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The secret history of Batwoman

Contributed by
Jun 20, 2018

LGBTQIA history is closely intertwined with the history of censorship in America. When you research the last century of queer literature and art of the Western world, it is difficult not to end up reading detailed accounts of infamous trials that took place in this country. Likewise, when reading of the Golden Age of comics, you will encounter how publication of said comics inspired a lot of suppression laws. For example, in the mid-'50s, an anti-comic book hysteria gripped the nation and led to actual book burnings in many cities, right around the same time the McCarthy hearings were happening in Washington.

In the middle of all of this, there is the story of Batwoman, who was introduced as Batman's love interest after a psychologist wrote a book alleging that Batman was homosexual and children who read Batman comics were more likely to “become gay,” apparently via some as-yet-unexplained transformation that would occur after reading the latest issue of Detective Comics circa 1954. Despite taking a massive hit from these allegations, Batman survived, although the stories that followed were much stranger than anything that had previously graced the pages. As a result, Batwoman made her debut as a romantic option for Batman with the intent of making him appear more heterosexual.

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One of the first important trials in American history concerning the censorship of a queer writer occurred in the late '20s, when The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall was put on trial for obscenity. Hall would likely be trans now, but at the time was considered an “invert,” during a time in history when psychologists believed that homosexuality was caused by a woman having a man's brain and vice versa. Their brains were inverted, thus the term “invert.” This term is considered horribly offensive by today's standards, but it was under this premise that Hall wrote her book The Well of Loneliness. Authorities considered the semi-autobiographical novel to be obscene, but the only allusion to a sexual encounter occurs in a single line: “that night, they were not divided.” Because of this phrase, the book was considered obscene and became part of one of the most famous censorship trials of the 20th century.

While The Well of Loneliness was ruled in American court not to be obscene, it remained banned in England until 1959, and there was still a great deal of apprehension about printing or selling the novel, even by publishers and stores that championed other banned books. In response to the lack of options in the world of publishing, self-published media by queer writers began appearing in the form of proto-zines such as Vice Versa, a publication that was typed on carbon paper and sent through the mail, each of the dozen or so copies yielded by reportedly changing hands dozens of times and helping to build an underground network of queer women in the late '40s.

Even as the underground strengthened, so did attempts at suppression of the queer community. During the '50s, multiple damaging instances led to what would eventually become the homophile movement, which in turn would transform into the gay liberation movement of the '60s. To begin with, in 1953, President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which led to thousands of people working within the government to be accused of homosexuality and thus fired from their jobs and blacklisted. A young boy in Iowa was raped and murdered, which led to a nationwide panic directed at gay men, who were collectively now viewed as being complicit. This had a counterpoint in the Papin sisters of France, who brutally murdered their employers and were later deemed by the press to have been incestuous lesbians, which may not even have been true. By the mid-'50s, arrests were happening all around the nation targeting people accused or suspected of breaking sodomy laws. A great deal of anti-gay propaganda was released during this time, known in retrospect as the Lavender Scare, and countless gay people were arrested, institutionalized, and attacked.

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During the Lavender Scare, Doctor Fredric Wertham released Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, which asserted that comic books were a terrible influence on children and turned them to lives of crime and gay sex. The book itself is infamous, and yet very few people alive today have taken the time to read it. The information presented is now considered laughably dated, but it kickstarted a long chain of events that led to decades of censorship in mainstream comics. In short, it's a book with a wide-reaching impact while managing to remain completely obscure. Wertham wasn't the only psychologist printing articles about how dangerous comics were, but his book became the match that lit the flame, and many comic publishers were put on trial at the same time creatives in other fields were being accused of Communism during the McCarthy hearings.

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It's important when discussing the history of censorship in comics to keep in mind that it wasn't just comics that were affected. The suppression of queer characters was a primary goal for the entertainment industry across all media. Mid-'30s Hollywood saw the introduction of the Hayes Code, which was a list of guidelines targeting many, many so-called deviant behaviors, including open-mouth kissing, but was also quite famously against the inclusion of homosexual themes in films. This period of film history has been covered at length in books such as The Celluloid Closet and various biographies and tell-alls over the years, and even sensationalized by releases such as Hollywood Babylon. While the world of publishing was hesitant to include queer characters or publish novels by LGBTQIA people, Hollywood and comic book companies flat-out forbade them. For comics, this happened via the Comics Code.

