Tyrion Lannister

When Batman Was Gay

Filed By Tyrion Lannister | July 24, 2008 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History, Media
Tags: Batgirl, Batman, Batman and Robin, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Batwoman, Christian Bale, Christopher Nolan, Dick Grayson, gay Batman, gay history, Heath Ledger, Rachel Dawes, The Dark Knight

Everyone is pretty whipped up about the release of The Dark Knight, which shattered Spiderman 3's record for largest first-weekend box-office draw over the weekend. Unlike Spiderman 3, The Dark Knight is actually a very entertaining film. Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise is darker, more serious, and, consequently more frightening. It also captures the psychological complexity of the titular character in a way that the more stylized vision of Tim Burton - not to mention the dreck produced by Joel Schumacher - never could.

pinkbatman.jpgNolan's vision is inspired by the Golden Age Batman, who was a different breed altogether. Batman of the early 1940s, for example, shot people, tossed them off rooftops, and had few reservations about killing criminals. He menaced murderers, gangsters, and thugs, not overgrown graffiti artists. Early Gotham was a dark and scary place, the sort of place that might inspire people to, you know, dress up like a giant bat. So what happened? Why did the dark and menacing Batman of 1940s become the lame and tame Batman of the 1960s?

Much of it has to do with changing national mores and an evolving economic and social landscape. In this sense, Batman's story is a microcosm for what happened throughout the entire comic book industry during that period and, to a lesser extent, some of the changes that swept across the nation. One of the most important episodes in Batman's metamorphosis centered around the startling accusation that Batman and Robin were gay and might seed impressionable youths with homosexual fantasies. Silver Age Batman was indelibly shaped by the gendered expectations of the era and his failure to adhere to those expectations incited criticism, predictably, that called into question his sexual identity.

I always preferred Batman to Superman, largely because Batman, the central implausibility of his character aside, was psychologically interesting in a way that the bland Superman never was. Of course, my introduction to Batman was Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, a crucial revision of the Batman myth which imagined Batman as a psychologically scarred character inhabiting an increasingly savage world.

In contrast, most baby-boomers may be more likely to associate Batman with the campy, absurdist version of the late-1950s and 1960s best captured in the long-running television series. In the pages of Detective in that era, Batman traveled through time, verbally sparred with "Batmite", and foiled countless plots to deface many of Gotham City's iconic landmarks. In other words, Silver Age Batman was a glorified boyscout, patrolling against vandalism - just like Superman without the awesome powers.

Outing the Caped Crusader

The accusation that Batman was a homo, as strange as it might sound to our own ears, was taken quite seriously by government and public alike. It wasn't leveled by a marginal nut or crank, but by a world-renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Frederic Wertham.

Wertham was the Chief Psychiatrist for the New York Department of Hospitals and an important figure among the New York City liberal intelligentsia. His writings were respected enough to help form part of the legal strategy for Brown v. Board. In 1954, Wertham published a scathing indictment of comic books, The Seduction of the Innocent, which argued that comic books were an invidious influence on American youth, responsible for warped gender attitudes and all manner of delinquency. Wertham's accusations garnered the attention of Senator Estes Kefauver and his Senate Sub-committee on Juvenile Delinquency, where Wertham repeated many of his central claims.

BatmanRobin.gifBatman and Robin, Wertham charged, inhabited "a wish dream of two homosexuals living together." They lived in "sumptuous quarters," unencumbered by wives and girlfriends, with only an aged butler for company. They cared for each other's injuries, frequently shared quarters, and lounged together in dressing gowns. Worse still, both exhibited damning psychological characteristics: proclivities for costumes, dressing up, and fantasy play; secretive behavior and double-lives; little interest in women; and, most damning of all, neurotic compulsions resulting in their violent vigilantism. Indeed, Wertham argued, depictions of Batman and Robin were frequently homoerotic, visually emphasizing Batman's rippling physique and Robins splayed, bare thighs.

"Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and psychopathology of sex can fail to realize the subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures," wrote Wertham. "The Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies."

Batman's creators and writers were aghast. Batman, they noted, had a series of dalliances with several Gothamite ladies, even if he'd never settled down. Nor, they argued, had there ever been any explicit homosexual affection between Batman and Robin, much less a portrayal of anything beneath their tights. And, in any case, what sense did it make to interrogate the sexual practices of a character who lived only in the frames of a comic book? Any "sex life" Batman might possess was purely the imagination of his critics and had nothing to do with Batman himself. Right? Right?! Imagination, as they say, is a powerful thing.

