Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men

Kitty Queer, by Sigrid Ellis

When we decided that we were going to start (carefully and gradually) publishing pieces by other writers, Sigrid Ellis’s “Kitty Queer” was the first on my list to acquire. It originally appeared in the anthology Chicks Dig Comics, which Sigrid edited. It’s an amazing and deeply personal examination of the double-edged sword of subtextual queerness in Claremont’s X-Men; and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did and do. -Rachel

I was sitting on the top bunk when I told Rogue I was gay. This was in the spring of my sophomore year of college, so that meant the bunk bed was in Bigelow Hall on the Macalester College campus. I was in the dorm room by myself, it was nighttime, and the fluorescent gleam of the overhead light reflected off of the Jim Lee X-Men triptych poster stuck to the opposite wall with duct tape. I was crying in horrified humiliation, but the look in Rogue’s eye told me I was going to be okay.

To say I probably ought to have figured out my complete lack of heterosexuality a little bit sooner in life is… a vast understatement. I blame Chris Claremont. Chris Claremont – writer of the various X-Men comic book titles during my impressionable adolescence – and the editorial policies of Marvel Comics at the time. You see, I was raised by liberal parents in a middle-class household, and in my household we did not subscribe to stereotypes. One could not judge a character by their looks or mannerisms or skin color or speech. This meant that I got into a fight with a classmate in sixth grade over the sexuality of pop star Boy George. Just because he looked gay and sounded gay and dressed gay didn’t mean he was gay, I said. When presented with the cases that justified and reinforced cultural stereotypes, I insisted that the presumption could not be true.

I had the Boy George conversation in 1985. By 1992, I went to a college where people wore Act-Up T-shirts, sported Queer Nation pins and buttons, and the GLBU quarterly dances were the best party around. In Marvel Comics, Northstar had just come out as gay. Being queer, in real life and comics, was an act imbued with anger and frustration. Even Northstar was angry. But whatever concern I had for social justice issues was abstract and impersonal. I still didn’t connect gayness, or queerness, with my life. I didn’t want to protest the President or march for reproductive rights; I wanted to spend all of my time in moon-eyed devotion to my best friends and/or dorm-mates. In the same way that Kitty Pryde was devoted to Rachel Summers and Illyana Rasputin.

Some of you reading this essay might not be as all-consumingly familiar with Kitty Pryde’s life in the 80s as I am. She was a teenager, a member of the X-Men, living in the mansion-school-headquarters of the team. She had two best friends during this time frame: Illyana from the New Mutants team, and Rachel. Both were teenage girls, for a value of “teenage” that includes time travel, dimension-hopping, demonic aging and alternate universes. This is, after all, superhero comics. Kitty was passionately devoted to each of them.

This devotion took a variety of forms. In New Mutants #35, the New Mutants are all killed by The Beyonder. Kitty is not merely the only person who remembers the team ever existed, we find out in Uncanny X-Men #202 she is also the inheritor of Illyana’s soul-sword and armor. This is due to the special bond the two girls share. The nature of said bond is never explained. One might think that Peter, Illyana’s fanatically protective older brother, might be the person who gets the sword and the memory. Nope. Those go to Kitty, the roommate.

In New Mutants #36, Kitty gets injured, kidnapped and strung up by a demon. To save her friend, Illyana reclaims her demon heritage and the soul-sword. Much teary cradling of each other while declaiming affection ensues.

In all scenes of Rachel and Kitty – X-Men/Alpha Flight #1-2, Uncanny X-Men #188-207, most issues of Excalibur – the two young women touch each other. A lot. They stand closely, they link arms, they hold hands. When Kitty’s life is threatened in Uncanny X-Men #196, Rachel knows it through a hitherto-unmentioned psychic bond she has with Kitty. Rachel goes berserk and nearly murders a man for Kitty’s sake. The running gag in early issues of Excalibur is that any time Kitty gets injured in a fight, Rachel goes nuts, sacrificing everything to save her friend.

These scenes were written under the Comics Code Authority. Structured to be much like the Hays and Breen codes governing movies, the CCA prohibited depictions of sexuality in comics:

“2. Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at or portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.
5. Passion or romantic interest shall never be treated in such a way as to stimulate the lower and baser emotions.
6. Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested.
7. Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.” [1]

At the same time that Kitty and her roommates were declaring their soulbonds with each other, Scott Summers of the X-Men was married to Madeline Pryor. They were married, and their relationship was shown through hugging and the occasional kiss. Their most risqué moment, before it was revealed that Madeline was an evil clone programmed to steal Scott’s sperm to make a superchild, was on their honeymoon, where they cuddled while she was wearing a nightie and he was wearing shorts. Let it be made clear: Marvel treated all sexuality as something to be hidden away.

