by Jay Edidin (as Rachel Edidin)
This article originally appeared at Playboy.com under the title “One of the Original X-Men Is Gay – And It Matters More Than You Think”; reposted with permission. Special thanks to Marc Bernardin.
If you’ve been online in the last couple days—and especially if you follow comics— you’ve probably heard the news: Earlier this week, The Advocate posted a handful of leaked pages from All-New X-Men #40, out today from writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Mahmud Asrar, in which a time-displaced teenage Iceman comes out as gay.
To understand why this is such a big deal, you need to know a little bit about the X-Men. This isn’t Marvel introducing a new queer character, getting accolades for diversity, and then quietly shelving them (Remember America Chavez?1) Bobby Drake — Iceman — is one of the OGs of one of Marvel’s biggest lines, a character with 50-plus years of cross-media name recognition. There’s a generation of kids who know him from the movies; another who grew up watching him on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. If this sticks — which it seems likely to, at least until the upcoming Secret Wars2 event tosses an immersion blender into the Marvel Universe — it fundamentally changes the landscape of queer visibility in superhero comics on a scale no other character’s coming out has.
That this is happening in an X-title is also significant: the X-Men have a large, dedicated, and markedly diverse fanbase; one that tends to be particularly attuned to representation of minority issues. There are a couple reasons for that.
The X-Men themselves are outsiders; and their outsider status is fundamental to their core premise, even when they’re not being written as a direct allegory for a specific marginalized group. As a teenager, I gravitated to the X-Men not because they offered a pointed metaphor for my sexual orientation, but because I identified with their liminality. The X-Men are superheroes for the rest of us — superheroes whose relationships to their powers and identities are often painful and fraught, superheroes who operate on the margins of both genre and society because of who they are.
But there’s been a consistent gap between what the X-Men represent in theory or allegory and whom they represent in practice. They’re used with striking frequency as a direct and obvious proxy for sexual minorities — but at the same time, within their stories, queerness is almost exclusively relegated to allegory or subtext (Storm, Shadowcat). The few openly queer characters in the franchise (Anole, BLING!, Karma, Rictor, Shatterstar) rarely make it further than bit roles. The most prominent openly gay X-Man is Northstar, a B-list character whose primary association is with a different team and title.3
So, while representations of queerness and coming out in superhero comics matter across the board, they matter a particular lot — and draw (and deserve) particularly close scrutiny — in X-Men. And the conversation around Iceman’s coming out has been, pardon the pun, more than a little heated.
Of course, the catch is that if we’re going to have a serious conversation about this story, we’re going to need to delve into two of the most complex and controversial fields: sexual orientation and identity; and X-Men continuity.
Fasten your seatbelts.
I saw the All-New X-Men pages a few minutes after they went up. When you co-host a podcast about X-Men continuity and write a lot about diversity and representation in geek culture and media, that kind of thing goes up like a Bat-signal. I read the pages, liked them a lot, and then stepped back to look at discussion as it rippled outward across social media.
The first set of responses came from a crowd that is mortally offended that Bendis has “made” an existing character gay, and they deserve the least attention of the lot. People come out as adults — including older adults — all the time. When you live in a society that treats heterosexuality as the norm and varyingly violently stigmatizes deviation from that norm, the pressure toward not only secrecy but denial is incredibly high.
Also, hiding your homophobia behind a veneer of cherry-picked concern for (alreadyconvoluted and self-contradictory) continuity is odious, and it makes the rest of us continuity wonks look bad. Don’t do that.
The second train of conversation that I’ve been following is less clear-cut, and — I think — more important. See, the Bobby Drake who comes out in All-New X-Men#40 isn’t exactly the one we’ve been following all these years: He’s the 16-year-old version of the contemporary adult Iceman, who, along with his teammates, has been pulled forward in time to the present.4
So, there’s another, older Bobby Drake running around the present — the Bobby Drake this one would have grown up into had he not been displaced from his own timeline — one who thus far has exclusively dated women, albeit not particularly successfully; and does not identify as gay, at least not publicly.5
This leaves a few possibilities.
The first — and least likely, I think — is that the adult Bobby Drake is exclusively straight. This is the possibility that has people, justly, concerned about the potential for erasure of a rare headlining queer character, and the fictional reinforcement of the idea that queerness is a phase or something that can be overwritten with abusive and ineffective practices like conversion “therapy.”
