Gay Men: Superheroes as Role Models
As a gay men’s specialist licensed psychotherapist and life/career/relationship coach, I reflect on the many influences that inform my values, opinions, interests, skills, perspectives, challenges, and rewards, and how I bring those to my work with clients in my psychotherapy and coaching services practice.
Today, I’d like to share and discuss a topic that I find interesting but only has scant discussion, which is how superhero comics characters (and their villains) influence gay men’s lives, and the lessons we can take from the depictions of these characters, which are part of the American (and somewhat global) pop culture lexicon. What can we learn from these characters?
Clinical social workers like me are taught to view the clients we work with in the “person-in-environment” theoretical context when we help them through countless life challenges. In that theory, we recognize the person influences their environment (such as with the professional adage, “social workers are the agents of social change”) and, of course, the environment influences the person. Factors like national, local, and family culture; geographic considerations; socio-economic status; social privileges (or the lack thereof); access to various life-enhancing resources (education, medical care, recreational opportunities, and the state of the local LGBTQ+ community’s rights), and even our time and place in history, are factors that could influence who we are, and what we do, throughout the lifespan. Social workers, in general, tend to assess and approach our clients by paying special attention to the cultural context they come from.
Even forms of entertainment and “pop culture” can influence us. We see various nostalgic pages on Instagram or Facebook that speak to enthusiasts of a certain period in time, a place (such as where we grew up, how it’s changed), sports, hobbies, political/civic interests, books, movies, fashion, TV, and magazines.
For me, as a little boy growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s in a Virginia suburb of Washington, DC, I had many cultural influences. Certainly, growing up in the metropolitan area of our nation’s capital always gave me the feeling that our family lived “where the action is,” (although I actually thought New York City was more influential, because that was where Broadway was; in those days, DC couldn’t care much about theatre, until the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts started to change that). But reading the wise words of our founders and historical figures carved into the majestic marble buildings that populate DC inspired me with some (not all) of their ideals, despite the now-obvious flaws of taking “inspiration” from rich, White, slave-owning “founding fathers.” Visiting the various sites of the Smithsonian Institution taught me about our history, and culture. One (not-so-great condition) pair of Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” are displayed there, along with “Fonzie’s” leather jacket from the 70’s hit sitcom, “Happy Days,” which probably, in part, fueled my obsession (then and later) with guys in leather.
And for a little boy in the 1960’s and 1970’s, I was exposed to comic books in what is known as their “Bronze Age” (1970-1985). I didn’t fully relate to some of the darker tones of the stories about my favorite superheroes and their villains; I was nostalgic for the Golden Age of comics, and the depictions of superheroes as being less complicated. I tended to like stories about superheroes where there was an incident (usually a crime), the intervention of the superhero, the challenge to the superhero, and the denouement (resolution) of the challenge. The 1960’s (and frequently syndicated) “Batman” TV series, rife with inside jokes and even the occasional wink to the LGBT community, was structured this way: two episodes per week aired, and the end of the first episode always set up a life-threatening cliffhanger for Batman and Robin (and later Batgirl) to get out of in the next episode (“tune in tomorrow – same bat-time, same bat-channel!” spoken in a voiceover by its executive producer, William Dozier). Adam West, its charismatic star, lived until fairly recently, and he was always so eloquent when he spoke at comics conventions I attended. When Batman was more recently portrayed as “The Dark Knight,” he liked to refer to his take on Batman as “The Bright Knight,” among other things he said that inspired me, even recently, about how to have a good quality of life, for him well into his 80s, about learning something new, and appreciating something new, in every day. When Adam West walked into those convention rooms, the whole room stared; he had that kind of Old Hollywood charisma that was fascinating to see.
That interest in the TV Batman series (which I practically memorized, made my own costumes to mimic, and even inspired writing my own stories) led me to always consider the role of superheroes in our culture, and modern movies prove the timelessness of these classic characters and the ideas they represent (I’ve even written some really naughty “fan fiction” about Nightwing, who is Batman’s sidekick “Robin”, all grown up. That link is here, for your erotic entertainment, in Archive of Our Own: https://archiveofourown.org/works/22384444?view_adult=true and https://archiveofourown.org/works/23865253 ).