As literary critic Mark Best notes, "Wertham did correctly identify the possibility of a queer reading of the superhero, albeit as an example of what was wrong with the comics."

batmansfacial1fk.jpgIf Bruce Wayne was a paragon of upper-middle class white masculinity - wealthy, cultivated, and amiable - his secret identity represented the dark liberation found in the lurid city, cruising strange corners. Even if Batman's genitals were never portrayed coming into contact with Robin, Batman's crime-fighting lifestyle still embodied a fantasy of freedom from male familial responsibilities and, in a very real sense, from women altogether. Batman's world of the 1940s was almost exclusively male.

The few females who appeared in the pages of Detective were usually for show or comic relief (Bruce Wayne's earliest fiance, Julie Madison, was frequently duped by his double-identity and played for laughs). Like many closeted men, Bruce Wayne dated women to keep up appearances, so that no one would suspect that beneath his placid veneer lurked the sort of fellow who wrestled with criminals in dark alleys.

Batman vs the Nuclear Family

At a time when social norms dictated that men and women alike should form nuclear families and settle into comfortable domesticity, Batman's homosocial world presented no small challenge to the "normal" family. Of course, only a decade before the publication of The Seduction of the Innocents the idea of men living only with other men for the purposes of fighting other men was not only uncontroversial, but, in the midst of World War II, it was the norm. Under war conditions, soldiers lived and slept together. They depended upon one another for comfort and support, emotional and physical.

SmartBombStudios-justice.jpgAs John Ibson argues in Picturing Men, male-male physical affection in the wartime context was normal and captured frequently in photography of the era. As Allan Berube has documented, soldiers frequently also found sexual companionship with other soldiers, often with the knowledge of and without causing much consternation from their peers and superiors. In fact, the military did little to aggressively police male-male sexuality until the end of the war, when the military dishonorably discharged tens-of-thousands of service people on "morals" charges.

Indeed, the sort of intimacy between men enjoyed by millions of men in the early 1940s was increasingly suspect by the end of the decade. Society moved quickly to restabilize heterosexuality and stigmatize many of the types of same-sex intimacy - sexual and nonsexual alike - that had been common during the war. Margot Canaday notes in Building a Straight State that the architects of the 1944 GI Bill designed it intentionally to make ineligible for benefits those tens of thousands of service people discharged on morals charges.

The Lavender Scare

In addition, as tensions with the Soviet Union increased, psychologists, politicians, and demagogues linked communism to homosexuality, arguing that communists and homosexuals alike were secretive and opposed to the "democratic" heterosexual family unit. Even if homosexuals were not communist themselves, they could be blackmailed and strong armed into complicity with communist schemes. Thus, the "lavender scare" - as historian Robert Johnson has called it - preceded the "red scare."

thelieswetellourselves.jpgIn 1950, a subcommittee chaired by Maryland Senator Millard Tydings convened to investigate Joseph McCarthy's notorious list of "205 known communists." Tydings worked to discredit McCarthy's claim, but, in the process, the subcommittee at least partially validated concerns that the State Department was overrun with "sexual perverts." During the hearings, Nebraska Senator Kenneth Wherry memorably claimed that as many as 3,000 homosexuals were employed at State. By the end of 1950, 600 people had been dismissed from positions at the State Department on morals charges.

How deeply this context specifically informed the creative forces at DC is difficult to tell. Regardless, the charges levied by Wertham against Batman were bad for sales. Parents might steer their children away from the title toward more "wholesome" comics and some communities might attempt censor the comic book altogether. In an effort, to combat the perception that their product was morally suspect, DC made a number of changes.

Butching up Batman

To address the general concern that Batman comics were too violent and encouraged socially reckless behavior, writers for Batman increasingly penned stories with surreal, fantastical, or absurd story lines. Plots portrayed Batman traveling through time to ancient Babylon, venturing to alien planets, and being the victim of magic spells. Rather than depicting Gotham as a den of vice and crime, the writers portrayed the city as relatively safe and prosperous. Batman's foes became less violent, plotting capers that often centered exclusively on symbolic crimes or "unmasking" Batman. Batman himself became less anti-social - frequently cooperating with Gotham police and public safety committees - and DC began including public service advertisements in the comic.

