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Born Different: X-Men and the Queer Community

Marvel Animation's X-MEN '97. Photo courtesy of Marvel Animation. © 2024 MARVEL.

Spoiler Alert: Specific details about X-Men ’97 Season One’s story are discussed throughout.

On March 20, Marvel, through its parent company The Walt Disney Company, resuscitated a thirty-two-year-old cartoon, “X-Men: The Animated Series” with “X-Men ‘97.” The show brought back many of the original voice actors and picked up where “X-Men: The Animated Series” left off  – shortly after the alleged death of their leader, Professor X (Ross Marquand).

Spoiler Alert: Professor X didn’t die. He was whisked away to the Shi’Ar Empire in the Andromeda Galaxy where he was healed from a gunshot wound. He became the consort to the Magestrix Lilandra (Morla Gorrondona), leader of the avian aliens.

In this iteration of the X-Men, the mutants, comic book superheroes born with special abilities like flight, teleportation, or telekinesis, returned to the airwaves with new and exciting challenges. The show served the superheroics with biting wit and shocking social commentary. The cartoon instantly captured the zeitgeist of the LGBTQ community.

Marvel Animation’s X-MEN ’97. Photo courtesy of Marvel Animation. © 2024 MARVEL.

Chris Riley, co-founder of The Uncanny Experience, the immersive X-Men Fandom Convention, co-host of X-Reads Podcast, a show recapping vintage issues of X-Men with the stars, artists, writers, and creators of the X universe, and producer for Q Con, a Los Angeles-based LGBT+ pop culture convention, said, “The X-Men have always been an allegory for marginalized communities, including queer people. With ‘X-Men ’97,’ we’re seeing authentic stories that reflect today’s culture.”

Strategically, the animated X-Men’s openly gay creator Beau DeMayo brought many stories from the original comic book to the forefront. He pushed Wolverine (Cal Dodd) into the background and gave the other X-Men a chance to shine. Most notably, the X-Women, female powerhouses such as Rogue (Lenore Zann) and Storm (Alison Sealy-Smith), and the codename-free Jean Grey (Jennifer Hale). DeMayo took Morph (J. P. Karliak), a character created for “X-Men: The Animated Series,” bumped them up to series regular and revealed that Morph was non-binary and secretly crushing on the hard-ass Canadian hero, Wolverine. He added a sexual subtext to the love/hate relationship between the team’s leader, Professor X, and his rival, Magneto (Matthew Waterson). DeMayo took New Mutant Roberto DaCosta (Gui Augustini) and told his story as a gay allegory when the teen boy has to “come out as a mutant” to his family.

Marvel Animation’s X-MEN ’97. Photo courtesy of Marvel Animation. © 2024 MARVEL.

The dialogue is filled with camp. Supervillain Deathbird, one of the aforementioned avian aliens, calls Earth, “a Milky Way ghetto planet!” Clutch the pearls!

The first episode of “X-Men ‘97” caused a social media frenzy when fan-favorite superhero bad boy with a New Orleans draw, Gambit (A.J. LoCascio), sported a crop top, creating a two-dimensional thirst-trap sensation. Not only is he sexy and drawn that way, but the actor is very handsome IRL.

Riley said, “Roberto da Costa’s coming out as a mutant mirrors the experiences many queer people face, Morph’s nonbinary status is portrayed naturally, and Gambit’s crop top look will likely be a ‘gay awakening’ for many. The queer subtext is louder than ever, especially in how Charles and Erik[Magneto] talk about each other.”

Marvel Animation’s X-MEN ’97. Photo courtesy of Marvel Animation. © 2024 MARVEL.

In episode 5, “Remember It,” the X-Men are invited to the island nation of Genosha, a fictional island off the eastern coast of Africa. Their current leader, former villain-turned-father-figure, Magneto, is offered a chance to rule the tiny island nation as a haven for the super-powered community of mutants. Unfortunately, mutant-hating racists have created Sentinels, giant killer robots, and dispatched them to destroy Genosha. The robots devastate the island, killing a slew of cameo characters, including Banshee, Marrow, Dazzler, Moira MacTaggert, and the hunky hero, Gambit.

The deaths stunned fans.

In April, DeMayo, who was fired from Marvel shortly before the premiere of the series, spoke with the Advocate about the episode “Remember It,” an allegory for the Pulse nightclub shootings, 9/11, and other tragic events that create horrifying ripples through the American landscape.

DeMayo said, “I partied at Pulse. It was my club. I have so many great memories. It was, like Genosha, a safe space for me and everyone like me to dance, laugh, and be free. I thought about this a lot when crafting this season and this episode, and how the gay community in Orlando rose to heal from that event.”

In episode 7, Beast (George Buza) looked out on Genosha’s mutant massacre, quoted iconic Pittsburgher, Mr. Rogers, and said, “‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” The episode focuses on the island nation’s recovery as he helps rescue, perform triage, and clean up after the devastation. 

During the episode, the mutant superheroes function as a family, grieving for their lost comrade-in-arms. While his girlfriend Rogue goes off in a berzerker rage trying to find the culprits for the Genoshan genocide.

