Homosexuals in Comics:
Comics of the 1990sHomosexual portrayals of the Joker were not limited to the 1980s but continued through the next decade. This gay characterization became so obvious that other comic book characters in other comic book series separate from Batman talked about it.
Well, Is He?
Notably, the mere inclusion of a friendly gay character could be perceived as a threat to the hero's masculinity.
Flash Knows What He Likes
Several other letters in this issue discussed the interaction between comic books and culture. Those opposed to homosexuality viewed comics only as a form of simple entertainment, such as one writer who dismissed the series as "homosexual propaganda". "What are comics for? To entertain, right?" this fan reasoned. "Now, if there were no homosexuals in Flash, it would still be entertaining, right? .... I can only perceive the Piper's revelation, not as a means to entertain, but as a way for Mr. Loebs to preach his view of morality into the consciousness of the populace." 8
Piper was not the only character to "come out" in the early 1990s. After a full one hundred issues of Alpha Flight, team member Northstar was finally allowed to say he was gay. This began in 1991 with publication of the one hundredth issue, where a fan letter mentioned Northstar's early hints of homosexuality and wanted this plot line to be resurrected. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could revive the Northstar as a gay character story line again?" this reader asked. "Could it be that comics have grown up to the point in which Marvel could openly discuss gay characters in their comics?" 9 Realizing the potential, Marvel did just that in issue 106. While fighting a super villain in downtown Toronto, Northstar was thrown into an alley where he discovered an abandoned baby girl. Taking the child to a hospital, Alpha Flight soon learned the abandoned baby had AIDS. Adopting the baby as his own, Northstar began to promote AIDS awareness. This act enraged the retired superhero Major Mapleleaf, whose gay son died of AIDS the year before. Mapleleaf decided to attack Northstar for this perceived injustice to his son.
People did start talking, albeit more about Northstar than about AIDS. Northstar's homosexuality received immediate media coverage, with most newspapers praising the issue for its social awareness. A New York Times editorial wrote: "The comic audience is made up mainly of teen-agers, the group that will benefit most from discussions about sexuality and disease prevention. And the new story lines suggest that gay Americans are gradually being accepted in mainstream popular culture." After comparing Alpha Flight to earlier comics that promoted equality for African Americans and women, the article concluded: "Mainstream culture will one day make its peace with gay Americans. When that time comes, Northstar's revelation will be seen for what it is: a welcome indicator of social change." 14 Renee Graham from the Boston Globe quipped "It's a long way from wondering whether Lois Lane would ever figure out Clark Kent's secret identity." She also noted the overwhelmingly positive response from gay rights activists. 15 Comic author Peter David also praised the issue in a lengthy article, but mentioned a few drawbacks such as the limited distribution of Alpha Flight. "Since Alpha Flight is direct-only ... the chances are that Joe Average wouldn't be able to find it. Anyone who's interest is piqued enough to try and seek out a copy would go down to his local 7-11, be told by the guy behind the counter that they'd never heard of Alpha Flight, and perhaps presume the whole thing was a hoax." 16 David also asked a pertinent question about Northstar's revelation. "Northstar's coming out ultimately ... boils down to this: What next?" 17
While David pondered over possible future plot lines that focused on Northstar's homosexuality, Marvel Comics was particularly leery of touching on such a controversial issue again. Northstar's revelation generated a massive amount of fan reaction, and the series editors mentioned the "immense response" when they printed several fan letters in Alpha Flight issue 110. Similar to the fan reaction when Pied Piper came out in Flash, the letters page of issue 110 printed several letters which praised and damned Northstar, including opinions from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the Ku Klux Klan. 18 Fearful of garnering more controversy, Marvel prevented stories about Northstar's sexuality for several years afterwards.
Subtle Enough for You?
While these open portrayals of homosexuality proved controversial, their existence demonstrated the mass media was beginning to adapt to this demographic. In 1989 the Comics Code underwent a revision that expressly allowed mentions of homosexuality. Prior to this the Comics Code forbade any mention of homosexuality, described as "sex perversion". In 1971 the comic industry updated the Comics Code to allow stories about the dangers of drug use, but this code still included the "sex perversion" clause. 25 The Code changed a third time in 1989, and this revision described homosexuals as a distinct minority group. "Recognizable national, social, political, cultural, ethnic and racial groups ... will be portrayed in a positive light." This included "social groups identifiable by lifestyle, such as homosexuals." 26 The new Code mentioned homosexuality again when describing characterizations. "Character portrayals will be carefully crafted to and show sensitivity to national, ethnic, religious, sexual, political and socioeconomic orientations." This section concluded by stating: "Heroes should be role models and should reflect the prevailing social attitudes." 27 By mentioning homosexuals in the new Comics Code, the comic creators and editors clearly understood gays were becoming a recognizable part of society. While homosexuals gained more prominence in the media during the early 1990s, they did so through political controversies. Beginning in 1992, conservative political and religious groups began to push for restrictions on gay rights, arguing that since homosexuality was a "choice" gays should not be eligible for equal-rights protections. In the state of Colorado an Amendment passed stating "Homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships shall [not] ... entitle any person or class of persons to ... any minority status, quota preferences, protected status or claim of discriminations." 28 Another measure in the state of Oregon in the same year went even further, likening homosexuality to pedophilia. This measure not only did away with any protected status for gays, but also took measures to actively combat the idea of homosexuality. "The State Department of Higher Education and the public schools shall assist in setting a standard for Oregon's youth that recognizes homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism and masochism as abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse and that these behaviors are to be discouraged and avoided." 29
The Oregon law did not pass, but it only failed by a small percentage. 30 The Colorado Amendment did pass but sparked national protests by the gay community, including a boycott on traveling to Colorado. 31 After legal challenges, this Amendment was ultimately overturned by the United States Supreme Court. 32 While gays may have been gaining more prominence in the media, negative views of homosexuality continued unabated, seen in the widespread support for Amendment 2 and Measure 9 in Oregon. This conflict burst into the pages of the comics whenever gay characters were introduced, echoed in the myriad fan letters. This controversy continued into the next decade, even as more gay characters continued to be introduced.