In the second X-Men film, X2, there is a very well-done, uncomfortable scene between Bobby Drake (Iceman) and his family which, for many people, reads like a coming out scene.
Coming out is, for those not in the know, the process in which LGBTQA individuals tell others that they are not straight. For many, this is a deeply personal and uncomfortable movie. Some come out fine and never look back, but for others there is a deep fear that those they are telling will reject them or even hate them. This is perfectly captured by Bobby Drake telling his family that he is a mutant, complete with perhaps the most socially clever line in the whole movie:
“Have you ever tried not being a mutant?”
Again, this scene rings true for its queer audience, who may have been asked this question by family members time and time again. “Have you tried not being gay? Not being trans? Not being you?”
In hindsight, it seems almost like foreshadowing that, years later, Iceman himself would be forced out of the closet after Jean Grey read his mind. It seems logical that the X-Men franchise, a franchise built on discussing minorities and discrimination, built on using clever science fiction metaphor to discuss problems of oppression and prejudice, would feature an LGBTQA character.
Despite often apropriating imagery associated with the LGBTQA experience to discuss how mutants are oppressed, the X-Men across all iteration rarely seems to explore real-world oppression of LGBTQA people. Queer representation is already a problem in the world of superheroes. You’d think the X-Men franchise would be the ideal place to explore this…but people just…don’t.
I recently had a conversation with a fan who seemed to insist that the X-Men had no connection to minorities, much less the LGBTQA community. As a member of this community, I felt at once confusion, but then a sense of resigned understanding. To a person who might never have experienced any form of oppression in their lifetime, it might seem like the X-Men were just another superhero team. Maybe the extended metaphor went over their head. Maybe they saw only stories of Wovlerine cutting through people with his claws or of Apocalypse eradicating entire cities.
Or maybe they’re just bigots. I dunno.
Either way, allow me to draw the parallels…
LGBTQA Imagery in X-Men
When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first created the X-Men, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. Many have observed the parallels between Professor X and Martin Luther King. Both were figures who fought for equality, believing that nonviolent protest was the way to bridge the divide between the those oppressed and the oppressors.
To this end, writers and artists often incorporated iconography from the Civil Rights movement to root the metaphor in the reality of the era. You had Magneto, a militant survivor of the Holocaust, who believes that mankind will never accept mutants. You have the Sentinels, built by normal people who use pseudo-science to justify the fear of a mutant uprising. These draw directly from figures like Malcolm X or the KKK.
As time changed, however, the popular discourse about oppressed minorities shifted. While racial violence remained an ever-present reality for people of color, a new civil rights movement began to materialize: the Gay Rights Movement.
And it had its own unique iconography associated with it, which, again, writers and artists appropriated to ground the mutant metaphor to its contemporary audience. There are countless images across the X-Men franchises featuring crowds with signs labeled “No More Muties,” which draws a direct parallel to similar crowds protesting LGBTQA people. The Legacy Virus, a virus that only kills mutants, bares a strong resemblance to the AIDS epidemic, which for many years afflicted the gay community, killing millions before the US Government even acknowledged the disease — and only after straight people started dying.
Often, writers combined the imagery to create a universal metaphor that could apply to all oppressed minorities. In the graphic novel God Love, Man Kills, a televangelist-type character rallies up a crowd of hateful fanatics to kill mutants. The fanatics deeply resemble conservative evangelists who used violence to attack PoC and LGBTQA individuals throughout the 19th and 20th century. There are even points in the comic where characters directly call mutants inhuman for the way they look or address the very nature of slurs and how they harm others.
And, naturally, this imagery carries into the animated and live-action adaptations, most notably in X2. Again, “Have you tried not being a mutant?”
It it clear that the creators of X-Men are trying to relay a message about prejudice, and it remains a very biting, very intense social message, one that remains relevant even fifty years following its inception.
But Where Are the Gays?
The original five X-Men (Scott Summers, Jean Grey, Hank McCoy, Warren Worthington III, and Bobby Drake) are all white. Only one, Jean, is female. They were, in essence, white people suffering the sort of horrors that black people experienced. While this metaphor might’ve served to help educate white people otherwise unaffected by racial violence on the horrors of prejudice, the lack of PoC on the X-Men roster does establish a problematic precedent. In an intersectional society, if it’s bad for a white mutant, how bad must it be for a black mutant?
