Leaning on the Closet Door: X-Men+Fantastic Four and Trans Allegory

Leaning on the Closet Door: X-Men+Fantastic Four and Trans Allegory

Content Warnings: Suicide, Depression, Dysphoria, Transphobia, Gaslighting, Anti-Trans Legislation, Murder I can’t read the X-Men outside of a queer lens; I’ve tried and it’s not possible for me. X-Men/Fantastic 4 is a story about the closet and the complexity of well-meaning families, posing small but complex questions such as, "how could a family who loves

Content Warnings: Suicide, Depression, Dysphoria, Transphobia, Gaslighting, Anti-Trans Legislation, Murder

I can’t read the X-Men outside of a queer lens; I’ve tried and it’s not possible for me. X-Men/Fantastic 4 is a story about the closet and the complexity of well-meaning families, posing small but complex questions such as, “how could a family who loves their child ever hurt them?” The series offers a simple but nuanced answer: by refusing to accept who your child is and trying to force them to be something else, one of many struggles that queer & trans readers experience throughout life.

The strongest connective experiences between mutants and queer & trans readers are the ways that the public revelation surrounding your identity can restructure social relationships in the individual’s life. Though the two experiences differ greatly in some significant ways, the way in which they overlap and the way they diverge is worth recognizing. Mutant identity is unveiled through a process of public & private revelation and actualization, much like “coming out of the closet”. Coming out is always a risk, even in the most supportive environments. Coming out can be traumatic, tense, jubilant, and so many more things. It’s still not a perfect analogy, though; the disconnect comes in that mutants are almost never prepared and empowered when their mutation emerges. And for mutants, this is an entirely unconscious, automatic bodily process that creates a major divide between the narrative of coming out and developing mutant powers. Mutants are largely unaware of their mutant identity until the mutation catalyzes, whereas a person’s gender and/or sexually is something known and felt. Coming out for queer and trans people is not always voluntary, but it as least something they recognize within themselves, rather than the type of biologically deterministic revelation of mutants. Perhaps one thing that remains consistent is the subsequent tension experienced within familial structures.

Full page: Sue and Reed Richards discuss their son's discontent while stressing that they are a good family

X-Men+Fantastic Four #1, Chip Zdarsky & Terry Dodson, February 5, 2020, Marvel Comics

Franklin’s identity is intrinsically tied to his mutation. It’s clear from Sue’s “soccer-player” comparison and Reed’s “ …there’s nothing wrong with being human.” line that they don’t understand that. Being a mutant is nothing like a hobby or profession, nor is it something you grow out of, it’s intrinsic much like the gender of trans folks. The American Academy of Pediatrics tells us that a person’s sense of their gender is innate and children recognize & begin to consciously express their gender by age four. Often, this recognition/expression is disrupted by the intervention of the parents who coercively reinforce their children’s assigned gender. Which is one reason why many trans people come out in parts of their life where they feel free of paternal imposition. For Franklin, for queer & trans people, the closet is a form of suffocation, one that cis-het readers may struggle to grasp. It’s why Reed’s line, “there’s nothing wrong with being human” gave queer and trans readers flashbacks to the closet they fought their out of, or may still be in. We know what it’s like to have loved ones leaning on the closet door, using every nail and screw available to lock us in: “it’s okay to be human”, “it’s just a phase”, “ you’ll get over this one day”, “ I’m just trying to keep you safe”, “ you’re too young”. We know all the ways that those words can become death sentences.

4X tackles an immensely complex subject-matter with a relative grace that I haven’t seen from many cis writers and it meant a lot for queer & trans readers to learn that Chip Zdarsky intended for this to be a major interpretation of the story. It felt like ammunition in some of the discourse that evolved after the release of issue #1. The series revealed tensions and power dynamics present “x-twitter” between trans folks and cis-het members of the community. Trans readers who advocated for themselves were met with gaslighting, unfair criticisms, and labeled as “divisive”. While many of the tweets in question have been deleted, and many parties in question have reconciled, it’s a mark the community carries into the present. There were also more of the garden variety where readers continued label mutants as oppressive, aggressive, or “culty” solely because they’re not quietly living under the boot anymore. Immediately tweets like Brett White’s (since deleted) fragile whinging on how “these aren’t my X-Men anymore” even going so far as to speculate that they would do nothing to help humanity with COVID-19 were they real; a comparison that is not only a thoughtless conflation of comic-book stories and real world tragedies, but one that also neglect the massive piles of textual evidence to the contrary. Other attacks ranged from bad faith defenses of Reed & Sue actions, to outright attacking queer & trans readers arguing for the validity of their reading and their own personal related experiences. 

