Comic books have long served to inspire people. Young (and not so young) girls and women who read about Wonder Woman or Lois Lane have been inspired to reach for heights they previously thought unreachable and set goals that once seemed impossible. But too often, if you weren’t conventionally attractive, white, straight and cisgender, there weren’t too many characters who looked like you. That’s slowly changing, and in Batgirl #19 (out Wednesday), written by Gail Simone, DC comics showed us a woman, who is not only a strong and interesting character, but is also bisexual, Asian-American, and as of now, openly transgender.
In the fall of 2011, DC Comics announced that it would be canceling all of its titles and relaunching them, with a new continuity, as the “New 52.” While the reboot has been great for sales, it has alienated a lot of longtime readers and fans, especially fans who are women and/or queer. With the New 52, the percentage of women writers at DC shrunk from the already problematic 12% to an abysmal 1%. Many extremely popular characters where “benched,” meaning that they seemingly no longer existed in the DC universe. Among these characters were some of the most prominent queer women in all of comics. Renee Montoya, once a Gotham City Police Officer and now the new Question, known from both Batman comics and Batman the Animated Series was benched. The queer superhero couple Grace Choi and Thunder (both also women of color) no longer existed. Secret Six, a fan favorite title that featured one of the most diverse casts in comics was gone. This meant that we no longer had Scandal Savage, yet another queer woman of color, who wasn’t only a lesbian, but also polyamorous and ended her run in the comics with a marriage to the two women she loved (who are also nonexistent in the New 52). While Batwoman still has her own title, is featured prominently, and even proposed to her girlfriend in the comics, queer women have been hugely lacking in the New 52.
With Batgirl #19, Gail Simone is working to change that. One change in the rebooted DC universe is that Barbara Gordon is no longer paralyzed or going by the alias Oracle, but is instead back as Batgirl. In issue #1, Barbara Gordon is moving in with a new roommate, Alysia Yeoh, who immediately leaves a strong impression. She’s painted “Fight the Power!” in giant red letters on the living room wall and hugs Barbara on their first meeting. As we see more of Alysia, we learn that she’s a fiercely loyal friend who takes good care of Barbara and watches over her after she’s been injured while fighting a supervillain. She’s shown to have her own life, working as a bartender and being interested in cooking and activism. She gets arrested for protesting with Occupy Gotham. She even trash talks Bruce Wayne’s attempts at urban renewal and gentrification straight to Barbara’s face. This is no token trans character. She is opinionated, caring, compelling and three dimensional. Gail Simone even wrote her from the very beginning as trans. Early on she tries to tell Barbara that she has something she wants to share with her, but Barbara has to run off and be Batgirl.
*SPOILER ALERT* The “coming out” moment happened when Barbara was revealing some secrets to her roommate. She was telling her about her past with The Joker, about being paralyzed and about her serial killer brother (who Alysia had been dating). Alysia sees this as a chance to be open and vulnerable herself and simply says, “I’m transgender Barbara.” Instead of freaking out or asking a bunch of questions or accusing Alysia of lying to her or tricking her, Barbara Gordon replies with a hug and a roundabout “I love you.” This is treated as a simple, human moment between friends. While Barbara looks surprised at first, it isn’t treated as a shocking twist like in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective or The Crying Game. It’s refreshing to see this as a moment where these two friends are showing that they trust each other and care about each other rather than something weird, bad or disgusting. Instead of driving Barbara away, Alysia’s coming out brings the two of them closer.
It’s important not just to have characters that challenge ideas about gender and sex, but to also have them in realistic settings.
This is big news. While Alysia isn’t the first transgender character in comics, she is perhaps the most prominent one. On her tumblr, Gail Simone calls Alysia the “first non-fantasy-based, non-mature title trans character in a mainstream superhero book that we were aware of.” These might seem like a lot of qualifiers, but they are important. It’s one thing to see a character from the future use advanced science or a character use magic or super powers to change gender and sex, but it’s a totally different thing to see someone undergoing the same process as a trans woman like me. While it’s nice to imagine a magic potion or spell that could change my body, that’s not what my life is actually like. I can’t relate to that. It’s important not just to have characters that challenge ideas about gender and sex, but to also have them in realistic settings (or as realistic a setting you can have in the Batman universe). And to see her portrayed as Batgirl’s best friend and roommate is just as important. Batgirl headlines the 17th most popular DC title. She’s been featured in tv shows and movies, she’s a popular Halloween costume. People see her as a hero. And that hero’s best friend is like me.