Based on statements from both Bendis and Marvel Editor in Chief Axel Alonso, it seems profoundly unlikely that Marvel will take this course. While their history on queer representation is pretty spotty, the company seems to be at least beginning to understand the value of representation and inclusion at a deeper-than-superficial level. From a more mercenary perspective, I doubt they’d want to deal with the inevitable and significant backlash that move would prompt.
The next possibility — and the one that seems the most likely — is that the adult Bobby is gay and closeted or in denial. That would be fine.
But there’s a final option — one that’s been largely overlooked — which is an adult Bobby who identifies somewhere else on the spectrum. And, honestly, that’s the Bobby I’d most like to see.
The emphasis on sexual orientation as fundamental and immutable — while a politically valuable one for pushing back against stigma and socially compulsory heterosexuality — is, I think, a damaging generalization. It’s not fundamentallywrong; there are a lot of people who are one thing, and always that one thing, and that’s fine, and important to recognize. But there are also a lot of people for whom sexual orientation is not a simple journey with a static endpoint; and I would love to see a comic that recognized and validated that as well. Who we are, how we identify, whom we love, and how we interact with and label those things are often mutable. My sexuality at 32 overlaps significantly with my sexuality at 16, but the intervening decade and a half have been an ongoing lesson in mutability, growth, and self-knowledge; of the relationship of experience to both desire and identity.
My experience as a queer teenager and a queer adult are not universal. That’s the point.No one’s are. And when the politically expedient party line, that sexual orientation is static and innate, carries over into fiction, it does a massive disservice to the many, many kids for whom it is not and never will be that simple; who struggle with their identities without the benefit of seeing their journeys reflected in media.
The third conversation around Bobby’s coming out has to do with the leaked scene itself — or what little we’ve seen of it, in a handful of leaked pages from All-New X-Men #40. And the reactions to that — at least thus far — have been the strongest, and the most radically divided.
For what it’s worth: I really like this scene. I like it as an X-Men fan; and I like it as a queer adult who used to be a queer teenager. As I wrote above, my experiences and perspective aren’t universal. I am not Your Magical Queer Friend™ whose approval means you can blanket dismiss the complaints of people who disagree with me. Clear? Good.
But I do want to address some specific points of pushback: about coming out; about bi erasure; and about the larger narratives that this is part of, fictional and cultural.
This is where I’m going to stop and talk a little about X-Men continuity; because these pages have mostly appeared stripped of their narrative context, and I think that narrative context of this scene matters a lot. When you’re looking at the leaked pages, you’re looking at a very small excerpt of a very long, serial story, which is the context in which most readers will encounter them. All-New X-Men has been running for a little under four years and it’s tied to characters and continuity that — in some form or another — go back to 1963.
Here are a few points of backstory:
The kids on these pages are Jean Grey (Marvel Girl) and Bobby Drake (Iceman). They’re both around 16. That’s relevant. Do you remember being 16? (Are you currently 16? Do your parents know you’re reading Playboy.com? High five!)
Bobby and Jean have been pulled forward in time, along with the rest of their team (Cyclops, Angel, and Beast, for those of you playing along at home). Because Marvel continuity runs on a slippery and inconsistent timeline, the comic has kept their point of origin deliberately vague. All we really have to go on is how the X-kids dress and the fact that one of them is shocked by the ubiquity of bottled water; which latter at least places them fairly firmly before the late 1980s. That’s also relevant.
After arriving in our present — her future — Jean abruptly acquired6 very powerful telepathy, which she’s been struggling to control with mixed success, under a mentor whose telepathic etiquette and ethics are — generously — flexible. That’s relevant, too.
So: Let’s start with the telepathy. Jean pulls the knowledge that Bobby is gay out of his head. If she went digging for it — as readers seem to be assuming — it’s a major violation of privacy. But there’s no textual evidence for that interpretation: As I wrote above, Jean’s control over her powers is shaky at best, especially when it comes to big stuff and people she’s close to.
What do you do when you stumble into a close friend’s biggest secret? Is it ethical to keep your knowledge a secret from your friend? There is no guidebook for this — especially when you’re coming into it with a cultural frame of reference that’s mostly pre-1988.
Here’s what we know Jean has to work with, based on the text:
She knows that Bobby is gay; or at least, at this point, attracted exclusively to men.
She knows Bobby is scared. That he thought he was going crazy — which he confirms.
She knows that they’re in an era where the repercussions and cultural context of coming out are much more forgiving than the era they came from.
