Today’s post comes to you by popular demand — which makes sense because she was very popular, and she also knew what she wanted and demanded it! Well, okay, mostly she just got it herself. She knew exactly who she was from a remarkably young age and never wavered.
Isabel Vargas Lizano was born on April 17, 1919 to Francisco Vargas and Herminia Lizano in San Joaquin de Flores, Costa Rica. As far as I can tell, it was a pretty unremarkable event. She was frequently called “Chavela” by her family. Despite that affectionate nickname, things would take a turn for the worse — her very religious parents were embarrassed by Chavela’s tomboy-ishness, going so far as to hide her when they had visitors to their home. They ultimately divorced, leaving her to be raised by her uncle, and then she contracted polio. Chavela managed to survive the illness relatively unscathed — she and her family credited this to the rituals and talismans of shamans and witches, rather than the scientific medicine of doctors.
By seventeen years old, Chavela was fully aware that she wanted a career in music and — since there weren’t many musical opportunities in Costa Rica — she moved to Mexico. Initially, she sang on the streets — dressed in traditionally masculine clothing, wearing the red poncho (or more specifically a jorongo) that would become a signature part of her performance “look” in her professional years. The look was a conscious decision — Chavela felt she looked “like a transvestite” in women’s clothing and had trouble walking in heels. To fit into the masculine music scene she was attempting to break into, she began smoking cigars, drinking heavily, and making sure to keep a gun on her at all times. During this period of her career, sometime in the mid-1940s, she had an affair with Frida Kahlo — the romance was relatively brief, but intense. Chavela even lived with Frida and her then-husband Diego Rivera for more than a year. And Frida expressed in letters to her friends that she was very attracted to Chavela. (And yet, there are — of course — scholars who are certain they were just good friends.)
In her thirties, she became a professional, becoming known for her own unique take on ranchera — singing solo, with only her guitar as accompaniment instead of a mariachi band, and slowing down the tempo for more dramatic tension or so they could come across as more humorous and, y’know, suggestive. These songs were typically sung from a man’s perspective ( a straight man’s, I should say) and Chavela Vargas refused to change the genders in the songs when she sang them. While her homosexuality certainly would not have been approved of offstage, on stage it was all part of an entertaining act that audiences embraced.
Towards the end of the 1950’s, her reputation began to expand greatly — particularly in artistic circles. She was a popular performer in Acapulco, singing in the champagne room of La Perla, frequently in front of tourists from other parts of the world. She was so well regarded that she was hired to sing at the wedding of Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd on February 2, 1957. Chavela would later claim that she slept with Ava Gardner at that wedding — I haven’t found an corroboration of that, nor have I found any other examples of Ava Gardner having dalliances with women, but I suppose we all have to experiment at least once in our lives and if Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding isn’t the time and place to do it, when is? She is known to have had numerous romances after this — including, apparently, with some very famous people, but she would never share their names. A few have stepped forward, including American author Betty-Carol Sellen, but Chavela was very careful to keep these things private (particularly, I assume, because very few if any of them would have been open about their sexuality at the time!)
In 1961, with the help of José Alfredo Jiménez, Chavela’s first album was released: Noche de Bohemia. This was the first of more than 80 albums that she’d release over the course of her career. Later that year she released Con el cuarteto Lara Foster. Rumor has it that although her career was just beginning to take off, Chavela began a short-lived affair with Arabella Árbenz Villanova in 1964 after their paths crossed coincidentally — the problem being that Arabella was also having a torrid romance with Televisa executive Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, also known as “El Tigre.” When El Tigre learned of this affair he was infuriated and tried to destroy her career. Despite his pretty powerful influence in Mexico, he very nearly did. although Chavela Vargas is — as far as I can tell — still banned from appearing on Televisa in any capacity.
Her next album, Hacia la vida was released in 1966. By the time her fourth album Corridosde la revolución came out in 1970, Chavela had become quite popular, though she still wasn’t invited to headline concerts — but as her popularity grew, so did her alcoholism. Despite her struggle with drinking, Chavela managed to release three albums in 1973 and one more in 1975. However, due to her constant battle with addiction and El Tigre’s continuing campaign against her — Chavela was forced to retire and completely disappeared from the public eye.
