What’s Wrong With X-Men Bobby Drake’s Coming Out Story?

The X-Men are significant enough pop cultural figures that when Bobby Drake, AKA “Iceman”, was written as gay in All-New X-Men #40, media outlets outside of the comics press published news items and commentaries on the moment, including CNN, The Huffington Post and The Advocate. While many of these notices essentially amounted to, “hey look, a core member of the X-Men is now gay,” other pieces, primarily at dedicated comics sites, address the politics and ethics of how Bobby is revealed as gay — he’s chided into coming out by Jean Grey — or seek to place this moment into a larger context of media representation of LGBTQ characters and experiences.

Alenka Figa’s commentary at Women Write About Comics is a good example of the more nuanced responses to the storyline. She also links to similar and related discussions at places like The Mary Sue and Panels (see, “In Plain Sight: On the Authenticity of Queer Characters“, 8 June 2015).

In addition to questions about how this episode is written, especially in regards to Jean’s role and Bobby’s own comfort/discomfort with being gay and also the question of bi-sexuality, which appears to be dismissed in writer Brian Michael Bendis’ dialogue, I also think that there are unwritten assumptions about sexuality and sexual identity in this sequence that should be unpacked to better understand the significance and implications not only of Bobby being gay, but also of his coming out.

Jean is prompted to prod Bobby into admitting his gayness following a remark he makes about Magik’s hotness, Magik being female and a woman. “Why do you say things like that?” she asks. This begins a quick exchange of dialogue wherein Bobby fronts and Jean pesters. Their dialogue concludes with Jean saying, “Bobby … You’re gay.” To which Bobby replies, “What? Why — Why would you say that?” Jean’s response to that question raises a key point regarding how the comic addresses sexuality and sexual identity: “Because I’m psychic. I can read your thoughts.”

Neither writer Bendis nor artist Mahmud Asrar shows what, exactly, Bobby was thinking when Jean read his mind and concludes, or, maybe affirms, that he is gay (the start of the dialogue — “Why do you say things like that?” — clearly implies that Jean has been carrying this knowledge for awhile, although as Alenka Figa notes, this is not context that readers see).

When Bobby was talking about Magik was he actually thinking about Scott Summers (Cyclops) or Hank McCoy (Beast), who were also nearby? Was he thinking, “I am going to say something het dudebro-like about Magik now so that no one knows I am gay”? Or was he, in fact, thinking, “I’m gay”?

A literal reading of the text suggests that yes, in fact, that was what Bobby was thinking when Jean read his mind. There, are, of course, a number of different ways in which one might make that statement to oneself, and the precise meaning seems dependent on syntax and intonation. Consider the differences between:

“I’m gay.”

“I’m gay!”

“I’m gay?”

“I’m … gay.”

“I’m … gay?”

“I! AM! GAY!”

What’s important to note here is that none of these iterations fully negates what Jean concludes about Bobby, but how Bobby may have been thinking what he thought would suggest a more complicated set of possibilities than the simple declaration that Jean makes on Bobby’s behalf. As Figa notes in her commentary, even though Jean is shown to be “helpful” to Bobby by pushing him to admit to being gay, and the dialogue ends with hugs and jokes, having one’s mind invaded by another and being told what your own thoughts mean is more disempowering than empowering, no matter how truthful the other person might be in their interpretations of your self.

The deeper question here is about the nature of sexuality and the extent to which those kinds of attractions and preferences are thought or felt. I think that the answer is that sexuality is both thought and felt, but that feeling and thinking are distinct, if related, activities. Notably, what Jean has access to here are Bobby’s thoughts related to his sexuality. She doesn’t have any special access to his attendant feelings, except to make inferences from his thoughts.

One resource we have for articulating our feelings is language. The language of sex and sexuality can be enabling, in the sense that having words to name what we feel helps us to understand who we are and allows us to share those understandings with others, but this vocabulary can also be limiting, in the sense that the words we have available to us may not be quite adequate for our feelings. In particular, commonly available words, like “gay”, may be convenient, but that convenience can also result in expressions of feeling that may seem flawed or inadequate or limiting.

Not surprisingly, the language that is most readily available for expressing sexual desire, attraction and identity often reflects, and serves to construct, dominant worldviews and practices. In this case, as noted by Carolyn Cox at The Mary Sue, whether intended or not, Jean and Bobby’s dialogue participates in the normalization of a binary view of sexuality — you’re either gay or straight — which, regardless of how positively Bobby’s coming out is treated or received, still limits the range of expression for sexuality and, particularly, marginalizes identities, like bi-sexuality, which complicate this dualism (“Brian Michael Bendis Unconvincingly Denies Bi-Erasure in All-New X-Men“, 22 April 2015).

