What the X-Men can teach us about LGBT rights.

Rhys Harper

The magnetic appeal of comic books – and their subsequent multimedia spawn – to gayboys of varying colours and creeds across the globe is lower down the ladder notch than Scooby Doo in regards to the level of deduction skill necessary for its deciphering. A secret identity and the sense of shame attached; James Marsden in the original X-Men trilogy; fear of acceptance; James Marsden in Superman Returns; inescapable rejection; James Marsden in nothing but a tight-fitted pair of mid-wash denim shorts, beads of sweat slowly dripping down his perfect chiseled torso as he… Okay, I’ll stop now. But you get the point: the cultural appeal is there.

In a recent promotional interview with Buzzfeed (which suggests Buzzfeed do in fact partake in work beyond crow-barring the week’s popular GIFs in to seemingly random lists with almost-painful transparency) thespian royalty Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart (the Duke and Duchess of Cam-bitch, respectively) reflected rather acutely on the parallels between the fictional struggle of mutants in their X-Men series and real-life minority battles.

“Mutants are like gays,” Sir Ian is quoted as saying “They’re cast out by society for no good reason. They, as in all civil rights movements, have to decide: Are they going to take the Xavier line, which is to somehow assimilate and stand up for yourself and be proud of what you are but get on with everybody, or are you going to take the alternative view, which is, if necessary, use violence to stand up for your own rights?”

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For those of us who follow queer politics with an approach so obsessive it would cause the Manson family to cringe, the extrapolation of the gay experience to its fictional mutant counterpart is there in full primary colour panel-paged glory. Awareness of internalised homophobia versus stereotype-combatting have pervaded, not just scholarly papers and university dissertations, but our actual day-to-day, work/ study/ family lives. How many of us will vehemently oppose the New Age Gay self-loathing that manifests itself in statements such as “I’m gay, but only in, like, my sexuality” or, with indignant (and tediously hyper-masculine) disgust, “I’d never bottom”: the implication of which being a complete contortion of natural boy-on-boy attraction, submitting to a hetero-culture hangover that putting your penis in to another man is to some degree less homosexual than having another man put his penis in you. Because that, of course, would make you a woman, and there’s nothing worse than being a woman.

Perhaps equally (though that assertion depends upon one’s own experience), there are many among us who will hold up the external homophobia that exists in mainstream hetero-focused media as being just as, if not more so, loathsome. The reluctance of Hollywood producers and television staffers alike to bother portraying gay male characters as anything other than shrill shrieking comedy queens; the inability of the BBC news team to comprehend that gay people are in fact able to read and view their output; the blending of stereotypes and common perceptions which, if substituted with particular ethnic or religious groups and their ill-attached caricatures, would brew a Twitter storm so ferocious, the Guardian would quickly run out of column inches and have to start printing on non-biodegradable spare Kleenexes lying around the office. And what a tragedy that would be.


With open arms I welcome Sir Ian’s comparison. Marvel comics have historically grasped a more nuanced approach to morality than their DC counterparts. Whilst Lex Luthor and the Joker sought to cause pain and disruption to their world for the thrill of causing pain and disruption, Marvel villains (on the whole) begin with good intentions, only to have them blistered and disdained by generous interpretations of right, wrong, and the chasm-like grey area between the two. Heroes become villains, and villains become heroes: if only temporarily, though sometimes with permanent effect (see: Black Widow, the Scarlet Witch). Lizard, of Spider-Man, begins his fictional narrative as an amputee ex-soldier turned scientist, attempting to restore his body and the bodies of those like him to their original fully-limbed state, becoming a carnivorous mutant lizard in the process (we’ve all been there). The Hulk has been treading the line between hero and government traitor for decades now, like a larger, greener, Edward Snowden come 2064.

To illustrate as Magneto and his Brotherhood of Mutants the gay men who see it as their duty to refute conformist notions; to refuse to be made to feel lesser because they perhaps love traditionally feminine pastimes, or are largely disconnected from mainstream sexual norms like monogamy is not an insult, nor an insinuation of villainy. It’s an acknowledgment that “the gay community” is not the hand-holding-round-the-campfire vision the pages on your Facebook feed may tend to churn out for clickbait and revenue, of righteous liberals smacking down baptist ministers and angry American radio hosts every day before breakfast. We have schisms and disagreements, and perhaps most significantly, we have different lives, and so are forming unique perceptions of the world, politics, and James Marsden’s flawless six-pack with every passing day.

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The Xavier approach: of breaking down the barriers, in law, and in culture, is neither as sanctimonious as it sounds. Xavier wants to extend the hand of friendship to the scared, threatened humans, whose understanding of the world is shifting beyond their control. You’d be very hard-pressed indeed to flick through a classic X-Men comic from the 1960s and not find some small allusion from Xavier to the benefits of cooperation, of highlighting the similarities between humans and mutants to dilute bubbling tensions. Much like the gay rights movement. Sexual orientation does not orchestrate our actions in bed, nor whom we find attractive: just their gender. Bashing those who opt for marriage or family-life as heteronormative lazily misconstrues the limited role of sexuality in defining our personal life goals, or our personal tastes. Assimilating in to society through marriage, children and morning school runs is not a form of conversion therapy. We are not going to wake up straight the morning of our honeymoons. To dismantle the external facets of homophobia, to assert the inaccuracy of stereotypes (Kylie, leather, open relationships) need not be a condemnation of gay men who do enjoy such pastimes. And though it pains me to contradict the gorgeous (if a little shark-like) Michael Fassbender in X-Men: First Class; “Peace was never an option”, well actually, sir, it might well be.

About Rhys Harper

Rhys is a nineteen year-old Glaswegian journalist currently on his soul-searching gap year, minus the actual soul searching. He has written for a number of publications and regards himself as quite the political activist, though more in theory than in practice.