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How the ’90s X-Men Cartoon Saved a Generation of Queer Kids

The X-Men have always been gay. They were gay when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first created this team of persecuted misfits in 1963. They were gay when Iceman’s mother asked him “if he’s tried not being a mutant?” in Bryan Singer’s X2 movie. And they were especially gay at the start of Marvel’s recent Krakoan era when Wolverine — one-third of the newly christened Logan/Jean/Cyclops throuple — couldn’t say no to “Scott in a speedo.” They are “Homo Superior,” after all. It’s in the name.

Yet with the arrival of “X-Men ’97,” Marvel’s sequel to “X-Men: The Animated Series,” on Disney+, bigots who are slow to catch on at the best of times are now accusing the X-Men of being too “woke”(as if they haven’t always been the Village People in superhero form). There are particular concerns around the fact that Morph, a shape-shifting mutant these basement-dwellers could not have previously cared less about, has been confirmed to b non-binary this time around in the new sequel. Sucks to be them then because Marvel’s merry band of messy queers look set to be gayer than ever in “X-Men ’97” thanks to Morph’s inclusion, the guidance of gay (recently ousted) showrunner Beau De Mayo, and… well, have you seen Gambit’s crop-top? By organically doubling down on the franchise’s queer foundations, this sequel continues the show’s proud queer lineage that was first established by the original cartoon all the way back in 1992.

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Gays just know how to do stuff, and that includes exploring their queerness before they even realize they’re queer themselves. It’s why 8-year-old me used to stare at underwear packaging a little bit longer than the average boy, and it’s also why “X-Men: The Animated Series” spoke to me on a deeper level than other cartoons ever could, even if I didn’t yet have the words or knowledge to fully understand why.

Looking back, the only thing more enticing than that theme tune was the spandex. It’s scientifically impossible to turn anyone gay, yet that’s exactly what happened the first time I saw animated Scott Summers lean forward with those thick thighs and stand firm as a concussive energy blast — not a heat ray, I might add — shot forth from his eyes. Or maybe it was when Remy LeBeau first gave Rogue a cheeky wink and an even cheekier double entendre while wielding his giant pole bo staff. Choosing between Cyclops and Gambit in the inevitable Gay Twitter prompts is enough to produce the kind of migraine that would make Jean Grey faint in a heartbeat (which to be fair, isn’t hard).

This wasn’t just your typical superhero sausage fest either. Despite that unfortunate name, everyone knows that it’s the women who make the X-Men truly special. When it came to acting out every pose in the opening credits — something I absolutely did not do and will sue you for even bringing up, how dare you?! — baby gays like me drew more strength from channeling Storm, Rogue, and Jean than any of the guys. It’s like when gays always choose female characters to play in video games. It’s just a thing.

It wasn’t until much later that I would come to understand the central, oft-discussed metaphor that underpins the X-Men’s entire existence beyond spandex; that they’re hated and feared simply for being different. What started out as an (incomplete) analogue for the civil rights movement has since resonated with practically anyone who has been discriminated against. That’s the beauty of this concept. It applies just as much to those who have been persecuted on religious grounds as those who are ostracized for being queer or trans or for being different in any other way that’s perceived as “unwanted” by the so-called majority. The spandex helps too, of course, but that’s true for all superheroes. What makes the X-Men stand out is how they lift each other up and support one another because of this bond they all share. They’re not cops or co-workers like the Avengers, and they’re not biologically related like the Fantastic Four are either. They’re a found family who accept each other when no one else will, and that rings true for queer people everywhere, no matter where we might be on our own personal journeys.

This central conceit is something the cartoon understood better than perhaps any other X-Men adaptation has to date, which is particularly impressive given that the ’90s weren’t exactly a hotbed of queer positivity. Across five seasons, “X-Men: The Animated Series” dealt with hate and persecution just as much as the X-Men did themselves. But the show wasn’t all trauma porn. Far from it in fact. In “The Cure,” an episode that still makes me cry to this day, Rogue hears of a fix for the X-Gene and almost goes through with it before she comes to the realization that “There ain’t no cure for who you are.” (If you heard this spoken in Rogue’s southern belle accent, we’re friends now). This hope against all hope to be cured of something that’s intrinsically part of who you are should resonate with anyone who’s prayed to be cured of their queerness.

It also speaks to the horrific damage that gay conversion therapy inflicts on queer people desperate to be “fixed,” including those who are forced into said therapy by their so-called loved ones. By choosing Rogue in particular to be the face of this arc, the writers also added yet another extra queer layer because the whole reason she wants to remove her power in the first place is so she can touch someone without draining them of their essence. Rogue is unable to physically connect with the people she loves, and if that’s not a universally queer feeling, I don’t know what is, whether it’s because we live in a society where same-sex touch is forbidden or whether we ourselves are too afraid to express our desires through physical means.

This episode aired during the height of the AIDS crisis when queerness — even as a metaphor — was being othered. To explore these ideas in a cartoon of all places was extremely radical, and then Season 2 went one better by directly adapting Marvel’s Legacy Virus storyline, which essentially depicted AIDS in all but name. At a time when countless gay men were dying of a real virus, this fictional legacy virus was seen as a disease that only infected certain people, specifically mutants, until Xavier’s human bestie, Moira MacTaggert, was affected. A cure was discovered soon after, because it became much more of a priority as soon as someone “normal” was put in danger, much like how medical AIDS research progressed in real life too.

In a decade when openly queer mutants couldn’t be depicted — partly because there weren’t any really, aside from Alpha Flight’s Northstar who came out in 1992 — “X-Men: The Animated Series” spoke to an entire generation of queer kids who longed to see themselves in the stories they loved. Since then, the X-Men comics have come a long way, especially in the last five years where a transgender hero named Escapade was introduced, plus Mystique and Destiny are also getting ready to tie the knot together in an upcoming Pride special.

And then there’s Iceman, the pass-around-party-bottom of Krakoa, whose A-list status and omega-sized… personality speak to change as well. Those last two examples in particular are extremely joyful, reminding us that the X-Men are strong and defiant beyond the pain that comes with living in a world that’s not built for you. That’s true of the comics, that’s true of the 90s cartoon, and that’s also true of “X-Men ’97”, which will explore what the future looks like when acceptance feels like it might actually be in reach. To see my favorite heroes find some measure of happiness after struggling for so long is incredibly healing for queer kids like me who didn’t feel like they belonged back when the show first aired. But belong we do, because we are what? Homo Superior.

“X-Men 97” premieres with two episodes on Disney+ Wednesday, March 20 with new episodes airing weekly.

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