The details are a little bit sketchy here, but according to Chavela while she was “submerged in an alcoholic haze” — as she would later describe it — she was found and taken in by a family of Native Mexicans who attempted to help nurse her back to health. It would be decades before the public learned any of this, and at the time many assumed she had died. She had very little money at this time, and sometimes only ate when friends invited her to their homes for meals.
On September 2, 1988, at the request of mutual friend Patria Jiminez, lawyer Dr. Alicia Elena Pérez Duarte arrived at Chavela Vargas’ home in order to stop her from drunkenly signing some legal documents. This began an intense romantic relationship, which both Chavela and Alicia would describe as “something greater than love.” Chavela moved in with Alicia and her four kids — but Chavela’s reliance on alcohol, and her great attachment to firearms, put a heavy strain on the relationship. Although Chavela did manage to quit drinking — which she credits to a shamanistic ritual (though Duarte has publicly disagreed with that statement) — it turned out her violent streak and penchant for guns was not dependent upon alcohol at all. Alicia ended the relationship, though she remained Chavela’s legal representation.
In 1989, a couple of Chavela’s albums were rereleased, sparking renewed interest in the singer. When the nightclub El Hábito opened in Mexico City in 1991, they invited her to perform after spotting her in their audience. Eventually, she agreed — though it was her first time performing on a stage since the 70’s and she was 72 years old at the time. It was also her first ever sober performance. This launched a full revival of her career, which involved several more albums and also international fame the likes of which she had not experienced before. She performed not just in Mexico but even performed numerous sold out shows in Spain and France. And finally, she was the headliner of these shows — an honor she had certainly earned.
She also provided music for several films during this period, primarily at the behest of Pedro Almodóvar who was a fan, a friend, and a champion for her career after meeting her in Madrid in 1992. Chavela once described him as “my husband in this world.” He traveled the world with her, pushing greater and greater opportunities towards her. Despite his best efforts, she insisted that she did not want to begin a career as an actress — although she did appear in the 2002 biographical film Frida about her former lover Frida Kahlo, singing her song “La Llorona.”
That was the same year Chavela published her autobiography Y si quieres saber de mi pasado (which translates to And if you want to know about my past). Although her sexuality had been a fairly open secret for decades — her relationships with women were fairly well known rumors, not to mention her refusal to ever change the genders or pronouns in the songs she sang — it was within the pages of her autobiography that she finally, publicly came out as a lesbian.
The following year on September 15, at age 83, Chavela Vargas had her debut performance at Carnegie Hall. The performance was recorded and released as an album creatively entitled Chavela at Carnegie Hall. The performance was considered groundbreaking given her age and sexuality in a musical genre that generally would have denied her for either of those, and in 2019 the album of the recording was named on Mitú’s list of Spanish-language albums that “Changed the Face and Feel of the Music Industry” calling it “the stuff dreams and legends are made of.”
In 2012, just months after releasing her final album Luna grande, the 93-year old Chavela Vargas was hospitalized in Cuernavaca, Mexico for respiratory problems. Several weeks later, on August 5, she passed away. It’s comforting, I think, that when she did pass away she knew it was coming and seemed to have made peace with it. She spent her final days making statements like “My name is Chavela Vargas, don’t let them forget!” Her final words, according to her Facebook page, were “I leave with Mexico in my heart.”
But truthfully, it’s hard to “leave” if your music is as significant as hers remains to this day, and there’s certainly no way to forget her. Aside from the longevity of her own music, she’s received a lot of tributes — Joaquín Sabina’s song “Por el Boulevard de los Sueños Rotos” is dedicated to her, Juan Carlos created a series of portraits of Chavela which were presented at the Centro Cultural de España en México in Mexico City in 2012. One of the characters in Sergio Ramírez Mercado’s novel La Fugitiva is based off of Chavela. And in 2017, the biographical documentary Chavela was released. She’s even had a Google Doodle in her honor! In 2019, she was commemorated on the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco, which is a “walk of fame” type of thing for LGBTQ+ people who have “made significant contributions in their field.” Given that she essentially reinvented ranchero music, opening it up to women performers, I’d call “significant contributions” an understatement. She remains one of, if not the, most celebrated lesbian in Mexican history.
