on the cover. (I’m not even sure if Kyle actually had any guests at the wedding, just all Northstar’s superfriends.) This was such a big deal, the original proposal for the splash cover art sold on eBay for more than $2,100.
Also by Marvel, and I’m including it here solely because the second panel is so great, in Avengers Academy #23, the character Striker came out to his bisexual teammate Lightspeed. Just look at her face. (And in case you weren’t convinced about how very LGBTQ+ this all is, Lightspeed’s superpower involves leaving a rainbow behind her when she flies.)
So, you may be wondering, what was DC doing right about now? Right? Well, as it turns out, rebooting their entire continuity. Okay, technically that began in 2011 but this is like a whole thing to talk about so I wanted to get those marriages out of the way first. So, basically, DC does this every once in a while where they kind of “start over” their whole universe, and this time in 2011 they also merged it with some of their offshoot imprints like WildStorm and some of their Milestone and Vertigo content. This led to some good stuff for queer people in comic books….and it also led to some bad stuff. I’m going to dissect that in entirely too much detail for you right now.
So, to start with, part of this “The New 52” branding they were doing as they reset the continuity was that they were launching with only 52 series to like establish their remade universe. (And to be clear, “resetting” doesn’t mean, in this case, erasing all of the history of every character and starting from scratch. A lot of important and memorably storylines and moments were kept as part of their character’s backstory – like they did not retell Batman’s origin story.) One of the first of these series was Stormwatch — starring, among a handful of others, Midnighter and Apollo. Unfortunately when they decided to reset the continuity….DC also decided to drop their wedding from their history, they’re just dating. It’s fine, it’s not like that was a major moment in their character’s histories and also an important moment in LGBTQ+ comic history… And for the record, as of my writing this in 2021, they still have not married again. (Maybe that’s why Marvel advertised Northstar and Kyle’s wedding the way they did, since DC had already been like “no wait, that never happened.”)
The next week after launching that series, they launched Batwoman (vol 2) — a permanent solo series, not miniseries like volume 1 had been, all about Kate Kane who remained pretty much exactly as she was prior to the reset. This series also included Maggie Sawyer, with whom Kate begins a relationship. Two weeks after that, the new Teen Titans series began which would quickly introduce Bunker, a gay Latino character, as one of their team members. That was released roughly the same time as Justice League Dark which brought back John Constantine. So they relaunched with four series, pretty much right off the bat, featuring LGB characters in leading roles. And that’s it — that’s the good news. Pretty much none of their otherwise established queer characters were anywhere to be found until 2012, when they brought back the Pied Piper, and in their series about Earth 2 (which is an alternature universe) they did reveal that the Green Lantern Alan Scott was gay. But, if you were noticing, there’s still a demographic that was completely missing: they now had no transgender characters. At all. And only one of their LGB characters wasn’t white. So what I’m saying is, it kinda seems like a backslide, right?
In fact, there wouldn’t be a transgender character in DC Comics at all until Batgirl #19 in 2013, when Barbara Gordon’s roommate Alysia Yeoh came out. She was a minor character, and was both a lesbian and transgender, as well as being Asian. DC apparently thought this scored them major diversity points (I guess it actually kind of did) and so they went on to advertise her as their first ever transgender character….despite the fact that they’d previously had a whole bunch like Coagula, Lord Fanny, and Shvaughn Erin. As a side note, this was about the time DC’s character Tremor stated she was asexual in The Movement (vol 1) #10 — something that I believe was actually a first, because I can’t find any other superhero (or even comic book character) who had claimed that identity for themselves before that.
2013 was also the year that Kate Kane and Maggie Sawyer got engaged — exciting! The first mainstream same-sex marriage between two women! But DC co-publisher Dan DiDio pulled the plug on that plotline, causing enough of a stir that Batwoman writers J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman quit the series. DC’s public explanation was, essentially, that superheroes can’t get married so their books don’t end up being about their marriages. While there’s a certain argument there that I can follow, it was pretty gross to cancel that same-sex marriage in comics so soon after retconning out the first same-sex marriage. (It looks even worse when you consider that married heterosexual heroes Adam and Alanna Strange were introduced in Justice League United #0 the very next year.) Like I said, a backslide.
Fortunately, DC wasn’t the only comic book game in town. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published Nicole George‘s memoirs in comic book form with Calling Dr. Laura. Image Comics gave us Betty — essentially a queer gnome — in their new fantasy adventure series Rat Queens. The following year, Fantagraphics published Julio’s Day — a story that follows a fictional, closeted Mexican-American man and his family for 100 years. Parts of it had been published previously, but the story had never been completed until this. Shortly after that, Northwest Press began their 1940’s noir series Dash — the main character of which was gay private eye Dash Malone. Hill and Wang finished up 2014 by releasing Second Avenue Caper, based on a true story of a group of friends illegally importing experimental HIV medicines from Mexico during the beginning of the AIDS crisis.
That year, DC gave us the first glimpses of an extremely open romantic relationship between longstanding Batman villain Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn — a villain imported to the comic books from Batman: The Animated Series (just like Renee Montoya was!) in the pages of Harley Quinn (vol 2). In 2015, Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) got a new roommate after Alysia moved out to live with her new girlfriend. This new roommate, Frankie Charles, was openly bisexual. If it seems like Batgirl is going to be the salvation of DC Comics though — guess again! Just two issues later, they’d kick up a whole mess of controversy by giving us a story in which a guy dressed up as Batgirl and attempted to replace her. It seemed to play off the deeply inaccurate and offensive idea, often trotted out anytime one of those “bathroom bills” gets proposed by conservative politicians, of men dressing as women to commit crimes. In the end, the creators of the story apologized for the story. Just a few issues later Alysia Yeoh would get married to her girlfriend Jo Muñoz in the pages of Batgirl (vol 4) #45 — marking the first same-sex wedding in the new DC continuity, between two minor characters in a book that is almost entirely focused on Barbara Gordon’s relationship with Dick Grayson. If that sounds like I’m judgey and bitter, like when I talk about it I’m thinking about how great a Maggie Sawyer/Kate Kane wedding would have been and it would hav focused on the people actually getting married….well, there’s a reason for that. (The reason being that I’m judgey and bitter.)
I have to be honest. This is pretty much where the sources I’ve been using stop. But a lot has happened in the past few years, so there’s more to tell. So I’m going to go off of my very fallible memory. Like, I’m going to research the things I remember, but like…if I don’t remember that it happened, it’s going to be tough for me to research. And I pretty much only read DC and Marvel so….I’m sure other publishers had things they did. I just don’t really know what it was. So, there’s going to be probably a lot of things I’m missing. (Not that I covered literally every moment before this, either.) If you know of something that I’m missing (or something that got skipped over even before this in the series), please leave a comment about it and let us all know!
Anyways, 2015 was also the year we sort of kind of got second ever pansexual superhero. Supervillain? Depends on the day. That would be Marvel’s Deadpool. Deadpool himself, of course, had been around since 1991. And he’d been flirting with, y’know, everyone since pretty much that time. And it had been said before by Deadpool writers that his type was “anyone with a pulse” but in 2015 was the first time his sexuality was actually given a label — on Twitter, when writer Gail Simone confirmed that she had “always thought of Deadpool as pansexual.” Granted, in the actual pages of comics, Deadpool’s love interests have always been women or female-presenting cosmic entities. But that hasn’t stopped him from flirting with well, basically everyone but most especially Spider-Man and Wolverine. And Cable. And Colossus. And Thor. And….yeah, everyone.
This was the same year that Marvel went fully into their “make a classic X-Men gay” thing they’d dabbled in with alternate universes before. This time, they picked Iceman. They’d hinted, once, kind of obtusely, that he wasn’t straight back in 1994 and then completely dropped it ever after. In 2015, they had the original X-Men team — as teenagers — brought forward in time which led to a lot of confusion when you’re trying to tell someone about what plotlines were happening, so bear with me. Jean Grey telepathically learned that Iceman was gay, and told him so. This led teen Iceman to ask a very good question: “how can my older self not be, but I am?” And, honestly, LGBTQ+ readers like myself were kind of nervous about what Marvel was getting at. In November of that year we actually found out, when teenage Iceman confronted adult Iceman and adult Iceman finally came out in the first issue of his own series, Iceman #1. Honestly, it’s a pretty great scene but it’s kind of important because it’s Marvel’s first queer-led solo series. But it was also a game changer in that Iceman had been a main character in their comic books since 1963, one of the original five X-Men. And, frankly, it was seamless, it made perfect sense with the decades of character development he’d had — given that his parents had been portrayed as ultra-conservative that whole time. Five issues later, Iceman told his parents he was gay… and it didn’t go well. (This all, once again, retroactively changed who Marvel’s first gay character was!)
