Marvel's Embarrassing History Of LGBTQ Characters
In recent years, many Marvel fans have expressed disappointment that the MCU is taking its sweet time to introduce a gay character who isn't a cameo by the director of the movie appearing onscreen for 40 seconds. (See: Joe Russo in Avengers: Endgame.) But maybe we shouldn't be surprised, considering how long it took Marvel to get LGBTQ representation right in the comics -- and the hilariously embarrassing crap that came before that. Starting with ...
The '70s: No Gay People In The Marvel Universe ... Except For Hulk's Would-Be Shower Rapists
Throughout the '60s and most of the '70s, there were no gay characters in Marvel comics, unless you count the occasional effeminate villain or "lispy stool pigeon." And we say "most of the '70s" because that changed in 1979 with the introduction of the first explicitly homosexual characters in Marvel Comics history. And that honor goes to ... two guys who try to rape the Hulk (in his puny Bruce Banner form) in a YMCA shower?
Gay readers, and people with basic humanity in general, weren't impressed with the fact that Marvel's first foray into LGBTQ representation consisted of two disco-era rapists called Dewey and Luellen (Dewey and Luellen (c) Walt Disney Company, all rights reserved). When they let Marvel know about this, writer/comic child prodigy Jim Shooter, who also happened to be the company's Editor-in-Chief, defended the story by saying that he " understand why any non-rapist would be offended" and pointing out that there were lots of non-sinister gay characters in that very magazine. You just couldn't tell they were gay.
Shooter apparently liked this "you can't see the gay people" policy, considering what happened next ...
The '80s: Marvel Bans Gay Characters (But Some Slip Through Anyway)
Multiple comic book writers have stated that Marvel wouldn't let them introduce any gay characters in the '80s, possibly because Shooter had ran out of bullshit excuses after the Hulk YMCA controversy. Why go through the trouble of making your gay characters less offensive when it's easier to ban them? The Comics Code Authority was also a problem, since it forbid "sexual abnormalities" and "sex perversion" and, until 1989, they counted homosexuality as both. Superheroes could exchange fluids with all kinds of bizarre aliens and mutants, but someone of their same gender? Yuck, no.
Some writers still managed to get stuff past the anti-gaydar. Alpha Flight (the Canadian X-Men) had Northstar, a brash young mutant who wasn't interested in women and didn't mind having "attractively-dressed men about."
The X-Men comics also had Mystique and Destiny, two female supervillains who lived together for decades, raised Rogue together, and seemed awfully fond of each other. Writer Chris Claremont planned to reveal that they were lovers and Mystique was actually Nightcrawler's father, having shape-shifted into a man and impregnated Destiny, but he couldn't even get to the "lovers" part.
Captain America had a clearly gay supporting character too, but his boyfriend could only be referred to as his "roommate." But things got better once Jim Shooter left and everyone stopped giving a crap about the Comics Code, right? Uh, sort of ...
The '90s: Northstar Gets Magic AIDS And Comes Out ... For A Few Panels
In the late '80s there was a storyline where Northstar was heavily hinted to have AIDS, but someone at Marvel must have realized it wouldn't look good to have their only gay superhero be HIV-positive, so they fixed it by ... turning him into a fairy. A literal fairy. In Alpha Flight #50, it's revealed that Northstar and his sister are half-elves from the faerie realm of Alfheim, and they're getting sick just from being on Earth for too long, so they have to leave forever. Guess that's like 3% better than killing him from AIDS.
But, by the '90s, all that crap had been retconned and Marvel was ready to do right by Northstar by finally letting him come out of the closet! Which they did in the most terrible way possible. The story starts with him finding an AIDS-infected baby in a trash can.
Northstar adopts the baby, but then a beloved WWII-era Canadian superhero called Captain Mapleleaf breaks into her hospital room and tries to punch her to death because he hates AIDS-infected infants for hogging all the attention while his son, an AIDS-infected adult, was shunned. A beautiful message delivered in an unnecessarily bonkers way, like a Mozart symphony played on kazoos.
