'First Class': The Latest Chapter in the 'X-Men' Gay-Rights Parable

The series is tailor-made to echo the struggle of real-life oppressed groups

20th Century Fox

In X-Men: First Class, one young mutant-human tells another, "You have no idea what I'd give to feel ... normal." It's a moment anyone who went to high school can empathize with, though it might mean something more to those who grew up gay—the adolescent experience when you discover, like the X-Men, something in your nature that makes you different from the majority of the people around you.

Parallels between the mutant experience and the gay experience pervade First Class, which opened on Friday to a weekend box-office haul of $56 million. The film, a prequel to the modern X-Men movie series, tells the franchise's origin myth: Genetic mutations create a cadre of young superheros who use their powers for good—in this case, by attempting to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. The mutants are, unmistakably, a social minority. The film's catchphrase is "mutant and proud," a playful riff on post-Stonewall self-acceptance, and a "don't ask, don't tell" joke even finds its way into the dialogue.

In its own way, X-Men has become the most subversive modern comic-book franchise, translating for a country of summer moviegoers the entire theater of gay politics. The agenda was set with the original X-Men in 2000, directed by the openly gay Bryan Singer. "It's not just a fantasy story," Singer reportedly told actor Ian McKellen, a fervent LGBT-rights activist, to lure him into a starring role as Magneto. "It's a parable." And indeed, it has been. In the first film, the superheroes are opposed by a U.S. senator who cries out, in a nod to Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" campaign, "I think the American people deserve the right to decide whether they want their children ... to be taught by mutants!" The follow-up, 2003's X2, made its point more boldly, in a scene that so closely resembles a "coming out" it borders on camp—the mother asks her son, "Have you ever tried not being a mutant?" before she gives up entirely and says, "This is all my fault."

Singer moved on and was replaced by Brett Ratner (Rush Hour), not exactly known for his queer sensibilities. But if anything, 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand amped up the symbolism with a plot about a pharmaceutical company that develops a "cure" for the mutant gene. While drugs and biology play a role in other superhero movies, notably the Blade series, none has so convincingly pointed to the AIDS epidemic and the way the gay community came together in solidarity to fight it. "There's nothing to cure," an indignant Storm (Halle Berry) says at one point. "Nothing's wrong with any of us."

But what if X-Men was gay from the beginning? The idea may not surprise those who know the comic books well. Creator Stan Lee came of age as a writer in the 1960s, when anti-fascist superheroes like Captain America gave way to anti-heroes who challenged the status quo. One of his earliest creations, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, featured a cast that was for the time unusually diverse (black, Italian, Jewish), including one character—a scarf-wearing Brit named Percival Pinkerton—that intentionally played on gay stereotypes. “We didn’t make a big issue of it,” Lee told CNN years later. “He's just a colorful character who follows his own different drummer. He follows a different beat.”

Lee has been coy about sexually identifying X-Men, calling it one of several stories directed “against bigotry of all sorts.” At the time the comic book first came out in 1963, it made more sense to think of the characters’ plight in terms of the civil rights movement. Since then, however, it’s become a natural echo of the growing LGBT movement, which is likewise based on a minority that’s “hidden” from public view. In his article “Making Gay Sense of the X-Men,” William Earnest notes how Mystique’s shape-shifting ability, allowing her to “look like everyone else,” closely mirrors the gay phenomenon of “passing.” In one of First Class’s more poignant subplots, Mystique starts embarrassed by her “natural blue form” before learning to embrace her true appearance. Magneto chides her, “You want society to accept you, but you can’t even accept yourself.”

Of course, X-Men is hardly the first to comment on a social movement in a medium known for its progressivism—it just happens to be the most popular. A lesser-known Marvel character from 1966, Black Panther, was the first African-American superhero, though his transition to the silver screen has been bumpier, following a Wesley Snipes adaptation left in limbo. That might make X-Men’s resonance mostly a matter of timing—homosexuality, after all, still counts as a headline controversy, and one ripe for fictionalization. A scene from The Last Stand, in which a teenage mutant shamefully tries to cut off his new angel wings, eerily foreshadows the suicides that have inspired the enormously popular “It Gets Better” campaign. Science fiction or not, that’s a hard parallel to ignore.