She’s 16, with all of the arrogance and intensity that entails.
Here’s what we can reasonably assume, given the characters’ history:
Jean knows Bobby really well, even telepathy aside. They’re good friends, they’re teammates, and they’ve been through a lot together.
Jean has probably not had a lot of access to modern queer culture, politics, or literature. Where would she have encountered those things? Who would have thought to show them to her? Most of the relatively brief time she’s spent in the present has been dominated by jumping from crisis to crisis; in space or holed up in a paramilitary complex with strictly limited access to the outside world; fighting or running for her life. Her peers — the ones who weren’t pulled forward from the past with her — treat her like an artifact to gawk at. She’s been kidnapped. She’s been put on trial for the crimes of the woman she may or may not grow up into. And she’s been navigating her own identity crises, thrust into sudden and intimate contact with the most personal thoughts of strangers and friends alike, facing a future that involves her own repeated death. She probably hasn’t had a lot of opportunities to click around Tumblr.
This isn’t a callous monster. This is a 16-year-old kid trying her muddling best to be a good friend.
And guess what? She’s succeeding.
Look: Every article I’ve seen about this excoriates Jean for confronting Bobby the way that she does. Calls her irresponsible, presumptuous, harmful.
And look: They’re not wrong, at least not universally. “Face it, you’re gay” is not on the best-practices list — although, to address one specific point of criticism that left me seeing red, it is no more acceptable if you’re queer than if you’re straight. There are plenty of kids for whom this kind of confrontation would constitute a terrible and traumatic violation of boundaries. And yes, it’s important to talk about that, to say, “You should probably not do what Jean did.”
Except when you should.
Because here’s the thing: There is no one-size-fits-all coming-out narrative. We don’t often talk about this, the same way we don’t often talk about the fluidity of identity.
There is no one-size-fits-all coming-out narrative because there is no one-size-fits-all experience of sexual orientation. Or friendship. Because different people have different social needs and part of being a good friend is recognizing that. But there are kids — and adults — for whom hearing a frightening truth from a trusted friend is a huge and welcome relief: a signpost to a revelation; permission to acknowledge and articulate a secret they’ve been running from.
It’s possible to follow the best-practices list to a T and screw up. It’s possible to deviate from it and do just fine. Once more, with feeling: There is no one-size-fits-all coming-out narrative.
Let me tell you my story: Like Bobby Drake, I was 16. I was in a car with my mom, on the highway. This should be a red flag: as a rule, it’s a bad idea to start fraught conversations with someone who is physically trapped, or whose only escape is throwing themself out of a moving vehicle.
“Were you sleeping with [the girl I had been sleeping with]?” my mom asked. I said yes. “So, you’re gay? Or bisexual?” Another yes.
You will not find that script on the best-practices list, either.
But here’s the thing: My mom knew me really well. She knew that long drives were where we had always talked the most, and the most honestly. She knew that I was desperately and persistently independent, and that some of that reach for independence manifested as extreme secretiveness. She knew that it was very hard for me to tell her things that were important to me, especially personal things; and that I was very bad at recognizing which of those secrets could put me in actual danger.
And I was and am so grateful that she did what she did. Because I wouldn’t have told her on my own. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she and my dad would have supported me if I had come out to them unprompted, and I still wouldn’t have told them, no matter how badly I wanted them to know, no matter how badly I wanted to be able to talk about that part of my life with them. No matter how badly I needed their support.
It’s still hard for me to explain why not: My 16-year-old brain was a mysterious and frightening place, and time and perspective haven’t unraveled all of its mazes. My mom took a hell of a plunge — because my mom is a teacher, the kind of teacher it’s safe to assume does know those best practices. But more importantly, she also knew me. And ultimately, that mattered more.
Bobby’s discomfort is palpable in these pages; but, from where I sit, so is his profound relief.
All of that said: Don’t model your social behavior after a fictional character who can read minds. (Actually, don’t model your behavior on any X-Man, because X-Men is often a soap opera in superhero drag, and characters in soap operas make entertaining and dramatic choices, not good ones.) But do understand that coming out and navigating complex and often painful questions of identity is a different process for different people, and there is no more a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting them through than there is to coming out yourself. Just because Bobby’s story doesn’t look like your story — or isn’t the story you would want for yourself — doesn’t make it wrong.