Rogue (voiced by Lenore Zann) in Marvel Animation’s X-MEN ’97. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2024 MARVEL.

Julie Struss, owner of K & J Comics and Games in West View, PA, said, “The reason ‘The X-Men: Animated Series’ was important then and ‘X-Men ‘97’ is important now is simple: it shows how ugly hate is and how hard it is to be compassionate against hate.” She added, “The X-Men show us as queer and minorities finding strength in our community and valuing our allies. People forget that it’s not just about showing the world diversity, but it shows us our diverse cultures and found families are no less stronger than blood.”

Riley said, “What I love most is the ‘found family’ aspect; many queer kids, disowned for being different, find family in the X-Men. The ‘X-Men ’97’ cast are huge allies of the queer community and participated in both the WeHo and L.A. Pride Parades. It’s so important for queer people to see that the actors who portray the characters they love and draw strength from also love and support them. X-Men ’97 is everything I have always wanted as a gay fan of mutants and so much more.”

Ted Abenheim, President, Prism Comics, marched with the voice cast and the cosplayers in several Pride events in Los Angeles. He said, “It’s amazing to see the response to the new X-Men ’97 series from the queer comics community. And we at Prism Comics are very grateful for the ‘X-Men ’97’ voice cast members and X-Men cosplayers who have supported Prism Comics at Pride events this spring including marching in both the West Hollywood Pride Parade and the Los Angeles Pride Parade. The cheers and applause from the crowds as we passed are a testament to the power of representation in comics and popular media. ‘X-Men ’97’ speaks to us on a deep level about embracing the power that comes from being your true unique self and the power of community. And these powers are needed more now than ever!”

Magneto (voiced by Matthew Waterson) in Marvel Animation’s X-MEN ’97. Photo courtesy of Marvel Animation. © 2024 MARVEL.

The X-Men are just like us

Whether Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the first issue of the X-Men comic book in 1963 as an allegory to the civil rights movement is up for debate, but many X-Men aficionados posit that Professor X was a Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. figure and Magneto was the series’ Malcolm X. The comics were always meant to reflect the real world. Lee called the Marvel Universe, “The world outside your window,” but, for the original run in the 60s, most of the teen heroes were straight white male American heroes, with one lone distaff member, Jean Grey (then known as Marvel Girl). 

In 1975, a new team of X-Men flooded the comic book stands, a group of international heroes. Storm became the first Black member of the team. Later, in the early 80s, Kitty Pryde became the first Jewish girl to join the team. Representation continued with additional Black and Asian characters (Bishop, Jubilee, etc.). It wasn’t until January 14, 1992, when Northstar came out of the closet though his homosexuality was hinted at as far back as 1983, that Marvel got its first gay hero. The mutant came out in the X-Men’s sister book, Alpha Flight, a Canadian version of the Avengers. He later joined the X-Men (“The Uncanny X-Men” #414, December 2002). Northstar married his husband, Kyle Jinadu in an X-Men comic (“Astonishing X-Men #51, June 2012), the first depiction of a same-sex wedding in mainstream comics.

Jubilee (voiced by Holly Chou) in Marvel Animation’s X-MEN ’97. Photo courtesy of Marvel Animation. © 2024 MARVEL.

After Northstar came out in 1992, the Marvel Universe flung wide its closet doors. The X-Men have their fair share of LGBTQ characters. Most prominently, one of the original X-Men, Iceman came out (“All-New X-Men #40, April 2015), accidentally outed by telepath teammate, Jean Grey/Marvel Girl.

Shade, the first mutant drag queen, popped onto the scene looking fabulous (Iceman #4, December 2018), and Escapade, Marvel’s first trans hero made a big splash (Marvel Voices: Pride, June 2022) joining the New Mutants, the teen X-Men (The New Mutants #31, October 2022).

Lesbian power couple Mystique and Destiny, two former X-Men villains, just got married (X-Men: The Wedding Special, June 2024). The femme fatales confirmed their long-rumored relationship (since the early 80s), sharing their first on-panel kiss (“The History of the Marvel Universe” #2, August 2019).

Open the pages of any X-Men comic currently on the stands, and you will find a plethora of LGBTQ characters starring in the books, such as gay teen Anole (“NYX” #1, July 2024), bisexual Kitty Pryde (“Exceptional X-Men” #1, coming in September 2024), and the iconic lesbian anti-hero, Mystique (“Mystique #1,” coming in October 2024).

They’re here. They’re queer. And they’re extraordinary.

Michael Buzzelli is a stand-up comedian and sit-down author. As a comedian, he has performed all around the country, most notably, the Ice House, the Comedy Store and the Improv in Los Angeles. As a writer, Michael Buzzelli has been published in a variety of websites, magazines and newspapers. He is a theater and arts critic for 'Burgh Vivant,’ Pittsburgh's online cultural talk magazine. He is also a Moth Grand Slam storyteller and actor. His books, "Below Average Genius," a collection of essays culled from his weekly humor column in the Observer-Reporter, and his romantic comedy,  “All I Want for Christmas," are on sale at Amazon.com. He is working on a LGBTQ romantic comedy called, “Why I Hate My Friends.” You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter. (He / Him / His)