Other changes were designed to specifically undercut the accusation that Batman and Robin were gay. Alfred's role in the comic was diminished (Alfred was even killed off for a while in the early 1960s, only to be, literally, resurrected for a while as a villain). To supplement Alfred, Aunts Agatha and Harriet were introduced to provide care, nurturing and a woman's touch in Wayne manor. At the same time, DC began to introduce a series of other female characters to provide romances for Batman and Robin - Bat-girl in 1956 and Batwoman in 1961.

As Best notes, Bat-girl and Batwoman's complementary crime-fighting acted as a replacement for regular heterosexual courtship: rather than dinner and a movie, a romantic Batman took his girl out on rooftops. In this sense, Batman's crime-fighting became a sight for potential heterosexual productivity, a time when Batman could WOO! and COURT! The cast of female characters provided Batman with something of a full family, or at least the groundwork for one. Even if the bat-family never achieved full "normalcy," it at least blunted the edges of a lifestyle that was irreconcilable with the gendered expectations of the decade.

It's something of a cliché today to point out that the rigid expectations of domesticity in 1950s were, to say the least, unrealistic and stifling for many people, straight and gay alike. Whether Batman experienced something of a Bat-Mystique is tough to discern, though he seems, at times, to have chaffed under the care of Aunts Harriet and Agatha. But Batman's hypothetical feelings on the matter were irrelevant to the suits at DC. The world had changed.

A Batman who continued to live in 1945 was an economic liability in 1955. He was a threat to the family and to the bottom-line. Batman's "gayness," then, was a flash point for a larger set of social anxieties. Just as elites worked aggressively to purge society and government of homosexuality, so too did DC purge Batman of any social deficiency which could be interpreted or construed as "gay."

badthoughts5ci.jpgWas it enough? To satisfy the most vocal critics, yes. But, ironically, the move to surrealism and fantasy also pushed Batman into the territory of high camp, in which Batman's ostensibly heterosexual romances were suspiciously unbelievable. Indeed, in the camp world of the Batman television series, Batman's exaggerated and largely asexual romances seemed almost like a parody of actual heterosexual romances - a tension best explored by Robert Smigel's Ace and Gary.

In this sense, Silver Age Batman's partisans miss the central reason why Batman is a compelling and fascinating figure in the first place. Batman's most important relationships have always been with criminals. What drives him to pursue them? How does he distinguish himself from his queries? How is vigilantism anything but criminal? Indeed, Batman's most provocative implications have centered around the distinction between law and justice - Batman's dedication to the latter, often at the expense of the former.

Attempts to contrive a heterosexual "history" for Batman have always rang false, precisely because what rang true about Batman had nothing to do with "normal" heterosexual romance. That hardly necessitates Batman occupy an all-male world and the next Nolan film would benefit from a compelling female villain. Nevertheless, this much is certain: a character locked in any banal romance, either with Dick Grayson or Rachel Dawes, hardly seems believable as someone willing to endure the deprivations and burdens required of the Batman.

(Tyrion Lannister is a Bilerico-Indiana contributor. This post was bumped up from to the main site by Bil. If you enjoyed the article, please vote for it on Digg and use the social networking tools below to share it with your friends.)


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Wow!! What a great and interesting post, Tyrion! As an official comic book geek, this was both informative and entertaining.

I especially enjoyed the pictures (there is so much gay sub-text even in old comics that many don't know about).

Thanks for a great read!

Wilson46201 | July 24, 2008 12:27 PM

As a homo-inclined kid myself in the early 1950s, I found it very exciting at the time all the grown-ups talk about Batman and Robin being "homosexual". Considering the dearth of any information about "faggotry" at the time, any mention whatsoever was stimulating...

I was actually just reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon which, while a novel, details a lot of the history of comic books in the US around World War II, so it's interesting to see this post. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and I would definitely recommend it.

@Waymon Hudson
Wonder Woman is great for that as well. Gotta love the lesbian BDSM!


I was born in late 1941 and read batman comic books during my early (pre-high school) years. Even though I was sexually naive about those things I remember fantasizing about the relationship between Batman and Robin.

Balthazar | July 24, 2008 7:04 PM

Wow. What you don't know about BATMAN is a lot.
I'm gay. I'm also a hardcore BATMAN fan.

Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (1986) was your introduction to Batman? That's very telling. It shows how much you don't know. Frank Miller did NOT reinvent Batman as psychologically scarred in a savage world. That was established long before, particularly in the 70's, with some of the darkest ongoing Batman storylines ever written. A savage world, a very troubled, emotionally scarred Dark Knight Detective. Miller REVISITED that Batman after ten years of retirement, extrapolating how the seething vigilante would not have gone away quietly, but would be all the more hungry for payback in a more savage world that was all the more ready to ignore and revile him.

"Robin" was created for CHILDREN, to attract younger readers to the comics. He wasn't created as a romantic consort for Batman, regardless of your inference. Bob Kane had more innocent intentions for that whole thing. To insinuate anything ELSE is not merely to suggest a homosexual relationship, but a PEDOPHILIAC one. Is that really what you're wanting to imply?? Really? Do you SERIOUSLY think Bob Kane was going there with that situation?

I'd put money on a bet that says MOST Batman fans DESPISE the character of Robin, or at least find him utterly dispensible. We like our detective going solo, whether we're gay readers or straight. We don't need a subtle or overt "relationship" between these two fictional crimefighters, to vindicate our sexual identity or self-esteem.

HUNDREDS of writers and artists contributed to Batman and Batman and Robin comics over many many decades. That someone would be able to find a few dozen tweaks or panels in stories that seem to imply that Bruce and Dick are more than just Guardian and Ward, is hardly surprising. Does that mean that their relationship was INTENDED to imply that either character was gay? Is that your logic? Did you ever take algebra in school? Wow.

I don't find it surprising that there's been undying speculation over the years, or even fantasizing, as to B & R's relationship. What I DO find surprising, is that a gay author would make such contentions and try to make them with such wobbly underpinnings, even going so far as to cite a homophobic German Psychiatrist whose whole crusade was to BLAME comic books for "seducing children" to things like violent crime and homosexuality. Batman and Robin weren't innocent observations for him - he saw them as DANGEROUS. Just like that dangerous Lesbian, Wonder Woman.

Do the rest of us a favor before you write something again... get to know more about your subject, and get your facts straight. You can make a good case, but not with this article.

w. What you don't know about BATMAN is a lot.
I'm gay. I'm also a hardcore BATMAN fan.

Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (1986) was your introduction to Batman? That's very telling. It shows how much you don't know. Frank Miller did NOT reinvent Batman as psychologically scarred in a savage world. That was established long before, particularly in the 70's, with some of the darkest ongoing Batman storylines ever written. A savage world, a very troubled, emotionally scarred Dark Knight Detective. Miller REVISITED that Batman after ten years of retirement, extrapolating how the seething vigilante would not have gone away quietly, but would be all the more hungry for payback in a more savage world that was all the more ready to ignore and revile him.

"Robin" was created for CHILDREN, to attract younger readers to the comics. He wasn't created as a romantic consort for Batman, regardless of your inference. Bob Kane had more innocent intentions for that whole thing. To insinuate anything ELSE is not merely to suggest a homosexual relationship, but a PEDOPHILIAC one. Is that really what you're wanting to imply?? Really? Do you SERIOUSLY think Bob Kane was going there with that situation?

I'd put money on a bet that says MOST Batman fans DESPISE the character of Robin, or at least find him utterly dispensible. We like our detective going solo, whether we're gay readers or straight. We don't need a subtle or overt "relationship" between these two fictional crimefighters, to vindicate our sexual identity or self-esteem.

HUNDREDS of writers and artists contributed to Batman and Batman and Robin comics over many many decades. That someone would be able to find a few dozen tweaks or panels in stories that seem to imply that Bruce and Dick are more than just Guardian and Ward, is hardly surprising. Does that mean that their relationship was INTENDED to imply that either character was gay? Is that your logic? Did you ever take algebra in school? Wow.

I don't find it surprising that there's been undying speculation over the years, or even fantasizing, as to B & R's relationship. What I DO find surprising, is that a gay author would make such contentions and try to make them with such wobbly underpinnings, even going so far as to cite a homophobic German Psychiatrist whose whole crusade was to BLAME comic books for "seducing children" to things like violent crime and homosexuality. Batman and Robin weren't innocent observations for him - he saw them as DANGEROUS. Just like that dangerous Lesbian, Wonder Woman.