Speaking of first gay characters, DC made a bold move in 2016 by bringing a completely reenvisioned Extraño back into the picture in Midnighter & Apollo (vol 1). This was actually an incredible move on their part — no longer the flamboyant mashup of offensive stereotypes, now he chose to go exclusively by his real name Gregorio de la Vega, and was a much more serious and in many ways jaded sorcerer. But! He was married to Tasmanian Devil — the first member of the Justice League to come out! And despite the fact that I don’t think they ever interacted, I somehow feel like that’s perfect. Anyways, Midnighter & Apollo needed a character with mystical powers for the story arc they were telling and they could very easily have gone with anybody. Even if they specifically wanted a queer one, Constantine would have been an obvious choice. But the writers decided they wanted to bring more queer people into the new continuity — something desperately needed — so they dipped into DC’s history and brought us some. Aside from his appearances in that series, Gregorio has since shown up in issues of Justice League and Justice League Dark.
Over the next few years, Marvel would introduce a bunch of LGBTQ+ characters. None of them come to mind as being especially noteworthy, but I’ll highlight a few. First, from Marvel: former Dora Milaje (who MCU fans should be familiar with) soldiers Ayo and Aneka abandoned their positions in 2016’s Black Panther: World of Wakanda #1 to join together both as lesbian lovers and freedom fighters. In 2017, America Chavez would become Marvel’s first queer woman to lead a solo series in America, which also explained her backstory as being from an entirely female alternate reality. In 2018, we were introduced to Darnell Wade — a mutant with teleportation powers and also an NYC drag queen who became one of the X-Men and would go on to emcee Iceman’s birthday celebration — and Dr. Charlene McGowan — a transgender woman whose skills as a scientist have made her an invaluable ally to the Hulk. The book’s creators brought in Crystal Frasier to help make sure they had an authentic trans voice behind the character. The next year, Mystique and Destiny were confirmed to have gotten married at some point “offscreen.”
In 2019, there was confirmation — first on Twitter and then in the X-Factor and Lords of Empyre books — that Tommy Shepherd, aka Speed, Scarlet Witch and Vision’s other reincarnated kid, was bisexual, and recently has been dating X-Factor’s Prodigy. Speaking of X-Factor, this latest incarnation of the team is led by none other than Northstar which, if I’m not mistaken, makes him the first queer superhero to officially be a team leader. Also, back to discussing Scarlet Witch and Vision’s kids, Vision made a daughter with a robot named Virginia who was programmed with Scarlet Witch’s brainwaves, right? That daughter, named Vivian, declared in 2019 that while she hadn’t fully explored what her sexuality might be that she was absolutely not attracted to boys. She later followed that up by kissing her female teammate Ironheart. That’s three for three on Vision and Scarlet Witch having queer kids. (They’ve have other kids who’ve all died before their sexualities were explored at all. So we can just assume they must’ve been queer too.) Get those two to a PFLAG meeting asap. If they needed to have a straight child to save the world, that would be the end. I love them. And Billy and Hulkling — who, remember, got engaged in 2010 even before Northstar did — finally actually tied the knot in 2020. Just a ten year engagement. (The reason I’m focusing on these kids is because WandaVision was the impetus for me writing this whole series.)
Not everything Marvel has decided to do has been great, or met without controversy. They announced the introduction of their first non-binary superhero in a sibling duo featuring the non-binary Snowflake and their twin brother Safespace. And, like, okay, I get what Marvel was trying to do by kind of reclaiming those terms that are often used to disparage liberals. But doing that with what you’re advertising as your first non-binary character? There was TONS of criticism that it actually implied that non-binary people were the oversensitive types of people the term “snowflake” is often meant to attack. The book they were supposed to be in has yet to appear, and might have been cancelled. Thing is….they also are not the first non-binary character Marvel’s had. This year they quietly introduced two character named Cam and Monica Sellers, two young mutants who identify as non-binary. Minor characters I’ll grant you, but they exist. Not to mention that a lot of the shapeshifters in the Marvel universe — Xavin, Mystique, Loki, etc — are pretty clearly genderfluid, and have been for a long time.
While Marvel was finally diving into introducing plenty of LGBTQ+ characters, DC was actually focusing more on the already established queer characters. I mean, they definitely introduced new ones too, don’t get me wrong. But the highlights, for me at least, were putting lots of effort into Midnighter’s adventures, and a lot of development of the unconventional open relationship between Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy — including giving them a wedding in 2020’s Injustice: Year Zero series (that’s in an alternate universe, not the mainstream one). They also took some longstanding characters like the villain Cheetah and gave her a romantic history with Wonder Woman supporting cast member Etta Candy. They did bring Doom Patrol’s Rebis back as a non-binary hero, though eventually the “component parts” split up and they just became Negative Man and not non-binary. In 2018, they reintroduced Alan Scott in the prime continuity, and made him gay (again…or still….alternate timelines can be so confusing.) One thing they did, which I have to assume was a sweet homage to the work of Neal Pozner and Phil Jiminez, was make their newest incarnation of Aqualad, Jackson Hyde, a gay teenager. They’ve also recently reintroduced some of their queer characters from before the 2011 reset, such as Obsidian. Despite that, as of my writing this, there is still not even one transgender superhero in DC’s new continuity.
So while I’ve been churning out this series, Marvel made one big announcement that I have to include even though, technically, nothing has come to fruition yet. Apparently, this June, someone new will take on the title Captain America in a new series called United States of Captain America and this time it’s going to be gay teenager Aaron Fischer, a character created by Jan Bazaldua — one of only a handful of openly transgender creators at Marvel. This looks like they’re going to dive into a story about homeless queer youth — a really serious issue that has, to my knowledge, never really been address in comics before. It is an issue that primarily effects queer people of color, and it looks like Aaron’s white, but I guess we have to start somewhere? So, I do have high hopes for this and we’ll just have to see where that goes. But, I do think it’s a very cool full circle kind of moment to give the title to a gay guy, when that series was where Marvel first began giving our community any real representation way back with Arnie Roth in 1982.
So, now that you’re pretty much all caught up to where we are now….let’s talk about where we should go from here — in the hopes some head honcho from a major publishing company is reading this…. Here’s what I think needs to happen, and if you have your own ideas, tell me about them in a comment.
Hire more transgender creators. Marvel has only ever had 7 openly transgender creators and 4 non-binary creators. DC has had one single non-binary creator, and also only 7 transgender staff members.
Bring queer characters back from the dead. Everyone dies in comics, so I’m not going to complain about the number of queer characters who’ve died. However, there’s a saying I came across a lot while I researched this series: “The only people who stay dead in comics are Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben.” But two of those people have come back from the dead. And you know who hasn’t? A long, long, long list of LGBTQ+ characters.
But especially, DC, bring back Coagula or Lord Fanny. Or both. Don’t just ignore that before you reset continuity, you had some awesome trans superheroes and since you reset your continuity you have free reign to bring them back. (While we’re on the topic of bringing people back, bring back Fade too.)
The vast majority of LGBTQ+ characters in comics are white, cisgender, and wealthy or at least middle class. There needs to be more diversity than that, there’s so many more stories to tell. I can’t stress this one enough.
We need more human transgender, genderfluid, or non-binary characters. Like, there’s not that many out there already and a significant number of them are aliens or actual shapeshifters, or both. Just don’t name them Snowflake, and it’ll be fine.
DC, you gotta give us a wedding between either Midnighter and Apollo (to get them back where they were) or Kate Kane and Maggie Sawyer (to make up for teasing us so!) One or the other. Or both. Just give us something.
This might only be on my wishlist, but I’d love to see a mainstream publisher give us an all queer superhero team. Found families are such an important part of the queer community and queer experience, I’d love to see that reflected in comics.
Okay! Phew! We made it. This is the end. I don’t usually do this because it can make this blog, which is a hobby, feel like a job, but in case you want to look at some of the things I skipped over or breezed past without much detail, I’ll give you the main sources I used. Also the places where I snagged a lot of the images — usually I just do a Google image search and call it a day, but this series was way more work than I thought it was going to be. But also lots of fun, so it was worth it! Anyways, those sources are: Queer Comics History, Gay League, and Prism Comics. I also dipped into the Marvel Database and DC Database, mostly to confirm dates of issues of their comics. If you’re interested to know the pretty much complete list of every LGBTQ+ character that’s been in those company’s comics, they do have categories for those characters to make them easy to find. Here’s Marvel’s. Here’s DC’s.
Anyways, we’ve come a really long way in comic books since characters were changing genders because they were bored on Mars. And that’s largely because of queer creators making their voices heard, even if they had to do it underground spaces. Now, with no Code and online distribution making it publishing even easier, I’m sure we have a lot more quality queer content on the way, and I for one can’t wait to read it.
With the Comic Code Authority’s giant switch in regards to LGBTQ+ content, things changed pretty immediately in the industry — instead of being forbidden, or being considered “adult” suddenly queer issues and queer stories were an untapped wellspring of fresh plot ideas.
