A Brief History of LGBTQ+ Representation and Comics

While comics have embraced lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) themes and characters, historically this content was intentionally omitted due to censorship and notions that comics were only for children. With homosexual content banned by the Comics Code Authority between 1954 and 1989, mainstream comics portrayed only subtle hints regarding any character’s sexual orientation.

While not an official government entity, the Comics Code Authority functions as a private organization that governs acceptable content for comics. Publishers were not legally obligated to follow rules set up by the Comics Code Authority; however, newsstands and other retailers stocking comics at the time were less likely to support a comic without the Comics Cod Authority’s approval. Much of the controversary has been traced back to research and publicity facilitated by psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham dictating that comics could corrupt American children. Due to his reports, the Comics Code Authority added the following restrictions:

  • “Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at or portrayed. Violent love scenes, as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.”
  • “The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of home and the sanctity of marriage.”
  • “Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.”

It wasn’t until 2013 that Professor of library and information science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Carol Tilley found Wertham had falsified and altered data to support his claims.

Despite the restrictions placed on comics, the 1970s served as an era of LGBTQ+ creators taking their autobiographical stories and raising awareness of political issues for their communities through independent publishing. It was during this era that the first openly gay characters in American comic strips began to emerge with Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury with the introduction of fictional character Andy Lippincott who was faced with an HIV diagnosis.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that LGBTQ+ themes became more prevalent in mainstream American comics; however, a lack of censorship paved the way for European comics to be more inclusive from an earlier date, including comics from France, Belgium, Spain, Germany and Britain. Despite similar challenges in the East, Japanese manga also saw an increase in LGBTQ+ content at an earlier date through sub-genres now referred to as yaoi and yuri manga.           

As acceptance was gained, comics content reflected the shifts in both mainstream and independent publishing. The latter had a different sort of portrayal of LGBTQ+ culture as characters didn’t need to make grand proclamations or call any press conferences about their sexuality. For characters like Maggie and Hopey in Jaime Hernandez’s Maggie the Mechanic, their status as outsiders came first. Intimacy and labeling sexual orientation were distant topics of interest. Similar to most self-published comics of the '80s and '90s, their relationship portrayed realistic LGBTQ+ relationships without calling attention to it in the overarching story.

Today, the comics industry is stocked with diverse representation across the sexual spectrum. The importance of LGBTQ+ creators and characters only grows as the interests of readers shifts with time.