DC Comics does have some history with characters who could be considered transgender, although not all of them have been called that in the actual comics, and most have not been written with as much respect as Alysia Yeoh. One of the earliest trans characters in comic books, and one of the only superheroes, was Coagula (Kate Godwin), a member of the oddball superhero team Doom Patrol. There were also Shvaughn Erin, from the Legion of Super Heroes who used futuristic medicine to transition from male to female and back again, and Wanda from Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman comics. In the early 2000s, there was a Flash Animated series called Gotham Girls that featured the trans woman Detective Selma Reesedale, who helped Batgirl. Currently there is also the character Sir Ystin from the fantasy based DC title Demon Knights, who in issue #1 said, “I’m not a man or a woman. I’m both.” When asked if that meant he was transgender or intersex on twitter, Demon Knights writer Paul Cornell replied “I’ve always left those terms alone so anyone in any similar situation can empathise.”
This has been a long time coming. DC slowly started introducing more and more queer characters. They gave Batwoman, an out lesbian, her own title. They made the original Green Lantern gay. It was time for them to introduce a well-rounded trans character. Gail Simone has long been hinting that one of the characters she is writing would be coming out as trans on her tumblr. She said that she talked with trans women before writing Alysia to make sure that she was representing her as well as she could. She also has been telling people who ask about wanting queer characters in comic books to be looking out for her new title, The Movement, coming out in May. In a recent interview with Wired.com, Simone says there will be another trans character in a different comic she’s writing. “It’s time for a trans hero in a mainstream comic… And it’s going to happen.” After the benching of so many great queer women of color, coupled with DC’s hiring of noted homophobe Orson Scott Card to write a Superman title, all of this is extremely refreshing news.
Comic books are full of heroes. Some, like Batgirl are heroes for saving lives and fighting crime. Others, like Alysia Yeoh are heroes for having the courage to be themselves in a world that will judge them and try to put them down. Alysia is important because she’s an extremely visible trans woman who exists in a medium that’s full of inspiration. When we read comic books, we see characters we want to be like, and seeing women like us helps to inspire us. Alysia Yeoh can be that character for trans women everywhere. She stands up for herself and she lives her own life, and according to Gail Simone, her character’s role in the comics will only grow. Hopefully this will open the doors to plenty more queer women in comics, so we can all have heroes who are like us.
Wonderful article! I am very excited to see what Gail’s new Hero is like when she is unveiled! Oh, and if anyone hasn’t tracked down Rachel Pollack’s issues of Doom Patrol with Coagula, go, find them, liek nao! She is amazing!
Rachel Pollack being trans (and a lesbian) herself, of course.
Doom Patrol is one of the few Grant Morrison runs I haven’t yet completed. Pollack’s run is directly after his. I’ll have to pick up both some time.
This is a great article! This makes me want to pick up a comic again!
asjfhladf I priced and bagged so many copies of Batgirl 19 yesterday and had no idea. I’m so excited to snatch one up tommorow, and this article informed me of so much goodness. and I am sad to find out about Orson Scott Card after loving one of his books and seeing such great inconsistency with the apparent homophobia, blah anyway. You’re a badass Mey, I love your articles and style.
I know:( I love Card’s books so much, and for him to be a homophobe…. it makes me very, very sad, and I don’t want to support him by purchasing his books, but they’re so good and the world would be so much simpler if everyone supported everyone.
if you don’t absolutely love the book, read it from the library. It’s what i do when i want to read a good series but the author is unfortunately homophobic. this way i never have to purchase the book but still enjoy it. the public library is your friend.
I feel gross about Card’s politics, so I buy his books used so the money doesn’t go to NOM. Works for me. :)
“Speaker for the Dead” is my favorite book. Ever. I just don’t understand how the man that could write that book is a homophobe. Blows my mind.
EXACLTY? The entire book seems like allusion to native american genocide and the freedom to explore socities we know less about and how to relate to eachother. I loved it SO much. After reading this article I went to Card’s LDS column and it all made me so sick. it doesnt make sense.
This makes me want to buy more comics and get caught up on Batgirl – I’ve only read the first few issues, but I already like Alysia and I’m excited to see what Gail Simone has planned for her!