Yes, Magneto was a Jew who experienced the very real horrors of the Holocaust, but Magneto is the villain. He isn’t one of the heroes. It is problematic that the only person who, if divorced from the mutant context, would experience real prejudice is the villain. It sort of diminishes the relevance of real-life prejudice in light of fictional prejudice, especially considering, for much of the 60s, Magneto’s tragic past was rarely explored. Magneto was a card-carrying villain in many older stories, on par with Doctor Doom.
Thankfully, when Chris Claremont started his legendary run on Uncanny X-Men, he remedied this problem by introducing a racially diverse cast of characters. Storm and Nightcrawler brought a dose of reality to the X-Men: what if you were black? What if you couldn’t hide your mutation? What if?
He also made great pains to make Magneto a tragic character, a victim of circumstance and real, tangible racial violence. He showed that, when push comes to shove, Magneto did care about his fellow mutants. There are moments later on in the run where the full tragedy of Magneto’s character shines.
Since then, numerous writers have explored both racial and mutant prejudices, simultaneously, across a myriad of titles. There are several mutants of different creeds and cultures.
But not gay culture. They’re oddly absent.
The lack of LGBTQA representation in X-Men is a problem for a number of reasons. It fails to ever in any meaningful capacity connect the oppression the mutants face to the oppression real LGBTQA people face. Yes, the Legacy Virus is an AIDS metaphor, but it doesn’t relay the real-world apathy the queer community faced when the American government seemed so content to watch people die. Sure, there are American politicians forcing mutant registration, but no one ever bats an eye to mutants marrying other mutants — just normal people marrying them, which draws parallel to interracial marriage sooner than same-sex marriage.
The lack of parallels leads to two negative results: it lessens the relevance of the X-Men’s metaphor and it weakens the discussion of oppression in the real world. Both of these problems keeps the X-Men saga from resonating with its queer audience, which is increasing confronted with bigotry in the form of harassment, hate crimes, and governmental oppression. These are the sorts of things mutants confront on a regular basis in fiction, but the fiction seems unconcerned with the reality of its audience.
Comic books — especially superhero stories — offer escapist fantasies for people who might need a break from reality. Other readers want to see their realities recontextualized through the lens of fiction. In both cases, queer audiences need to see queer characters in the X-Men. They need to see the real world experiences queer people face in fiction. They need to escape from the horrors of the real by imagining themselves to be fantastic, superpowered heroes able to kick the butts of all those who hate and fear them.
If audiences are to see themselves elevated to the rank of superheroes, they need to see relevant representations of themselves.
So how many gay people are in the X-Men, anyway?
All the Gay Mutants
I am going to list right here every noteworthy LGBTQA mutant:
This is not a thorough list by any stretch, and I ignored characters who were implied to be queer. I also ignored alternate universe versions of the characters, like that version of Wolverine who is in a same-sex relationship with Hercules. These are definitely queer characters in the 616 Universe.
There are literally hundreds of X-Men. We found less than 10 of them that are LGBTQA.
Mystique and Destiny I am including because they are both in a same sex relationship. Arguably, an open one. While Mystique has transformed into men before, I would not count her as gender fluid. She is either bi or pan. While their relationship is never explicit as Mystique’s is with, say, Sabretooth or the demon Azazel, there is a genuine romantic sincerity to it that I think makes it one of the better earlier depictions of sexuality in the X-Men continuity.
But none of this ever has been adapted into any of the X-Men films, where Mystique never once expresses interest in a woman.
Then there’s Psylocke, who is a profoundly unusual character. While she has mainly had different-sex relationships, she has been involved in a relationship with a female counterpart of the otherwise male character Fantomex. This relationship is confusing and weird, but it establishes that Psylocke is either pan or bi. However, her sexuality rarely ever comes up again.
Northstar though remains a very noteworthy character, being one of the first out gay superheroes. For this reason, we need to give X-Men credit…except Northstar started as a member of Alpha Flight, which is a Canadian mutant team to which Wolverine used to belong.
Northstar is also well known for being the first superhero to marry another superhero of the same sex. His wedding to Kyle Jinadu is one of the most noteworthy events in the comic stratosphere in the last decade.
Shatterstar is a minor X-Men character, as is Doop, and, while we could go into more detail about both of them, I really want to shift the discussion to the two other characters on this line-up: Bobby Drake and Wade Wilson.
I will admit this: I don’t like how Bobby Drake was outed. It always really disturbed me as a reader how — let me just start with some context.
Time travel. Following the event Avengers vs X-Men, the teenage versions of the original five X-Men were brought forward in time as a sort of intervention for adult Cyclops, who, at the time, was going through some stuff. The specifics are confusing and complicated, so I’ll just recommend you read the run itself for more detail.