While there certainly have been, especially in recent years, a plethora of LGBT superheroes (and some villains), I’d like to look at some of the Old School superheroes, which influenced the first generation of people to have exposure to the superheroes first created in the late 1930s and 40s. But for a list of LGBT superheroes and their sexual/gender identities, see here: https://www.out.com/art-books/2017/12/20/52-lgbt-superheroes-and-villains#rebelltitem45. I’m also de-emphasizing the more modern, progressive evolution of both DC and Marvel superheroes who have been LGBT, or “old” ones who have been made into more fluid characters, just for simplicity of the “Bronze Age” discussion versus the current Modern Age. (I know, I know: “OK, Boomer.”)
Let’s look at some of these classic superhero characters and see how they might inspire gay men to this day, and leave us with important lessons in life:
Who he is: Batman is about a wealthy millionaire (later billionaire), Bruce Wayne, heir to a business fortune in fictional Gotham City, styled after New York. Young Bruce sees his parents murdered in an alley by a man with a gun staging a hold-up after a night at the theatre. This trauma inspires Bruce to take revenge on his parents’ deaths, by secretly using his fortune to train discreetly to be a great detective, chemist, martial artist, and part performance artist, adopting a costume of a bat, which he thinks is a classic symbol of what weak-minded criminals are afraid of.
What he means for gay men: Batman is so classic for gay men because of what gay men know about the development of the “False Self” if we grow up in any kind of homophobic environment. We either avoid the issues of dating (and sex), or we pretend to be straight to throw off scrutiny by family and others. We know all about this; Bruce is so determined to live a life avenging his parents’ deaths that he generally avoids dating and devotes his life to his nightly patrol of Gotham City, aided by tools that his fortune allows him to develop in secret. However, Bruce/Batman never uses a gun, for that’s what killed his parents, and he generally avoids lethal blows, but he is a fierce martial arts fighter who at least disarms and disables criminals in the act.
In Bruce/Batman, we see how trauma can inform our lives. It shapes our values. We are who we are based on the traumatic experiences we have had to cope with (my articles on trauma are here, here, and here), and any privilege/resources we have had along the way.
Batman’s “value” of not using a gun represents anything that we hold dear as a personal value of what we will or will not do. Even a vegetarian or vegan, or someone Jewish who keeps Kosher, might avoid eating certain things based on the expression of their value system.
Batman’s story also reflects the duality of life. In June, 2023, the time of this writing, I see news reports of Pride celebrations all over the world, and an unprecedented amount of respect, participation, and celebration by straight allies in these events. However, 2023 has also seen a plethora of anti-LGBT legislation in many American states and in countries such as Uganda, where the anti-LGBT forces rally an especially vicious attack to strip us of our civil rights for some kind of political maneuvering for the Republican or other “conservative” (read: bigoted) parties worldwide. For Batman, the “equally matched” duality comes in the form of series of powerful, colorful villains who try to oppose his good work, the most classic of whom is The Joker, a disturbed traumatic accident survivor who epitomizes poor adaptive coping skills (more on him later).
In the mythology of the story (and I believe superheroes are our modern-day mythology, similar to classic Greek and Roman times), there is always the push-and-pull of Batman striving to achieve peace and civic justice in his “world” (Gotham City), while the greed and sadism of others is represented by the villains who try to thwart this. In LGBT rights, we’ve had our super-villains throughout time: Adolf Hitler, Senator Jesse Helms, Donald Wildmon, Anita Bryant, Maggie Gallagher, and too many to list in the different “eras” in the long-term fight to achieve equal legal civil rights.
But like Batman, we keep fighting. Joker gets out of prison (“Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane,” which I always take issue with by portraying people with psychiatric disabilities/mental illness as “society’s villains” to be feared); Joker commits some crime; Batman thwarts him and re-imprisons him; and they both wait for the cycle to begin again (which has been going on since Joker first appeared in comic books in Batman #1, 1940).