As is so common in queer history, though, an ostensibly fair and even-handed treatment of sexuality in comics makes gay and lesbian relations invisible. The heterosexual pairings among the X-Men could kiss or hug, could call their time together a date. The queers could not. Moreover, there’s that “perversion” clause. Ego-dystonic homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1986. [2] New Mutants #36 was published in February 1986. When it was written, lesbianism was legally and medically a perversion. Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, the writer and artist of New Mutants at the time, could not say that Illyana came to the rescue of her some-time girlfriend Kitty who had been defeated by a demon with a penchant for classic bondage porn. But they could write it, and draw it, without ever acknowledging that is what they were doing. The relationship, the subtext, the highly sexualized imagery, all these things were presented not as queer kink but as friendship and heroism. The kind of relationship any high school girl might have with her best friends.

I cannot in any way speak towards the intentions of Chris Claremont, the artists, editors or anyone involved in the making of X-Men comics during the late 1980s. I don’t know what they meant to tell me. But I know what I saw. I saw romantic love presented as simple friendship. I saw heroism, a kind of knighthood and self-sacrifice, to be what any friendship should expect.

In early 1992, I was re-reading my Excalibur comics, specifically Excalibur #24. Reading these pages again, in the new climate of the GLB-Union, my almost entirely not-heterosexual friends, and constant political awareness, something went “click” in my head. In this issue, Kitty has been separated from her Excalibur teammates. She is staying with a woman named Courtney Ross, an old friend of Captain Britain’s. (This is not actually Courtney, it is a villain, Sat-Yr-9, but Kitty doesn’t know that.) Courtney wakes Kitty with an offer to take Kitty out for her birthday, to cheer her up since all of her friends might be dead. Kitty initially declines, sulkily, until Courtney… well, until she seduces Kitty into saying yes.

Panel 1: Kitty is facing Courtney over the cake as they both sit on the bed. Kitty is wearing pajamas, Courtney is wearing a white dress with a high flared collar and puffy sleeves. Courtney has some pink frosting on her finger. Her finger is in her mouth and she is sucking the frosting off.

COURTNEY: So, there’s no need for lies between us, okay?

KITTY: Okay.

KITTY: But I’m afraid I haven’t a clue about what to do with today.

Panel 2: Two-shot of Kitty and Courtney. On the left of the panel Kitty is sitting cross-legged in her pajamas, looking at Courtney. On the right, Courtney is leaning forward, her hand extended towards Kitty. She has frosting on her finger, still, the same finger she was just sucking. The frosting-laden finger is nearly touching Kitty’s mouth.

COURTNEY: Actually, I have a few ideas.

COURTNEY: If you’re willing.

Panel 3: Kitty holds Courtney’s hand gently by the wrist. She is sucking on Courtney’s finger, her chin titled slightly down, eyes looking up and over their hands at Courtney’s face.

KITTY: Lead on, Courtney, I’m all yours.

Panel 4: Both women lean towards each other, their foreheads nearly touching, identical smiles on their faces. In this panel, we cannot see their eyes, just the smiles.

COURTNEY: I’m so glad.

The two proceed to then spend the day together, with Courtney buying Kitty a sports car, exotic dinners in foreign locales, and expensive sexy clothes. Every scene they share speaks of excess, seduction, hinted debauchery, and the possibility of corruption. [3]

I re-read this scene over and over again. I knew, now, in 1992, what this looked like. This looked like Spin-the-Bottle or Truth-or-Dare, it looked like the drunk and stoned random kissing games people played in the dorms on a weekend night. It looked like a challenge thrown down and accepted. I stared at the art. Courtney or Sat-Yr-9 or whoever was seducing Kitty Pryde. And Kitty was saying yes.

I went through my back issues, flushed and slightly sick, my heart racing. There in the pages of the comics I loved, the characters I loved were… were very possibly loving each other. Every year, Macalester held GLB visibility week, when students chalked the sidewalks with the names of famous queers. My first year I had blinked at some of the names in astonishment, confused. Eleanor Roosevelt? Seriously? And I’d gone to look up some of the evidence. I’d learned, as a consequence, about GLBT invisibility, how queer relationships are unacknowledged in history. I read up on Hollywood’s part in the conspiracy, about the Celluloid Closet. I’d done, in short, what the GLBUnion wanted people to do during queer visibility week – I learned about gay history.

My comics had invisible queers.

What did this mean for me?