Okay, so, 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.
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.
Last June, as you may recall, I did a whole series on the Heroes of Stonewall. Obviously, it was a massive riot, I couldn’t cover everyone who was there in just a month. I left out someone incredibly important (several someones), and I can’t think of a better time to cover the story of another transgender person of color who heroically led us at the Stonewall Riots, and afterwards, than right now — when the Trump administration is attacking the healthcare rights of transgender people.
MissMajor Griffin-Gracy was born in Chicago on October 25, 1940 in the south side of Chicago at St. Luke’s Hospital. She was assigned to the male gender at birth. It didn’t last too long — while she was still fairly young, she discovered the drag ball scene and began participating regularly. She later explained that, without the terminology we have today existing, she did not realize that she and her peers were questioning their gender identities. But they were, and Miss Major was fairly open about it. Her parents attempted to curb this, but eventually just kicked her out.
Afterwards, she was homelessness — getting by as best she could through sex work and the occasional theft. She transitioned, using hormones she purchased on the black market — something that became a booming business following the very public transition of Christine Jorgensen. She briefly had a job as a secretary for the Mattachine Society, but even that didn’t last too long.
After a run in with the law, and a six month bout in a mental institution, Miss Major moved to New York City. She became a performer at the famous Jewel Box Revue, as well as the Cherries and the Powder Puff Revue. (As an aside, I’m definitely a 90’s kid because I definitely first thought that was “Powerpuff” but it isn’t.) During these years she experimented with a handful of names, but settled on the one her parents had given her: Major. She simply added the word “Miss” in front of it.
Although many of the gay bars would not let her in, Miss Major became a frequent customer at the Stonewall Inn — probably at least in part because of her and Stormé DeLarverie‘s shared association with the Jewel Box Revue. She was there on the night of June 27, 1969 and stayed late enough to be present when the police raided the bar. She participated in the rioting on that first night, until she spit in the face off one of the police officers — he responded by knocking her out. She awoke the next day in a prison cell. While she was in police custody, her jaw was broken.
After the riot, Miss Major was deeply changed by the murder of a Puerto Rican transgender friend of hers known as Puppy. Despite plenty of evidence, the police ruled the murder was a suicide. She realized that transgender women of New York could not depend on anyone but each other — she began to build a network so that they could help protect each other. This was especially true of sex workers, who started trying to get their “johns” to exit the cars so that all of the girls could see them — just in case a girl never came back from a job.
She was arrested in 1970 for burglary after a safe-breaking job went wrong, and spent four years at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. He had a great deal of respect for Miss Major, and her gender identity, and he talked to her about how she could help her community. She spent a good amount of time in solitary confinement — she was imprisoned with men, and every time a fight broke out between her and any other inmate, she was the one who was punished. She was paroled twice — but both times the parole was revoked when her parole officer reported her for deviant behavior (once was for adopting a more feminine appearance by shaving her face, and the second time was for “entering a deviant bar.”) While incarcerated, she communicated regularly with Frank “Big Black” Smith — who had been in charge of security at the Attica Correctional Facility Riots of 1971. When she was finally released in 1974, she took those lessons to heart.
In 1978, Miss Major’s long-time girlfriend gave birth to their son Christopher. Miss Major decided the life she’d built in New York was not one well-suited for raising a child, she secured sole custody of Christopher and moved to San Diego. She would eventually adopted three other boys — runaways she met at a park. This was the start of a growing chosen family that still rallies around Miss Major to this day. She started working at a food bank and attempted to help transgender people who were in prison or recovering from addiction, but as the AIDS epidemic began to ravage the queer community of California, Miss Major turned her attention to helping provide healthcare and performing funerals. The silver lining for the epidemic, Miss Major later recalled, was that many transgender people — especially women — were able to find legitimate, legal jobs for the first time, even if that job was the heartbreaking task of providing healthcare to doomed queer people no one else wanted to touch.
