Tag Archives: Don’t ask don’t tell

Batwoman: Or, the times they are a-changing

My evolution in “Bat-tastes” and society’s evolution on being gay

Growing up, I did not watch the Saturday morning cartoons many of my friends watched.  When I came home from school, however, I did often catch reruns of the classic episodes of Batman.  The 1960s show featuring Adam West and Burt Ward, as Batman and Robin was goofy and brilliant all at the same time.  (Even if it was at times awful, I still have a fondness for it and a nostalgia for one of my elementary school-aged favorites.  Around the same time, I was also watching The RiflemanGunsmoke, and Ponderosa reruns on Saturday mornings.)

It was much later before I got into comic books and, even then, I was never a seriously devoted fan–too expensive for me, and too difficult too maintain, though I have kept my small, humble collection still to this day.  While, I was always interested in the Detective Comics I was daunted by the vast size of the collection and skeptical about being able to keep up or follow along.  As a result, I was more of a Marvel-made X-Men fan.  (Comic book fans will recognize that this doesn’t actually make sense, as Professor X’s X-Men had a long story-line, as well, and it would be little different as far as “jumping in media res” was concerned, but somehow it made sense to my junior high brain.)

I find myself finally swinging back to Batman and DC Comics–the comic book company that publishes the Batman storylines, including the longstanding series Detective Comics–thanks to the newly recreated Batwoman.  Ruminating on her original introduction and comparing it with her reintroduction is an interesting demonstration of cultural evolution.

The Bat-woman’s debut, Detective Comics Issue #233, July 1956

Batwoman was the first new “Bat” in the Batman family.  She was introduced in response to allegations that Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson had a romantic relationship.  In the 1950s, this could cause a great deal of trouble.  Comics had to be approved for content as they were believed to be children’s lit and suspiciously regarded as [potentially] dangerously subversive.

U.S. Congress got involved, investigating juvenile delinquency in a Senate subcommittee and any potential role comics may have played in the phenomena.  (Check out some of the texts/artifacts from this investigation held in the National Archives.)  Self-regulation was instituted by the comic book industry to protect itself from outside censorship, effectively creating self-censorship.  This is more or less how we get the Bat-woman in Detective Comics issue #233 in July of 1956 (the success of Superwoman didn’t hurt, either):  In 1954’s Seduction of the Innocent (published in the same year as the self-imposed Comic Code Authority), Frederic Wertham let fly the allegation that Bruce and Dick were a homosexual item.

The Bat-woman was, thus, not only a female heroine, she was a love interest for Batman.  So, clearly, Batman was not gay.  Here, was a romantic foil for him: the large-breasted, buttoned-to-the-collar, utility-purse-wielding, motor-cycle-riding love interest.  Here was a crime-fighting woman, an effeminate and shapely “champion of the law” to be his “great rival … the mysterious and glamorous girl.”  (Detective Comics, #233, July 1956)

Is it not interesting that in her re-introduction to the comic world in 2006 she is a lesbian; indeed, a would-be Army soldier ousted from West Point under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy (introduced in 1993).  In her new incarnation, she is depicted as a model West Point cadet at the top of her class, ousted by the accusation of “homosexual conduct.”  While she is given an out by her supervisor, she chooses to be guided by the West Point code, instead: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”  This effectively ends her career as a U.S. Army soldier, setting her on the path towards Batwoman.  She is driven by personal loss and a desire to serve–a career she was deprived of in the military.  Hooah.

Army issue comic for administering “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, 2001
(Comics with Problems)

In this context, it seems ironic to me that the Army released a comic book in 2001 on its policies regarding DADT.  (Comics with Problems)  The medium seems destined to portray our national debate or sensibilities on the subject.  It has certainly always been an art-form that has  idolized and aggrandized the human body.  To the extent that comic art can be sexually appealing to anyone, it certainly stands to reason that on this level, at least, a gay following would be as likely to develop as any other.  But, comic book heroes are also often struggling with their otherness, their separation from everyone else who does not have to hide their identity–a theme that is especially relevant and poignant to gay adolescents and adults.

