Queering 9/11: Gay Heroes Exist In Real Life, Why Not In The Movies?

As we have approached the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Queerty has profiled the people, issues and themes surrounding the tragedy that have made an indelible impact over the past decade, especially for the LGBT community.

Gay action heroes before 9/11 didn’t have such great track records. World War II Nazi code-cracker Alan Turing got forced to undergo chemical castration by the very country he helped save. He grew breasts from the court-mandated hormone injections and eventually committed suicide by eating a poisoned apple. Oliver Sipple stopped an assassination attempt on President Gerald Ford and his subsequent outing by the media caused his family to disown him. He grew deeply depressed, ballooned to 300 pounds, and eventually died unhappily at age 47. Harvey Milk got shot twice in the head by his co-worker and the murderer avoided prison by blaming his state of mind on a Twinky. Seriously.

But then came 9/11 and two unlikely gay heroes sprang to action and saved countless American lives. Rugby player Mark Bingham ganged up with other athletes on United Flight 93 to help wrestle control from the hijackers. Father Mychal Judge ran to the lobby of the World Trade Center North Tower to render aid and prayers to the rescuers, injured and dead immediately after the first plane hit. They both perished for their heroic actions, but they also helped change the nation’s view of gays from a community victimized by the religious right, HIV, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to a people strong, confident, and powerful enough to save lives and even change the world.

So what about gay action heroes since 9/11? We don’t mean the superqueeroes who entertain us while doing great philanthropic work; we mean gay and lesbian people who have faced either serious risk or personal harm while trying to save lives or avert disaster in the world.

Did the likes of Bingham and Judge help recast gays as new empowered heroes in the national spotlight or did our gay and lesbian heroes fall back out of the national eye only to be celebrated by the queer community and few others?

The 2004 elections and the 2008 Prop 8 victory proved that gays still made worthwhile punching bags for the political aims of the Republican party, Catholics, and Mormons. But one could argue that Bush’s hateful re-election campaign and Prop 8 served as flashpoints, re-invigorating the gay community to organize more effectively nationwide and to support gay national figures while highlighting the worthwhile contributions of LGBT Americans.

Take Barney Frank for instance. At the beginning of the Obama administration, Frank served as Chair of the House Financial Services Committee and “helped avert full-scale disaster” by brokering a number of key deals that saved thousands of Americans from foreclosing on their homes and ensured that home mortgage rates did not fall too quickly. He helped the country avoid a financial ruin that could have easily wrecked the world economy.

On a different scale, Apple’s new CEO Tim Cook now leads the most valuable and influential technology company in the world. And while he hasn’t officially come out as gay, he did dramatically increase the company’s sales during the economic downturn, oversaw the company’s output of the revolutionary iPad, and will help raise the next generation of digital world communicators. It’s no exaggeration to call him “the most powerful gay man in the world” and his sexual identity will no doubt help change global perceptions about gays in business.

On a more local political scale, Annise Parker survived a homophobic election campaign in Houston to become Texas’ first openly lesbian mayor and of the fourth largest city in the U.S.. Lieutenant Dan Choi, though definitely dramatic, has also faced arrest by U.S. authorities, federal charges for protesting DADT, and even Russian police brutality for marching alongside Moscow’s LGBTs.

And don’t forget about Daniel Hernandez, the gay congressional college intern who saved Gabrielle Gifford’s life by pressing Safeway workers’ smocks against her head wound and holding her upright so she wouldn’t drown in her blood. When the press began calling him a hero, he modestly turned down the label saying it better applied to the first responders and public servants who help people live every day.

But what about gay heroes in entertainment and the silver screen? With so many prominent gay political dynamos about, have Hollywood, comic books, and video games caught up with the trend?

Over the last ten years, video games have grown more inclusive by adding gay characters, the ability to mate with or marry someone of the same-sex, an earnest (though somewhat misguided) attempt to curb anti-gay slurs on online forums, games specifically targeted to gay audiences, and even gay and transgender video game reviewers to serve as the new face of modern gamers.

Comic books have also followed suit. Not only is the lesbian Batwoman about to get a new monthly series, but we’ve also seen the X-Men’s bossy bottom Northstar go from getting killed over and over again to finally getting a boyfriend. Likewise, the Young Avengers’ Hulkling and Wiccan started dating back in 2006 while Power Boy and Gravity Kid from the Legion of Superheroes and Apollo and Midnighter from The Authority have all become dynamic gay duos in story lines over the past decade.

Plus, gay comic book artists have also started creating specifically gay series including Mark Eden’s Spandex (which features a cross-dresser, a lesbian, a go-go boy, and two muscle twins as superheroes) as well as Terry Moore’s Strangers In Paradise, an entrancing lesbian epic that focuses on the love lives and years-long rivalries between lost friends and lethal enemies.

But video games and comic books have long been the refuge of social outcasts who relate better to imaginative avatars and battles of skill rather than the brute unfairness of the real world. So a better measure mainstream recognition of the gay hero would lie in counting the number of gay heroes on the big screen. After all, movies usually cast LGBTs as murderous villains (ie. Psycho or Cruising), witty sidekicks (My Best Friend’s Wedding), promiscuous sluts (Another Gay Sequel), or sacrificial lambs too noble to live in this cruel world (Boys Don’t Cry). Has 9/11 given gays a heroic Hollywood makeover?

Gay director Bryan Singer deliberately put homoerotic subtext
into his X-men movies, but he stopped short of featuring any actual gay characters in his comic book flicks. Come to think of it, most action heroes skew straight with nary a gun-toting lesbian or gay espionage agent in sight.

Apart from the 2004 film Alexander (which glossed over the great conquerer’s bisexuality), the only other mainstream film depictions of gay heroes that come to mind are Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk and Cheyenne Jackson as Mark Bingham in the movie United 93, a film that didn’t even establish Bingham’s gay identity (the scene of him kissing his boyfriend at Newark Airport got scrapped due to bad weather). Arguably, the silver screen saw more frequent depictions of gay heroes long before September 11th rather than afterwards.

And while cable television has done a lot better about introducing complex gay characters to the small screen than movies—the glass-closted Anderson Cooper making one hell of a real-life television superhero as he risked his life in reporting from Egypt during the Spring uprisings and saved a small child from street violence while reporting in Haiti—TV too has a long way to go.

Perhaps the imminent repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will prove helpful in getting both straight Americans and ourselves to recognize gays and lesbians as heroes worthy of respect and greater representation in print, TV, and film. DADT’s repeal brings the heroics of Bingham and Judge full circle.

Neither Bingham nor Judge were very out during their lifetimes. As a new generation of Americans see gay and lesbian service members fighting for their country in uniform around the world without shame of their sexual identities, maybe more LGBT Americans will feel empowered to do their best and help change their world for the better with fear or shame of who they are.

Images via Michael Goldman, World Economic Forum, Wikimedia Commons, and istolethetv