Critically, I think that readers are meant to side with Jean in her back-and-forth with Bobby. Their dialogue starts with her calling him out for an inauthentic performance of heterosexuality. She then changes to gently prompting Bobby to declare his sexuality. Notably, her face and body language are drawn to be open and inviting, while Bobby is drawn with a more tightly held and defensive expression and posture. Jean resorts to giving voice to Bobby’s thought only after he refuses to be led into his own declaration. While there is another round of push and pull between the two characters, as noted, the episode ends with jokes and hugs, Bobby accepting his identity and Jean having been a good friend for helping him to that acceptance.

While this positive reading of Jean’s actions may be the authors’ intent, I think that it rests on two questionable assumptions. One is that sexuality is not only fundamentally binary, but a simple binary; Jean’s articulation of Bobby’s thought leaves little room for variation or nuance. She brushes past Bobby’s protestations with an assertion that whatever he thought makes him “full gay”. The other assumption is that sexual thoughts and sexual feelings are interchangeable or correspond directly. Jean assumes, based on what Bobby thought, that she knows what he feels.

If you reject either of these assumptions, Jean’s role in the exchange with Bobby becomes less helpful, and more presumptuous, at best, or, at worst, bullying. For his part, Bobby’s resistance can be seen less as continuing to hide and more as wanting space to work out his feelings, and how to express them, for himself. If you start from a more fluid and open understanding of sexuality, feeling, and thinking, then even a simple, “I’m gay” would need to be interpreted less definitively than Jean allows. Bobby could have just been trying out some words to see how they fit, rather than making a clear declaration of attraction or preference, let alone identity. Jean, by insisting that Bobby accept the word “gay” disallows this kind of questioning and experimentation.

Brian Bendis used tumblr to address criticism of the way he wrote Bobby’s coming out, especially in regards to the possibility of bi-sexuality:

I will say I’m super bummed that some people are reading any sort of bi erasure and biphobia into the interaction between bobby and Jean. nothing could be further from the truth. nobody involved in this feels anything like that … this is a very unique story because one character, from a different time and a somewhat limited worldview, is reading another character’s mind. this is in no way the traditional ‘coming-out’ story if there even is one, there is also this big chunk of time travel weirdness involved. none of this is a statement about all things to all people. but it does give us a unique perspective that I thought was worth approaching. this is Bobby’s story. nobody else’s. some will find connection to it, others might not. and this is just the first part of a larger story. See the upcoming giant size uncanny 600.

Bends’ explanation for how he wrote the dialogue between Jean and Bobby seems to come down to narrative purpose: this is about one character in a larger story. What I take from this is that in All-New X-Men #40 the primary point is the outcome: identifying Bobby as gay. Jean’s telepathy is used as a short cut to get to that point.

One aspect of this story that I have not mentioned yet, and that Bendis alludes to in his tumblr post, is that the Bobby Drake who comes out is not the Bobby Drake from mainstream continuity in the Marvel Universe, but is a younger version of the character who has been displaced into the present. This is also true of the Jean Grey who prods him into admitting to being gay. At one point in their dialogue, Bobby points to the older character’s (more or less) canonical heterosexuality as a defense against Jean’s assertions about his own orientation. Jean tells him that he is who he is and you are who you are, which is not the same.

The point that Jean makes opens up a potentially fruitful space for considering the nature of sexuality, attraction and desire, as well as the fluidity of those feelings and their expression. On tumblr, Brian Bendis appears to frame this question in terms of historical context and changing cultural attitudes, suggesting that both Bobby’s and Jean’s understandings of sexuality are at issue in the larger story. That point also contains the potential for nuance and complexity, but is equally fraught with emotional and intellectual risk, notably the risk of rehearsing, and dead ending, in tired debates about nature vs. nurture and sexuality as choice vs. sexuality as innate.

One can read Bobby and Jean’s dialogue in All-New X-Men #40 as being the culmination of an ongoing questioning by Bobby, and an ongoing “eavesdropping” by Jean. When Jean pulls Bobby aside, for example, she seems impatient with him beyond the immediate comment he drops about Magik. She also takes a knowing posture with him that suggests maybe this isn’t the first time she has read conflict into his thoughts and actions regarding expressions of sexuality.

However, hinting at this deeper struggle is not the same as actually showing that struggle. I think that’s the missing piece in this storyline so far, and using Jean Grey’s telepathic abilities to compress a complicated personal story underscores what isn’t shown in revealing younger Bobby as gay. For most gay and queer individuals, there aren’t any short cuts to coming to terms with their feelings about who they are, how they articulate those feelings, and when, where and how to share those feelings with others.