Plus, comic books are relatively safe to read.  A teenage boy reading comic books will not call any attention to his alter-ego if he is in the closet.  Similarly, a girl reading Wonderwoman comics is likely to be safely empowered, but not obviously outed.  This may get trickier for the boy who prefers Wonderwoman to Superman, but even this can be done in safety, without threatening to unmask the fan’s identity.

It is the DC Universe’s constant question of identity, and the question of resulting isolation that resonates with many gay readers of comic book series.  (Marvel’s mutant X-Men treat this subject slightly differently, focusing on the biological “otherness” and persecution of mutant superheroes.)  But, it is the relatively recent decision to provide a greater pantheon of superheroes and seeks to give every reader challenged with isolation through “otherness” a hero in their like-identity that makes the new Batwoman storyline a sort of redemption of the original Bat-woman.  Where  there was originally fear of Batman representing an “other,” there is now the deliberate embrace of that exact “otherness.”  Instead of the Bat-woman saving Batman from accusations of lust for Robin, the new Batwoman is about saving Gotham City (she just happens to be falling in love with women, too).

Batwoman in the 21st century


Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Historian's Journal

Facing the challenges of the high school pastime of dehumanizing your peers


AP photograph of suicide victim Eric Mohat, 17 years of age.


“1 Ohio school, 4 bullied teens dead by own hand”


The photo above goes with the Yahoo! news link below it.  They are further evidence that somewhere in our society we’ve messed up.  As a historian, my brain creates unsettling parallels.  As a human being, my heart hurts.  I see several problems.  In the above story, the particulars of one school’s recent tragedies is laid out, but no apparent progress seems forthcoming.  In the last two years, Mentor High School in Ohio has seen four suicides and currently has two independent law suits laid against it for its neglected responsibility in two of the deaths.  The most recent young lady, Sladjana Vidovic, 16, was an immigrant from Croatia.  Before her two students, friends, ended their lives within three weeks of each other; Eric Mohat, 17, whether he was gay or not, was mocked as though he was, and his friend, Meredith Rezak, 16, a well-liked athlete had recently confided in friends that she thought was gay.  Jennifer Eyring, 16, was “developmentally delayed and had a hearing problem.”  All were harassed, sometimes physically.  All came to the same conclusion that they just couldn’t go forward.  As much as the students responsible for tormenting these victims are guilty, an even greater responsibility lies with the people in their lives who should be mentors.  Teens make mistakes–horrible ones, sometimes–adults, parents, teachers, coaches have the responsibility to correct these mistakes.


AP photograph of Mentor High School--less than excellent.


Why do teens lash out at other teens?  Whole books have been written on the subject and I am not an expert in that field.  I do, however, worry that our society reinforces the wrong things, poisonous things, that do more harm than we may wish to acknowledge.  In this post, I want to cover some ideas I have about what we can be doing (and what challenges our ability to do it).  To do this, I want to cover some things I have mentioned in the past–Sam Wineburg’s belief that history can humanize us, and the creation of the “other” or the use of dehumanizing language to undermine our obligations to each other–and a new program I read about a few years ago founded by Erin Gruwell–the Freedom Writers Foundation.

The History-Humanizes-Us Argument

One of my first concerns is the unrealized potential in many history classrooms across the country.  Sam Wineburg has pointed out the inherent value in teaching history as a subject by teaching historical method.  Question:  What do the historians we admire most all share in common?  Answer:  A deep knowledge and understanding of past peoples and experiences.  Even if that knowledge is not entirely correct, the act of engaging someone distant, foreign and strange and getting to know there culture is an important task–something every education should provide and very difficult to achieve.  Most of the history curriculum at schools and even to extant and colleges and universities emphasizes a survey format that is really about packing one’s head full of trivia, but not really learning about another culture and people that different, even strange.  Amidst that difference and strangeness there is similarity, too, but even if there is not it is irrelevant!  It is especially beside the point in this country where we are, in our founding, flawed though it might have been in its acceptance of slavery, committed to a society that lives in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, not fear.

