Batgirl: Gay Icon? was my first attempt at examining the cultural trend of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people’s idolization of heterosexual and cisgender public figures in history and popular culture. In short, the long-held demonization of same-sex attraction and gender variance has left the existence of prominent, influential and well-respected LGBT figures as role models a distinct rarity. Thus, we are often left to model ourselves after, or seek guidance from, heterosexual and cisgender people whose narratives in some way mirror our own. Of course, the visibility of LGBT people in everyday life, entertainment and public office has increased dramatically over the past few decades. Public opinion on sexual orientation and gender identity has improved as a result, but it continues to be an upward struggle. As the prominence of LGBT people enamored in public consciousness increases, we will undoubtedly depend on our heteronormative and cisnormative idols less and less. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t still examine what qualities they possess that continue to enthrall us.
When I think of Marvel Comic’s Ororo Munroe—codenamed Storm—one word instantly comes to mind: POWER. Such association does not lie in her extraordinary mutant ability to control weather alone, but in her demeanor, oration and leadership as well. In the Marvel Universe, while Storm exists as a member of multiple disenfranchised groups—a woman, a woman of color and a mutant—she commands respect almost effortlessly. She holds a unique position in mainstream American comics a vibrant womanist figure, not simply because she is a black woman, but because she embodies significant ties to both native African and African American culture and history.
This is a departure from the norm, according to Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation (2013), which argues that many black characters are “Black in color only while operating in an all White cultural context and worldview… [having] no Black consciousness or Black cause, only a generalized ‘humanitarian’ supportive role from a Eurocentric worldview and perspective.” Her fictional biography, as documented in The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines (2013), states that “Ororo Munroe was the daughter of a Kenyan princess and an African American photojournalist, born in Harlem and later orphaned in Cairo [following the death of both her parents], where she became a pickpocket and expert thief. As a teenager she wandered to the Serengeti, where her powers to control the weather made her the object of worship among the native people.” That her origin myth defines the very term African diaspora—the migration and distribution of African people across the globe—is opportunity for her narrative to explore endless possibilities for examining black history, politics, indigenous beliefs and the complications that have arisen due to systematic discrimination. For LGBT people, and especially LGBT people of color, she is a text book example of the multiple “axes of oppression,” while universally recognized as a formidable presence, both physically and intellectually. However, before we can discuss the symbolism present in her characterization, we must explore the experience of ethnic minorities, LGBT people and of LGBT people of color in the United States.
For LGBT people of color, the relationship between ethnic identity, sexual identity and gender identity is one of complexity. Feminism, the Family, and the Politics of the Closet: Lesbian and Gay Displacement (2000) documents that “[w]hile racial and gender discrimination are largely predicated on inferiorizing stereotypes, sexuality discrimination is largely predicated on immortalizing stereotypes whose ultimate suggestion is not that gay men and lesbians are incompetent, but that they are untrustworthy members of civil society.” Thus, LGBT people of color are simultaneously perceived as being inherently inferior and immoral. Such axes of oppression illustrate that for those who are a part of more than one disenfranchised group—such as women, people of color, people living with disabilities and LGBT people, among others—systematic oppression does not exist in a vacuum, but impacts us on multiple levels.
The influence of LGBT people of color in American history is substantial, but unrecognized due to institutionalized homophobia and transphobia in academia, news and entertainment media. Cultural Proficiency: A Manual for School Leaders (2009) noted that “students of color, LGBT students, and female students often feel disconnected from US history: none of their forebears appears to have been involved in any significant way, and LGBT persons, people of color, and women are largely absent from the history being taught. As a result, students of color, female students, and LGBT students gain a sense of invisibility in history and literature due to the omissions, distortions, and fallacious assumptions being taught in school.” Bayard Rustin, an openly gay black man, as well as trans women of color such as Sylvia Riviera and Marsha P. Johnson are largely responsible for building the platforms on which modern day civil rights advocates stand. Rustin, a pacifist Quaker and socio-economic justice advocate, was responsible for instructing Martin Luther King, Jr. on the methodology of non-violent resistance for which his is famous, as well as being the principle architect of the 1963 March on Washington. According to Queer America: A GLBT History of the 20th Century (2008), “Rustin did gain nation attention at the time but his homosexuality placed him in largely unseen roles before and after the march, due to the homophobia inside and outside the civil rights movement.” In a similar vein, Sylvia Riviera’s involvement in the Stonewall riots of 1969 have largely been erased. As explained in Stonewall’s Legacy: Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Students in Higher Education (2011), “[f]oregrounding the stories of young gay men in place of the less socially visible transactivist like Riviera, historians generally played down her role in the riots or ignored it altogether… this omission symbolizes the tendency of documented queer history to marginalize trans contributions to the movement, in a practice Stryker (2008) refers to as ‘homonormativity’.”
