There are not enough bisexual men in popular culture. Say it louder for the people at the back: There Are Not Enough Bisexual Men In Popular Culture.
That is why Monday’s news (11 October) that DC Comics had written Jon Kent – son of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, and the current Superman – as bisexual is important, necessary, wonderful.
Obviously it has been met with the usual screams of “woke!” (the ultimate 21st-century dismissal) and tokenism, which at the very least is better than blunt homophobia. But it has also been met with joy across a community of comic book fans.
2021 has been an unusually good year for high-profile bisexual men in pop culture. Back in August, DC also outed Batman’s sidekick Robin, aka Tim Drake, who found himself swooning over a male friend as they fought alongside each other. Over in the “other” comic book universe, meanwhile, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki made a quiet admission of bisexuality in Disney Plus’s excellent TV adaption – an element of the character that had been present in the comic book for years.
All three of these developments have led to the usual shrieking from the more tediously contrarian end of cultural commentary. After the Superman news, ITV’s Good Morning Britain wheeled out the actor and reality star Christopher Biggins (a man who was once kicked off Celebrity Big Brother for blaming the spread of Aids on bisexuals) who knew so little about the subject that his central complaint – essentially “why not create new characters instead of changing these ones we know and love?” – was based on the misconception that it was Clark Kent (the original Superman) rather than a completely different character (his teenage son) who was coming out. It was cringe-inducing TV, and a naked grab for controversy rather than an attempt at a nuanced discussion between informed experts.
All of this is important because male bisexuality has always been largely invisible in mainstream entertainment. Almost everyone on TV and in comics was straight when I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. Once in a while gay people got their own pitifully token representation and coming out narratives, which even as a child I recognised as excellent and important, but I also knew didn’t really represent me. Even in music, Freddie Mercury’s bisexuality was largely written out of his narrative and David Bowie actively rowed back his previously declared queerness.
I think about this sort of thing a lot. I didn’t properly come out as bisexual until I was 38, in 2019. It was a part of my identity that I at first didn’t understand, and then denied, and then was ashamed of. Partly this was because I grew up under Section 28, the draconian Tory law that stopped schools teaching children that queer lifestyles could be considered normal and healthy. But partly – I fundamentally believe – it was because I’d had no formative characters on TV or in films to relate to.
We swim in a media landscape; music, film and television have been cultural commodities for as long as we can remember. It’s what you mimicked in the playground and debated in the common room. It’s what bound friendship groups together, cemented subcultures and created connections. For years, bisexual men were largely absent from these conversations. We understood they existed in the abstract, but had no way to connect with the concept, to understand it, to see ourselves.
In 2002, the LGBTQ campaign group GLAAD conducted a study of Hollywood movies and found bisexuality to be largely invisible, often removed from source novels or used as a lazy trope for decadence, deviance or even lascivious disgust. By the time I was 21, I had existed entirely in a media landscape in which bisexual women were oversexualised and sluttish, and bisexual men were gross, untrustworthy and unnatural. No wonder I suppressed that aspect of my personality.
Two decades on, we still have a long way to go. The Loki reveal was important – British director Kate Herron said establishing that character’s canonical bisexuality in Marvel’s cinematic universe was a deal-breaker for her working on the show – and was rightly applauded, especially considering its home under a Disney-branded streaming service. However, even that is small beer.
Russell T Davies, the extraordinary creator of It’s A Sin and Queer as Folk and the man who brought bisexuality to Doctor Who as early as 2005, gave it short shrift. “It’s a ridiculous, craven, feeble gesture towards the vital politics and the stories that should be told,” he said during a panel at Swansea University’s virtual Pride event, noting that Loki’s sexuality was represented by a single line of dialogue, rather than any meaningful plot development. “And we’re meant to go, ‘Thank you, Disney! Aren’t you marvellous?’”
As always, Davies is entirely correct. There is so much further to go. The lip service needs to be of a more physical nature if the point is to be made.
Which is why this latest story is so important. The Superman news was accompanied by some comic art of Jon Kent in his iconic suit, kissing his boyfriend, Jay Nakamura. The image is cute, very indebted to anime, tender and subtly sexy without being overtly sexual. It maintains a kind of innocence. It’s beautiful. It’s perfect. It’s exactly what it needs to be.
I wish I’d seen that picture when I was 12. It could have changed my life.
[See also: Why “Labyrinth”’s goblin king is the most important role David Bowie played]