What we can learn from him: What we can learn from Batman is both inspiration (devoting his life to a cause of justice that’s profoundly important to him in his personal value system), and his tragedy, that the traumatic loss of his parents through violent crime forever prevented Bruce from enjoying his extreme privilege, having relationships (outside of those with his long-term butler and erstwhile father, Alfred) and his other trauma survivor (but far more sane) sidekick, “Robin” (first embodied by orphan Dick Grayson, and later by other young men who wore the mantel). We learn that when we experience trauma or the life experiences that shape us, we must do that with the critical thinking that addresses what is the best for our community, our immediate family (Family or Origin, or Family of Choice), and for ourselves. Is Batman happy? Probably not. But he might be rewarded in his work that he is doing his part against an impossible mission to eradicate the greed and sadism that took his parents. I think of that sometimes: I’ve devoted my professional life to the mental health and well-being of gay men everywhere, originally inspired by the traumatic devastation and losses of the AIDS crisis. I’d like to think that I’m overall happier than Bruce/Batman, in that I enjoy all kinds of people and recreational activities (such as occasionally reading comics and seeing superhero movies diligently), but I’m also continually challenged that there is an “Anita Bryant” or “Ron DeSantis” (2023) behind every corner, just waiting for ways to sadistically attack our entire LGBT community and our allies. I’ve come to terms that just as Batman will eventually die before he eradicates all crime in Gotham City, I realize that I will probably die (or certainly retire) before I ensure the permanent mental health and well-being of gay men and others in the LGBT community.
No superhero can be everywhere, all at once. But we try to do what we can with the resources that have either been given to us, or that we’ve cultivated by our own efforts. We can learn that while we make gains, we must be ever-vigilant to protect our community from its ideological and legal enemies.
Who he is: There is an adage that says, “no one is an island;” that we all need collaborative support. As in the Beatles song, we “get by with a little help from our friends.” In later comics, publishers and writers established groups to cross-promote the individual superhero comics magazines, forming “The Justice Society” and “The Justice League”. This was mostly a marketing thing, speaking to the collective power of the characters owned by the various publishers, which has basically resulted in the rivalry between Marvel Comics (now owned by Disney) and DC (“Detective Comics”) Comics, owned by Time-Warner (“The Justice League” movie, made $657.9 million). In the early 40s, when Batman became popular, DC Comics cleverly created a “side-kick” character to assist Batman, but a boy character who was the same implied age as many of the comics’ readers, whom the publishers thought readers could “relate to” the “Boy Wonder” crimefighter.
As gay men, we know the tropes – ever since then, really, there has been “talk” of the implication of some kind of homoerotic relationship between Batman and Robin, especially with depictions of Dick Grayson/Robin as a young adult, such as in the TV series, when they added “Aunt Harriet” (not in the comics) as a character to throw off the “suspicion” of two handsome adult men living together in a mansion with their “faithful” butler, Alfred (often portrayed as a bit fey, in a “stuffy Englishman” way).
Like Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson (part of the acrobatic family, the Flying Graysons) was orphaned when a mobster sabotaged his parents’ trapeze ropes in the traveling Haly’s Circus when the owner of the circus refused to pay mob “protection” money. Dick was taken in by Bruce and trained to become Robin, the Boy Wonder.
In later “canon” of the character, Tim Drake, who takes on the role of Robin after other guys have come and gone, comes out. This is a DC character who has been evolved into LGBT versions.