In the mid 90’s, Miss Major moved to San Francisco. She continued her HIV/AIDS activism, including serving with the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center (TARC). As part of that organization, she ensured they had a refrigerator available so that homeless people could store food and medications at the center. She fought for them to acquire a washing machine and a dryer so homeless people in the community could do their laundry.
In 2003, Miss Major — who’s activism was returning more to its original focus on incarcerated transgender people — joined the newly founded Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGI Justice Project), and became the Executive Director. In this position, she is one of an estimated five people in the United States that is working full time towards equal transgender rights in prison. She has testified about human rights violations towards transgender people in prisons before both the California State Assembly and the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva. One particular focus of her activism is on the healthcare that transgender inmates receive — they are sometimes denied everything from hormones to routine medical examinations. But, as she notes, transgender inmates face abuse in almost every aspect of prison life, and are overrepresented in prison populations (where they are typically housed with the incorrect gender).
She has decried the gay rights movement for ignoring the plight of transgender people as they fought for equality — a sentiment that was shared deeply by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. (And frankly, shared by me too. It’s hard to argue with.) But Miss Major herself has continued to fight tirelessly for those the rest of society wanted to ignore. She’s known to have said: “Just because there’s this umbrella, LGBT, we’re all grouped together. But guess what? Someone poked a hole in the umbrella and the girls are still getting wet.”
And recently, although those sentiments still largely hold true, Miss Major herself has finally been getting attention for her decades of work. In 2014, Miss Major was made the Grand Marshall of the San Francisco Pride Parade. In 2015, the documentary MAJOR! was released, following Miss Major’s life as an activist.
More recently, in 2018 Miss Major has relocated from California to Little Rock, Arkansas. There, she has founded the Griffin-Gracy Historical Retreat and Educational Center — also known the House of GG. On July 4, 2019 Miss Major suffered a stroke — but survived and is recovering well enough that she has been engaged in Black Lives Matters protests within the past month according to her Instagram. If you want to help with her continued recovery or with her continued activisim for transgender and gender non-conforming people, a website has been set up for donations.
While articles about Miss Major’s life and activism are plentiful, they all have anecdotes of Miss Major saving lives by simply being there, lending an ear, or offering advice and a good book. It’s little wonder so many have rallied around her, now often calling her “Mama Major” or “Grandma Major.” Janet Mock, a writer, director, and producer — one of the creators of the TV show Pose, once said, “Without Miss Major’s contributions and work, I would not exist.” There are countless transgender people in this country who say the same. That’s a tremendous legacy, but when asked what she hoped her legacy would be in a 2018 interview she said: “If ain’t right, fucking fix it, whatever it takes.”
And if that’s not a mantra for the whole world to adopt, I don’t know what is.
(PS, Miss Major also has a Facebook page you should totally follow.)
Jackie Shane was an R&B singer who was a sensation in the music scene of Toronto, and was a nationally charting artist in Canada — and broke new ground as an openly queer performer.
Jackie Shane was born in Nashville, Tennessee on May 15, 1940. She would later explain that she began dressing as a girl when she was 5, and that she identified herself as a woman in a man’s body by age 13 — but openly she described herself as gay. Her mother supported her, and Shane would later say she never had any problems in school — at least, not because of her sexuality or gender identity.
As a teenager, she played the drums and was a regular sessions player for gospel and R&B record labels in Nashville. Through this, she met various famous musicians including Jackie Wilson.
Nevertheless, she was a black queer kid living in the south during the Jim Crow era. In 1959 or 1960, she moved to Montreal — still fully presenting as a man. She was brought by a local saxophonist to see Frank Motley and the Motley Crew perform. Frank Motley invited Shane on stage — and quickly became the band’s lead vocalist. She traveled with them, recording with them in Boston and performing in Los Angeles and Nashville.
