Content Warnings: Transphobia, Trans slurs, Trans Panic, Houselessness, Violence Against Trans Children
Over 57 years, mutants have slowly shifted from solely standing as a metaphor for the experiences of marginalized people, to gradually manifesting intersections of representation for mutants who explicitly belong to communities that they previously stand-in for, in an allegorical sense. However, trans people have historically been excluded from this intersection, despite how often trans theory & experiences define mutanthood in the comics. In fact, it wasn’t until 2020, in Gerry Duggan’s Marauders #10, that there had even been mention of trans people on the pages of an X-Men comic. What this tells me and many others, is that to Marvel and to the X-Office, I do not exist; that trans people do not exist. It is a grotesque & negligent form of erasure that is without excuse. This erasure becomes a form of violence when the individual & communal trauma of trans people are appropriated by cis writers to tell/sell stories about mutants. One glaring example is Rosenberg’s Uncanny X-Men #17, in which Rahne Sinclaire, a former X-Force member, is attacked and killed after being outed as a mutant. Rahne’s death overtly appropriates real-world anti-trans violence. Rahne is killed in a careless allegory for a “trans panic” attacks, an explicit justification to physically attack and potentially murder a trans person because you entered a flirtatious or sexual situation before you were aware they were trans, which is explicitly legal in 39 states & D.C. Rosenberg thoughtlessly appropriated this communal & individual trauma, and that will forever be a part of Rahne’s story. So while denying us explicit representation, writers feel emboldened to steal our trauma.
There is one explicitly trans mutant in the 616 though, the widely forgotten Jessie Drake. One could say that I buried the lede, but the character is such a fringe part of Marvel continuity that most readers aren’t even aware of the character’s existence. Her story is liminal, problematic, and unresolved, told at the periphery of an equally problematic story about Mary Walker in Marvel Comics Presents #150 and #151. It begins when Logan’s feelings of alienation & frustration are exacerbated by Jean and Scott’s wedding, propelling him to “go solo” & help Xavier track down & liberate an empathic-metamorph, whom Chuck calls a “powerful psionic presence”. Logan enlists Mary’s help to break into the Fortress, a top-secret superhuman research facility where Jessie is being held by Dr. Zachary Hoffner, who’s also holding kidnapped children under the impression that they live in a far-future society. Mary is nearly successful in freeing Jessie, but as the two are about to escape, they’re recaptured, and Mary is imprisoned in a massive sensory deprivation tank. That is until a mental probe triggers enough traumatic memories to catalyze the development of a third personality, Bloody Mary, who ruptures the tank. Bloody Mary armors up and goes on a killing spree, taking out all of the “males” in the lab, letting “all the females live”. This is where the interplay between assigned-sex and gender becomes a pain-point.
Nocenti’s conceptualization of this interplay is uncritically cis-normative, nebulously conflating the two throughout this story, treating them as interchangeable, if at all distinct. However, it’s only fair to note, that this criticism can be broadly applied within a 15-year reach before and after this issue, when it comes to depictions of trans character in the media. But we know today that the two share no inherently deterministic relationship, other than the one society rigidly imposes. Gender is a social role, contingent upon the culture within which we learn & unlearn gender/s and outside of western-binaries, many variant genders have emerged, such as the Hijras of India, a third gender, recognized since the 17th century, Two-Spirit, an umbrella term for a range gender-variance among Indigenous North Americans, the Māhū of Kanaka Maoli, and Maohi cultures, and the Warias, Calabai, Calalai, and Bissu of Indonesia.
A person’s assigned-sex is the reductive “consolidation” of many complex, overlaid, and interwoven processes which are each subject to a spectrum of variation. This “ consolidation” manifests in two outdated & simplistic legal labels, “male” or “female”, which fail to account for the spectrum of sex-variation that occurs in human bodies. Sex variations are incredibly common, with 1 in every 100 people being sex-variant/intersex in some capacity, even if the variations aren’t immediately visible. Intersex is an umbrella term describing a spectrum of naturally occurring sex-variance that breaks cis-normative models of “male or female”, manifested in a spectrum of hormonal, anatomical, karyotypic, and/or reproductive variances.
