Labels by nature are fluid: they are created to categorize and they change over time when they are found to be false, dubious, incomplete or obsolete. Sexuality was originally divided into four categories by Karl Maria Kertbeny in 1868: “monosexual” or masturbation, “heterosexual” or opposite-sex attraction, “homosexual” or same-sex attraction and “heterognit” or attraction to animals. Obviously, only two categories survived while the others fell into obscurity for reasons unknown. Prior to this, it goes without saying that people had sex—whether it was with members of the same sex, opposite sex or even different species—but our languages and cultures didn’t necessarily place sexuality at the same level of importance or recognition of ethnic identity or gender. Even Ketbeny’s then-recent descriptions of sexuality did not refer to a fixed orientation, only sexual acts unto themselves. Thus, while diversity in sexuality is as old as time, sexual identity is more or less a modern invention. That we think of ourselves as heterosexual people or homosexual people represents a dramatic shift in the human perception of social interaction.
Moreover, humanity isn’t exclusively divided into heterosexuality and homosexuality/heterosexuals and homosexuals are we? Some individuals have sex with both men and women, and so bisexuality became both a description of sexuality and a sexual identity. However, the story still doesn’t end there, as we came to understand that gender goes far beyond the binary model of male and female. Many cultures throughout history have acknowledged the existence of a third gender. There are people who cross the boundaries of sex and gender as “trans” identified men and women and those who are physiologically a combination of the two to varying degrees or “intersex.” As our understanding of sexuality and gender evolve, so do the descriptive labels used to identify them.
Categorization is a necessity. We can’t communicate with one another properly if we don’t have a lexicon to describe subjects, people, objects, locations or anything really. The problem is, people aren’t capable of thinking or communicating exclusively by logic. Like it or not, everything we do is charged by emotion and our emotions can lead to bigotry as just as easily as empathy. Words, descriptors and labels meant to act simply as a classification are easily utilized as derogatory slurs (or even created as such) and so the evolution of our lexicon is not only a matter of expanding categories that are unduly restrictive, but also a process of rejecting labels with unsavory cultural biases inherently attached to them that are forced on those who do not share those perceptions. Hence the progression from the clinical use of the word “homosexual” as sexual identity to other language designed to evoke a greater sense of compassion.
Until 1973, homosexuality was understood to be a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). To be afflicted with homosexuality was to suffer sexual dysfunction; to be a homosexual person was to be a social deviant or sociopath. So while the description of homosexuality—having sexual and/or romantic desires for members of one’s own sex—was straightforward and purely factual, the societal implications were not. Heteronormativity was born out of the societal view that sexuality is exclusively a matter of procreation and thus any sexual behavior outside of that context (including masturbation, oral or anal intercourse, even between members of the opposite sex) is deviant. In an effort to distance same-sex attraction away from an exclusive sexual desire, advocates in the 1950s began using the term “homophile” which means “love of one’s own sex.” By the time the APA declassified homosexuality as a disorder, those attracted to the same sex switched once again to using the terms “gay” and “lesbian” respectively.
The word lesbian had been a clinical term to specify female homosexuality since the late 1890s and the word gay was appropriated around the 1920s to refer to male homosexuality, but neither entered mainstream usage until the late 1960s. “Gay” ended up becoming the dominant label to apply to all persons with same-sex attraction, but women felt marginalized by male privilege and fought to emphasize the word lesbian within the movement to bring greater visibility to issues that specifically affect women who have sex with women. Unsurprisingly, this new Gay & Lesbian movement was still inadequate is giving proper identification to those with attraction to both sexes, not to mention the fact that individuals whose gender fell outside of the male/female binary were unceremoniously grouped in with the concept of sexual identity and yet, were consistently—if not blatantly—ignored. Sadly, even with the LGBT acronym (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender), individuals are still left feeling marginalized by sexual and gender labels that do not necessarily embody their lived experience. In fact, some have come to view the current LGBT acronym as so restrictive that is has been suggested it be changed to GSD or “Gender and Sexual Diversities.”
How do those who feel as if they fall outside the definitions of the accepted lexicon define themselves? Some simple identify as “queer.” The word queer (literally meaning “strange,” “unusual” or “out of alignment”), became an alternative label to “gay” and “homosexual” in the 1920s according to Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (1994) as a way to differentiate from the stereotypical image of the effeminate gay male (further emphasizing the dissonance members of the same cultural identity can experience), but subsequently evolved into a particularly charged derogatory slur. However, in the late twentieth century, it took the form of a new discipline called queer theory in academia, drawing its intellectual roots from feminist theory. Queer theory presented a radical approach to identity politics. According to Sociology With Infotrac: Understanding a Diverse Society, Casebound (2007) “[q]ueer theory underscores the idea that sexuality is fluid; that is, it evolves and can change over the life course. Instead of seeing heterosexual or homosexual attraction as fixed in biology, queer theory interprets society as forcing sexual boundaries, or dichotomies, on people.” The fact that queer theorists view sexuality and gender exclusively as social constructs is a matter of contention for some LGBT advocates. Although queer theory does not necessarily view sexuality or gender as an arbitrary “choice” in the same context as anti-gay extremists do, total rejection of bio and neurological evidence that point to sexuality and gender as being inherent can be viewed as being counterintuitive.