And understand that denying the validity of stories that don’t align with those best practices is erasing the lives, experiences, and needs of a lot of the people you claim to be advocating for. My experience may not be universal, but it is far from unique; and it is a rare and welcome thing to see it reflected in fiction, because it is not how the story is supposed to go.
Then again, neither is being queer in the first place.
The other complaint that’s been bubbling up about the leaked scene is that it’s biphobic. Because no one postulates that the adult Iceman might be bi; because when Bobby offers, “Maybe I’m bi,” Jean responds that she thinks he’s “more… full gay.”
And again: I get where the pushback is coming from. Because biphobia is real and toxic, and a big part of it is built around the narrative that people who identify as bi are confused, or too scared to commit to identifying as gay. Those assumptions are used to dismiss and deny a lot of people’s identities. They’ve been used to dismiss mine. And it sucks.
But here’s the thing: We live in an aggressively heteronormative society (although somewhat less so now than in the nebulously pre-1988 era Bobby comes from). And when you have been raised in a culture that assumes you will be straight, and that often shows you only straight futures, coming to terms with being queer often happens by way of a series of incremental realizations. Of denials. Of bargains.
And sometimes one of those bargains is identifying as bisexual.
Sometimes it’s about identity politics and social stigma. Sometimes it’s about the fact that coming to terms with who you’re attracted to is often a different and less painful process than coming to terms with who you’re not attracted to.
Look: If a good friend — or anyone — tells you that they might be bisexual, you should not do what Jean does in All-New X-Men #40. You don’t get to make that call. You know this, right? This is not a roadmap for being a good ally.
Actually, Jean shouldn’t really get to make that call either — but Jean is also in a position to distinguish between honesty and bargaining that most of us aren’t. Sometimes that’s what being a friend means — and again, in this particular case, she’s better equipped to determine that than you or I will ever be. And look: I know that the interaction of telepathy and identity politics is not a topic that’s particularly germane to most discussions of queer theory and experience. But, as Bendis pointed out in response to a question on Tumblr, this isn’t most discussions of queer theory and experience. This is a story about a time-displaced kid from a less-tolerant era who happens to be friends with a telepath; and that telepath — like most 16-year-olds — is somewhat presumptuous and not particularly tactful. And there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all coming-out story.
So, no, All-New X-Men is not the story of every queer kid who ever struggled to come out. It can’t be, because we are a multitude of stories and experiences and truths that are often contradictory; because the sum of what and who we are is too varied and multifaceted to contain in a single narrative. This is one story, about two characters. And it will not reflect all of us, nor everything each of us hopes it will reflect, because this story is also about an experience that is widely variable and intensely personal, and to pretend otherwise is a disservice to the story, but more to each other.
All-New X-Men #40 isn’t my coming-out story. It isn’t yours. It’s Bobby Drake’s. And yes, sometimes it is uncomfortable to read; and no, it doesn’t toe all of the party lines, or model all of the best practices; and sometimes Jean is a jerk, and sometimes Bobby treats women in ways that are not okay. It’s messy and painful and complicated. And it’shonest.
1. And Hulking, and Wiccan, and Lucy in the Sky, and Xavin, and Julie Power…
2. It’s worth noting that this is happening on the cusp of what promised to be major upset to the Marvel status quo, including the cancellation of nearly every ongoing title. (Then, again, that’s what they told us about Age of Apocalypse.) Whether Iceman will still be gay after Secret Wars is a question dependent on whether Iceman will still exist after Secret Wars; and whether, if he does, he’ll be remotely recognizable as the character he is now.
3. Northstar came out as gay in 1992, in a story that involved him finding a baby with A.I.D.S. in a dumpster. I am not making this up. Marvel then spent the next several decades alternating between using his sexual orientation as his primary narrative hook and ignoring it altogether until 2005, when they killed him off in three separate timelinesin the span of a month. (Later, he came back to life and married a nice man named Kyle.) Northstar is a rad dude — at least when he’s written well — but if he’s the most visible queer character in your entire publishing line, you have some representation problems.
4. If you think this is complicated, you should see the Summers family tree. There’s a reason my literal job is explaining X-Men continuity.
5. Not counting the time in Defenders #131 when he pretended to be Angel’s boyfriend to mess with a girl who was hitting on Angel.
6. This isn’t precisely accurate — Jean actually got access to previously existing telepathy that her mentor had been suppressing without her knowledge — but that’s a deeper dive than we’re going to take today.