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On Coming Out & The Importance Of Representation

[Editor note: Yehudith’s article was intended to run on National Coming Out Day and is late due to tech issues.]

 

By many an activist’s reckoning, individuals coming out to their friends and family has been incredibly important in helping the LGBT+ community achieve significant victories. Being open about your identity to loved ones puts a human face to the struggle; our community transforms from a generic “other” into my friend, daughter, coworker, or what have you, and that makes a huge difference when issues like marriage equality, bathroom bills, and workplace and housing discrimination come up for discussion.

People often think of coming out as an event, and it is certainly a rite of passage, but it’s also a process. I first came out when I was fourteen, and I’ve had to do so repeatedly as I’ve joined new peer groups and wrestled with how best to define my sexual orientation. I keep coming back to bi, but I’ve identified as a lesbian in the past (some handsome guy always comes along to remind me that I am still attracted to men, however unlikely it is that the super hot nerds will return that interest). Coming out is also something that some folk approach in stages. I’ve seen many a friend start out identifying as bi, gay, or lesbian, and then coming out about their gender identity years after they’ve first covered themselves in rainbows.

Fictional stories don’t always do a stellar job capturing the complexities of coming out. Even the best of allies, writing about something they haven’t experienced, can fall prey to stereotypes, or using the presence of a gay character for shock value (in the 90s especially, it seems like the very existence of people like me was inherently shocking). Every now and then though, you can find a comic book coming out story that feels somethig like real life, and those tend to be my favorites. Much as I love the escapist fantasy aspects of superhero comics, I do like the characters to feel like real people going through those fantastic situations, and seeing characters I can relate to makes me happy.

This brings me to my favorite comic book coming out story. Strangely enough, it’s also one of the early ones. At the risk of understatement, most books took a few years (*cough-cough* roughly a decade cough*) after the 1989 Comics Code revision to get the hang of writing about LGBT+ issues.

Hartley Rathaway, the Pied Piper, came out in Flash #53: Fast Friends, back in 1991. William Messner-Loebs had already been making pretty good use of Piper as a representation of some of his more liberal values. At this point, Wally West has been transitioning to being the Flash instead of Kid Flash, and he’s realized that some of his ideas about superheroics in general and morality in particular are a little simplistic. Supporting cast members like Piper, Linda Park, Mason Trollbridge, and Chester Runk/Chunk help him expand his world view a little. Piper, being one of Wally’s most vocal friends and in the process of reforming from a career of costumed crime, is arguably the most active in this role. He’s already helped Wally challenge his simplistic ideas about the homeless and the working poor (despite being a one percenter himself), so coming out as gay fits in thematically with what William Messner-Loebs had been doing with the character.

Piper’s coming out issue will always be near and dear to my heart because of how I felt when I first read it. At that point, I was most familiar with stories like Northstar’s attention-grabbing mess of spectacle that was completely divorced from reality. I’d felt disheartened by that one, and wondered if the people writing superhero comics even knew any real gay people. Most of my first gay superhero stories were the notorious ones, so that didn’t help any. That horrendous Hulk story where Bruce almost gets attacked in a YMCA bathroom (and the rest of the book manages to go further downhill from there – Jim Shooter seems like a remarkably hateful human being), Extrano’s brief existence and the controversy surrounding how he could have contracted HIV…yeah, Piper was a breath of fresh air after that stuff.

yehudithtalkspipercrop2 All art by Greg LaRoque.