The story as it exists fails to deliver on the immense potential of this interplay given Jessie’s metamorphic abilities, which could have been used to subvert the cis-normative and gender-essentialist associations that are so prevalent here and in the minds of readers. This story could’ve disrupted and destabilized the rigid and outdated associations we make between a person’s body, their assigned-sex, and their gender, rather than feed them as it does. What’s lost to us as readers and me as a critic of the work, is whether or not the is representative of Nocenti’s efforts. Perhaps the limits of the story are not in full due to Nocenti’s writing but are instead the result of corporate, editorial impositions. Mary’s vocalized male/female politique is clearly meant to demonstrate her opposition to patriarchal structures and individuals that abuse women, manifested in her crusade against the abusive men identified in a file she steals from a women’s shelter.
But these distinctions also illuminate a cis-normative social-modality. It feels like these distinctions are intended to inform the drama of the scene where Jessie is outed against her will, which is troubling. The way that they come from frame the scene we are about to discuss, creates a malignantly transphobic framing of Jessie’s character, given that to an extent Mary is the audience POV character. If Mary sees Jessie through a transphobic lens, we’re being forced to either follow-suit or to work to subvert the semiotics of audience surrogacy. To an extent, that could be an element that enhances Jessie’s story, but Nocenti’s writing is not nearly nuanced enough to sustain that type of reframing and subversion.
The scene in question occurs when the two take refuge at a women’s shelter and a staff member misgenders Jessie, revealing to the reader and Mary alike that Jessie is trans. Mary recoils in horror and physically assaults Jessie. We’re meant to at least empathize with or understand Mary’s shock. Lightle’s pencils frame Mary’s realization as something horrific, visually framing the scene with the visual & stylistic art semiotics of pulp horror comics. The dialogue reinforces this interpretation, as within this scene multiple characters vocally invalidate and misgender Jessie, and ultimately the writing doesn’t sufficiently establish the harmful nature of these actions.
It’s yet another traumatic scene in pop-culture where the revelation that a character is trans is framed as the unraveling of an illusion, a deception coming undone, which escalates into violence against a trans child by an adult. This is a real experience trans children face, and it’s troubling that these actions are never criticized, nor does Mary apologize to Jessie. Given Mary’s crusade against those who abuse people of marginalized genders, leaving her own abusive behavior towards a trans child unaddressed has problematic implications, beyond implicitly validating the behavior. Mary, who embodies radical feminist praxis, constantly calls Jessie a “traitor”, consciously or unconsciously establishing a friction between the empowerment of women and being trans. Whether intentional or not, Nocenti establishes Mary as a manifestation of feminist praxis, and through a failure to adequately address Mary’s abusive transphobic behavior, Nocenti sets up an incompatibility between feminism and trans identity. Rightfully though, the story makes clear that to some extent, Mary’s transphobia arises almost as an incidental element of her broader tendency towards highly black-and-white thinking..
I can’t help but feel how much more triggering this scene becomes in light of this Trump’s recent attack on the trans community; gutting the 2016 adjustment to the “Equal Access Rule”(2012) that ensures trans people have access to “single-sex” shelters in accordance with their gender. Watching an unhoused trans child be misgendered and her gender policed by the shelter’s staff is harrowingly in-step with the leaked Department of Housing and Urban Development memo, which empowers shelter staff to do just that, outlining how they can police the gender of trans people based on: “Factors such as height, the presence (but not the absence) of facial hair, the presence of an Adam’s apple, and other physical characteristics which, when considered together, are indicative of a person’s biological sex.” Given that 1 in 5 trans people will be houseless during their lifetime, the implications of such a rule are devastating.
While this scene asymmetrically centers Mary’s feelings of betrayal and is uncritical of their underlying transphobia, the last panel is a visceral & accurate portrayal of the interior trauma that situations such as this can cause and it re-contextualizes the entire scene, re-centering Jessie. I’ve lived that panel many times and it can be terrifying. The art doesn’t shy away from that and this panel’s ability to re-center Jessie as the actual victim, whereas Mary perceives herself to be the victim in this scene. I feel like this scene had the potential to play on the possibility of subversion of audience surrogacy semiotics that I mentioned earlier. This scene, that one single panel could have been the opportunity to shift the POV character. As we see Mary’s violence to this young girl, we suddenly shift our perspective, and in that single reaction panel, showing Jessie’s horrified reaction, we continue through the remainder of the story through Jessie’s POV. Personally, that’s how I try to read this scene, and though the subsequent writing doesn’t necessarily support this type of shift, it can be part of how we reclaim this story in 2020. It’s an opportunity to interrogate cycles of abuse; Mary, an abused and victimized woman, who we are meant to sympathize with, transforms into the oppressor and aggressor towards another, arguably more vulnerable individual, a young homeless trans girl.
