New Transgender Comic Character Does Not Erase Gay Censorship

Alysia Yeoh_DC Comics
Alysia Yeoh – DC Comics

By Ashley-Michelle Papon

It’s a banner year for women in comics.

Just three months after comic powerhouse Marvel announced their intention to reboot the classic X-Men series with an all-female line-up starring quintessential 90’s teen Jubilee, DC Comics has upped the ante with the revamped Batgirl series. Already featuring title character Barbara Gordon as a lesbian, the character development is going further than it would have been imagined possible. In issue 19, available this week for purchase and download, Gordon’s roommate, Alysia Yeoh, reveals that she’s transgender.

To be clear, Yeoh isn’t the first transgender character to be featured in the DC universe. That distinction, depending on how inclusive you want to be with available comic lines under the DC umbrella, belongs to Wanda Mann of The Sandman or Shining Knight, whose most recent incantation as part of the “The New 52” disclosed being both male and female.

But what sets Yeoh apart is that her identity is neither the result of magic, manipulation, or a moral lesson. As Batgirl writer Gail Simone reveals to Wired, Yeoh will be,

“a character, not a public service announcement…being trans is just part of her story.”

Simone explains, correctly, that previous characters who identified as gay or trans have served stories promoting “sermonizing over storytelling.”

Part of that, no doubt, is the result of the ambivalent relationship comics have had with nontraditional narratives. Much of the blame for the exclusion rests with Fredric Wertham, a German-American psychiatrist who emerged as the leader of anti-comic book sentiment. In an article from 2008, Slate characterized Wertham as “the biggest villain of all time, a real-life bad guy worse than the Joker, Lex Luthor, and Magneto combined.” Wertham’s claim to fame came with the publishing of Seduction of the Innocent, an anti-comic treatise that linked superheroes and crime fighters with juvenile delinquency rates.

Wertham asserted that the depictions of violence, substance abuse, and sex were directly responsible for nurturing such behavior in the restless teens rebelling against the observations of a society which imparted one set of rules for them and another entirely for adults. He reserved a particular ire for comics that subverted the heteronormative paradigm. On page 189, Wertham argues Wonder Woman’s strength and independence are character traits marking her as a lesbian, while the stories of Batman “may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies.”

Thankfully, there’s been no shortage of people debunking Wertham and his so-called methods of evidence gathering, but in Cold War America, Wertham’s word carried an incredible amount of weight. Seduction of the Innocent galvanized panicked parents to police the sexual identities of their children as rigorously as the political preferences of their neighbors.

From the influence of Wertham’s anti-comic activism, Congress was called to action. Shortly before Seduction of the Innocent hit bookstores, Robert Hendrickson, a Republican from New Jersey, to investigate the impact of comic books on youth. The subcommittee convened with a $44,000 budget and held testimony, including scathing book excerpts from Wertham, through the summer of 1954.  In the end, the committee’s final report didn’t assign the blame for crimes committed among youth to comic books as Wertham had so rigorously campaigned for, but it did “recommend” that the comic industry voluntarily tone down some of the more questionable content.

As a direct result of the investigation and Wertham’s efforts, the Comics Magazine Association of America formed the Comics Code Authority to avoid further governmental regulation. For more than 30 years, the CCA controlled the success of comics, screening each individual comic for adherence to the strict standards of the Code.

Doonesbury featuring Andy Lippincott ©GB Trudeau, 1976
Doonesbury featuring Andy Lippincott ©GB Trudeau, 1976

In 1976, the standards were challenged when Doonesbury introduced Andy Lippincott, a self-identified gay activist. Lippincott’s appearances in the strip were sporadic, until 1989, when he was diagnosed with HIV. By the time the character died of the disease in 1990, creator Garry Trudeau had been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Lippincott’s character helped transform the view of AIDS in the public consciousness, and it marked the first mainstream comic had received critical acclaim for defying the Code. By 2011, advertisers had stopped making marketing decisions based on the CCA’s approval, and all major comic lines acknowledged they hadn’t submitted any comics for regulation since 2009. Some lines, like Marvel, publically separated from the CCA much earlier in favor of adopting internal regulations. Currently, Wikipedia lists the standing of the CCA as “defunct.”

Though the CCA has stopped censoring character developments, the battle for inclusivity is far from won.

On April 9, the critically-acclaimed fantasy comic SAGA #12 became the latest victim of censorship when it was announced that the installment would not be available for purchase through iOS products. According to co-creator Brian K. Vaughn, lamenting the censorship through Tumblr, it is “because of two postage stamp-sized images of gay sex, Apple is banning tomorrow’s SAGA #12 from being sold through any iOS apps.” (Something that the publisher and comiXology, the provider of digital comic content to Apple’s iOS devices, endorsed through numerous retweets and reblogs.)

While comiXology has since reversed the decision to make SAGA #12 available for iOS purchase, one can hardly blame Vaughn and the thousands of others who rushed to point the finger at the company that Steve Jobs built. It wasn’t that long ago Apple sold an app that promised to deliver a “gay cure,” despite the considerable money Apple donated to the NOH8 campaign in 2008.

On a micro level, the debacle with SAGA #12 illustrates that corporations running comics are as greedy as the rest. Until comiXology was unmasked as the villain, outraged readers were encouraged to purchase SAGA #12 from comiXology directly, rather than through Apple. The bonus for comiXology here is obvious: by selling SAGA, the hottest comic currently to the reader directly, they avoid paying any distribution fee to Apple, increasing their profits. Though the move probably isn’t illegal, it’s certainly sketchy, and capitalizing on the real oppression and double standards facing media depictions (read: SEX) of the LGBT community.

And it’s irritating that Steinberger only apologized to Vaughn and the publisher, Image, for the fracas—no such apology was made to co-creator and artist Fiona Staples. Which leads to the macro implications: comics are still trying to find their stride with demographics beyond white males, making the publicity for artists like Staples and characters like Yeoh particularly meaningful and necessary. Especially as Disney, the overlord of the most successful adaptation to date (“Avengers”) continues selling idiotic t-shirts telling girls they “need a hero” while encouraging boys to “be a hero”. The growth here needs to be simultaneous: we need to value inclusive readership while providing diverse characters, storylines, and titles.

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