Andy Lippincott returned to Doonesbury in 1989. While the character had appeared off and on since his introduction in 1976, this time he became a staple of the strip — appearing pretty frequently over the course of the next year. The story arc began withAndy’s friend, and one of the main characters of the strip, Joanie Caucus learning that Andy was in the hospital with AIDS. Over the next year, the comic would revisit Andy — touching on the stigma of the disease, the stigma of homosexuality, the medical community’s confusion over the disease’s unpredictability, the difficulty of getting into experimental treatments, and many other topics and issues facing AIDS patients. 900 newspapers carried Doonesbury at the time. Only three of them refused to publish this story arc, saying it was “in bad taste.” But for readers of those other 897 newspapers, all over the country, it brought the very real tragedy that so much of the LGBTQ+ community was dealing with into their homes every day. And then, finally, on May 24th, 1990, Andy Lippincott became the first comic character to die of AIDS complications. I gotta tell you, I read his whole arc in researching this article and I cried. I read it all at once, which….I don’t recommend. Give yourself a little time in between the strips, okay? But its understandable that people had an emotional reaction, and some people were galvanized to take action. Garry Trudeau received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for the story arc (well deserved, in my opinion). In Doonesbury, Andy Lippincott has a panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. A real panel was created by G. Scott Austen, Marceo Miranda and Juan-Carlos Castano which hangs in the NAMES Project Foundation’s offices (rather than being sewn into the actual quilt itself.) As far as I know, he is the only fictional character to have a panel in their honor.
With the Code having reversed its position on gay people, Marvel decided that 1990 was the year they were going to have someone with superpowers really actually come out in the pages of their comic books! So, at the end of Captain America #368 they included a short story in which the Machinesmith revealed that he was gay! But only for male robots like Vision (which is fine because Machinesmith has put his mind in a robot body himself.) But then again, like, we saw Vision in Wandavision and I’m kind of on board with Machinesmith for that one. Except that he was evil at the time which is how they justified the events of Avengers #325, wherein Machinesmith manages to knock Vision unconscious and has his way with him. However robots do that. And later his villainous cohorts find him spooning with the unconscious android. So, just to recap, Marvel’s first super-powered truly openly gay character is an evil robot and a rapist. What were you thinking, Marvel?
Marvel wasn’t the only kind of missing the mark when it came to positive LGBTQ+ representation that year. Around this time Dark Horse Comics was making waves, having steadily grown for years. In Dark Horse Presents #40, they began a story set in a dystopian future where homosexuality had taken over and heterosexuality was criminalized. It was making a really valid point, but still didn’t exactly paint gay people in the best possible light. The story was never finished. Still, there was worse happening that year. Mark Millar, in his first published work, wrote a series called Saviour for Trident Comics — the lead character was the antichrist and he was not above raping men. In particular, a priest (who he promptly also murdered.) Millar would go on to be a really significant comic book creator for both DC and Marvel, and some of his works for other companies are now successful movie franchises, like Kingsman and Kick-Ass. Rick Veitch self-published a limited series called Brat Pack, a really dark satire of mainstream comic books, sort of akin to Watchmen in some ways but like….worse. In it, the Batman analog Midnight Mink was a flamboyant gay man who sexually abuses his sidekicks. But never fear, because DC Comics would not let us down, giving an emotional moment to The Brain in Doom Patrol #34, when he confesses his love for Monsieur Mallah before his body promptly exploded. Okay, they’re villains, but it was still a heartfelt moment.
In 1991, LGBTQ+ people pretty much cornered the market when it came to telling queer stories in comics. Roberta Gregory created her landmark character Bitchy Bitch for the series Naughty Bits — accompanied shortly thereafter by a lesbian character named Bitchy Butch. Robert Kirby began publishing his long-running series “Curbside” in various LGBTQ+ newspapers and magazines, and released the first issue of his antholoy Strange Looking Exile. Celebrated German cartoonist Ralf König had the first of his work — Kondom des Grauens (or, translated, The Killer Condom) — translated into English in this year and released in the United States and in Canada. Diane DiMassa published the first twenty issues of Hot Head Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist. That series would continue running until 1998, and was described (on Wikipedia) as “rage therapy for the marginalised.”
By this point, you may have noticed, Marvel Comics was clearly falling behind when it came to LGBTQ+ representation. I mean, DC has more queer characters than I can count on one hand and has even tackled gender dysphoria (twice). But they were starting to get it — in December of 1991, in The Incredible Hulk #388, dealing with Tyler Lang‘s AIDS diagnosis. Lang’s father is a mob boss, who hires the supervillain Speedfreek to kill his son’s lover, Jefferson Wolfe for infecting him. Over the course of the book, it was revealed that major recurring character Jim Wilson — a friend of the Hulk and the nephew of Sam Wilson (better known as the Falcon, who MCU fans should recognize) — was HIV positive and managing an AIDS Clinic. Tyler Lang became the first Marvel character to die of AIDS complications in that issue. (Jim Wilson would ultimately meet the same fate three years later.)
DC comics spent that year fully embracing the new Code rules regarding LGBTQ+ characters by first having the former supervillain Pied Piper come out as gay in the opening pages of The Flash (vol. 2) #53 — which would win the first ever GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book the following year, despite it really having nothing at all to do with the main story of the issue. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series — published by DC’s Vertigo Comics — went on to introduce three queer characters, including Wanda Mann, a transgender woman. They kept that trend going in 1992 putting the reformed villain Lightning Lord in a gay relationship, and implying that the heroic duo Shrinking Violet and Lightning Lass were a couple, and Justice League Quarterly #8 casually mentioned that Tasmanian Devil was gay (not the Looney Tunes one, I know you were thinking it) by having him express how accepting the team was. In Hellblazer #51, John Constantine — the lead character of the longrunning series — casually mentioned that he’d had “the odd boyfriend” — the first official reveal of his bisexuality. They also did a whole story arc to finally deal with the rumors that had been circulating for decades about their character Element Lad and his romance with Shvaughn Erin by having it turn out that Shvaughn was a transgender woman, who had transitioned with the help of a sci-fi drug called “ProFem”. With this revelation, Element Lad declared that what they’d had together was “in spite of the ProFem, not because of it.” Because alien invasion interrupted the supply of ProFem, Shvaughn was forced to de-transition but the two stayed a couple. (Until DC rebooted their entire universe and retconned virtually everything about these two characters, but that’s beside the point.)
Marvel’s Northstar officially, finally came out in the page of Alpha Flight #106 in 1992! This was actually a pretty big deal, it even though everyone had already known for years. Seriously. If there was ever a superhero I would not trust to keep a secret…. Anyways, the plot, essentially, is that Northstar — in his public persona as a former Olympian — adopted a baby named Joanne, who had AIDS. This garnered a great deal of public sympathy. This made Major Mapleleaf (the Canadian version of Captain America, who was never in a comic before this and….) pretty mad because his gay son had died of AIDS and been blamed for it, because of the stigma surrounding both AIDS and gay people. So Major Maplelead attacked the hospital Joanne was in, quickly coming to blows with Northstar — venting his frustration during the fight. So, Northstar says he knows the hardships gay people face, since he is gay….and that makes Major Mapleleaf even angrier because Northstar isn’t using his fame to help gay people or act as an AIDS activist. The issue received a ton of acclaim from the LGBTQ+ community for tackling the AIDS crisis so well, dealing with HIV stigma and homophobia simultaneously, and finally getting Northstar out of the closet. They did a lot. And it just goes to show that when Marvel is trying they can do actually great LGBTQ+ representation! If you want to read the Major Mapleleaf fight sequence for yourself, I found it on Imgur here.
So, while this was all happening, the sci-fi TV show Quantum Leap was having additional “episodes” published as comic books. Andy Mangels wrote the ninth of these, published early in 1993, in which the lead character Sam Beckett leapt into the body of a lesbian photographer in New York City, in June of 1969. You know where this is going right? The issue touches on almost everything happening in NYC leading up to the Stonewall Riots — police corruption, mob run gay bars, Andy Warhol, Judy Garland — and leaves off right before the police raid begins. Quantum Leap, on television, had handled queer characters before (in fact, the lesbian photographer was a character in one of the TV episodes) this issue did not shy away from getting political. You can actually read the issue online for free here.