Without vilifying Mary for a second, it allows us to see the way marginalized groups often find ourselves guilty of the very forms of violence and oppression that is done to us, which we unknowingly enact on members of other marginalized communities. It’s clear that Mary has no frame of reference for navigating trans identity or trans experiences of gender variance, much like readers of the time. While there’s space to hold in this scene, to point out that Mary’s sense of shock and betrayal largely comes from a lack of that frame of reference, it does not undo or forgive the pain that the scene can cause, especially for contemporary trans readers. For Mary’s part, she’s forced to filter her understanding of Jessie through the lens of her own experiences with structures of gender oppression. This doesn’t excuses or paint over Mary’s violence, but only elucidates that this is a stumbling block Mary was not equipped to handle at such a vulnerable point in her life, which is ultimately why her ignorance turned into violence.
Nocenti’s dialogue holds no space to address the violence of Mary’s remarks & actions, and the transphobia that underpins them, which could’ve been transformative for this story. There’s no opportunity to see Jessie’s gender properly affirmed, implicitly upholding the idea that Jessie is “deceiving” Mary. When the two reconnect after Jessie was abandoned at the shelter, Mary continues calling Jessie a “man pretending to be a girl”, accusing her of “tricking” Mary. This late in the story, Nocenti is still perpetuating the dangerous myth that trans people are inherently “deceptive”, with very little attempt to debunk this myth, and to a degree I find incomplete and undercooked. We do get to hear Jessie affirm herself in this scene and speak in her own voice about her identity. The language feels clunky and outdated, but it does speak with a level of sensitivity that would have been considered progressive in it’s time.
Near the end of #151, Jessie claims she can help Mary to “forgive” Jessie, leaving me furiously asking what the fuck for? What does Jessie have to be forgiven for? For when she was violently misgendered? For when Mary assaulted & abandoned her? I recognize the aspirations of the page and these lines; it wants to demonstrate Jessie’s emotional competence to speak the language of her oppressor/aggressor, in such a way that allows the aggressor to recognize the fault in their beliefs. We watching Jessie, work with Mary’s neurodiversity, rather than attempting to push up against it. I think these are wonderful aspirations for the scene, that are somewhat undermined by the other ways that this scene could operate or be interpreted. Jessie isn’t guilty of a single transgression; unless you implicitly frame Jessie’s transness itself as inherently transgressive, something for which she must hope to be forgiven. It’s a sentiment many trans people are forced to internalize, and at first I worried greatly about the degree to which this scene normalizes trans people having to make apologies for the ignorant reactions that others have towards us. I still do fear this potential to normalize this type of gaslighting, setting the expectation that trans people need to do the emotional labor for cis folks who transgress our boundaries and do harm to us. The scene also operates along another channel. It’s fair to read Mary’s many personas as extensions and/or iterations of her concepts of femininity. In this scene, Jessie is also helping to coalesce these many personas, in a sense to help Mary herself better understand and reconcile with her own womanhood. The fact that a young trans girl helps a full grown woman to establish a sort of gestalt of womanhood, speaks to uncanny navigation of gender that trans people have, even at the youngest age. It demonstrates too, how problematizing the binary and deconstructing cis-normativity, trans people have done so much labor to revolutionize our cultural framing of gender and the many transgressions and nuances of our navigation of gender.
One page prior Jessie comes out properly to Mary; “I am a girl. I’m just trapped in this boy’s body. I want to be like you.” It’s as explicit an articulation of dysphoria as we’ve seen up until now in comics. It should be noted, that at the time (1994) this language was about the best that could be expected for discussions of trans identity in the media, and that the emergent framing that was growing in queer & trans spaces had yet to be integrated into much of the media available. Today though, we need to question; What even is a boy’s body? What does it have? What does it look like? Well, a boy’s body is simply whatever body a person has who says they’re a boy, devoid of deterministic sex-essentialist associations. So, inherently this statement feels like an uncomfortable manifestation of transmedicalism, which often uses phrases like “biologically male/female”, perpetuating the “trapped in the wrong body” myth. Transmedicalists assert that to be trans, you must experience dysphoria to an extent that you reject your body, to the point of pathologizing the alienation & incongruence of dysphoria, and presuming that trans people must desire surgical & medical transition. It locks gender into a rigid, determinist relationship with the body and specifically genitalia, which has been scientifically debunked, again and again.
