Being lesbian, gay or bisexual in popular culture used to be a big deal.
When someone came out (and it was always the case that someone had to come out, they could never just be gay, or bi, or queer), it was "a happening." An "event" if you will. The stories from thence onward would be defined and built around the character's sexuality. Who were these stories about? Invariably gay men. Lesbians, if you were lucky. Bisexuals? Forget it. You may as well not have existed. The message was that once you came out as queer, that would be all you could be, and furthermore you were in for a lifetime of pain and hardship.
With that in mind, I was wondering what superhero comics had to say about being queer. Portrayals have been varied but I think there has been a definite shift in the way coming out has been depicted.
Let's start in 1991 with the Pied Piper (Hartley Rathaway): he first comes out to readers—and to his best friend, Wally West, the Flash—in The Flash volume 2 #53. Their conversation turns to gay supervillains and Hartley casually mentions to Wally that he is the only gay supervillain.
Wally doesn't really know how to take this news, so he makes an excuse to run off. He is a bit of a prat at this time in his life, but he at least doesn't abuse Hartley; by the end of the issue they are good friends again. I suspect that this is a common experience in the real world and, for the time, I think it's done very well. Hartley remains a constant supporting character in the Flash mythos and his sexuality is brought up now and again, in a manner that makes sense to the story.
Then there's the Amazons. This is an all-female society who have been cut off from men for thousands of years, yet we are supposed to believe they aren't having sex with each other. DC has refused time and time again to officially out them, but for a long time there have been hints and teasers dropped, slipped in by sly writers open minded editors. In 1994, in Justice League Task Force #8, Diana hints at why Themyscira is called Paradise Island, but does not explicitly state that the Amazons are gay.
In 1996, we had two members of the Justice League come out in the same issue! JLA volume 2 #110 and #111 saw Obisdian come out to Nuklon. The latter reacts in a similar "fear-the-gays!" manner that Wally did (despite Obsidian not really classifying himself as gay, or straight, or anything.) Again, like Wally, Nuklon got over himself and begged for Obsidian's friendship.
In the same issue, the second Ice also comes out to Nuklon, this time prompting open mouthed shock from him. Poor Todd, it must have all been a bit too much to take in one day.
Next up is Green Lantern volume 2, #93 in 1997. This is not, strictly speaking, a coming out story but it does feature homophobic hate crime.
Later on, the surviving victim even states that she will "never feel safe again." This is not quite so positive, as it can be viewed as reinforcing the idea that to be gay means you will inevitably suffer and experience harm just because you are gay. As this is one of the few times we see the couple, it also treats them as token minorities, existing only to be gay. Visibility is important, but characters shouldn't be reduced to just their sexuality.
Sticking with Green Lantern but moving ahead to 2001, one of the supporting cast comes out in volume 3, #137, an issue that focuses solely on him. Terry is 16, working as an assistant to Kyle Rayner, and very much crushing on him. Stereotypes are discussed and ripped apart and being gay is established as normal and nothing to be ashamed about.
As a book, it reads a little like a lecture to the reader as well as to the characters but, in terms of how it treats the gay character, it's worth discussing. Later in the series, Terry also becomes the victim of a homophobic attack. Unlike the couple in issue 93, we see Terry recover, deal with it and get on with his life.
Going back to Wonder Woman, we see gay characters treated with more humanity with the idea that being gay is just part of who they are. In 2001's Paradise Lost storyline, we see a drunk Amazon named Bitari letching over another woman, and we also see Ipthime distraught over the injuries to her lover, Anaya. Although Anaya's injuries have been directly caused by Ipthime's betrayal, her relationship with Anaya is not examined in detail. In fact, it's quite similar to the way in which straight people's relationships aren't cross-examined. Unfortunately, their relationship is barely featured in later volumes.
2006's Secret Six miniseries did particularly well and brought us Scandal Savage (lesbian) and Knockout (bisexual). There are far, far, far too few bisexual characters in superhero comics, and this one is treated with grace, respect and love.
2009 featured another incidence of incidental lesbianism; in X-Men Legacy #230, we saw Bling coming out to the readers for the first time.
This liking for women is a non-issue. There's no revelation, it's just two friends talking normally. It's dealt with in the same way we see straight characters discuss who they crush on and it goes some way towards normalising queerness and moves away from presenting heterosexuality as the default. It builds up the character's personality and backstory in a believable, realistic manner, where she becomes more than just her sexual preference.
The same year, in Green Arrow/Black Canary #24, we see two ordinary, non-powered, women out on a first date. There is flirting and teasing and a hint of backstory to flesh out the characters. We learn that for one of them this is her first date since she came out, but she isn't angsting about it; she is quite clearly happy and comfortable with herself.
The couple are then interrupted by the villain, Cupid, whom, with Black Canary, steals their car. Again, the characters' sexuality is irrelevant; they could have been replaced by a straight couple and the scene wouldn't be affected.
All this is positive stuff that seems to indicate that the publishers are becoming more liberal and happier with showing different sexualities. Then we think about Gail Simone's run on Wonder Woman from 2008 to 2009, where she intended to have Hippolyta (Wonder Woman's mother and one time Wonder Woman in her own right) marry Philippus. Apparently it passed the initial approval stage but then got shot down. Until DC sees fit to out a high profile Amazon, we will have to be content with slashy innuendo. Sadly, this makes it seem like we haven't moved on too far from 1994.
In conclusion, it seems that it's OK to out some characters, but only if they are C-list or random background characters. The A-list stars, the big names, they can't be queer. But still, I think we've come on a long way in the last 20 years, and that move forward should be recognised.
Is it good enough? No, it's not. There needs to be more lesbian, gay and bisexual characters. (There certainly needs to be more bisexual characters!) Now that there have been a few good models showing how to introduce queer characters and the groundwork is laid down, get them in the comics.
Let's see more of them and let's increase the diversity of our fictional worlds, in a realistic way.