Whenever minorities build their own cultures which diverge from or outright challenge the norms of their oppressors, they’re labeled a “cult”, “aggressive”, or “oppressors”. It’s very similar to how whenever queer & trans people advocate for ourselves rather than silently swallow our own oppression, we’re labeled as aggressive and toxic. This form of gaslighting has constantly been deployed against many marginalized communities in our world throughout history. Beyond the bad takes, there were many well-intentioned cis readers who were appalled by Reed’s actions in first issue. Queer & trans readers didn’t even flinch. That type of pain is our life and the lives of our kin. So many of us have had our bodily autonomy stripped away and withheld. Much like Franklin, we were “too young” to make these “decisions”. It’s the first nail that begins to turn the closet into a coffin, as trans children are told they aren’t old enough to be entrusted with bodily autonomy, despite the fact that it will be they who have to inhabit those bodies for the remainder of their lives, living with the results of their parent’s gatekeeping. 

There’s another reason that this story hit trans readers in particular so hard. Less than a week prior, the news cycle was flooded by stories of possible South Dakota legislation, regarding the ability for trans children to transition. The bill in question, House Bill 1057, would make it a crime for “ doctors to prescribe puberty-blocking medication or offer gender-affirming care to trans children under the age of 16.” Doctors could get up to a year in prison and a fine of $2,000 for following current medical standards of care. We knew this bill would lead to the deaths of millions of trans children, forced to live in the closet, stripped of bodily autonomy. The 2015 U.S. Trans Survey Published by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 41% of trans people attempt suicide at least once in their life. Of this 41 %, more than half of these cases were in people 21 and under, due to barriers preventing transition. The nature of this bill had echoes in some of Reed’s actions in nullifying Franklin’s X-Gene in regards to the Krakoan gates. While the two are clearly separate experiences, there was a common thread between them, robbing children of their autonomy and ability to self-actualize because of the misplaced paternalism of others. And that’s how a fair amount of trans readers interpreted the story, framed by both the current legislation and possibly by our own trauma.

We entered the discourse surrounding 4X, expecting a fight because the last year has been just that, and the years prior were no different. While these South Dakota bills temporarily die off, similar bills arose elsewhere such as in Alabama. Whether it’s bills about the bathrooms we can use, supreme courts considering legalizing the discrimination against trans people in the workplace [October 2019], the 2017 trans military ban, structural barriers to self-actualizing & life-saving transition care, a bill punishing doctors who provide transition-related care, having your legal transition blocked, or restricting trans women from athletic careers [March 2020], or any of the other traumatic legislative battles we’ve weathered, trans readers continually struggle through a gauntlet of anti-trans legislation and forced to watch our humanity and rights be debated as though it were a thought-experiment. To have any discussion about this series in good faith was a daunting task, having been conditioned by the world to constantly assess who and what could become a threat to our safety. 

Franklin Richards discusses not making plans for the future anymore

X-Men+Fantastic Four #1, Chip Zdarsky & Terry Dodson, February 5, 2020, Marvel Comics

Franklin discusses not feeling like he has a future anymore

X-Men+Fantastic Four #1, Chip Zdarsky & Terry Dodson, February 5, 2020, Marvel Comics

Franklin’s narration on page 1 sets the stage for the series as he explains,“I used to have dreams of the future, I don’t anymore. Because there isn’t one for me.”  These are the stakes of the series. If you neglect the severity of this line, you could read the series differently and the X-Men and Fantastic Four’s actions take on entirely different meanings. Franklin has sunken into a place of hopelessness, brought on by the gradual loss of his mutation. This resignation is a pain familiar to queer & trans folks, specifically those who may still be in the closet. You stop making plans for the future. When you can’t see a way out of the closet, you stop living like there is a world outside of it, and that’s why the suicide rates of trans youth is so high. As the Human Rights Campaign reports;More than half of transgender male teens who participated in the survey reported attempting suicide in their lifetime, 29.9 percent of transgender female teens said they attempted suicide. Among non-binary youth, 41.8 percent of respondents stated that they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives.”  