In March of 1993, Lynn Johnston’s syndicated comic strip “For Better or For Worse” — running in daily newspapers since 1979 — began a story in which long-running character Lawrence Poirier came out of the closet, becoming the first openly gay teenager and first gay person of color (as his father is Brazilian) in a syndicated newspaper comic strip. The story was inspired partially by the murder of Johnston’s friend Michael Boncoeur. Lawrence’s coming out was a four week set of strips, in which — to briefly summarize — he comes out to his friend Michael, then to his family, is rejected by everyone and then when he goes missing (after getting thrown out of his house), they all go looking for him, and in the end everyone comes around to accepting him for who he is. It’s pretty sad, until the end of the arc which is a much more upbeat ending than a lot of gay kids find with their families and friends even now. I think part of the hope was that by showing it in the strip, it might inspire some parents to come around to accepting their own kids. The publisher, Universal Press, was fully on board with the story, but when it was sent out to the various newspapers who ran the strip forty of them refused to run it. The response to the strip was overwhelming, and powerful — and much more negative than what I’ve read that Andy Lippincott’s reception was (perhaps because Doonesbury is inherently political and tends to lean to the liberal side of things?). Newspapers had to install new phone systems to handle the volume of calls, and Johnston began to be inundated with hate mail — including death threats. Nineteen papers stopped running “For Better or For Worse” altogether. Papers who were running the strip were attacked for it, and papers that refused to run it were accused of censorship. Within a couple of weeks, however, the tide changed — Johnston began receiving heartfelt letters of gratitude from the LGBTQ+ community. By the time the “coming out” story had finished, and the letters she’d received were sorted, more than 70% of the feedback Johnston received was positive.
In other comic strip news, one of the four leading characters of Doonesbury, Mark Slackmeyer, also came out of the closet as a gay man in that year. Rock ‘n Roll Comics #62 included a biography of Elton John — and by this point, there is so much LGBTQ+ themed work appearing in underground comics, I can’t even cover it all or this series will go on for forever. (Some of you probably already think it’s too long!) I just have to start hitting the highlights. But the biggest news of the year — for queer people anyways — was not actually in what was published, but what was won. The Comic Creators Guild awarded Gay Comics(formerly Gay Comix) its Best Anthology Award. After years of circulation, that bit of recognition was a big deal.
In comic books, Marvel gave the first-in-mainstream-comics explanation of the difference between sexuality, gender, and cross-dressing in Nomad #11, when the main character got into drag to investigate a series of murders in which the victims were all cross-dressers. Once again, Marvel goes to show that they can handle the queer stuff pretty deftly if they feel like it.
At the same time, under its Vertigo brand, DC was giving the gays everything. They created a mini-series called Sebastian O, the lead in which was basically a gay James Bond (and I don’t know about you but I’m dying for the film adaptions!) In Enigma #4, the Enigma entity awakened the latent homosexuality of its host Michael Smith — it was only an eight-issue series but it was still the lead character for the series grappling with his own sexuality. And then, just to confirm they had not been playing around by John Constantine’s casual coming out, in Hellblazer #69 depicts Constantine sharing a bed (well, a mattress on the floor) with a male prostitute. In Milestone Media — which published and distributed its comic books through DC — superhero Fade was outed by a telepathic supervillain in Blood Syndicate #8 — making him the first black gay superhero by a mainstream comic book publisher, even though he never really embraced who he was.
However, arguably DC’s most important queer character of the year was one we now often overlook — Coagula, who became a recurring character on Doom Patrol until about 2002. Coagula was the first transgender superhero (because Shvaughn Erin is technically not a superhero, she’s a just a regular cop), which she’d gotten her powers while working as a prostitute on the streets, after being hired by Doom Patrol’s Regis. She had first applied to join the Justice League and been rejected — something that seems to fly against previous statements by the Tasmanian Devil about how open-minded that group was. Whatever the case may be, she ended up joining the Doom Patrol and stayed with them until her death in 2002. But the most important thing about Coagula is her creator, Rachel Pollack — the first openly transgender writer to have worked for DC Comics. There have only been four others. The series Blood Syndicate would sort of reveal in their tenth issue that their shapeshifting character Masquerade was a transgender man, but they were just a few months after Coagula’s introduction.
One last important queer comics moment in 1993 that I wanted to touch on was when Malibu Comics Entertainment offered us a pretty harsh critique of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy three months before the Clinton administration enacted it, in The Strangers #5, in which the character Spectral comes out to the rest of the superhero team. They’re immediately accepting. (This also made Spectral the first gay character for Malibu Comics but since they were only going to be around another year before being absorbed into Marvel and basically forgotten, that’s kind of incidental.)
In 1994, a piece of anti-gay legislation appeared in the state of Washington. In order to combat it, Hands Off! Comics by Over 35 Artists Collected to Fight Discrimination and Homophobia! was published with all proceeds donated to Washington Citizens for Fairness. Advice columnist Dan Savage also took that year to dabble in comics, releasing two issues of Savage Love. The idea of gay superheroes took hold in underground comics, with Go-Go Boyby Neil Johnston and Leatherboy by Craig Maynard both being released.
In Marvel’s New Warriors #48, a time-traveling Justice would discover that his father — up to this point painted as a pretty unsympathetic abusive father character — was a closeted homosexual. And while that could have been dealt with really terribly, instead it was dealt with really compassionately, with Justice starting to come to terms with who his dad is and why. It’s kind of touching, but it doesn’t come close to what Marvel was gonna do next.
In The Incredible Hulk #417, Hector came out as gay and talked about how it wasn’t his choice. This set off an interesting relationship with his teammate Ulysses, who was homophobic. This would become particularly relevant later in the year when the two came to blows during The Incredible Hulk #420 — that issue revisited Jim Wilson’s AIDS in what is generally considered one of the best issues of the series. Aside from Jim’s storyline and ultimate death to AIDS complications (after being caught up in some violence at a protest over a student being expelled from school for being HIV positive), there’s a subplot wherein Betty Banner (the Hulk’s wife) tries to convince a straight white guy who’s just been diagnosed with HIV not to commit suicide — and she fails. Comic books often included letters from the fans at the end, but this issue instead had a number of comic book creators write a little bit about their own experiences with AIDS (all of which are in this really great article about the issue). The issue’s cover was used as an HIV awareness poster, so there’s a good chance you might recognize it even if you’ve never read it.
If it seems like DC was slacking off that year…well, not really. In the miniseries Fighting American, in which they were pretty blatantly parodying Captain America, they had their main character pursuing a relationship with a woman named Mary who turned out to be lesbian in the last issue. Shadow Cabinet revealed two of its female superheroes, Donner and Blitzen, were together, and in Static #16, the main character’s best friend Rick Stone came out after surviving a brutal gaybashing at the hands of white supremacists. The series The Invisibles introduced Lord Fanny, a transgender shaman from Brazil. The series Deathwish began, and one of the leads of the series was Marisa Rahm a transgender woman serving on the police force. Perhaps more notable is that Deathwish was written by Maddie Blaustein — a transgender woman herself, although she hadn’t changed her name yet. (Fun fact: Maddie also voiced Meowth on the first eight seasons of Pokémon.)
In 1995, the Atlanta AIDS Survival Project began including the strip “HIV + ME” by Chris Companik in their newsletter, which carried on into 2011. Kitchen Sink Press released….I mean just the most delightfully sacrilegious comic in Taboo #8, in which Jesus Christ and Lucifer have a philosophical debate that leads them to understand they have a lot in common. And then they kiss. The book was a collaborative effort between two openly gay creators P. Craig Russell and David Sexton, both of whom are fairly big in the comic industry.
That year would also see even more gay superheroes — Malibu Comics, recently acquired by Marvel, wrote superhero Turbocharge coming out in Prime (vol. 1) #21, becoming the first gay teenage superhero in mass produced comics. In Gen 13 (vol. 1) #2 by Image Comics, Native American superhero Rainmaker came out as bisexual. In DC’s Black Lightning (vol 2) #5, the hero Jefferson Pierce learned that his recently killed co-worker Walter Kasko was gay. Howard Cruse, best known so far for underground work, published a historical graphic novel called Stuck Rubber Baby for DC Comics, which dealt with the intersectionality of race and sexuality during the Civil Rights Movement. DC also released Chiaroscuro: The Private Lives of Leonardo Da Vinci, a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci that left in all the juicy gay parts that usually get dropped. They also gave Maggie Sawyer her own series — despite not being a superhero herself — called Metropolis S.C.U. — which was the first time a lesbian character was the lead in a mass produced comic book series that lasted for more than one issue (for which they would be awarded the GLAAD Outstanding Comic Award).
In 1996, DC, under their Vertigo Comics brand, published the autobiographical graphic novel 7 Miles a Second by David Wojnarowicz — four years after his death from AIDS. The book told his entire journey, not shying away from anything — from working as a teen prostitute, to his drug use, to his struggle with HIV — and especially his anger with the government for ignoring the epidemic. The call out of the government itself in a comic book is particularly significant. That same year, in the pages of Justice League of America #110 and #111, two different team members (Obsidian and Ice Maiden) told Nuklon about their queer sexualities. Just a couple of months later in DC’s series The Spectre (#45) in a story called “Acts of God”, the Spectre (and his alter-ego Jim Corrigan) learned to overcome his own homophobia and stand up against anti-gay violence being done in the name of religion. That story was nominated for a GLAAD Outstanding Comic Award, but lost to Neil Gaiman’s Death: The Time of Your Life — also published by DC. That miniseries follows a lesbian couple in which one is a popular musician on tour, tackling a whole lot of issues about public and private identities.