For those who haven’t read it, at the beginning of the story Piper and Wally are hanging out on the top of a roof discussing Wally’s latest superhero adventure, conveniently recapping the previous issue for anyone who missed it. They’re doing so with relatively natural sounding dialogue. It really feels like friends catching up. While they’re chatting, Wally makes what he thinks is a clever joke about the Joker’s sexual orientation, and Piper gets annoyed with him. Obtuse straight friend Wally keeps pestering him, thinking that since Piper used to be a crook, he might have some gossip on the villains. It’s a nice example of that ‘who’s gay’ mentality that seemed to be all over tabloids and talk shows when I was a kid. Piper finally shuts Wally down by informing him that to the best of his knowledge there aren’t any gay supervillains, unless you count him. Which Wally should have known because according to him you can always tell with those guys. Showing obvious discomfort, Wally rambles out some awkward dialogue and then runs down the side of the building so he can meet up with Superman, leaving Piper alone and likely seriously uncomfortable himself. The theme of the issue is friendship, however, with Wally and Piper’s friendship mirrored by Superman and Jimmy Olsen’s. Piper shows up again in the last panels, having been called in to help Wally and Superman rescue Jimmy from his own incompetence as a reporter. Therefore, a strong message has been sent to the audience. Yes, Wally put his foot in his mouth. Yes, it surprised him that one of his close friends was gay and he hadn’t noticed. However, they are still friends and they’ll work through the awkwardness. Wally still felt he could count on Piper to help him with the superhero stuff, and Piper didn’t hesitate to back him.

yehudithtalkspiper003

And they did tackle quite a bit of awkwardness during the remainder of William Messner-Loebs’ run on the book. He didn’t have Piper come out for spectacle and then stop talking about it. In fact, in his last issue before handing the reigns to Mark Waid, Messner-Loebs has Piper introduce Wally to his love interest (Waid creates a different love interest named James, but it’s nice that there was already one waiting should he have wanted to use Michael). One of the recurring complaints about early gay superheroes was that they identified as gay and then never acted on it. Messner-Loebs and Waid really did treat Piper like any other character by giving him those little touches – boyfriends, awkward coming out moments, radical political leanings (what, that’s not a universal part of LGBT+ life…?)

All of my earliest coming out experiences felt a little bit like the Piper and Wally story. Visibility was a thing, of course, but we were still over a decade removed from marriage equality and average peoples’ impressions of gay people were largely rooted in stereotypes. Bisexuality wasn’t entirely acknowledged as a thing, more as a stepping stone to true gaydom or something girls like me were going to say for attention. I had a lot of well meaning loved ones put their foots in their mouths. What I really appreciate about this comic book is that it captures the discomfort of someone who means well and cares about you but has no idea what to say. And then as the series progressed, Wally learned that Piper was still exactly who he always thought he was, a loud mouthed radical tech geek with poor self-preservation skills, he was just gay in addition to all that.

I also really love that this isn’t Piper’s first time coming out. It’s not made entirely clear, but there is a chance Piper could have thought Wally already knew. From the way he behaves, he’s already outed himself a few times before. He’s not at all ashamed of being gay, so if he’s wrestled with those demons he’s long since conquered them. It’s just that he and Wally haven’t been close friends for very long and it hadn’t come up yet. That is coming out as a continual processs, and it’s something a lot of people forget about. We live in a stupidly heteronormative society, so every time you fall in with a new peer group it becomes necessary to out yourself (or the new peer group will feel like you have the first time it naturally comes up in conversation, much like Wally’s experience with Piper).

When characters come out now, it’s not always a big deal. In a way it’s nice. I’ve been obsessively reading the new Jem and the Holograms comic since it came out, and Stormer and Kimber were never really outed per se. Everyone just knows that they like girls, and is, to an extent, accepting of that (arguably the Misfits could be considered unsupportive, but their animosity seems to stem from the fact that Stormer is attracted to a rival musician; they’d likely feel the same way if Stormer was involved in a heterosexual romance with a rival). It’s certainly a sign of progress and is true to life in its own way. In 2015, the existence of gay people is not earth shattering news the way it was for comic book characters in 1991. Still though, coming out continues to be a complicated process that a lot of people wrestle with. I think the experience itself is deserving of a certain amount of attention, and I’ll always keep my eye out for honest depictions like Piper’s (and cringe at the terrible messes like Northstar’s).

So…what’s your favorite LGBT+ comic book coming out moment?

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