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12 April

What X-Men can teach us about prejudice

The Florida state representative Webster Barnaby’s comparison of trans people with X-Men mutants couldn’t have backfired more.

By Marc Burrows

In the X-Men comic-book series (and the movies and animated show spun off it), “mutants” are humans with a genetic mutation that gives them special abilities, who face constant prejudice in wider society. Parents that learn their child is a mutant disown them or force them to hide their true nature. Politicians argue about “mutant rights”, and the media demonises them as they become the centre of a culture war. High-profile mutants become hate figures and spokespeople. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s meant to: X-Men’s mutants are a proxy for every “othered” group in society – black people, Muslims, people with disabilities, Jews, gay people, the Latinx community. Take your pick. The allegory is entirely intentional, and it isn’t subtle.

Which is why comments made recently by a US Republican politician, Webster Barnaby, during a debate about the rights of trans people to use public bathrooms aligned with their gender identity managed to be hateful, bizarre and – in terms of the comics he’s invoking – weirdly appropriate.

While debating the Florida House Bill 1421, which would make it an offence for people in the state to use public bathrooms that don’t align with the sex they were assigned at birth, Barnaby launched into a speech in which he compared transgender people to characters from “an X-Men movie”: “We have people that live among us today on planet Earth that are happy to display themselves as if they were mutants from another planet,” he said, before going on to label transgender people “demons and imps who come and parade before us and pretend that you are part of this world”. He concluded his rant by invoking the Almighty: “The Lord rebuke you, Satan, and all of your demons and all of your imps who come parade before us… That’s right, I called you demons and imps, who come and parade before us and pretend that you are part of this world.” Trans people and LGBTQ+ advocates sat in the audience as he said this, having just given testimony opposing the bill.

[See also: Do voters care about trans rights?]

Even when compared with some of the unsavoury rhetoric we’ve seen employed by Republican politicians, this is a horrible speech. When comparing trans people to “mutants” and “demons and imps” Barnaby is dehumanising and othering a community to validate the idea the majority is being persecuted. This is a constant theme in X-Men. As the X-Men leader Professor X says in a 1992 issue of Uncanny X-Men, these are “powerful words meant to distance… to demean… to destroy the havens of self-respect we each carry and nurture within us – just as surely as they seek to rend the centuries-old tapestry we, as a race, have agreed to call civilisation. These words carry us away from the light and lead us marching, no – charging – into a darkness where prejudice and bigotry reign.”

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Barnaby fundamentally misunderstands the source material he is invoking, and seems to think that the mutants are the bad guys. It means he aligns himself with some of the worst characters in the series, not the de facto villain Magneto, a radicalised Holocaust survivor intent on protecting his people at all costs, but the bland politicians and public agitators blinded by prejudice. He sounds most similar to the Reverend Stryker in Chris Claremont’s all-time classic graphic novel X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, who points to the mutant superhero Nightcrawler and declares “Human?! You dare to call that thing human?!”, or Senator Robert Kelly who in a 1993 edition of Uncanny X-Men gives a speech urging “the American public to wake up and see the ‘mutant menace’ for what it IS, if for no other reason than… for the children”.

The American right aligning themselves with fascist comic-book villains would almost be funny if they weren’t threatening a crucial civil rights issue. Those same comic books have spent decades warning us what happens when we take away people’s humanity. Barnaby calling trans people “imps, devils and mutants” perfectly parallels comic-book mutants being called “deadend”, “genejoke” and “mutie”, and that was always meant to parallel the real-world slurs aimed at othered communities for generations. This is a case of life imitating art imitating life – and reminds us of the powerful relevance of stories like these.

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[See also: Will Conservative divisions on trans rights explode into the open?]

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