If an LGBTI person loves superhero comics, they love the X-Men. The soap opera following Marvel’s most persecuted superhero team magnetizes people to it: the drama, the sense of family, the amazing costumes. And, of course, its queerness.
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963, the story followed five teenagers and their telepathic mentor fighting against mutant and human villains alike.
They coined the phrase ‘fighting for a world that hates and fears them’, illustrating that despite the persecution, they continued to fight for their rights and the rights of all people. However, as new creative teams took hold of the book, it became more diverse, and the message became even clearer.
The X-Men are so fundamentally queer, is it any wonder it has such a large LGBTI following? From the subtext to the characters, what was once considered a rather insensitive race relations metaphor has now become the ultimate queer narrative. But how did we get here?
Q is for Queer: Superheroes and social justice
Superheroes are the modern mythical characters. They represent the absolute best in humanity, while remaining flawed.
Captain America is the pinnacle of the strong defending the weak, of sticking with your convictions and treating everyone with respect; an ideal people used to (however wrongly) associate with that nation. Tony Stark/Iron Man is what would happen if the leader of a corporation used its massive resources to help people rather than horde.
Meanwhile, the X-Men is all about a downtrodden class fighting for their place in the world. They are a group of people, united as a family and persecuted by society because of a quirk of nature which makes them different. The world fears them, using the most extreme villains in the community in the form of Apocalypse or (sometimes) Magneto in order to stoke fear against them.
In the real world, LGBTI people are persecuted in society because of a quirk of nature. People run for office on platforms to strip us of our rights. Trans people are labeled rapists and gay men pedophiles. The actions of the worst used to demonize the rest of the population.
But against the waves of hatred the X-Men rise up to defend everyone: mutant and human alike. They take down the villains in their community while defending the rest against those that would harm them.
The beauty of the superhero narrative shines through here. Heroism isn’t limited to a comic page. People in our world do the same, from those heroes organizing Prides in Uganda to school children fighting Russia’s evil anti-LGBTI propaganda laws. Or even in less dangerous yet still inspirational ways, such as the members of the lesbian community marching side-by-side with trans people at Manchester Pride, after a year of extreme hatred against the trans community.
We all fight to protect a world that hates and fears us.
The general message of the book and its parallels are undeniable. This superhero message is a reason why queer people attach themselves to it. They see reflections. But these reflections go even deeper. As queer life, for some, isn’t just a continuous protest, so is the X-Men not all about superheroes.
Hated and feared: coming out as mutant and queer
From Generation X to Wolverine and the X-Men, the tale also focuses on the everyday mutant caught up in a world that hates and fears them.
Probably the most famous coming out scene in X-Men is from the second film: the terribly named X2: X-Men United. In it, the straight version of Iceman ‘comes out’ to his parents as a mutant. Even his parents react in typical ways: his dad with anger, his mother asking if he’s ‘tried not being a mutant’.
Yet this has been playing out in the comics for years. In New Mutants #45 (a book following a younger generation of mutants at the Xavier school), the character of Larry Bodine is introduced. He’s a bullied child and the super-kids make friends with him at a dance. The teenager tells anti-mutant jokes to the New Mutants in a bid to become his friend, but they dismiss him because, despite their age, they are mutant and proud.
However, it turns out that Larry is a mutant himself. When he finds out people at school know he’s a mutant, he kills himself. The parallels here are obvious. The story takes place in the 80s, at a time when LGB people were as demonized as mutants. Suicide attempts were and still are higher in LGB communities than the rest of the population.
This storyline – of hiding who you are, of fearing what will happen if people find out, of the dramatic consequences if no one is there to help – is so entwined with the real life queer narrative that it’s impossible to separate them. Larry’s words were hurtful but they ultimately reflected inner-turmoil and pain. Perhaps it was the New Mutants’ job, who are proud and a family, to help Larry see why his internalized mutant-phobia is wrong.
The themes and queerness become inseparable, but this isn’t enough to make them the ‘queerest superhero team’. There has to be more. And there is more. Behind the panels, hidden by censorship, the subtext of the LGBTI characters becomes clear.
The eXtraordinary same-seX subteXt
Way before the first on-panel same-sex relationship – and even before the first person came out – we had subtextual relationships. The Comics Code Authority was an archaic rule that restricted what writers and artists could put on the page, which included homosexuality. However, behind the panels, readers were able to find glimpses of themselves.
The writer many credit with the success of the X-Men, the legendary Chris Claremont, has often pushed that the LGBTI undertones were purposefully subtextual.
On a panel at FlameCon in 2017, he said about the Comics Code Authority: ‘The Comics Code tried to restrict everything. But with a certain measure of visual subtlety and ambiguity you could actually achieve everything you wanted.’
This certainly shows through his run.
Villains Mystique and Destiny are the most obvious subtextual couple – and the one most X-fans know about. Mystique’s shapeshifting powers mirror her gender-fluidity and she’s had many relationships with men and women – she’s now canonically queer.
Yet the Comics Code Authority restricted depictions of their relationship early on. This left Claremont with only hints. The pair are Rogue’s foster co-parents, raising her together after she was rejected by her birth ones. In one issue, Destiny is referred to as Mystique’s ‘leman’ by the Shadow King, which is an archaic term for lover. This relationship slipped through the net.
Then when she dies, the mourning is so intense it clearly surpasses traditional friendship.