Given the nature of anti-mutant oppression within the Marvel Universe, it is understandable why the fictional Mutant Liberation movement has drawn so many parallels by critics and readership to real-life ones, including the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation and Gay & Lesbian Liberation. Not unlike historical figures such as Rustin and Rivera, Storm’s contributions to Mutant Liberation as a field leader, strategist and educator to the X-Men are minimized in the Marvel Universe’s public consciousness under the greater visibility of Professor Charles Xavier, which can be seen as a consequence of both white and male privilege (the same could be said of the blue-skinned Mystique and the altogether normative Magneto, who represent the more radical/militant faction of the movement). It is also worth noting that in Xavier’s absence, Alex Summers (Havoc), another white/hetero/cis/normative male attempted to become the “new” face of Mutant Liberation, only to have his position on identity politics thoroughly debunked by Kitty Pryde (Shadowcat), a woman and mutant of Jewish heritage, who like Summers, Xavier and Magneto, also benefits from white privilege.
LGBT people of color are often placed in the position of having to prioritize their axes of oppression in terms of “importance” in their personal lives, as well as distributing their involvement and/or financial contributions to organizations that advocate primarily or exclusively for gender equality, racial justice or LGBT civil liberties. As stated in Affirmative Advocacy: Race, Class, and Gender in Interest Group Politics (2008), “[w]hile marginalization occurs along multiple intersecting and overlapping axes such as gender and race and poverty, the political response to oppression and disadvantage in the United States, with few exceptions, has been to organize interest groups and to pursue public policies that are dedicated to addressing single axes of oppression—gender or race or poverty.” When Storm marries Black Panther (and in turn becomes Queen consort of the fictional nation of Wakanda), she is placed in a position to choose allegiances along her axes of oppression. That is, she is confronted with the ultimatum to choose between her loyalties to the X-Men (allegiance to mutant advocacy) or her loyalties to Wakanda (allegiance to racial justice). Ultimately, she refuses to make a choice between the two, asserting there is no justifiable reason she cannot serve as both Queen and X-Man, just as LGBT people of color are incapable of sacrificing one aspect of our identities for another.
Unfortunately, the marriage between Storm and Black Panther (which some thought was poorly executed to begin with) came to an ill-conceived end in the wake of the Avengers vs X-Men limited series. Based on the belief that Storm betrayed the Wakandan people by assisting the X-Men, Black Panther, acting as the High Priest of his nation, annuls their marriage. Critiques of the actual narrative of the story aside, a failed marriage between two iconic black characters has grave implications. Due to the fact that Black Panther is a king (patriarchal authority) and high priest (moral authority), his treatment of Storm requires no justification. The annulment leaves Storm looking like a treacherous woman, and Black Panther a callous abuser, which not only contributes to the “inferiorizing” stereotypes of black women and men, but glosses over the fact that such vices are wholly uncharacteristic to both heroes. It also leaves a longstanding friendship built into both of their origins myths as children in shambles. According to Encyclopedia of Domestic Violence (2007), “LGBT people are often isolated within their coupled relationships from family, friends and co-workers. This may make them more vulnerable to being ‘outed’ by an abusive partner, where their status as LGBT becomes the focal point of the abuse.” For Storm, her status as a mutant (analogous to sexual orientation or gender variance) is the focal point of the breakdown of her marriage, framed as being adversarial to her cultural responsibility.