Anyway, at one point, Jean Grey reads Bobby Drake’s mind, and realizes that Iceman has been deeply repressing his sexuality for his entire life. And she just blurts this out.
Bobby tries backtracking by suggesting perhaps he’s just bi, which leads to a line from Jean that indirectly erases bisexuality as a distinct orientation.
This scene bothers me for a number of reasons. One, Bobby doesn’t come out as gay. He’s outed. When Bobby, who is clearly uncomfortable this whole time, tries to backtrack or change focus, Jean throws out a little bi-phobia.
Then again, I do like other parts. I like how Jean takes Bobby aside and talks to him. I like how much love and support she offers. Rereading the scene, I am reminded how heartfelt elements of it are. It is…kind of really sincere, and I like the little hug Bobby gives her, too.
The decision to make Bobby Drake gay is, in my opinion, a stroke of genius.
Suppressed sexuality is rarely explored in media. Or, at least, not in a way that rings true. It is often presented as this secret they’re struggling to contain or clearly being overwhelmed by. They are shown living this joyless lie.
Bobby Drake always appeared very light-hearted and energetic, which helped establish to the audience that he didn’t have any deeper secrets. He was shown to have relationships with women before, even ones of a sexual nature.
And, you know what? That rings true for a deeply suppressed gay man. A person suppressing their sexuality that intensely would appear to everyone else like an average straight person because that’s what the role they’re convincing themselves they occupy. They aren’t JUST trying to fool everyone around them. They’re trying to fool themselves.
And why would Bobby Drake suppress those feelings? Because of…a whole bunch of reasons, really.
While some LGBTQA audiences have found Bobby’s behavior to be a little stereotypically gay, again, it rings true to the sort of experience someone finally being granted permission to be true to themselves would act. And none of Bobby’s personality is so drastically altered to be unrecognizable. He just is the same person, allowed to behave like a gay man.
I especially like early on the moment when young Bobby confronts his older self about the secret, and you just see the pain and difficulty older Bobby has even talking about it. It’s such a painfully honest portrayal of repression, which, again, is a real issue LGBTQA people face that you can’t really relay through the extended mutant metaphor. It’s harder to hide a mutant gift than it is your own sexuality, and infinitely more painful to hide sexuality, since that ends up affecting everything else in your life.
Naturally, film Bobby never appears as gay (Marvel Studios, hopefully, will chagne that when they reboot X-Men), but that scene in X2, again, really relays the strain of the LGBTQA experience. It’s very interesting how that scene, made years before Bobby Drake was retconned to be a suppressed homosexual, reads like a coming out scene.
But…let’s talk about the best LGBTQA mutant.
Deadpool is the best example of LGBTQA representation in comics.
Okay, maybe characters like Batwoman or Iceman offer a more sincere problem in the emotional and societal harm LGBTQA people experience, but Deadpool is the best example of a queer character who breaks the boundaries of the marginalized community.
Deadpool is a counter-culture icon. First created as an ill-attempt by Rob Liefeld to create Marvel’s Deathstroke, Wade Wilson evolved over the years into a fourth-wall breaking madman without restraint. He’s been adapted to the screen masterfully by Ryan Reynolds, appeared in video games, and —
Is not straight.
Deadpool’s sexuality is always a fluid thing. He’s been attracted to several women, from Death to Big Bertha to the entire cast of the Golden Girls, but also to several men. Most notably, Peter Parker himself. His relationships often lead to comedic situations, but the humor is never at the expense of his sexuality. It’s from the awkward situations he finds himself in.
And, unlike literally EVERY other example on this list, Deadpool is the only queer character in the X-Men film franchise. Granted, he never comes out and says “Hey, I’m bi” or whatever, but it’s pretty clear he feels a sexual attraction to Colossus throughout the films, as well as his lover Vanessa.
But there’s something else that makes Deadpool’s sexuality such a great example of representation: he’s still a bad-ass. He’s a cool character. His sexuality never defines him as a character. As much as I love characters like Batwoman and Iceman, their sexualities have come to define them. There’s nothing bad about that, but there is value in a character who is explicitly — repeatedly — acting in a queer fashion whose defining traits have nothing to do with his sexuality.
It normalizes LGBTQA behavior.
In a series all about bridging gaps between marginalized folks, this is the sort of character we need more of. I mean, yes, we need more queer representation, and no two queer experiences are the same, so there need to be a myriad of different sorts of queer characters, but that all being said, we need characters who are queer and…are still characters. Characters who are accessible to audiences outside the queer community who make people just see explicitly queer people as ordinary people. Because they just are.