However, since both heteronormativity and LGBT culture focus almost exclusively on fixed identities, queer theory provides a welcome opportunity to explore those whose lived experience do not conform to that paradigm. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “[t]here is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors.” Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that sex and gender develop as a result of both biological factors and individual experiences. Likewise, there is no reason to rule out the idea that sexuality and gender are primarily inherent for some while primarily a matter of construct by others. So then, what does it mean to be “queer?”
The Encyclopedia of Women in Today’s World, Volume 1 (2011) states that “[q]ueer is paradoxically inclusive and exclusive. There are no definitive limits to what it means to be queer. Queer is both a noun and a verb: one is queer; one queers a text. Queer describes the spaces between; the liminal; and the mismatches between sex, gender and desire.” One of the founding mothers of queer theory, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, was a self-identified queer even though she was heterosexual and married to a man. However, her view of sexuality—never associating it with reproduction or the desire to have children, often living is separate locations from her spouse and generally rejecting conventional forms of sexual intercourse—left her outside of the heteronormative paradigm, regardless of the fact that she herself was heterosexual. Non-conforming sexual behavior (such as bondage and discipline/sadomasochism and other varying fetishes), attraction to individuals regardless of their anatomy (pansexuality), or a complete lack of sexual desire (asexuality) are all forms of sexuality that can be perceived as abnormal by the heteronormative paradigm. As such, “queer” (both as a theory and a self-identifying label) may include anyone who’s lived experience with sexuality and gender fall outside what is generally considered “acceptable.” This is especially true of those who claim not to have a fixed orientation, or who may use conventional labels such as “gay” or “straight” even if their sexual experiences do not conform to the standard definition. This new paradigm is described as “sexual fluidity.”
To be clear, there is a distinction between sexual fluidity and being closeted. To be closeted is to have complete and absolute awareness of one’s own fixed orientation towards the same or both sexes and actively choosing to conceal that fact by publicly identifying as heterosexual (either as a matter of preference or under duress) and either practicing abstinence, pursuing same sex partners in secrecy, or going against one’s own sexual and romantic desires by forging relationships exclusively with the members of the opposite sex. In comparison, those who experience sexual fluidity don’t feel as if their attraction to other people is ever fixed or exclusive to one or both sexes at any given time. University of Utah psychology professor Lisa Diamond found that sexual fluidity is determined primarily by an attraction to an individual’s personality rather than their gender. Such individuals “can suddenly find a man or woman sexually attractive after having been in a long-term relationship with the other.” Studies find that sexual fluidity is much more common among women, as men’s sexuality appears to be more focused on the physiology of their partners, but it is not impossible for a man to experience sexual fluidity either.
In one of my LGBT discourse panels that I periodically participate in at Mt. San Antonio College, I was speaking with a sociology class and a female student shared the fact that she had identified as straight for the majority of her life, but was also in a lesbian relationship for about ten years. Before she had met her girlfriend, she never found any interest in having sex with women, but she fell in love with her girlfriend and so her sexuality adjusted to match her romantic feelings. When the relationship ended, she became reoriented towards men. She specified the changes in her sexuality felt natural and that she was never ashamed to identify as a lesbian even though she once again sees herself as straight and that she continues to fully support all forms of LGBT advocacy. Ellen Schecter, Ph.D., states “[s]ome completely straight individuals have unexpectedly found themselves falling in love with, and being sexual with, those of the same gender, and some happily gay people have unexpectedly become partnered with those of the other gender… This does not mean that we all experience a degree of fluidity, nor that we are all really bisexual. Nor does it mean that coming out as gay or lesbian is reversible or a phase, that sexual orientations are a choice, or that non-heterosexual people can be guided to embrace heterosexuality. It simply means that while the majority of people experience a stable sexual orientation congruent with their sexual and romantic attractions and behavior, some of us do not.”