The following year, the character Hero came out about his homosexuality in the pages of Superboy and the Ravers #13. Supergirl (vol. 4) #10 introduced readers to Andy Jones — an angel made up of a man and a woman…it’s very reminiscent of Cloud only without having Andy’s attraction to Supergirl have any impact whatsoever on their gender presentation at any given time, which makes a lot more sense. (That’s Linda Danvers Supergirl not Kara Zor-El Supergirl…you know what? It’s a little confusing.) And the two did eventually have a relationship, albeit fairly short lived. Andy’s recurring appearances would score Supergirl a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Comic in 1999 — the fourth time DC won that award.
It seems like as soon as the Code said it was okay to do, DC was like “here’s all these queer issues we want to talk about, and a whole bunch of queer characters!” And they just went for it for most of the 90s. A big part of that can probably be credited to Neal Pozner, who was the Creative Director for DC Comics for a time and who was an HIV-positive gay man. He died from AIDS complications in 1994, and his romantic partner Phil Jiminez, who was a writer and artist for DC, began penning the miniseries Tempest shortly afterwards. It was based around Aqualad, a character Pozner had created a new costume for when he was writing Aquaman in the 80’s. At the end of the fourth issue of Tempest, which was published in 1997, Jiminez included an editorial in which he dedicated the miniseries to Pozner and publicly came out as a gay man — believed to be the first time a creator came out in the pages of a comic book. DC received over 150 supportive letters in response. Jiminez has gone on to great success since then and is arguably one of the more important comic book creators of the Modern Age.
Other openly gay creators, such as Maurice Vellekoop, began getting serious recognition for their work, even outside of underground circles. Drawn & Quarterly, one of the largest and most successful comic book publishing companies in Canada, collected a decade’s worth of Vellekoop’s works and published them in a book entitled Vellevision: A Cocktail of Comics and Pictures in November of 1997.
That was the same year that Disney animator Elizabeth Watasin debuted her character Magical Witch Girl Bunny in Action Girl Comics #13. Only a few years later, that character would be leading her own series called Charm School — of which nine issues have been published, and a tenth is currently on the way. Meanwhile, Andy Mangels and Michael A. Martin attempted to another franchise lagging in queer representation into the future by introducing the lesbian character Etana Kol into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine #10 — a comic book series created by Marvel Comics to tell additional adventures based on the TV series. I’m a big Trekkie myself, so let me tell you: it’s really a shame that these comic books aren’t considered canon because there wouldn’t be an actual lesbian in actual canon Star Trek for another 22 years. That’s another post I’m probably going to write at some point…
In 1998, Mangels and Martin introduced a gay man named Yoshi Mishima to Star Trek in Marvel’s Star Trek: Starfleet Academy #17 — still not canon, still about 18 years before actual Star Trek would have its first actual gay man. But a good effort all the same. Other than that 1998 mostly saw our representation in underground comics like Havoc Inc. — a comedic sci-fi adventure series starring Chester Magreer and Chris Deck, a gay couple who operate a space freighter business together with their adopted daughter. The series ran for nine issues, ending in 2001. The comic strips “Troy” (by Michael Derry) and “Chelsea Boys” (by Glenn Hanson) — both of which would end up published in various gay newspapers and magazines — both launched that year as well.
The following year seemed like it would be much the same — mostly queer artists telling queer stories in underground and alternative comic books. Julian Lake‘s cartoons were released in a collection called Guess Who’s ComingOut at Dinner, Samuel Delaney published an autobiographical graphic novel called Bread and Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York, Jennifer Camper put out the first strips of “Subgurlz.” And then San Diego Comic Con International happened — the first edition of Out in Comics, a guide to the work of LGBTQ+ comic creators, was released by Andy Mangels and an ashcan edition of Gay Force Quarterly appeared at the convention as well, creating quite a stir (until no finished issues were ever released. Oops.)
But even that paled in comparison to what would happen in December when DC, under their WildStorm imprint (which they had just acquired), released The Authority #8, wherein it was revealed that Midnighter and Apollo — basically the Batman and Superman of that comic universe, who’d been fairly central characters in two series for the past year — were a couple. (And when I say “revealed” I really mean “confirmed for people who really can’t read between the lines” — they were naked in a bedroom together in their very first everscene, for crying out loud.) There was nothing truly “first” or groundbreaking about them — two white male superheroes being gay together. What made it important was that they were already so important. And they’d be even more important in the coming decades….
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.
As much as I love showing how inspirational the LGBTQ+ people of history can be…. they weren’t all wholesome heroes. And I’ll be the first to admit… sometimes it’s fun to write about a bad guy. And Ronnie Kray definitely fits the bill.
Ronald “Ronnie” Kray and his brother Reginald “Reggie” were born on October 24, 1933 in London. Their parents were Charles David Kray and Violet Annie Lee, they had a brother who was older than them by six years named Charles James Kray. Reggie was the older of the two — by ten minutes. At three years old, both twins came down with diptheria. They attended school, first at Wood Close School and later at the Daniel Street School. All in all, a fairly ordinary childhood.
As adolescent boys, thanks largely to their grandmother, the twins took up amateur boxing. Egged on by their sibling rivalry, they actually managed to be kind of successful at it. (Inherent violent tendencies probably helped too.) In March of 1952, the twins were called upon to join the National Service in the British Army. Although they did show up to the depot as they were supposed to, they tried to leave after only a couple of minutes. A corporal tried to stop them from leaving — Ronnie punched him in the jaw and the two kept going, walking all the way back home. The next day they were arrested — the police turned them over to the army.
That September, the twins were both absent without leave again. When a police officer tried to arrest them, the duo physically attacked him — which led to them being held in the Tower of London. This gives them the grand distinction of being among the last prisoners held in the Tower until they were transferred to a military prison. They were held there until they were dishonorably discharged — and when it became apparent that that was the inevitable outcome of their incarceration, the twins became increasingly badly behaved — their antics including dumping hot tea on a guard, handcuffing a guard to their cell bars with a set of stolen cuffs, and setting their bedding on fire. Eventually, they attacked one of their guards with a vase and escaped. They escape attempt was short lived, they were soon recaptured. After their discharge, they were transferred to a civilian prison where they served time for all of the crimes they’d committed since going AWOL.
The dishonorable discharge and the criminal records killed their budding boxing careers, so the two took their violent behavior and turned it into a full-time career in organized crime. They began by starting a protection racket, but ultimately fell in with Jay Murray and, through him, became involved in armed robberies, hijacking, and arson. Through these illicit activities, they came to own several properties.
In 1960, Ronnie got arrested for running a protection racket. While he was in prison (for 18 months), Reggie was given ownership of a nightclub Esmerelda’s Barn — which, apparently, was a really happening night club frequented by very famous people despite have “barn” in its name. Owning this not only gave them more influence in the criminal underworld of the West End, and allowed them to have a base of operations for their gang “the Firm” — but also gave them legitimate income and brought them into the social circles of celebrities like Judy Garland and Diana Dors. As celebrities, the Kray brothers were much beloved — as criminals, they were greatly feared. Even the people who worked for them could face severe and painful punishments if they disappointed or failed to show the proper respect.
In July of 1964, however, Ronnie caught the attention of tabloids for an entirely new reason: his sex life. The Sunday Mirror published an article implying that Ronnie Kray was involved in a sexual relationship with Conservative politician Lord Robert John Graham Boothby. Sodomy was, at this point, still a criminal act in the United Kingdoms. The Conservative party moved to shut down the news story — and so did their rivals the Labour party, as they sought to protect Tom Driburg — a member of parliament who was (relatively) open about being gay and frequently socialized with Lord Boothby and Ronnie. Ultimately, the Sunday Mirror settled out of court and paid Lord Boothy £40,000.
And while the scandal the entire event caused may have been potentially damaging for politicians in the UK — it did nothing but help the Kray brothers. The two became practically untouchable, as now neither the Labour or Conservative parties wanted Ronnie investigated for fear of what might turn up about the sexual proclivities of their own members. It took another two years before the Kray criminal empire began to unravel — and it didn’t really happen because of any police investigations.
Over the next two years, Ronnie began to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia. On March 8, 1966 a shootout with a rival organization called the Richardson Gang left one of their associates in the Firm, a man named Richard Hart, dead. A member of the Richardson Gang, George Cornell, who was not involved in the shooting but was known to call Ronnie some derogatory names for gay men like “fat poof”, was drinking at the Blind Beggar Pub the next day. That pub was only like a mile away from where the Kray brothers lived, so Cornell was maybe not making the best decisions at the time (but to be fair, he’d probably been drinking for a while.) Ronnie found out that Cornell was there, and had his driver “Scotch Jack” John Dickson and his assistant Ian Barrie bring him to the pub. (Side note: if your driver’s nickname is two different kinds of liquors maybe hire a different driver. I’m just saying.)