Aside from the intersections across her axes of oppression, the heart of Storm’s connection to LGBT people of color is the nature of her mutant power. As with many mutant abilities, Storm’s control over weather and other atmospheric conditions are described as psionic: a matter of cognitive manipulation. As such, her mutant ability and her codename can be taken as a manifestation of not only our turbulent journey out of the closet, but our continued task of weathering the storm of bigotry as a result. We must battle the storms of internalized homophobia, biphobia and transphobia within ourselves as we come to terms with our sexuality and/or gender. We must battle the systematic oppression that rains down upon us across multiple axes of oppression (race/gender/class/[dis]ability/sexuality) in an attempt to drown out our voices. We are not only expected to rise above the storm unscathed, but to master it as well.
One of Storm’s limitations is that her power can be unduly affected by her emotional state of mind. Thus, she can become a threat to herself and those around her if she cannot exercise emotional control. As an individual living with a disability (specifically, a mental disability), her state of mind can be especially fragile when her claustrophobia is triggered. While it true that LGBT people commit self-harm and suicide at higher rates that our heterosexual and cisgender counterparts, having the additional circumstance of living with a mental illness can exacerbate these tendencies. Community Mental Health: Challenges for the 21st Century (2013) notes that “LGBT individuals with serious mental illness live with a double burden of stigma. Society discriminates against their sexual and gender identity, as well as their mental health status… The fact that the field of mental health has in the past conflated these two stigmas by defining homosexuality itself as a kind of mental illness is a particularly corrosive aspect of the situation in which LGBT [patients] find themselves.” At times, Storm has expressed doubts about her capabilities as a leader, especially in combat, due to her claustrophobia. Similarly, many LGBT people living with mental illness doubt their own capabilities or worthiness of respect and admiration. Sadly, there are those who do not disclose or seek assistance concerning their mental health due to the stigmas associated with mental illness. Storm has benefited from having a mutant and psychologist like Professor Xavier as a mentor; someone who understands the nuances attached to her multiple stigmas, a mental health service we should all have access to. As Storm has struggled to confront and overcome her fears, trauma and self-doubt, we too, strive to rise above the turbulence. Like that of the Mistress of the Elements, may our tears fall in a cathartic release like cleansing rain, our voices boom like thunder and our actions strike as resolute as lightning.
In Female Action Heroes: A Guide to Women in Comics, Video Games, Film, and Television (2010), it is stated that “[a]s Storm approaches four decades since her debut, her impact on popular culture remains relatively limited. Though she broke new ground for women and people of color—groups largely underrepresented in media—and, thanks to the films, is reasonably well known to the general public outside of comic book fandom, she has not elicited the enthusiastic responses that other female action heroes or classic male heroes have received.” In comparison to other female icons such as “Wonder Woman, Foxy Brown, Princess Leia, Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Laura Croft, and Xena,” her “limited success may be due to the fact that the more popular female action heroes tend to stand alone, or at the very least stand front and center.” Fortunately, while she may still not have an ongoing solo title, Storm has reclaimed center stage in the pages of Brian Wood’s relaunched X-Men, not only as leader of the group, but as headmistress of the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning. Her repositioning (along with the rest of the X-Women) took place “because you demanded it!” according to Marvel Entertainment. As the demand for marginalized groups to receive greater visibility increases, hopefully someone at Marvel will see the limitless potential in giving her an ongoing solo title.
In spite of the limitations imposed upon her, Storm is and always has been a highly idealized character, one who consistently projects the greatest virtues humanity has to offer. For LGBT people of color, she is the idealized self—the one who has mastered the storm. As described in Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology (1992), “Storm—despite her name—is on all occasions an advocate of the calm and healing divisions—within the X-men or outside it. In the battle with Alpha Flight she brings the entire Canadian weather pattern back under control. In the collapsing N-Galaxy she is the first to offer her ‘life force’ as a psychic anchor to Phoenix, saving the day for the entire universe. When young mutant Kitty [Pryde] appears on the scene, Storm takes her hand.” Mother, lover, mentor, mediator, advocate, leader and even goddess, Storm throughout her publication has been all things to all people.