Do the rest of us a favor before you write something again... get to know more about your subject, and get your facts straight. You can make a good case, but not with this article.

The previous commenter is unable to read context. It was the US govt that suggested there was something more between Batman and Robin. I think you flew off the handle and didnt really read the article.

Here's the cluephone.

Wertham's accusations garnered the attention of Senator Estes Kefauver and his Senate Sub-committee on Juvenile Delinquency, where Wertham repeated many of his central claims.

David/ Balthazar,

Easy...

If you read Lannister's post closely, the reading of Batman and his developing (argued non-existent) intimate relations with other characters is much less an argument of fact than it is an extrapolation of the social undercurrents through the decades, supported by historical and theoretical sources. IOW, it's an interpretation that is not unfounded. Furthermore, in no way was any of the reading meant to truly argue for veracity for--if you missed the last but most telling line: "Nevertheless, this much is certain: a character locked in any banal romance, either with Dick Grayson or Rachel Dawes, hardly seems believable as someone willing to endure the deprivations and burdens required of the Batman."

I don't see how slight should be taken from or made against this post.


+++

IMHO, this article was definitely worth the bump!

Is it possible that sanitizing Gotham City had something to do with the growing anti-urbanism of the time? If night in the city were made less exciting could sublimating and repressing nocturnal life and desires in suburbia be made more normative? I'm not saying the changes in Batman turned us all into suburbanites, I'm saying trends turn up in all kinds of places.

Balthazar, please read the post before commenting.

Rev Bob~ Exactly what I was thinking too. Not so much that they sanitized the city because all the writers were starting to live in suburbia (possibly), but more because suburbia itself, as a concept, is based on sanitizing everything, an obsessive hatred of danger and difference, and that's where more and more readers were living.

Awesome, Tyrion!

Wow Balthazar/David... Tell us how you really feel (but choose one name please and post only once!)

Tyrion's post has been the most popular this week - and for good reason. I had no idea of some of the history of Batman. I hope he's able to follow up with some of the other superheroes.

The ironic part of all this is the character originally created to be the romantic interest for Batman (Kathy Kane) has been revamped into a lesbian.

For more on gay readings of Batman - and lots of other fascinating stuff - I'd recommended Batman Unmasked by Will Brooker. It's one of the best books about comics I've ever read, and the yardstick by which I judge literary criticism of the field - and it's a thumping good read to boot. Plug over.

As a queer kid growing up in the sixties and seventies, before I even knew what queer meant, Batman represented the ultimate in cool. He drove a cool car, wore a cool costume and lived in a cool house with a secret cave underneath it. And my secret was safe as long as his was. It didn't matter if he was gay or not. What mattered was how well he kept his secret identity. Batman helped keep millions of us in the closet (i.e. "Batcave") long after we should have taken off our masks.

Ok, I just read this post and your comment 6 months after publication. It seems unlikely this comment will be read. Even so, I have to agree Brian that Batman did the same for me. Very insightful.

Great post, Tyrion.

OMG! This was an interesting read.

My first 'homoerotic' memories 'popped into my head' when I was a grade school kid, speding the summer at my aunt in Spartinburg, S.C. watching the old Bat Man and Robin series with my cousin. I had such a 'crush' on Robin and was always breathless when he was bound by one of the villians and Bat Man had to come rescue him. My fantasy was that I was Batman. Yeah, there's some Freudian reason, I'm sure.

LOVE it!
Thank you.

I’m an INTENSE Batman fan. I read the comics growing up and still do. While there are different versions of the Batman, and the silver age Batman is especially “Gay”, In no way shape or form is he a homosexual. Our modern society likes to joke and create innuendo to an extent that it devolves into not-to-thought out accusations. The nature of the character is that which is written into him. Creating a subconscious based off of inferred traits is just stupid. Don’t discriminate against gays, yes, accept homosexuality as a part of life, sure, but stop trying to find traces of homosexuality in EVERYTHING. In modern continuity, Batman is not gay, in all continuities except the silver age, there is not even a trace of homosexuality in Batman’s behavior. His actions in the silver age continuity is merely a personification of the post-WWII, pre-civil rights Cold War morality system. I’m so sick of this subject. Batman’s not gay, Batman never was gay, Batman will never be gay. Stop it. Stop it now.