Somewhere between all this insanity, Northstar publicly announces his homosexuality for the first time, which was a bold move back then. Or it would have been, if Marvel hadn't immediately backed down. According to editor Chris Cooper (yep, the Central Park birdwatcher guy), even though they made sure Northstar's confession was "devoid of any expression of romance or sexuality," some higher ups at Marvel still tried to prevent the issue from going to press. When it did, they forbid the writers and editors from talking about it on the press. It's the exact opposite of today, when Marvel spoils any barely progressive plot twist on Entertainment Weekly six months before the issue comes out.
Northstar's homosexuality was barely acknowledged for the rest of the '90s and, despite being surrounded by perfectly sculpted abs and butts everywhere, he was never shown so much as glancing at another dude (let alone being in a relationship). Outside of Northstar, progress was slow, but it was there. The Incredible Hulk had an openly gay supporting character who wasn't a complete embarrassment and an (unrelated, non-terrible) AIDS storyline. Surely the worst was behind us? Hahaha, you have no idea.
The '00s: Marvel Proudly Announces New Gay Characters, Then Kills Or Censors Them
During Marvel's desperate post-bankruptcy period in the early '00s, they got some media attention by announcing they were rebooting a classic western character, the Rawhide Kid, as an "in your face" gay cowboy. The new series was written by Ron Zimmerman, best known for being in The Howard Stern Show a whole lot. Damn, how edgy was this comic? Actually ... not edgy at all. It was all rather campy and inoffensive.
The only offensive part? The fact that Marvel published this comic in their adults-only MAX line and slapped a big "EXPLICIT CONTENT" parental warning on the cover, just because the main character was gay.
There was no nudity, nothing sexual, and only the tamest of double entendre jokes. If you've ever watched an episode of Friends, you've seen racier material. Marvel also excluded Rawhide Kid from a crossover involving western characters because they'd "have to label the book " or make him straight again. Despite repeating how "proud" they were of the character, a couple of years later Marvel established he was only acting gay to "confuse others." Even revealing that he was zapped by a de-gaying ray or briefly possessed by fairies would have been more dignified.
Speaking of youngsters, in 2006 Marvel introduced a young gay superhero called Freedom Ring, created by Walking Dead writer Robert Kirkman. His sexuality wasn't a huge part of the stories, but in interviews, Marvel head honcho Joe Quesada used his existence to brag about the fact that they had "more gay and lesbian characters appearing in Marvel comics than ever before" and touted him as the "star" of the Marvel Team Up series.
A month after he said that, Freedom Ring was brutally murdered via impaling (of all things).
Marvel did introduce more lasting LGTBQ characters during this time, like Wiccan and Hulkling from Young Avengers and Karolina and Xavin from Runaways. All four are well-rounded young characters who happen to be gay ... and all four were singled out for torture while their straight teammates went unharmed during the Civil War crossover, also in 2006 (not a great year to be a young gay superhero).
The '10s: They Finally Get It Right (Mostly)
In 2009, X-Factor characters Shatterstar and Rictor, who'd been hinted to be gay since the '90s, finally hooked up. Despite some initial grumblings from Shatterstar's co-creator Rob Liefeld ("Can't wait to someday undo this"), it looks like he eventually came around to the idea and neither character has been shoved back into the closet since then. Meanwhile, Northstar was not only allowed to have a boyfriend but Marvel made a big deal out of his wedding. Neither of these storylines involves any trash can babies.
You'll also note the lack of parental warnings on that cover. Iceman of the X-Men was revealed to be gay in 2015, which didn't totally come out of nowhere, but not everyone appreciated the way it happened: Jean Grey outed a time-traveling teen Iceman by reading his mind while his adult self still identified as straight, and she also immediately ruled out him being bisexual, so some found the scene problematic for about 3000 different reasons we won't go into because then this website would run out of ink.
On top of that, when teen Iceman was sent back to his time period, he was forced to go back into the closet in order to protect the sanctity of the space-time continuum -- yeah, can you imagine an error in the otherwise totally airtight X-Men comics timeline?
Anyway, quibbles like these don't take away from the fact that Marvel is closer than ever to having gay representation that matches the real world. They've come a long way since Dewey and Luellen, AIDS fairies, and fake gay cowboys. Can't wait for the MCU to finally have a gay superhero so we can go through all of this bullshit all over again!
Suggested Reading: Past Superhero Trends That Now Look Nuts
Top Photo: Marvel Comics