Later, the Comics Code would be compared to the Hayes Code in that it was overly restrictive and seemed often quite arbitrary, the authority behind the codes was impossible to appeal to or defend oneself against, and they both restricted queer characters from appearing. Someone should have told Batwoman, though, because the stories she first appears in come off pretty darn queer.

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Introduced in July of 1956, Kathy Kane was a circus owner who inherited a great deal of money and decided she might as well become Batwoman. Although wealthy, descending from the famous Kane family, which had a significant history in Gotham, her resources couldn't compare to those of millionaire Bruce Wayne, so there were some differences in their crime-fighting tactics. Rather than a Batmobile, Kathy zoomed around on a little yellow motorcycle. Her weapons and tools came in the form of disguised lipstick containers and makeup compacts, adding a subversive element to her femininity at best and making a gimmick of her gender at worst.

Still, the coolest thing about Kathy was that there was no question that she was the equal of Batman and Robin. She eventually got her own sidekick, the original Bat-girl (yes, she had a hypen), but her role was reduced as time went on. Even so, Kathy was unique among female characters of the time in that she did Batman's job better than he could. While her initial confidence and prowess were immediately minimized and forgotten by subsequent writers, her first appearance is still solid.

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Batwoman had a couple of predecessors as Bruce or Batman's significant other, including a socialite named Julie Madison, a reporter named Vicki Vale, and even Catwoman, but Kathy seemed the most hell-bent on getting that ring around her finger. She constantly tried to trick and manipulate Batman into admitting his love for her, which was becoming the template for Lois Lane over in Superman comics by that time.

Kathy Kane stuck around comics for a good eight years before being deemed unnecessary for the series and shunted off to comic book limbo for over a decade. When she reappeared, it was only so that she could be rapidly fridged. Kathy was murdered in 1979 so that the stakes were raised for Batman to emerge triumphant by the end of what was an entirely forgettable story. Years went by with not so much as a mention of our hero, Batwoman, but in 2007 that changed.

In the weekly comic 52 that ran throughout the year, a new Batwoman was introduced by a team of writers—including, but not limited to, Greg Rucka and Grant Morrison. Kate Kane, a socialite, appears as Renee Montoya's ex-girlfriend. Montoya questions Kate, who is combative at first, although their relations grow softer as the series continues. They even spend Christmas together, and Renee ultimately saves Kate's life when Kate chooses to become Batwoman and is kidnapped by a cult. The new Batwoman made history by being the first lesbian lead in a mainstream superhero comic, and she remains a fan favorite.

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At the time of Kate's introduction, LGBTQIA rights were a major topic of discussion. While gay marriage was not yet legal, it was under constant discussion, and civil union rights were being granted across the nation. In television, characters like Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer were proving that stories involving queer characters and themes could be immensely successful among fans. In comics, characters like Northstar from Alpha Flight had come out years ago, but had been shunted immediately to the side. Seldom did queer characters appear as stars of major story arcs. Batwoman's popularity changed that, and in the more than a decade that has passed since her debut, there's been a lot of expansion in major roles for queer characters.

Still, as late as 2013, co-authors J.H. Williams and W. Haden Blackman quit the Batwoman ongoing after DC Comics chose not to permit a marriage between Kate Kane and her then-girlfriend, Maggie Sawyer. This has been minimized by DC representatives, who announced later that the couple couldn't be married because “heroes shouldn't have happy personal lives.” Queer fans can't help but view this stance with some skepticism, considering the history here. Currently, Superman is married, and Batman is soon to be married.

In Batman Incorporated, we saw the reintroduction of Kathy Kane, who was just as amazing in her modernized form as she'd been in her original appearances. While we haven't seen much of her lately, she has made appearances in the same Gotham in which her predecessor exists.

Before Batwoman was known as a queer character, censorship laws aimed at queer characters played a huge role in her creation, her existence, her death, and her return. Intentionally or not, she was always a major part of queer history in this country, even before she became the first lesbian superhero to front her own series.