I went on a walk around the campus, chain smoking cigarettes in the light spring rain. I could feel something happening inside my head, and I didn’t like it one little bit. I got back to my dorm room and sat on my bunk and stared at the posters lining my walls. The thing unfolding in my mind was taking shape. Kitty and Rachel, Kitty and ‘Yana, they were best friends. I tried to mold my best friendships on their model. The love they felt for each other, the passion, this was how I felt towards my closest female friends. If Kitty Pryde wasn’t straight, if her love for her friends was instead sexual, then… then what did that make me?

A dozen half-remembered conversations floated through my thoughts, mixed with images of comics, images of my life, whirling around. Tears started to form in my eyes, and I flushed bright red in the privacy of my dorm room. Kitty Pryde wasn’t straight. She likely never had been. I… was not straight. I likely never had been. Moreover, it was probably perfectly obvious to dozens of people in my life that I was a complete idiot. A complete, closeted, idiot.

I looked across the room at Rogue, smiling at me from the Jim Lee poster. She looked so cocky, so confident. She also looked really hot, goofy hair notwithstanding. I wiped my eyes and said it. I looked Rogue in the eye and managed a whisper. “I think I’m gay.” She kept smiling.

How was it I had missed this? I looked at the X-Men poster again and tried to examine the admiration I held for the figures on it. When I looked at Rogue, what did I imagine? What thoughts crossed my mind? What did I want to say or do? Do with, or for, or to… Oh. Okay, yes, Sigrid, you really, really ought to have realized your sexual orientation before this point. Why didn’t I? What had stopped me?

The artist for Excalibur #24, Alan Davis, said in his online forum that, “although I knew Chris had some plan for Sat-Yr-9 to corrupt Kitty and that the various Cross-time versions of Saturnyne were attracted to Kitty, I had no idea what, if any, the goal of this relationship was to be. I just played it as a lesbian affair.” [4] Davis knew something about Claremont’s intentions that I did not know, and drew what he thought a lesbian relationship, with willing participation from both parties, would look like. Kudos to him, it looked rather a lot like the same-sex flirting I saw monthly at the GLBUnion dances – licking of the fingers, et cetera. What I did not know is that Claremont included this sort of girl-on-girl sensuality in all of his comics, hiding it from the CCA as heterosexual female friendship. It wasn’t until 1992 and Davis’s fairly blatant art that I got the hint; actual straight women maybe don’t feel this way about their friends. It was entirely possible, I realized slowly, that finger sucking and licking was not a strictly heterosexual activity among friends.

Rogue didn’t judge me. Neither did my friend Scott, who I called in a not entirely coherent manner to come get me. Scott drove around for hours while we talked about comic books, and Northstar, and whether Nightcrawler (an X-Man who was also a devout Catholic) was also gay, and the gay Catholic monks that Scott had slept with. When I finally managed to squeak out that I might not be straight, Scott lit a cigarette and suggested we go get coffee at a local family restaurant. He politely ignored me, singing along with the radio, while I lit my own cigarette and finished crying.

From December 2002 to May 2003, Marvel published a miniseries called Mekanix. In this series, Kitty Pryde comes out. Claremont finally has her almost kissing Xi’an Coy Manh, a fellow former X-Man who is an out lesbian. Kitty’s bisexuality seems to only exist in Claremont’s mind – no other writer of her since has done anything with this. But I’m okay with that.

I could wish that Kitty talked about it more, or occasionally ogled a woman. But it’s fine with me that she dated Piotr Rasputin. It’s fine with me that she put all romance on the back burner to focus on saving planets, riding through space in bullets, snarking with Emma Frost and trying to not die. I have my Mekanix and my Excalibur. I know that Kitty was struggling with her identity and her sexual orientation all through her high school years as she and her roommates fell in and out of love with each other. I know she came out in college, and that the coming out was a surprise to her. I know in my heart that she told Rogue, and that Rogue shrugged and didn’t care.

I can blame Claremont – and I do – for my not coming out earlier than I did. But I also have to credit him for slipping queers into my comics when the CCA forbade it. When I did finally come out to myself, the X-Men didn’t judge me. They accepted this new form of oddball difference the same way they’d always accepted me; with open hands and an invitation to be a hero once more.


[1] Comics Code Authority 1954 – http://www.comicartville.com/comicscode.htm

[2] http://scans-daily.dreamwidth.org/411719.html

[3] http://www.alandavis-forum.com/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=59#wrap


Sigrid_EllisSigrid Ellis is editor-in-chief of Apex Magazine. She is co-editor of the Hugo-nominated Queers Dig Time Lords and Chicks Dig Comics anthologies. She is editor of the best-selling Pretty Deadly from Image Comics. She lives with her partner, their two homeschooled children, her partner’s boyfriend, and a host of vertebrate and invertebrate pets in Saint Paul, MN.