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Homo Superior

(Re-publishing a lost article from 2003).

Recently an art professor friend and I were talking about art and storytelling. The touchstone of the conversation was a quote from Clifford Geertz, a Harvard Professor of Anthropology: “Art is the story that people tell themselves about themselves.” Geertz’s comment was in reference to ritualized, cultural traditions of Bali where he was living.

Exactly what does this point have to do with mutants and the X-Men? I’m getting to that.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The X-Men in 1963, and theatrically billed them as “The Strangest Teens of All!” As Jewish men, it was natural to draw upon their own life experiences in creating the foundation which became the mythos of the X-Men: outsiders trying to co-exist with others in a society largely not their own. Lee and Kirby spun stories of intolerance and persecution, but also of survival.

Now, the notion of “outsiders” is broad and can be applied to any marginalized group within a society. It comes as no surprise then that after the revival of the X-Men in 1975 (which featured an extremely culturally-diverse team) and the advances made by the post-Stonewall Gay Rights Movement, that closeted teenagers and adults related to the outsider status of the X-Men as they began to discover themselves. The “mutant equals outsider” metaphor resonated strongly, and was co-opted to become “mutant equals gay.”

How could it not, when you considered these facts: Mutant traits first appear during puberty; Mutants are often alienated by their families and friends; Humans are fearful and intolerant of mutants; Many mutants, like gay people, are able to pass for “normal”; The Legacy Virus is the comic book analog of the AIDS pandemic, just as mutant registration recalls the ultra conservative cries of the 1980s to quarantine people with AIDS; Mutants may think they’re the only one “like this” until they come across other mutants and, like LGBT folk, create their own families of choice to forge their own sense of place in the world.

Despite the fact that the gay metaphor seems so strong with mutants, the actual presence of gay characters in X-titles has been nearly non-existent until only recently. Within the last year, writer Chuck Austen introduced former Alpha Flight member Northstar into Uncanny X-Men, with a plotline that had the Canadian mutant developing a crush on the straight Bobby Drake (Ice Man). In Uncanny #425, Austen addressed mutant prejudice straight on. The nurse Annie accused Drake of being both racist against “low gene” humans and homophobic. Drake countered by saying, “I’m a mutant living in a world that hates mutants! No one understands oppression more than me.”

Gay mutants have also popped up in Exiles (written by Pedro And Me’s Judd Winick) in the form of Sunfire, X-Statix (written by ENIGMA’s Peter Milligan) featuring “shock” couple Phat and Vivisector, Ultimate X-Men with the teasing hints of Colossus’ crush on Wolverine, and now New Mutants starring the heavily-implied-as-lesbian Karma. Mystique, whose sexual identity is still questionable (she was rumored to have had a relationship with her companion Destiny), is the mutant equivalent of a transgender, and is now the star of her own ongoing series.

While no actual lead gay mutants have appeared yet in Morrison’s New X-Men, the Scottish writer did flirt with the idea when he had the blue-furred Beast declare “…I think I may be gay.” He wasn’t really — just trying to make a point about tolerance.

Dirk Deppey (formerly of The Comics Journal) noted in a Journalista blog that, whether intentionally or not, Morrison has actually been advancing the mutant equals gay metaphor. With the exception of the fictional city of Genosha, mutants were shown to live largely secluded and apart from humans, like at Xavier’s school. Even then, Genosha is destroyed — which is an obvious metaphor for the Holocaust and by extension, for the homosexuals who were killed during the Third Reich, and also for all people who have died from AIDS complications. At the end of New X-Men #116, Cassandra Nova calculatingly “outs” Xavier and his students as mutants. Xavier abandons the charade and initiates a move forward into a new phase for mutantkind. This change spreads among mutants and coalesces into a mutant ghetto and culture.

Xavier’s philosophy is not the only one that speaks to the mutant community, though. For others, like Quentin Quire (whose name is remarkably similar to queer activist Quentin Crisp — coincidence?), it’s villain Magneto’s ideas that attract. In classic queer style, Quire begins to question Xavier’s authority, recruits a few mutants, and rebels in a manner recalling the queer militancy of the Stonewall Riots as well as AIDS activism.

Gay metaphors abound in this summer’s X2 movie, thanks to gay director Bryan Singer. In guerrilla tactics worthy of ACT UP, Nightcrawler (played by bisexual actor Alan Cummings) teleports into the White House and past Secret Service Agents and delivers the demand of “Mutant Freedom Now!” written on a knife blade embedded in the President’s desk.

Another parallel occurs when Xavier intervenes in an incident that gets out of hand involving Pyro, Rogue, Bobby, and two bullies, telling Pyro, “The next time you feel the urge to show off, don’t.” How often have we been told by our family, friends, authority figures — or even others in the gay community — to repress our natures?

The scene when Bobby Drake’s family find out he’s a mutant is rife with metaphors. After Bobby confides his secret, his mother fires off a round of typical cliches any queer person can identify with: “Honey, have you ever tried not being a mutant?”; “This is all my fault.”; “We still love you, Bobby.”

There are two other telling exchanges. The first between Nightcrawler, a “24/7” mutant, and the shapeshifting Mystique. He asks her why she doesn’t stay disguised to which she replies, “Because we shouldn’t have to.” The other takes place aboard the Blackbird between Magneto (played by openly gay actor Ian McKellan) and Pyro. Magneto asks the boy what his name is. He replies, “John.” Magneto asks again, “What’s your real name?” to which John answers, “Pyro.” Magneto then tells Pyro, “You are a god among insects. Never let anyone tell you differently.” Magneto encourages the boy to express his real identity, and accepts him for it.

Chances are that you and I have a few things in common. We’re all outsiders in some way, sometimes in more than one respect whether it be race, handicap, or even HIV status. We’re all comic readers, and we love good stories. Sometimes we read a story that resonates with strength and truth and it affects us. Maybe the story of mutants is like that for you. Maybe it isn’t. That isn’t important.

What matters about the stories that are told about us is how we adapt them into our lives. Listen to stories, take the parts of them which ring true for you, and then find your voice to write your own stories. To loosely paraphrase Emma Frost, you are nothing less than fabulous!

May 27, 2020
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