When Ronnie walked into the pub, Cornell reportedly said “Well, looks who’s here.” And then Ronnie shot him. Barrie threatened the full-on crowd of onlookers not to say anything, shot up the ceiling a bit, and then brought his boss back out to “Scotch Jack” to drive them away. Cornell died in the hospital at 3 am.
In December of that same year, the Krays helped a man named Frank Mitchell escape from Dartmoor Prison. Frank was a friend of Ronnie’s, as they’d spent time together in Wandsworth Prison. The idea was that the escape attempt would bring media attention to Mitchell’s case, and he’d be reviewed for parole. (And the parole board would probably find if you’re trying to escape prison maybe you need to stay in a little longer, but what do I know?) However, Mitchell never returned to prison to be paroled — in fact, he disappeared altogether and was never seen again. Freddie Foreman, a friend of the Kray brothers, would later claim in his autobiography to have shot Mitchell and disposed of his body at sea as a favor for the twins but there’s no actual evidence supporting that because nothing has ever been found.
Meanwhile, the Kray brothers continued to literally get away with murder. They socialized with A-list celebrities, their legitimate business raked in cash, and the politicians in power did everything they could to prevent any investigations even while bodies were piling up (or disappearing). In 1967, Reggie’s wife committed suicide — leaving both the mental health of both the twins in a seriously questionable state. They took out a contract to kill their financial advisor Leslie Payne, giving the contract to a minor member of the Firm, Jack “the Hat” McVitie. It was a £1000 job, and they paid £500 upfront — but McVitie failed to complete it. Ronnie convinced Reggie they had only one option: to kill McVitie as an example.
After Reggie stabbed McVitie to death, Tony and Chris Lambrianou and Ronnie Bender were called in to help dispose of the body and get rid of any evidence. McVitie was a large man and his body could not fit in the trunk of a car, so they covered him and loaded him into the backseat. The car ran out of gas in front of St. Mary’s Church, so the trio set the scene up to frame another gang for the murder and left the corpse in the car at the church. The Kray brothers were furious, and called in Foreman to finish disposing of the body — which Foreman ultimately dumped in the English Channel.
However, murdering one of their own was not a good look for the twins. Members of their gang got uneasy — wondering if what happened to McVitie could happen to them as well. At about that time, Leonard “Nipper” Read of Scotland Yard was promoted to the Murder Squad — and he’d been trying to investigate the Krays since 1964. By the end of 1967, Read had gathered enough evidence to arrest both of the Kray twins — but not enough to make the charges stick. Finally, in May of 1968, Scotland Yard arrested the Kray brothers and fifteen members of their gang. They went through elaborate lengths to prevent any of the arrested members of the Firm from speaking to each other, and offered all of them deals to testify against each other — but the Krays could. They schemed to have “Scotch Jack” Dickson confess to murdering Cornell, their cousin Ronnie Hart to confess to murdering McVitie, and Albert Donaghue to confess to murdering Mitchell. Donaghue, however, flatly refused and almost immediately turned on the twins, confessing everything he knew. Next “Scotch Jack” rolled on the twins — and with his testimony, they found the bartender who had been working in the pub where George Cornell was killed. She gave her statement as well.
The evidence became overwhelming, and the only defense was essentially to try to discredit the witnesses because they were mostly all also criminals. What followed was the longest murder hearing in British history, but it was ultimately determined that the twins were going to go to jail for life and would not be eligible for parole for thirty years. Their brother Charlie was also jailed for ten years for his help in their criminal activities.
At the time of their sentencing, Ronnie was engaged to a woman named Monica — whom he claimed was the only woman he ever loved. In the first seven months of his imprisonment, Ronnie and Monica sent 59 very affectionate letters to each other — even though she married someone else during that time. Ronnie was finally diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and was sent to Broadmoor Hospital in 1979.
The twins were allowed out of prison — under heavy guard — to attend their mother’s funeral in 1982. There was basically a huge media circus about it because of their presence (and also because Diana Dors was there) so they decided to spare their family that kind of attention, and did not attend their father’s funeral in 1983.
In 1985, the staff at Broadmoor Hospital discovered evidence that Ronnie, Reggie, and Charlie were operating a business called “Krayleigh Enterprises” which offered bodyguards and “protection services” to celebrities. Frank Sinatra hired 18 bodyguards from the company when he visited the Wimbledon Championship in that year. The police investigated the business, and found no legal reason to shut it down — so, apparently, it was actually legitimately bodyguards and apparently Frank Sinatra actually legitimately needed 18 of them to watch tennis.
Also in 1985, Ronnie married a woman named Elaine Mildener who he met at Broadmoor Hospital. They divorced in 1989, after which he married a woman named Kate Howard. They divorced in 1994.
In several early interviews while imprisoned, Ronnie identified himself as a gay man, but by 1989 he was identifying himself as a bisexual man — but he certainly never denied that he was attracted to men. In fact, in one interview in the 1970’s, he said: “[Gordon of Khartoun] was like me, homosexual, and he met his death like a man. When it’s time for me to go, I hope I do the same.” In actuality, Gordon of Khartoun was not a homosexual and Ronnie met his death on March 17, 1995 from a heart attack while still being held at Broadmoor Hospital. Reggie was allowed out of prison (in handcuffs) to attend Ronnie’s funeral. (Reggie lived until 2000, when he died of cancer. He was released from prison weeks before his death on compassionate grounds.)
The Krays’ celebrity status while being horrible, awful, violent criminals has certainly left a lasting impact on our culture. There have been multiple movies, several books, and a couple of plays about them, and depictions of them appear in eight television series. But their real influence went way further than that. If you were reading this whole thinking “wow, they sound just like gangsters from the movies!” that’s because the archetype of gangster that appears in movies was essentially revamped to be more like them after their arrest — their clothes, their crimes, etc. I just kind of wish Hollywood had been a bit more fascinated with their sex scandals too.
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.
So, as you may know if you’ve been reading these for a while, I’m a Rhode Islander through-and-through. And I love when I can do an article about local queer history. So that’s why I’m so happy to be sharing this story.
It starts in Cumberland, Rhode Island, in April of 1979. Paul Guillbert, a junior at Cumberland High School had been dating a senior at Brown University, Ed Miskevich. Guillbert sought permission from the principal, Richard Lynch, to bring Miskevich to his prom — Lynch denied the request, citing a concern that the pair might be endangered by the reactions of the other students. Guillbert attempted to move his request up the “chain of command,” but when they learned that Guillbert’s own father did not support him the School Board refused to allow Guillbert a public hearing. I suppose they thought that was the end of the matter.
But the next year, Guillbert’s friend Aaron Fricke — who had recently come out of the closet and begun dating Paul — asked to be allowed to bring his boyfriend to prom. Again, Lynch denied the request — claiming he was concerned that the other students might react violently and that might prove dangerous for Fricke and his “male escort” but also mentioned that approving the request would have an “adverse effect” on the other students, the school, and the town itself. Like Guillbert, Fricke was not satisfied with this response — and so, with the help of the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, he went to court.
They were looking to file a preliminary injunction that would allow Fricke and his beau to go to prom together. They appeared in the United States Court for the District of Rhode Island. Judge Raymond J. Pettine presided over the case. The Court ruled that the school was violating Fricke’s freedom of speech — that “even a legitimate interest in school discipline does not outweigh a student’s right to peacefully express his views in an appropriate time, place, and manner.”
The Court also decided that threats of violence against Fricke would create a “heckler’s veto” — further violating his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Citing the 1968 Supreme Court case United States v. O’Brien, Pettine noted that the school had failed to meet the legal requirement to seek the “least restrictive alternative” before reaching its decision.
Going even further, the Court also stated that the school had created a second class of students by creating unequal policies between those who wanted to bring different-sex dates to the prom and those who wants to bring same-sex dates.
Having soundly won the case, Fricke and Guillbert attended the prom together on May 31, 1980. They were driven there by, according to People magazine, a “protective member of the Gay Liberation Task Force.” The media were outside the school in full force, which prompted Fricke to stick out his tongue at them on his way inside. The school — under the Court’s directions — had six security guards, rather than their traditional two, in order to ensure the safety of the two boys. Though they were definitely heckled, this was a very clear victory for queer teens throughout the United States. According to Fricke’s later writings about the event, the “contagious enthusiasm” of the B-52s song “Rock Lobster” helped dissipate the tensions when he and Guillbert hit the dance floor in a scene that sounds like it’s right out of a cheesy 80’s movie. I guess the 80’s really were like that.
Although this landmark case has made this a very clear-cut case for public schools — the issue has persisted. Fortunately for queer students unwilling to take “no” for answer, the legal precedent is pretty undeniable. As a result, more and more public schools allow students to bring same-sex dates to school dances. This case was cited against Murray High School in 2004, forcing them to reverse a decision regarding same-sex students at prom. Fricke v. Lynch was confirmed in 2010 in a law suit against Itawamba Agricultural School in Mississippi.