What he means for gay men: Robin, and his later incarnation when he grows up, “Nightwing,” has always been a gay icon, depicted without a cape to his costume and deliberately drawn to have a “nice butt.” This is part of the homoeroticism in comics creators “throwing a bone” to the gay male community (and straight female readers). Dick Grayson eventually outgrows the Family of Origin he has known in his late parents and even under Bruce Wayne, to self-actualize on his own, despite the valuable training from Bruce. This is part of that “separation and individuation process” (growing up) that all kids need to do around adolescence and again around the “college years,” but it’s especially true of gay men who leave their original surroundings of their Family of Origin and assimilate to at least some form of membership in the global LGBT community, which is a family not by blood but by characteristic, being sexual/gender minorities. Dick/Robin/Nightwing validates our individualism as gay men.
What we can learn from him: Like it or not, we have to grow up. We have to recognize what to keep from our upbringing that was good, and what to leave behind (such as Dick recognizing that Bruce is a little traumatically disturbed and unhealthily singularly-focused on his self-appointed, selfless career as the “caped crusader”). We always have to carve our own path, and make our own mark in the world, which we not only “can” do, but we “must” do.
Who he is: Arguably the first superhero, Superman is an alien being whose parents put him in a pod from the environmentally-doomed planet of Krypton and sent him to earth to escape the burning planet’s fate (sound familiar, Greta Thornburg?).
Superman learns the Earth’s yellow sun makes him special: vastly stronger and faster than Earthlings, and with the ability to fly, laser things with his eyes, and freeze things with his breath.
As an adult, he channels these powers into a convenient hiding place in the persona of Clark Kent, a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper (and website) in the city of Metropolis (again, patterned on New York). By mixing with the hoi-polloi, he can escape and don his superhero costume at super-speed, prevent disaster, and return undetected.
In later, more recent canon, Superman’s son takes on the role of Superman (Jonathan Kent), and he is bisexual, intended that not only “straight White males” can be “saviors of the universe.”
What he means for gay men: Superman is an alien from another planet, and what gay man, at some point, hasn’t felt like an alien from another planet? Our sensibilities, our talents, our cultural outlook, our social structure, worldwide, can give us this feeling, often. We can relate to his dilemma that he’s different in this world, and he must use that difference to align with his values, which include to protect the life-and-limb of his fellow residents of the planet.
Superman can also embody some of the cultural oppression of the LGBT community and gay men in particular, in that he is the “super White” man, where problematic components of White privilege, toxic masculinity, “might-is-right,” heterosexuality (without exception) and even Adonis Complex of the “perfect” muscular body all coincide. He can even embody the patriarchy, and the “rescuer” attitude of privileged White men to, oh, everyone else. The news is not all good with this character, and other characters in DC Comics have “spoken out” about this at times.
Superman’s sole vulnerability (which some have said makes him a dull character) is exposure to radioactive rock from his (adulterated) home planet, Kryptonite. If exposed to this glowing, green rock, he will become weak, and with prolonged exposure, could die. He has two primary defenses to this: distance, and containment. If he is far enough away from it, the rays can’t hurt him. If he contains it in a lead box, it also can’t hurt him.
Many times with clients, I’ve used this analogy about any toxic influence in your life: a bad parent, a bad boss, a bad “friend”, a bad lover, a bad politician, a bad community member – anyone who can be an enemy to us as “empowered” gay men. When faced with toxic influence, I ask these clients, “how can you either achieve distance, or containment, from the source of this toxicity,” and we build a (Behavioral Therapy) plan for how this could be achieved.
When Superman has been weakened by Kryptonite, his recovery is just exposure to the Earth’s empowering yellow sun (talk about a tan!). Gay men are like this: after a bad experience with some kind of anti-LGBT person or group, we need to come back to the warm “sun” of support from our peers in our community (which is why I’m a big advocate, still, of “safe spaces” for gay men, which I believe have been diluted and dismissed lately; my article on that is here).
What we can learn from him: What we can learn from Superman is that we adopt our home. We use the skills, abilities, and talents we have to help those in our home area (the planet for him; our local community for us) because we have come to care about the good people that we find in this universe. Superman is not unlike Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz;” for him, under his circumstances, he makes a new (planet) home for himself, just as we “alien” gay men can make a “home” for ourselves in our local/state/national/global LGBT communities. And, as Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home.”