Hydro dies after being depowered

New X-Men Vol 2 #20, Craig Kyle, Chris Yost, & Mark Brooks, November 9, 2005,  Marvel Comics

Whether it’s being trans or being a mutant, if you’re forced to live without a core part of your being, it becomes unbearable, one’s mind may turn to dark places to escape this pain. While it’s not explicitly stated, it heavily implies that Franklin’s thoughts have moved to darker places as he watches his identity slip away. We’ve seen mutants go down this path before like in 2009’s New X-Men #20 where mutants depowered by “The Decimation” turned to self-destructive or suicidal actions. Most mutants were spared by intervention from Emma, Beast, Logan, or their peers, but others like Hydro were not so lucky. This also happens to Wing in  2005’s Astonishing X-Men vol 3 #7 where he takes his own life after being injected with the cure by an enemy of the X-Men.

Full page: Sue and Reed Richards discuss their son's discontent while stressing that they are a good family

X-Men+Fantastic Four #1, Chip Zdarsky & Terry Dodson, February 5, 2020, Marvel Comics

Sue and Reed, like parents of trans children, often are, seem to be oblivious to Franklin’s pain. There’s a line of dialogue early in the issue where Reed tells Sue “We’re a good family. He has a good life with us. I understand his disappointment, but there’s nothing wrong with being human.” Queer and trans readers are all too familiar with gaslighting like this, “ there’s nothing wrong with being straight” or when we’re told to just “be happy” with our AGAB. Younger trans folks are often hit with every version of these lines imaginable as parents try to gaslight and emotionally abuse us back into the closet. Sue also attempts to rationalize Franklin’s pain [as she understands it] in issue #1 to her emotionally-stunted husband. She likens the experience of having your mutant identity torn away as analogous to when in her youth, she had to give up playing soccer. It’s a deceptive and ignorant argument, that likely gave a lot of cis readers the wrong impression of what Franklin and many trans people, forced to live in the closet go through. Being a mutant isn’t something you do, it’s a fundamental part of who you are. The loss of your profession can be painful, but it’s nothing like being forced to live a life smothered by dysphoria, depression, and alienation from a fundamental part of your identity. 

Probably the hardest-hitting moment of the issue was Franklin’s decision to go to Krakoa, and the resulting failure because of Reed’s violation of Franklin’s bodily autonomy. The scene in Central Park reveals to all that Reed has been using a device, without Franklin’s awareness or consent, to render inert his X-Gene. This would require Reed to invasively edit Franklin’s genetic structure, equivalent to using CRISPR technology to remove or turn off Franklin’s X-Gene. Reed is altering Franklin’s physiology, for the sole purpose of keeping Franklin from being with kin, stealing Franklin’s autonomy in the process. It’s Franklin’s choice to go, and Reed robs him of that choice, that potential for self-actualization that Krakoa represents. The trans-subtext here is fairly close to the surface, as parents of trans kids often rob their children of this same bodily-autonomy, in preventing them from transitioning and self-actualizing. Reed, who undoubtedly loves Franklin, is caught leaning on the closet door. 