Shane moved to Toronto in 1962, where an R&B scene was emerging on Yonge Street, and went solo. Shane’s arrival in Toronto has been described as a “revelation” — her sound was unlike anything else in the city. The way it’s described, she appeared on the scene and instantly became a legend. She was still presenting as a man, though she clothes were becoming more androgynous, and she typically dodged the question of gender altogether when asked. Canada may not have been as oppressive as Tennessee, but they wouldn’t decriminalize homosexuality until 1969 and were decades away from acknowledging transgender identities at all. Her performances had a profound impact on the Toronto Sound and on the queer community and culture that would develop in the city over the next decades.
For live performances, Shane was a performer through and through. She would tour with around 20 trunks of outfits, and insert monologues and comedy bits into her songs.
In 1962, Shane released her first solo recording — a cover of the song “Money (That’s What I Want)” with a B-side recording of “I’ve Really Got the Blues.” “Money (That’s What I Want)” was later re-released as the B-side on a recording of “Have You Ever Had the Blues?” The same year, she released her second single — “Any Other Way”, which almost instantly became the #2 hit on Toronto’s CHUM Chart of the top 30 songs being played on local radio stations. It is probably her most famous song.
During live performances of “Any Other Way”, she would add quips that were usually used to underline the subversive subtext of the lyrics “Tell her that I’m happy, tell her that I’m gay.” (Her live album is available on Spotify and on iTunes, so you don’t even have to take my word for it, you can hear it for yourself.)
“Any Other Way” was followed by releasing the single “In my Tenement”, which did not do nearly as well and only charted in upstate New York. She began to focus on performing and touring, and did not make any new recordings for several years.
In 1965, Jackie Shane returned to Nashville, where she performed “Walking the Dog” on Night Train. I don’t know that this was a particularly huge moment in her life, but there’s video that I thought I’d share.
Two years later, “Any Other Way” was re-released and this time it rose to #68 on Canada’s national RPM chart. This seems to have encouraged Shane to return to recording new music, as she released “Standing Up Straight and Tall” later that year. This was followed by a live album. In 1969, she released “Cruel Cruel World” — this would prove to be her last recording. (Although, some tracks from the live album would later be re-released on the Motley Crew album “Honkin’ at Midnight.”)
Her prominence began to fade in 1970, and in 1971 she moved to Los Angeles to take care of her mother. She turned down an offer to be part of the band Funkadelic and all but disappeared from public consciousness. Her mother passed away around 1996, and Shane moved back to Nashville.
At this point she literally disappeared for years. Rumors persisted that she had committed suicide or been stabbed to death — in truth, she was just living a quiet life at home. Frank Motley managed to connect with her, and relayed the news that she was alive. Some of her musician friends attempted to reconnect, there were discussions about a reunion tour — and then her phone number was reassigned and she disappeared again.
But she was not forgotten. In 2010 CBC Radio released a documentary about her called I Got Mine: The Story of Jackie Shane. The producers had sent a letter to Shane asking if she would participate — but she never responded, leaving question as to whether or not she was even alive. A 2011 documentary called Yonge Street: Toronto Rock & Roll Stories included Shane. These documentaries were very well received, and the media began attempting to contact Shane for interviews but to no avail.
In 2014, a scout for the reissue record label Numero Group finally managed to reach Jackie Shane by phone, very much alive — although none of her staff had ever even see her face. The scout, Douglas Mcgowan, built a friendship with her over the phone and convinced her to allow his label to re-release her recordings. Though Shane was able to retain her privacy, she was no longer hidden from the world.
Her live album was reissued and shortlisted for a Polaris Award in 2015 (and again in 2016 and 2017). In 2017, her influence on Toronto was remembered in an anthology of essays entitled Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer. That same year, a compilation album of many of Shane’s recordings was released and called Any Other Way. The album was nominated for “Best Historical Album” at the 2019 Grammy Awards.
In 2019, Jackie Shane finally granted an interview to Elaine Banks. The interview was aired on the CBC Radio program Q on February 8. This would be the first publicly broadcast interview Shane had given in decades — and it would also be her last. In February of 2019, Jackie Shane passed away in her sleep. She was found in her home on February 21. She was 78 years old.