- Wonder Woman
Who she is: Wonder Woman is Princess Diana of the island nation of Themyscira, populated only by Amazon warrior women. Diana was made of clay by her mother, Queen Hippolyta, and brought to life by the god Zeus. Themyscira is magically hidden/protected, believed to be somewhere near the Greek Isles, where immortal Amazon women thrive as long as the island remains free of men. In comics lore, there is a counterpart island of un-dead Greek warriors, which subtly reflects the sometimes “rivalry” in the LGBT community among lesbians and gay men (comics hasn’t invented an island for Nonbinary people yet). Because of her half-god status, Diana/Wonder Woman is a powerful female equivalent to Superman, and is almost invulnerable (although earlier depictions had her lose her powers if she were to bound by man, with rope or chains; an idea that was later abandoned).
Willliam Moulton Marston, a male feminist (and inventor of the polygraph/lie detector machine), wrote Wonder Woman, and was himself involved in a polycule with two women (there are some movies about this).
Wonder Woman, whose secret identity is Diana Prince (a variation on her name of Princess Diana of Themyscira), leaves the paradise island to intervene in the follies of man such as war, oppression, and violence. Her magic golden lasso, when wrapped around someone, forces them to speak the truth, while her bracelets both help her both contain her demi-god powers and deflect bullets (which she remains vulnerable to).
In more recent canon, Diana has been known to be bisexual, which makes sense, when the “all female” Amazon island implies some lesbian undertones.
What she means for gay men: Wonder Woman, like so many strong female characters in literature and entertainment, has been an icon for gay men probably since she was first written. Why? That’s always a topic of speculation, but from Judy Garland to Cher to Taylor Swift, strong female personalities and characters have held fascination, as part of a broader gay male “sensibility” that’s hard to understand (such as love of show tunes and the ability of decorate and accessorize). This stereotype of gay men can be problematic, but in general, we do enjoy idolizing our icons.
Another part of her meaning for gay men might be the duality of her feminine identity mixed with her significant warrior powers. Gay men often can be seen as having an appreciation for the feminine (drag queens, for example) but as I often say to clients, “gay men are still men,” and gay men and straight men overlap in their psychology more than they realize (being sexually visually stimulated; competing in the presence of another male; sometimes letting our libido rule our reason and good judgment).
What we can learn from her: Wonder Woman epitomizes the idea of sacrificing for a greater good. She permanently leaves her island home because, like Superman, her unique abilities and talents can be put to good use in the mortal world. How do we commit to our values? What do we sacrifice to show our talents and be fabulous? What are we “divinely” inspired to do (whether that’s the 80s drag queen or some kind of god/higher power).
We are all “brought to life by Zeus” with our unique value, talents, and abilities. We take them out of our original homes and bring them to the world to do some good, even if they don’t always deserve it and, like Diana, we are continually annoyed with “man’s folly.” But like Superman and Wonder Woman, when we learned what our superpower is, use it. Bob Mackie is a costume designer. Jerry Herman wrote Broadway musicals. Alan Turing was codebreaker who basically helped the Allies win World War II by decoding Nazi messages, and is the first gay man to be depicted on British currency. Bayard Rustin was an activist, author, and organizer of the March on Washington for civil rights in 1963. Everybody’s got something.
In some way, we’re all superheroes. What’s your superpower?
Then, go out and use it:
“All the world is waiting for you,
And the wonders you can do.
In your satin tights,
Fighting for our rights,
And the old Red, White, and Blue…”
Ken Howard, LCSW, CST, isn’t a superhero (although he’s been known to have Halloween costumes as some) but is a long-time (31 years in 2023) gay men’s specialist psychotherapist and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist to clients in Los Angeles/West Hollywood, and all of California (www.GayTherapyLA.com). He also provides life/career/relationship/executive coaching services to gay men nationally and worldwide (www.GayCoachingLA.com). (He can explain some important legal and ethical differences between these professional services in a consultation). For more information on developing your own superpowers, email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, or call/text 310-339-5778.