Full page: Franklin RIchards fails to use a Krakoan gate

X-Men+Fantastic Four #1, Chip Zdarsky & Terry Dodson, February 5, 2020, Marvel Comics

We don’t know how long that device has been in Franklin. It may have been implanted far enough back that it could be the cause of Franklin’s loss of power. Reed could [intentionally or not] be the cause of Franklin’s suffering, if the device preventing Franklin from using the gate is also robbing him of his powers. We’ve seen Reed desperate to find any other justification for Franklin’s abilities. Considering we’ve seen Reed resurrect his family more than once and play a major role in reconstructing the multiverse itself, it’s harder to believe that Reed is helpless to prevent Franklin’s powers from disappearing. All of this places a heavy doubt on Reed’s “good intentions” in rendering Franklin’s X-gene inert. It doesn’t help that Reed also has never been able to “cure’ Ben Grimm either, despite all his many scientific and bio-engineering successes.

Let’s step into Sue and Reed’s shoes and out of the queer metaphor for a moment. Let’s look at the fact that Magneto and Charles, along with a squad of omega level mutants, only 1 issue prior, came to their home with the intention of taking their child away. If issue #1 had just been Kate Pryde, sitting down for coffee and scones with the Richards family to talk this out, it would have been a much different story, but instead, they brought a display of force to Yancy Street. It’s entirely possible to read this in association with our country’s militarized immigration police-force, ICE, separating families at gunpoint, tearing families apart on their doorstep across the US. This is a real experience readers may be bringing to the text. I want to hold space for that pain and for other people who either historically or currently are having their families destroyed by a fascist government. I’m stepping back into a queering of the text, not because I think that I’ve said all I need to say on this matter, but because this is not my story to tell.

This scene also could be interpreted through the lens of cis-het fears about the “trans” agenda. It’s a fear that largely rises from within conservative cisgender heterosexual families, and frames the trans community as a militant force who will “take their child away”. It frames being trans and being within a community of trans kin, as something that inherently embodies a threat to their children’s well being, or possesses a risk of “corrupting” them. Unlike the comparison I’ve made above though, this fear is born out of ignorance and xenophobia, rather than an urge to preserve you family in the face of an oppressive government. This adds yet another possible layer onto the story’s capacity to be interpreted as an allegory for trans experiences.

In the issue prior, Franklin does something that many queer & trans teens do at one point. When care-givers become gatekeepers, they [like Franklin] run. Franklin turns to Kate Pryde, a relative elder & friend in the community, in order to carve a path to the future. He is also going to somebody who has been in these very shoes in the original F4 v X-Men series, who he knows will understand his pain. He chooses found-family, without ambiguity, over a family that while loving, is presently too ignorant to provide him the support he needs. Queer & trans people know this life all too well, as 40% of the approximately 1.6 million homeless youth in the US are queer or trans. It’s not a choice made recklessly, it’s not teenage angst or flippant rebellion, but a matter of survival. I’m certainly not the first to say this but in many ways, X-Men is about the legitimacy, warmth, and love of found-families.

Cyclops argues with Sue and Reed about Valeria and Franklin s respective right to Krakoan citizenship

X-Men+Fantastic Four #2, Chip Zdarsky & Terry Dodson, February 26, 2020, Marvel Comics

Issue #2 gives page space to an aspect of the discourse surrounding Krakoa that can sometimes go overlooked; framing Krakoa not only as a mutant nation and political presence, but as a designated safe-space for a marginalized community constantly under attack and who have survived genocide level attacks, attacks on their schools by right-wing groups, and more. This issue very thoughtfully deconstructs the toxic reactions of cishet parents ( and cishet people in general) in regards to the establishment of “trans only” safe-spaces, and how they attempt to reframe the establishment of a safe space as an act of exclusion of cis-het folks. 

The Fantastic Four claim that the X-Men arent the heroes they us used to know

X-Men+Fantastic Four #2, Chip Zdarsky & Terry Dodson, February 26, 2020, Marvel Comics

It opens with a tense stand-off between Cyclops and the Fantastic Four, as Sue & Reed interrogate Cyclops over the location of their runaway child. During the conversation, Cyclops states, “ …Krakoa is Franklin’s birthright, but not Valeria’s” and Sue immediately accuses Cyclops of dog-whistling that “ One’s better than the other…?” She takes such offense that her human daughter wouldn’t be allowed in a mutant/queer safe-space. But this isn’t a matter of exclusion, it’s about creating a safe space for people who face oppression, violence, and vulnerability outside of those spaces. Just a page or so later, Sue utters a line that hits very close to home, “ They’re not the heroes we once knew. They’re not heroes.” Many marginalized communities know this accusation all too well. It’s what we’re told whenever we decide to stop silently swallowing our own oppression; it’s what we’re told when we become loud, “ aggressive”, and “ungrateful”. We’re constantly reminded that our allies are contingent on us acting in ways that they approve of, silent, and “polite”. The moment that we begin to advocate for ourselves, defend ourselves, and carve out space for our community, we become the villains. You need only search twitter for things like “ x-men, villains”, “x-men not heroes”, or “x-men cult”, you can see a host of takes that demonstrate how prevalent these calls for mutants ( and trans people ) to be “model minorities” really is.

The Fantastic Four eventually invade Krakoa, sneaking into the council’s meeting, and attack the mutants, with Ben Grimm throwing the first punch. Yes, the X-Men fight back but keep in mind that this attack has happened within close temporal proximity to another assault on Krakoa by hostile human invaders as is depicted in X-Force #1. Even if we side-step the violations of international agreements regarding the sovereignty of Krakoa and their regulations prohibiting humans, we still have a situation where this avatar for the nuclear family is invading a mutant/queer safe-space. This attack itself is underpinned by their fundamental ignorance, that they still know better than Franklin, or the X-men. This protective attitude frames mutancy [much like how being queer/trans is framed at times by parents] as something that is inherently dangerous, unsafe, or inappropriate. Despite the fact that Franklin made his own choice, they know better and choose to overwrite that choice. Why? Because they feel as though the choice of what Franklin should be and what he should do with his own body should be theirs because they own Franklin’s body, simply because he’s “too young”. 

I can say that one of the biggest questions I posed about queer-utopia in a previous essay, took center stage in the first two issues. Issues 1 & 2 of this series delivered on the promise of House of X #1, when Cyclops first told the Fantastic Four that mutants were done turning the other cheek and furthermore that they were calling Franklin home. I think the subject matter and the allegories that Chip is tackling feel like a deft handling of a typically mishandled subject matter in comics. Though the series is not everybody’s cup of tea, it feels important to recognize its potential to educate cis-het readers on aspects of the queer & trans experience that at times can be hard to access. What’s critical to this type of reading through is maintaining a frame of mind that this isn’t the X-men’s story, nor is it the Fantastic Four’s story. It is in fact Franklin Richards’ story; it’s the story of a teenager desperately trying to claw their way out of the closet while the very people who love them most lean on the closet door.

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Dani Kinney
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  • DSoren
    August 1, 2020, 11:48 pm

    Imagine for a moment that a nation, along the lines of Krakoa, would exist only for cis males and females which included criminals against trans and queer people only because they were not trans and queer. That is something analogous to what Sue Richards and the rest of the Fantastic 4 heard being pitched by Scott Summers. I’m sorry but I would side with Sue and the rest of the F4. Villains are villains not because of their gender, political leaning, etc but because of their actions.

    Scott Summers could have started by asking Reed and Sue, "What would happen if it became public knowledge that Franklin was a mutant?" Even the F4 are are not that naive to know that their son would not be targeted by non mutant supremacists. As far as the villains, he could have let them know that under Krakoa law that a mutant who takes a human life would be buried alive (like Sabretooth was) under Krakoa. And that eventually, if the conditions merited it, humans would be allowed to visit Krakoa. This approach may have worked things a lot better between the F4 and Xmen.

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    • Nola Pfau@DSoren
      August 2, 2020, 11:54 am

      If that’s what Sue heard then she wasn’t listening very well. Cis people aren’t a marginalized community. Within the bounds of the story, mutants are, and that’s an important distinction. You can’t ignore the power dynamics involved there.

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  • DMaster
    July 21, 2020, 2:42 pm

    Damn, Sue. Just…damn. I never expected any better from your emotional-IQ-in-the-negatives douchebag husband, but I sure expected better than you. What is even the HELL, lady??

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