Iceman is Gay, and Other Musings on Superhero Sexuality

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AllNewXMen40When I first heard Iceman was gay, I thought it made a lot of sense.

If you weren’t aware, some pages of All-New X-men #40 leaked earlier this week. They contain a scene where teenage Jean Grey and Bobby Drake have a conversation about the fact that her out-of-control psychic powers have allowed her to accidentally overhear thoughts that lead her to believe he’s gay.

This is a big story. CNN is covering it.

The internet is ablaze over this for a number of reasons, not solely confined to the usual hubbub when perceptions about a beloved character change. Those few out-of-context pages suggested a host of troubling issues: invasion of privacy, forced outing, and bi erasure to name a few. If you want to read a really great article that explores all those issues from the perspective of a queer woman whose job is literally x-plaining the x-men, then you should head over to Playboy.com to read Rachel Edidin’s personal and highly knowledgeable take. Hers is the first piece I’ve found that provides insight into the greater narrative context. Seriously, go read that article. It may be on the playboy website, but it’s safe for work and the links to other playboy articles aren’t more egregious than the ads you see on most websites… like a few bikini shots.

Anyway, I didn’t learn about Bobby from an article or a blog post. I didn’t stumble upon those pages. I heard about it from a friend who mentioned it in passing. For a lot of us nerds, comic book characters feel like distant family members, or an extended circle of friends. They were with us when we were growing up, going through a lot of the same stuff. While I may not have time to read every comic, I keep up with the gossip: who’s dead, who’s alive, who has a new ongoing. Amid that chatter, someone brought up Bobby.

“Did you hear that Iceman is gay?”
“Oh? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.”

That’s similar to my usual response when someone I knew in college or high school came out. I had one friend who everyone thought was an overly-flirtatious cad until he told us he was gay. He had a tendency to sit close to girls, joking and giving compliments, then ten minutes later he’d be doing the same with a different young lady. We thought he had a surprising amount of confidence for a college freshman; it turned out what he had was a complete disinterest in us romantically. That’s why the whole “but he’s dated a bunch and flirted with girls, he can’t be gay” argument doesn’t hold much water with me. I know several gay guys who were married for years before they came out.

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I grew up in a kinda queer world. I’m not exactly known for conforming to gender norms, I have queer cousins who grew up in the 70s and 80s, and I’ve been involved in LGBTQ rights organizations for as long as I’ve known they existed. This has put me into contact with a lot of personal stories from different eras. Bobby and Jean’s argument doesn’t look like a textbook best-practices coming-out, but neither do most authentic stories told by real humans. Edidin’s article talks about this with more insight and real world experience than I can, so make sure you read that.

The other major point of contention here is bisexuality and bi erasure: sure Iceman hasn’t had any particularly successful heterosexual relationships, but being terrible at dating doesn’t make you gay. The media frequently attaches the gay or lesbian label to any character who has any kind of same-sex relationship, and refuses to acknowledge bisexuality as a possibility. Willow from Buffy is perhaps the most famous example in geek media: she clearly had strong attraction to men earlier in her story, but she calls herself gay when she becomes involved with a woman. That can be read as an example of fluid sexuality, the way that people can identify in different ways at different times in their lives – and that’s the meta-textual interpretation that most queer scholars favor – but it doesn’t do much to help solve the problem of bisexual representation. Bobby has kissed a few ladies, why not have him be bisexual?

It's totally possible that he's NOT thinking about the fact that she has the ability to turn into a dude.

It’s totally possible that he’s NOT thinking about the fact that she has the ability to turn into a dude.

He could be, eventually, with the whole fluid sexuality thing – as Edidin brings up in her article, the people you’re attracted to when you’re sixteen might be different from the people you’re attracted to when you’re thirty. But I have a dumb, out-of-universe reason why I agree with the decision to potentially make Bobby gay rather than bi: there are plenty of A-list characters in the Marvel universe who could plausibly come out as bi, but he’s the most prominent one for whom being gay totally works. He’s one of very few A-list male Marvel characters who has never had a long-term heterosexual relationship. Bobby is hands down the best original X-man to take in this direction, while there are several other male X-men of equal prominence who could easily end up canonically bisexual further down the road.

Or maybe it's totally normal for a straight guy to kick back a cold beer and stare longingly at his best friend's junk.

Or maybe it’s totally normal for a straight guy to kick back a cold beer and stare longingly at his best friend’s junk.

Somewhere in another universe, Catwoman was recently established as canonically, definitively bi in her series, a revelation that was met with a resounding ‘duh’ from anyone who had been following her over the years. While male bisexuals have a much bigger problem with representation, there are a bunch of presumed straight guys out there who could come out as bi or pansexual with the same minimal fanfare. Hell, one of Marvel’s most popular hypermasculine characters is canonically omnisexual, and has been for years.

Deadpool is in ur tumblrs, rebloggin ur ships.

Deadpool is in ur tumblrs, rebloggin ur ships.

It’s true that bisexuals, pansexuals, and omnisexuals are often lumped together and stereotyped as hypersexualized indiscriminate kink machines, and that has to change; nobody should have to turn to Deadpool as a role model. We definitely need more bisexual characters who are presented as normal, who are conceived that way from the start and written with intent.  But from the perspective of someone who has worked as a professional creative, it’s a lot easier to start writing a previously presumed straight character as bi than it is to find established characters that can reasonably be written as gay. I have friends who do TV, comic, and video game writing for major publishers, and they back me up on this: if the creative director of the thing you’re writing for is totally invested in the idea of a particular heterosexual relationship between two characters, it’s almost impossible to convince him to make one of those characters gay. Side characters and minor characters are easier, and it’s becoming increasingly possible to introduce new gay characters at the concept stage. Established characters are difficult, though. It’s easier to suggest bisexuality as an option for a character who has already had heterosexual relationships, for obvious reasons.

Most prominent male characters in the Marvel universe have had emotionally significant romantic relationships with women – relationships that fans are seriously invested in. If someone told me Beast was gay, or the Thing, I’d be like “What? That doesn’t make a lot of sense.” Bobby’s different. That’s the brilliance of Bendis’s choice: he noticed a pattern in a character’s portrayal that overlapped significantly with the real life experiences of a lot of closeted gay men and saw an opportunity.

Marvel is getting ready to do some kind of secret crisis on infinite earth wars so who knows what the end result of all this will be. For now, though, a time-shifted version of teenage Iceman is gay. The moment of revelation might have been weird and imperfect, but when you’re a teenager everything is weird and imperfect. Personally, I can’t wait to see where this goes.

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