The main characters, too, have this running theme. Storm’s punk makeover and subsequent ‘close friendship’ with Yukio in the 80s hints towards something more. But there’s one pairing that fans have been debating for years. Rachel Grey and Kitty Pryde.
Rachel’s aesthetics read as outwardly queer – and there’s an argument to be made about whether telepaths can be attracted to a single gender, since they are so attached to others’ minds – but Kitty has garnered the most attention for potentially being bisexual. Her friendship with Magik was so intense that when Magik was written out of existence, she left her weapon, the Soulsword to Kitty. The weapon crafted from her own soul. She literally gifted her soul.
Later on, in Excalibur, she forms an incredible bond with Rachel. In fact, Claremont himself compares it to the famous Jean Grey-Wolverine relationship. On the 100th Episode of Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men podcast, he says: ‘Kitty is as bound to the Phoenix in her own way as Logan is.’ Both Rachel and her alternate-reality mother held the codename ‘Phoenix’.
This closeness continues to this day.
Despite the character’s creator basically confirming her bisexuality, all of these (other than Mystique) are just hinted at. Sub-text isn’t enough. As the 2000s rolled on, more and more LGBTI characters appeared. X-Men, here, proves why it’s the queerest mainstream superhero team.
The Age of LGBTI: X-Men gets queer
Things started to change in the 90s. The Comics Code Authority was all but dead, paving the way for some real LGBTI representation. It arrives slowly, but it comes.
In X-Men adjacent book Alpha Flight, mutant Northstar became the first superhero in Marvel to come out as gay – and the first in one of the major publishers. The story, being the 90s, is mostly nonsense, but the fact it happened so early is amazing in itself.
Northstar is a ‘jock’ in all senses of the words. He’s beautiful, rich, white and his powers of super-speed and flight make him incredibly desirable. So his narrative perhaps isn’t the most universal. He did, however, trail blaze again. The first gay wedding depicted in a superhero comic was his, when he married long-suffering and long-term partner Kyle, in Astonishing X-Men #51 (2012).
New X-Men star Anole is different. He’s gay, but his mutations means that he’s physically changed too. The world is way more likely to persecute Anole: he’s physically identifiable as a mutant, his mutation gives him a lizard-like appearance, and he’s gay. This comes to the fore in Amazing X-Men #17, where Anole goes missing from class to meet up with a guy for a date.
However, he chickens out at the last minute because he’s worried about the way he looks. When a mind-altering mutant preys on these insecurities about his appearance (and the persecution that comes with it), Northstar tries to help Anole, attempting to draw similarities to their experiences.
Anole straight up calls him out on his privilege. This is the evolution of the metaphor and how well it works in action. The original book featured four middle class guys and one girl with minor physical changes. (In fact they were so privileged, one was literally a millionaire called Angel).
Anole, on the other hand, is outwardly mutant. He can’t hide the fact he’s a mutant and society’s expectations of beauty have lead to many being scared of him.
This is the mutant metaphor for the LGBTI community used properly, as it shows intersectionality at work. We may be united by a common theme, but there are things that separate us still. And we need to acknowledge these differences in order to help each other.
New Mutant Karma – a Vietnamese refugee and sexual assault survivor – is one of the more famous lesbian X-Men. Subtext rules through her 1980s appearances, but in X-Force #75 (1998) she comes out officially. In the 2000s, she even kisses Kitty, mistaking their friendship for attraction.
In the end, Iceman coming out might just be the most powerful of them all. Not for any intersectional reasons, but because he’s one of the original X-Men. He’s part of the team’s foundation, and he’s gay.
Throughout Iceman’s career as a superhero, he dates women with disastrous consequences. However, when his younger self comes into the future – a future more tolerant of LGBTI people – and he’s outed by friend Jean Grey, it turns out he’s been hiding his gay identity the whole time.
It’s such an obvious story that’s been staring X-fans in the face all this time. None of his relationships have worked. He’s over-compensating, partly through a rocky relationship with his father, which made him feel inadequate. But it becomes clear that the over-compensation came from trying to hide who he was.
When he tries to suppress his feelings, his powers are suppressed too. Both versions of himself become more adept at using their powers the more comfortable he is with himself, which is impressive. He’s an Omega-level mutant. He’s one of the most powerful X-Men on the team.
In Astonishing X-Men #62 (2013), his failed relationships with women weighed so heavy on his conscience that his powers nearly destroyed the entire world. This was written before the character was ‘outed’ as gay.
Not only is this such a great parallel to being in the closet and trapped by your decisions, but the power plot element is such a uniquely fantastic, X-Men way to illustrate it. The internal destruction is made literal, his own powers – often used for good – turned against the world because he’s denying who he is.
Ultimately, though, the fact he’s an original X-Man is the main point. One of the founding mutants is gay. It hammers home why the X-Men are the queerest of them all. All the way to their foundation, they are queer. It’s one of the most fantastic aspects of the story and
In every aspect, the X-Men are the queerest superhero team of all time. From their fight for liberation, to the mutant metaphor, to the subtext, and to the outright gayness, it drips off the page. While Stan Lee may never have intended them to become so queer, the book – like the mutants themselves – evolved.
So many LGBTI people from all ages attach themselves to this team and it’s so, so important.
Stuck in a world as chaotic and confusing as ours, we can turn to superheroes for hope – to see people affect change and fight for what they believe in, while still being human. We have to believe in something better. We are the X-Men and the X-Men are us.
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