To be queer need not only involve one’s sexual experience. While transsexuality and intersexuality are common enough to be taken as a natural variation of the human experience, public perceptions and stereotypes about the essentialism of gender binary can leave anyone outside of that paradigm feeling inherently queer. As a trans woman, I don’t feel particularly comfortable in men’s spaces, whether that means literal spaces like washrooms or social groupings or being placed at the center of philosophical and intellectual discourse on men’s health issues among other things, since I’m not a “man.” However, since I have not transitioned (and thus my visual appearance is what most would think of as normatively male), I feel even less comfortable in women’s spaces, since biological essentialists reject trans woman as “real” women and are even more hostile to trans women who have not transitioned. Moreover, at times I feel unwelcome even by other trans women specifically because I have not transitioned, retaining the male privilege that they no longer possess. Thus, since I do not fit the “normative” standard of what people would usually consider to be gay or straight, male or female, transgender or cisgender, I feel quintessentially queer.
Now that we have explored the boundaries (or lack thereof) of what it means to be queer, what would it mean to queer mainstream comics? Slowly but surely, there are identifiable lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters who are fixed in their sexuality and gender appearing in print (although there is still a long way to go before they can truly be considered commonplace), but what would it mean to develop characters who experience sexual or gender fluidity or to queer established and iconic characters in the same way? Let’s take Superman for example. He is the icon of icons, the primordial superhero. However, as I have mentioned before, he is also a definitive example of heteronormative white male privilege. As such, how would audiences feel if he were reimagined as existing outside of the male/female gender binary? After all, he isn’t human, so why should we expect the physiology of his species to function in the same way as ours? If his origin were modified to say that he was born female and underwent a natural sex change, either before his arrival on Earth or once he reached sexual maturity, would that fundamentally change readers perception of him? Sequential hermaphroditism, where a species is born one sex and then becomes the opposite sex at some point during their life cycle, is a fact of life for a number of animals and plants, but is radically different from transsexuality and intersexuality in humans. However, as long as we are speculating about a humaniod alien race, perhaps a modified terminology to fit this particular scenario could be deemed “sequential transsexuality?” In any event, if such as revamp were to take place, would not having his gender fixed from the moment of birth make him “less of a man?” How would Superman develop and assert his own sense of manhood surrounded by a race who’s anatomy is fixed while his is not? How would the Kents react to raising a female child only to then witness her metamorphosis into a man?
If Captain America were to have an affair with a man, could such a story be explored without implying or explicitly imposing a permanent bisexual orientation on him? Could the end of the affair be accepted without anti-gay extremists and LGBT activists accusing Marvel of having the character making an arbitrary choice about his sexuality or spark retaliation for supposedly engaging in sexual exploitation or fueling the ex-gay agenda? Those who experience sexual fluidity are often caught in the middle of these opposing ideologies and perceptions, marginalized and vilified by heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals alike. Definitively bisexual or not, a love affair with someone of the same sex would not negate any of Captain America’s previous relationships with women, nor would it preclude him from continuing to pursue romantic and/or sexual relationships with women in future storylines after the fact. The problem arises when audiences choose to focus exclusively on the politics of one sexual identity over another, rather than whether or not the actual experience with the individual character is worth continuing or ending the relationship (again, a decision that should be made independent of sexual politics or societal and cultural expectations). It would also give mainstream comics a chance to explore the backlash those with a fixed bisexual orientation or who experience sexual fluidity go through, as gay, straight and lesbian people often fear being abandoned or cheated on by those not exclusively attracted to one gender (in spite of the fact that relationships regularly fall apart between same-sex and opposite-sex couples with fixed orientations).
Of course, rather than queering the canon versions of popular superheroes, alternative universes have already provided a number of opportunities to queer iconic superheroes. The Ultimate Marvel universe gave us a gay variation of the X-Men team member Colossus. In DC Comics’ company-wide relaunch, The New 52, the monthly publication Earth 2 introduced a gay Alan Scott as the Green Lantern (although this is now the only version of Alan Scott that currently appears in print). If the major publishing houses did not want to change the iconic characterization of their flagship heroes (temporarily or permanently), they could always launch imprint labels or mini-series’ to explore queer themes, as they have done with other subject matter. For instance, DC Comics’ New 52 is divided into groups with similar themes and character families: Justice League, Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Young Justice, The Edge and The Dark. A new group of publications to explore queer theory in the DC Universe could encompass canon and non-canon stories involving new and iconic characters. Whether or not such an attempt would prove to be financially beneficial for the company is another argument entirely, but its not as if DC Comics is hesitant to cancel publications that do not meet expectations. Similarly, Marvel has its Ultimate Universe as well as several other imprints that have appeared under its label throughout its publication history. Of course, it would be more than wishful thinking to hope the Big Two would put that much effort into exploring gender and sexual diversity, but… here’s hoping.