Good article. I really enjoyed comics when I was younger maybe I will start reading them again.
Yes! My friend shared this with me this morning. She’s bi and cis, I’m trans* and lesbian, and we were both happy to find this character. I have to say, I was thrilled with the lesbian Batwoman, though I only read the first graphic novel when we got it at the library. I plan on buying the Batgirl issues leading up to this.
I’m really excited.
Great article! As I commented on at themarysue yesterday, I love how Gail made her bisexual as well as trans* because the mainstream media hardly ever shows trans* characters who aren’t heterosexual.
I also love Batwoman with a great passion and wish she’d get a little more attention around here. She’s so far from just a “lesbian” character with her own comic. She’s one of the most feminist LESBAIN characters out there. Ironic that she’s always been written by men I guess but Rucka and J.H. Williams III are feminist men and awesome people who take the responsibility of care taking Batwoman extremely seriously. JHW III has a great post on his blog about that subject.
Here’s a piece of what I wrote just today when I was talking about her to someone on tumblr.
“I also love how he (JHW III) did his best to fix her costume. There’s a Alex Ross piece which I think is in the back of Elegy which shows how her costume was originally designed and it was horrible. High heels and everything. Yuck! I like how Rucka mocked them. lol
Her origin was an after thought when she was first created by DC and she was mostly around to get good press and grab headlines, but in Elegy Rucka and Williams transformed her into one of the greatest characters ever. One of the most feminist ever. Never a smirk or a wink about her being a lesbian. And I personally believe her origin story now is one of the most compelling and incredible of any hero out there. It stands shoulder to shoulder with Batman’s. You know exactly why she does what she does. It could be in a Christopher Nolan movie and actually I don’t think that’s accidental because they borrow a lot of stylistic elements and tech from his Batman movies.
She’s so good right now and I love her so much. She’s incredibly important to me. It’s constantly amazing to me that she exists. The flip side though is that if DC ever fucks her up, it will hurt me so badly. And you know they’re very capable of screwing characters up. Anyway, right now, we have something so special.”
So yeah, Batwoman, y’all. If we don’t support something so awesome, then DC will decide a “Shake Up” is necessary and probably kill Maggie and marry Kate to a guy or something. UGH.
LESBAIN?! Fuck I hate typos. -_-
Idk, I think LESBAIN would be an interesting villain’s name…Lesbane? Lezbean?
the image of LESBANE wearing a dental dam and speaking in garbled words is now in my head, thank you very much
Well I’m glad my crappy spelling was worth a laugh at least.
Since I was a kiddo I’ve been mostly impressed with DC comics and their queer characters. I remember slowly realizing that Maggie Sawyer was a lesbian back when I was a wee kiddo reading Superman comics and that gave me a little spark of joy and hope. The character of “Comet” in the Supergirl comics I read in the 90s also comes to mind. Comet was a bisexual woman who transformed into a male horse like superhero. And of course Supergirl had a crush on him so that created a lot of drama.
Even though I knew I should be supporting Gail Simone, for some reason I was holding off on starting Batgirl (I try not to pick up too many titles and stretch myself thin), but now of course I’ll have to jump on board!
Why do you say that?
It’s trans week every week fuck yeah.
I know it’s tough.
If you do start reading Batwoman I really recommend you start with Elegy a mini series that ran in Detective Comics and is where Greg Rucka basically rescued her and made her relevant. It’s because of the success of Elegy that DC decided to give her her own series. It deals with a few plots from other books in the DC universe at the time, so to start out it may seem slightly confusing, but the heart of the story is Kate’s incredible origin story and you will get so much more out of her series if you read it first.
You can buy it as a trade collection on Amazon and elsewhere and you can also find it as digital issues from comixology. After that you can just read the regular series. Even though most of DC was rebooted in the new 52, Batwoman wasn’t.
got Batgirl 19 today and got to recommend and discuss with fellow fans in the shop. Being the comic shop girl gives me fantastic authority of influence over my fellow nerds. I got 2 people to buy the issue as well.
I went to there site the minute i found out about the comic and bought it via download,still looking for a comic store here in town that sells it. I know nothing about comics…
Was cool to see that they went the route that they did and introduced transgender to the comic… Now i feel like Batgirl.. hehehe
And this is just one of the many reasons why Gail is my favourite DC writer