To realize history’s humanizing qualities fully, to draw on history’s ability to, in the words of Carl Degler, “expand our conception and understanding of what it means to be human,” we need to encounter the distant past—a past less distant from us in time than in its modes of thought and social organization.  It is this past, one that initially leaves us befuddled or, worse, just plain bored, that we need most if we are to achieve the understanding that each of us is more than the handful of labels ascribed to us at birth.  The sustained encounter with this less-familiar past teaches us the limitations of our brief sojourn on the planet and allows us to take membership in the entire human race.  Paradoxically, the relevance of the past may lie precisely in what strikes us as its initial irrelevance.  ~Sam Wineburg

I think a focus on this skill-building, methodology-based approach could really help open the eyes of young people–even if it only plants a seed that take a few years to blossom.  The best teachers find ways to do this even with obstacles such as survey courses, testing-directed teaching and unimaginative adminstrations.  They challenge students to try to step out of their boxes and see things from different perspectives.  Developmentally, this is a challenge for teens, but it is good to push them to the edge of their abilities–sometimes you push and they go beyond the point they thought was their limit.

The Freedom Writers Argument


"The Freedom Writers' Diary" by the students of Erin Gruwell


Erin Gruwell was a student-teacher when she was assigned a high school freshman English class of students everyone expected to fail.  Maybe they would have if a student had not passed a caricature of another student emphasizing racial features in a crude way.  Gruwell snapped.  She did not hesitate to compare the act to the Nazi caricatures of Jews and other undesirables.  Her English class started down a path of personal journal writing inspired by Anne Frank’s and investigated the way society’s turn on their own.  She took them on field trips and arranged to have speakers that would speak on the issue–most of what she did initially she paid out of her own pocket, because she cold not get funding.  Realistically, most teachers probably cannot do all the things she did, but she has set up a program to help educators do the most important part: in teaching her students to read and write she taught them about the historical atrocities born out of racial or religious prejudice.  It was extremely poignant in this inner city school in Los Angeles with many mixed influences on the youth, few of them positive.  Her students learned self-confidence not because she praised them but because she challenged them and they succeeded.  She cared enough to challenge them and they took that and built a strong and positive community, helping each other deal with troubled home-lives, difficult economic situations and their own demons.  In the end, a class of students that was never suppose to make it out of the ninth grade and was regarded as a criminal element graduated, a group of young people unafraid of others’ differences.

The cases in the article above are not from a “ghetto” school, they are from a suburbanite public school.  The very safety and comfort is sometimes the biggest challenge for students who do not really understand questions of hunger, suffering or danger.  When I worked at the Close Up Foundation with students from every demographic, the kids who were the most difficult to reach about citizen-involvement were often some of the ones from comfortable suburban schools.  I do not mean to say that all suburban schools or high school students are like this!!  Nor am I saying that we should deprive our children of comfort, but I am saying that we should be aware that it is often difficult for a teenager to grasp troubles that are foreign to them, or for that matter to accept people who are different from them.  It is why we–all of us!–are there to educate and, again, plant seeds that will eventually bring forth fruit: healthy, compassionate citizens.

The Society-is-letting-itself-down Argument


Brennan's "Semantics of Oppression"


But in the meanwhile, we have to acknowledge our failure as a society.  The students in the article above who were bullied to death represent the same demographics that the law fails to protect, today: the disabled, immigrants and gays.  These are our society’s failings:  The disabled, so often labeled as burdens to their caregivers and to themselves as having low-quality lives, are frequently aborted or euthanized, legally.  The range of  disabilities that are targeted is expansive.  Immigrants are being targeted by private citizens and increasingly by governments, currently more at the state level than the federal level.  Finally, the persistence of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Domestic Marriage Act, not to mention the various state same-sex marriage bans, continues to establish a second class status for gay citizens and their families.  What do these issues all have in common?  They are not all in the same party platform!  But, they all reinforce the notion, established by the government–so, in other words, our society, us!–that certain groups of people should be treated differently–not just differently, but beneath the rest of society.  In a society founded on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, we cannot expect to be successful and rely on future generations if we continue to tell our children, “there is something wrong with these people and they need to be treated differently.”  Is it any wonder that our children, in this society, follow this pattern?


AP Photograph of Sladjana Vidovic's (remembered in the framed picture) grieving family.



Suicide hotlines:



For gay teens:





For disabilities rights and protection of disabled or elderly:






Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal