June is now over, and with it, LGBT pride month. With this year’s festivities fresh on my mind, I would like to take some time to reflect on the status of LGBT characters in comics, not just recently but throughout the medium’s history as well.

It’s easy to think of LGBT themes in comic books as being a relatively new topic and phenomenon. A lot of major milestones (such as the outing of Northstar) didn’t take place until the 90s, and the big two companies have only recently started publishing solo series starring openly LGBT characters. With that said, LGBT concepts have had a significant impact upon the industry almost since its very beginning. Decades before Marvel or DC published stories starring out LGBT protagonists, characters’ sexual orientations were still a topic of interest—in all the worst ways.

Early LGBT comic book characters were effectively being forced into the closet

One of the most historically significant pieces of anti-comic literature and sentiment ever published was Fredric Wertham’s 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent (which is available to read online for free). In the book, Wertham described comic books as being extremely inappropriate for young readers, and likely to lead them toward moral depravity and sin. One of the sins Wertham feared kids picking up from comics was homosexuality. According to Wertham, Batman and Robin’s relationship was homoerotic in nature, and Wonder Woman comics were characterized by heavily lesbian themes.

Unsurprisingly, Wertham’s claims did not attract positive attention to the industry. It was in reaction to Seduction of the Innocent and the negative attention it caused (partially, although not only due to its sexuality-based concerns) that the Comics Code Authority was established. Any comic that sought CCA approval up through 1989 was not allowed to reference homosexuality in any form whatsoever. This resulted in LGBT characters effectively being forced into the closet—they still existed, but creators could never make their identities explicitly known. Perhaps the most well-known example of this phenomenon was the relationship between Mystique and Destiny. Their romantic involvement is common knowledge now, but in their early histories neither character was allowed to be out. Chris Claremont has openly discussed the romantic subtext between two other X-Men characters, Kitty Pryde and Rachel Grey, in an interview for the Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men podcast.

It wasn’t until the 90s that societal mores and Comics Code guidelines shifted enough for openly LGBT characters to begin popping up in mainstream comic books. Marvel’s first notable openly gay character, Northstar, was outed in 1992’s Alpha Flight #106. Northstar, like many early openly LGBT characters, would have a spotty history in terms of how well his character was handled (when he actually appeared at all). Things slowly improved over time, and the 2000s saw the introduction of multiple now-popular LGBT characters like Wiccan, Hulkling, and the modern incarnation of Batwoman.

Nowadays, there are more openly LGBT characters headlining and playing major roles in comic books than perhaps ever before. In terms of DC Comics, Batwoman has recently received a new solo series, and Midnighter has had recent ongoing and miniseries. Meanwhile, Marvel has recently launched two new solo series starring LGBT characters: America starring America Chavez, and Iceman, which debuted, appropriately enough, during this year’s pride month. There are also LGBT characters in supporting roles across various series from both publishers. With that said, indie comic companies are the Holy Grail of contemporary LGBT comic representation. Even trying to list every recent indie title featuring LGBT characters would be quite a task to achieve. One such series, The Woods from BOOM! Studios, was recently honored by the GLAAD Awards.

While I still see poor depictions of LGBT characters in comics on occasion, the medium has achieved a level of growth across the last two decades that I never could have predicted. When I was first getting into comics as a young gay boy, the only gay male characters I knew about who seemed to matter much were Wiccan and Hulkling. Considering that even they were limited to ensemble member status in a handful of short-lived titles, LGBT representation at the time was fairly bleak. It some ways, it could still be considered as such today, but there is a vast gap between the “bleak” of today and the “bleak” of ten years ago.

In my time reading comics, I’ve never really been one to buy several copies of the same issue in order to collect variant covers. Yet, during this year’s pride month, I bought four different copies of Iceman #1, because it represented something to me that no other new title has. Marvel has always been my favorite comic company, and for the first time, at age twenty-three, I had the option to buy an issue of an ongoing series starring a gay male lead. The word “representation” gets used a lot, but I don’t think we as a society tend to think very deeply about what it actually means. In the context of media, representation of minority cultures is an affirmation that they exist, and that they deserve to exist. Representation of LGBT characters is an act of cultural significance, one that speaks not only to LGBT people’s existence, but to their basic human dignity.

There is a vast gap between the “bleak” of today and the “bleak” of ten years ago

Ten years ago, when I wanted to find comic characters who reflected myself as a gay male, I didn’t have many mainstream options besides about a dozen issues of Young Avengers or some frequently cringe-worthy back-issues featuring Northstar. There were others, and I don’t mean to downplay the significance of what other examples there were, but the point is that, as a thirteen year old surrounded by homophobia, I was hungry for signs that there were other people like me out there. As a comic book fanatic, it was only natural that I’d search for that communal knowledge in comics. My searches, however, came up nearly empty. As cool as Wiccan and Hulkling were, they never got to be stars in their own right. No gay man (or out LGBT person of any specific identity) occupied the same cultural space and respect as the likes of Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, etc.

I’ve been out of the closet for nearly a decade now, and I still cling to representation where I can find it. Iceman #1 made me extraordinarily happy, as did reading Midnighter & Apollo, as does knowing that Batwoman, The Woods, and more exist. We’ve reached a point where LGBT characters can be both main and side characters, where I can read a comic, discover a character is gay, and not be completely shocked that such representation is included. I certainly still wish there was more LGBT-focused content out there, and I strive to create such content as a writer, as well as support such content as a consumer. With that said, however, when I want to read something starring LGBT characters nowadays, I have several options.

Pride month is now over, but LGBT experience is not. Rainbow knickknacks may be more common in June, but LGBT people don’t suddenly have less societal stigma to deal with on July 1st. Despite all the positive shifts the last few decades have brought, this world is still more dangerous for some people than it is for others. Danger can come from something as simple as knowledge of what oneself is. When I go out in public with my partner, we both face questions of how safe or unsafe it is to be openly gay. We still weigh choices of expressive honesty versus protective lies. But some things make those tough choices easier to deal with. It may be hokey to say, but comics like Iceman and The Woods do that for me. I can only hope that ten years from now, the closet door will be opened even further.