Discussing dysphoria demands nuance, because of the spectrum of variance involved in how trans people experience their gender. It especially demands nuance when reaching back in time to discuss dysphoria experiences in media from 1994, where/when the language that was considered best practices widely differs from our current vantage point. I recognize that at the time of this comic, the pop-culture trans politique was much, much different, and the language used in this story does not reflect the current framing of dysphoria that trans media has slowly come to embrace over time. Some articulate a distinction between two larger concepts of dysphoria; bodily, and social, which are often presented as incompatible, with one implied to invalidate the other. The way that society forces us to internalize & perpetuate so many misconceptions about gender, makes it impossible to discount the social model. I also think the way trans people recognize and articulate their expression/perceptions of their gender is so innate, that one can’t entirely exclude the bodily model. Dysphoria is a misalignment between how a person perceives their gender and the expectations that society imposes. These expectations are then internalized and unconsciously inform our innate expectations and perceptions of our own gender, where misalignments with aspects of our sex-development form. For example, I experience dysphoria surrounding my facial hair, because our cis-normative society has conditioned me to internalized the regressive notion that facial hair is inherently masculine. I know intellectually that this is caused by an internalized transphobia, but knowing that doesn’t alleviate the visceral feelings of alienation from my own body that I get when I feel stubble on my chin. It behooves me to clarify though, the presence, intensity, or absence of dysphoria in no way validates or invalidates one’s identity. Not all trans people have dysphoria, not all transitions look the same or have the same goals.
Trans people perpetuating transmedicalism is a problem, but since we internalize so much transphobia, it requires a much different approach to critique, in recognition of that internalization and in respect for their right to define their experience of gender for themselves. That’s not what’s happening here; Nocenti is a cis woman, peddling the dangerous notion that trans women are deceptive pretenders; painting them as men who only appropriate womanhood. The complexity is that she’s also giving the experiences of trans people a level of visibility and accessibility that is incredibly uncommon, and immensely valuable.
Jessie’s story demonstrates some of the most virulent misconceptions and tropes of trans representation, without ever critically addressing them. Characters call Jessie a trickster, and accuse her of deceiving them, of pretending to be a girl. Being trans is characterized as being deceptive, constructing an illusion destined to unravel. The ways in which this is addressed in the ending of issue #151 feel somewhat unsatisfying, particularly when weighed against how frequently we saw transphobic language. Jessie declares her identity, and the scene briskly moves on to Jessie helping Mary align her many personas, never circling back to see Mary express remorse for her actions or reconcile with the harm she did.
I would have liked if more deliberate space had been held to address all of the transphobia that preceded this scene, in a more concrete way. But the story clearly is on an arc towards Mary’s gradual acceptance and healing, through her relationship with Jessie. It’s not perfect, and if fumbles in ways that can do some serious harm, but it’s also a product of its time. I have to applaud Nocenti for attempting to use Mary’s ignorance as a didactic experience for readers, who at the time were likely unfamiliar with what it meant to be trans. It could have been handled far, far better, especially if there had been practices in place in 1994 such as the hiring of a sensitivity reader. At the end of #151, Mary comes to understand and value Jessie’s experience and her identity, and though the path to that place of acceptance was fraught and painful, this is an oddly hopeful resolution for a story about a young trans person in the 1990s.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that despite the many flaws of Jessie’s story, that it holds a very special place in my heart. It tells a very real story, about the traumatic experiences trans youth face every day in our world, without relying on the subtext of mutant semiotics. Jessie’s story is painfully relatable for many trans readers. Jessie’s visual depiction is honest and yet sensitive, visualizing Jessie as if she were any other pre-teen girl. It’s clear that Nocenti’s story is plagued with transphobia and implicit bias, but I do recognize that much of this comes not from malice but from ignorance.
Before and after, nobody has chosen or been allowed to write trans characters, nor able to reach back to continue Jessie’s story. Jessie has all but been forgotten, by writers and readers alike. Trans readers deserve to see themselves without the mediation of subtext. In 57 years and approximately 4,900 issues of Marvel comics featuring mutants, only two issues/one story, have included a textually explicit trans character. That’s roughly .041% of mutant stories dedicated to a community that has continued to comprise an increasingly large section of X-Men readership, despite being entirely overlooked. Mediating my rage with Marvel is a constant battle. I firmly believe that there are no neutral or apolitical choices, the absence of trans characters and the failure to continue Jessie’s story is not a neutral act, it’s a conscious effort of exclusion. I am locked in an emotional stalemate of rage over 57 years of erasure and a deep love for these characters and stories that have so often felt like safe-harbor in an increasingly hostile world. There is no silver lining, this is what we’re left with, and it’s troubling at best. Trans people deserve to see themselves in the media they consume, in empowering and unmediated forms. Do better Marvel, plain and simple.