Meanwhile, Aaron Fricke has gone on to become an accomplished writer and activist. His best known work — an autobiography entitled Reflections of a Rock Lobster — details his experiences leading up to the court case and subsequent dance. This book was adapted into a play by Burgess Clark, which was presented by Boston Children’s Theater in 2012 and 2013 — the first children’s theater production in the US to tackle LGBTQ+ rights issues. Fricke also worked with his father on the book Sudden Strangers: the Story of a Gay Son and his Father.
In 1994 — the same year Fricke received his associate degree from City College of San Francisco — he donated a collection of documents known as the Aaron Fricke Papers which include letters, files, notes, and even drafts of Rock Lobster and Sudden Strangers. I haven’t read these (I don’t think they’re available online, and I have yet to actually go to San Francisco) but I’m particularly interested in an undated file entitled “Gay Terms” and another item entitled “To Sir, Fuck You.”
As for what happened to Paul Guillbert? I know he kept in touch with Fricke at least until 1981 (because there’s letters in the Aaron Fricke Papers) but I haven’t been able to find anything else. I would assume no news is good news, that he’s alive and well and content in the part he played in securing the legal right of LGBTQ+ kids to take whomever they want to prom.
With everyone’s minds on yesterday’s general election I thought I’d delve into the world of politics. The Boston Globe has called her the “most perennial of perennial candidates” but her mark on politics is perhaps greater than the credit they give her — Althea Garrison was the first transgender person (that we know of) elected to a state legislature in the United States. Though her tenure was brief, the barrier she broke is undeniable — even if she never meant to or wanted to.
Garrison was born in Hahira, Georgia on October 7, 1940. At nineteen years old — still living in the closet as a man — Garrison moved to Boston to attend beauty school — but it turned out she didn’t like being on her feet all day. So she enrolled at Newbury Junior College and earned an associate’s degree. She followed that by attending Suffolk University and earning a B.S. in business administration, and then an M.S. in management from Lesley College. After this, she got a certification in management from Harvard University. Afterwards, she decided she didn’t actually need to attend every college in the Boston area, and didn’t earn any more degrees.
In or around 1976, she transitioned into living as a woman and asked the courts to change her name. The court documents read that the name Althea Garrison “is consistent with petitioner’s appearance and medical condition and is the name by which he will be known in the future.” It’s a bit unclear what “medical condition” they’re referring to — and honestly, we’ll probably never know. To this day, Garrison has never publicly acknowledged her transition,
In 1980, Garrison volunteered with Ted Kennedy’s presidential campaign. She says, this is when her interest in politics was sparked. When he lost, she reasoned that if she could campaign for him, she could just as easily campaign for herself. In 1981, she began working at the comptroller’s office and campaigned for a seat on the Boston city council. She was not elected. The next year she ran as a Democrat for the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and was not elected. She ran for city council again in 1983 and 1985, and then ran for the Massachusetts House of Representatives again in 1986. She tried for city council again in 1987 — and then left the Democratic party. She ran for city council as an independent in 1989.
She must have also run for office some other times, because in 1991 — running as a Republican for the city council — the Boston Herald stated she had run for office nine times. Garrison herself thought it was somewhere around ten or eleven. I only count eight, including the 1991 campaign but I’m admittedly really terrible at math. Anyways, in 1991 she came in third during the preliminary election for her district.
In 1992, she hit the campaign trail once more — still as a Republican, and gunning once again for the Massachusetts House of Representatives. She took incumbent Nelson Merced to court, challenging some of the signatures he’d used to qualify for the Democratic primary. The court ruled in Garrison’s favor, and Merced was taken off the ballot. Irene Roman became the candidate for the Democratic party. Roman garnered 2,014 votes. Garrison beat her by a narrow margin of 437 votes — totaling 2,451.
Garrison quickly fell under attack. Many criticized that she had won disingenuously because she’d kept Merced off the ballot. (But, really, the court did that.) A reporter for the Boston Herald named Eric Fehrnstrom already had her in his sights. You may recognize his name — he was a top aid for Mitt Romney during his 2012 campaign. Fehrnstrom had discovered the court documents regarding Garrison’s name change — and according to colleagues he was positively gleeful. Two days into her tenure, the Herald published a front page story speculating about her gender.
I should note here, that technically Garrison still hasn’t come out. Even in the face of the ensuing scandal, and the remarkably unkind comments of her political opponents at the time in regards to her gender, Garrison has only ever stated that she is a woman. She has never addressed this, and probably never will address this. And that’s okay. Admittedly, it has made me feel awkward about writing this but at the same time the extremely ugly circumstances of her outing don’t take away from Garrison’s accomplishments, her impressive persistence, or the barriers she helped break down for transgender people in the United States. Because of Fehrnstrom, she’s part of our nation’s strong queer history.
Anyways, Garrison finished her term and developed a reputation for voting in favor of unions, and frequently reaching across the aisle and voting with Democrats. At the same time, she voted against marriage equality, against gun control, and against legalized abortions. When it came time for re-election in 1994, eight unions in Boston strongly backed her — as well as the Massachusetts branch of the AFL-CIO. Nevertheless, she was defeated. Charlotte Golar Richie, the Democratic candidate, won with 2,108 votes to Garrison’s 1,718 — an even narrower margin than her skin-of-her-teeth victory in 1992.
Since that time, Garrison has consistently run for office, running variously as a Republican, a Democrat, and an independent. She has run for Boston City Council in 1995, 1997, 1999, 2003, 2005, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017. She ran for the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 2000, 2006, and 2010. She also ran in a special election for state Senate in 2002, and for mayor of Boston in 2001.
She did not win any of these elections. However, she is positioned to take over Ayanna Pressley’s seat on the Boston City Council when Pressley moves to serve in Congress.
In 2018, after 37 years, Garrison has retired from the comptroller’s office. But she has not retired from her political aspirations — despite being up for a position on the Boston City Council, Garrison ran as an independent for the Massachusetts House of Representatives in the 2018 general election — which she lost to Liz Miranda.
I know this sounds like a whole lot elections that Garrison didn’t win — but the take away here is that she has never given up. Even when attacked for who she is, she never gave up. And that, if nothing else, broke down barriers and proved transgender people could hold office — allowing for Stacie Loughton‘s election in 2012 and Danica Roem‘s election in 2017 (both of which are whole other stories.)
UPDATE: Since writing this post, Althea Garrison was sworn into her new seat on the Boston City Council on January 9, 2019.
I hope that almost anyone reading this site knows at least something about Matthew Shepard — whose face became a figurehead in the gay rights movement after his grisly murder in 1998.
Matthew was born on December 1, 1976 in Casper, Wyoming to parents Judy and Dennis Shepard. He was their eldest son — their other son Logan was born in 1981. He had a close relationship with his brother. He attended local schools through his junior year of high school, developing an interest in politics, and was generally friendly to his classmates even though he was frequently teased for being thin and not athletic.
In 1994, Dennis Shepard was hired by Saudi Aramco to be an oil rig inspector, and Shepard’s parents moved to Dahran, Saudi Arabia for the job. Matthew attended his senior year of high school at The American School in Switzerland (TASIS). While there, he started studying German and Italian and became interested in music, fashion, and theater. During February of his year there, he and three classmates took a vacation to Morocco — where Matthew was beaten, robbed, and raped by a group of locals who were never caught. The attack was traumatic for Matthew — afterwards he had bouts of depression, anxiety and paranoia and experienced flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts which lasted through the remainder of his life, despite his best efforts in therapy. When therapy seemed to fail him, he turned to drug use. He also began routinely being tested for HIV after this.
Matthew graduated from TASIS in 1995. Shortly after his graduation, Matthew came out to his mother. She was very accepting of him and apparently coming out was entirely without drama, so we’re just going to breeze by it now. After high school, Matthew began to study theater at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina until he briefly moved to Raleigh. He enrolled at Casper College in his hometown. At Casper College, he met Romaine Patterson, who became his close friend. Together, they moved to Denver where Matthew took on a series of short-lived part time jobs.
At 21 years old, Matthew enrolled at his parents’ alma mater, Wyoming University in Laramie. He felt that a small town environment would make him feel safer than he had in Denver. He began studying political science, international relations, and foreign languages. He quickly became an active member of the campus’ LGBTQ+ student organization and earned a reputation for passionately pursuing equality. Some time after beginning school at Wyoming University, Matthew tested positive for HIV — a fact he confided in a handful of friends, but kept from his parents.
And that brings us to October 6, 1998. Matthew was at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie. According to later testimonies, Matthew encountered two men — Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson — in the bar that night. They pretended to be gay to lure him out to McKinney’s truck. Matthew was expecting a ride home, but put his hand on McKinney’s knee, which set off a deep rage in McKinney. The two men robbed Matthew, hit him with a gun, beat him and tortured him until he was covered in his own blood and was virtually unrecognizable. They tied him to a fence in the middle of nowhere and left him there in temperatures that were close to freezing. According to later testimonies, both men were completely sober and, after finding out his address, planned on robbing Matthew’s home as well. First, however, they returned to the town and subsequently got into a fight with two other men. When police broke up the fight, McKinney was arrested and his truck was searched. They found shoes, a bloody gun, and a credit card also smeared with blood. The shoes and credit card belonged to Matthew.
Eighteen hours later, a man named Aaron Kreifels went past the fence on his bicycle. He initially mistook Matthew for a scarecrow, but upon realizing that it was a badly beaten, comatose person he immediately called the police. It’s reported that there was so much on Matthew’s face that the only places you could see his skin were tracks from his tears running down his face. The first officer to respond was Reggie Fluty. She arrived with a supply of faulty medical gloves, which she eventually ran out of while trying to clear blood out of Matthew’s mouth so he could breathe. When Matthew’s HIV status became clear to authorities, Fluty was put on a regiment of AZT for a month but she did not contract the virus.
Matthew was brought to Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie, and then moved to a more advanced facility at Pudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. Even there, the doctors decided his injuries were too severe for operations. Matthew remained in a coma until October 12, when he was taken off of life support and pronounced dead.
During the six days, news of the attack had gained international attention. Candlelight vigils were held around the world — as well as anti-gay demonstrations. When Matthew’s funeral was held, the Westboro Baptist Church protested — gaining themselves national attention. (Which, of course, is all those parasites want or care about so I’m saying the bare minimum about them.) In response, Romaine Patterson organized a counter-protest where a group of people dressed as angels to block out the protest — this would be the foundation of the organization Angel Action.
Meanwhile, authorities arrested McKinney and Henderson. They were charged with attempted murder (later upgraded to first degree murder), kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. Their girlfriends, who had provided alibis and tried to help dispose of evidence, were charged with being accessories after the fact. McKinney’s girlfriend Kristen Price told detectives that the violence had been set off by how McKinney “[felt] about the gays” (a testimony she recanted in 2004) and the defense team attempted to argue that McKinney had gone temporarily insane when Matthew had come onto him. This is one of the most famous examples of the “gay panic” defense, but the judge rejected that argument.
Henderson took a plea deal, pleading guilty and agreeing to two consecutive lifetime sentences instead of the death penalty. In exchange, he testified against McKinney. McKinney was found guilty by a jury of felony murder, but not of premeditated murder. While they deliberating on whether or not he should receive the death penalty, Shepard’s parents arranged a deal — McKinney would serve two consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole.
In the years that followed, this attack would remain in the minds of the American population. The events inspired a number of television, film, and theatrical works — the most notable (in my opinion) being The Laramie Project and Matthew Shepard is a Friend of Mine (go watch those if you haven’t seen them yet!) More importantly, Matthew’s death was a major part of the impetus for passing more comprehensive anti-hate crime legislation in the United States. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act (sometimes called the Matthew Shepard Act) became law on October 28, 2009.
Dennis and Judy Shepard have been staunch advocates for LGBTQ+ rights since the attack, and the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which they founded, has become a massive force for education and advocacy regarding LGBTQ+ issues. This year — on the 20th anniversary of the attack — it was announced that Matthew’s remains will be interred in the Washington National Cathedral on October 26, 2018.
It’s been a really great month for queer music — we’ve got a new album from country’s first openly gay singer Steve Grand; a new album from British synthpop band Years & Years, led by the openly gay Olly Alexander; and Panic! at the Disco’s lead singer Brendon Urie came out as pansexual. With all this new news, I — of course — wanted to check out some old queer music history. It’s no surprise that led me to the incomparable Mother of Blues herself: Ma Rainey.
Born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886 in Georgia or possibly in September of 1882 in Alabama (depending on if you believe Gertrude or the U.S. census — researchers seem generally not to believe her). She was the second of five kids (the other four were pretty definitely born in Alabama — and her parents lived in Alabama. I’m just saying.) At 12 or 14 years old, Gertrude performed at a talent show in Columbus, Georgia and then began performing in black minstrel shows. According to Gertrude, she first heard blues music in 1902. The story goes that she heard a performer singing a blues song at another minstrel show — Gertrude was entranced, committed the song to memory that day, and immediately began using it as an encore to her own performances. Of course, she also claimed to have invented the name of the blues genre (she didn’t) so she’s not always the most reliable source of information. Just sayin’.
Two years later she married William “Pa” Rainey — a traveling comedian and vaudeville performer. Some time shortly after that, she and her husband formed a company called the Alabama Fun Makers Company. The troupe was short-lived, and in 1906 they both joined Pat Chappelle’s Rabbit’s Foot Company where they both performed and became quite popular.
In 1912, the Rabbit’s Foot Company was taken over by F.S. Wolcott. The Raineys stuck with the company for two more years before joining Tolliver’s Circus and Musical Extravaganza — which billed the duo as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues”. The name stuck, and the two were soon using it on their own without being part of a troupe of performers. Soon after that, Gertrude was getting bookings all on her own — using the name Madam Gertrude Rainey, or “Ma”.
When Ma took the stage, she was a sight to behold — adorned in a diamond tiara, a necklace made out of $20 pieces, rings on each finger, wearing a golden gown with gold-capped teeth. She carried a gun and an ostrich plume. Audiences were enthralled. In fact, even though she was in the deep south, her shows were peacefully integrated between black people and white people. She was sometimes hired by wealthy white people to play private parties, but after every single one of these she would go out dancing and socializing at the local black café.
The Raineys spent winter in New Orleans, where they met a large number of blues performers — including Louis Armstrong, Pops Foster, and another queer blues singer Bessie Smith. (A story later came about that Ma had kidnapped Bessie, forced her to join the Rabbit’s Foot Company, and made her sing the blues but even Bessie’s family denied the story.) In 1916, Ma separated from her husband, ending both their working and romantic relationships.
Her star continued to rise, and in 1923 Paramount Records asked her to record songs for them. With Paramount, over the next several years, she released more than 100 singles and sold so many of them that she has been credited with saving the company single-handedly. The recordings were very popular — but, you know how some performers are better live than if you’re just listening to them? Ma Rainey was universally considered one of those — and audiences became even more eager to see her, and even more excited at her shows.
Ma was not as open about her sexuality as some of the women of early blues — Gladys Bentley for instance — however, she wasn’t in the closet either. In 1925, neighbors called the police when one of her parties became too raucous. The officers arrived just as things were beginning to get shall we say intimate with the all-female group. Ma Rainey was arrested for “running an indecent party” but was bailed out by Bessie Smith the next day. This may have been one reason Rainey’s guitarist Sam Chatmon thought the two were romantically linked.
This incident may have been part of the inspiration for “Prove It On Me Blues”, which Rainey recorded in 1928. The lyrics are a fairly explicitly about lesbianism and of breaking gender norms. As far as I can tell, this was the first recorded piece of music to celebrate a queer sexuality.
“Went out last night with a crowd of my friends
They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.
It’s true I wear a collar and tie,
Makes the wind blow all the while.”
Paramount ran an ad for the song — a drawing of Ma Rainey in a three-piece suit (albeit, with a skirt and heels) and a fedora, talking to a group of women with a policeman watching from across the street. The ad said “What’s all this? Scandal? … Don’t fail to get this record from your dealer!”
1928 was Ma Rainey’s last year as a recording artist. Popular music styles were changing, so her contract with Paramount ended. She toured a little bit longer, before settling down back in Columbus, Georgia. It was about this time (1932) that Sterling A. Brown wrote a poem about her called “Ma Rainey”, describing how powerful her performances were. In her later years, she opened a handful of movie theaters — the Lyric, the Airdome, and the Liberty Theatre. On December 22, 1939, she had a heart attack and died but her legacy continues to this day.
Six months after Ma’s death, Memphis Minnie wrote a tribute song called “Ma Rainey”. It was the first such song, but it would not be the last. In 1965, Bob Dylan paired Ma Rainey with Beethoven in his song “Tombstone Blues”. In 1982, August Wilson published a play about her called Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In 1983, Ma Rainey was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. In 1994, the U.S. Post Office released a commemorative stamp in her honor. Ten years later, her song “See See Rider Blues” (recorded in 1924 — you can hear it below) was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and was also added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. In 2015, a film about Bessie Smith was released (Bessie) in which Mo’Nique played Ma Rainey, and one year later the First Annual Ma Rainey International Blues Festival was held in Columbus, Georgia. Last year (2017), in the same city, the Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts opened — named after Ma Rainey and Carson McCullers.
In 1952, Langston Hughes released a poem called “Shadow of the Blues”, in which one character proclaims of Ma Rainey: “To tell the truth, if I stop and listen, I can still hear her!” I think we still hear a bit of Ma every time an artist releases a song about queerness — and if that’s the case, I hope we never stop hearing her.