Nightcrawler and the Demonization of Homosexuality
By J. Skyler
September 15, 2012 - 02:32
God hates gays. That’s the age-old proverb, right? It is the eternal mantra that enables heterosexist and homophobic individuals to affirm discrimination and/or commit hate crimes against members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community; one fueled by the belief that their hatred is not only sanctioned by God, but inspired by Him. While most theologians and faith-oriented laypersons do not endorse the extremism of the Westboro Baptist Church, that same quintessential fear, hatred and paranoia of non-heterosexuals as expressed by said organization is often the backbone of actions taken by members of the Religious Right across varying denominations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. No fictional character has felt the sting of religious bigotry more than Marvel Comic’s Kurt Wagner (codenamed Nightcrawler), a devout Catholic who has nonetheless faced persecution by members of his own faith as well as society at large. The superficial aversion to the pious and heroic Nightcrawler because of his seemingly demonic appearance is no different than the demonization of homosexuality and the persecution of LGBT people based upon their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Opposition to same-sex relationships, in addition to purely religious view points, is also perpetuated by the idea that they violate the theory of Natural Law as described by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Theologians who subscribe to this theory view any form of sexuality that does not result in procreation (masturbation, oral sex, use of contraception, homosexuality, etc.) as “contrary to nature.” However, as Bruce Bagemihl, Ph.D., states in Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (2000): “On every continent, animals of the same sex seek each other out and have probably been doing so for millions of years. They court each other, using intricate and beautiful mating dances that are the result of eons of evolution… Animals of the same sex build nests and homes together, and many homosexual pairs raise young without members of the opposite sex… many creatures are ‘transgendered,’ crossing or combining characteristics of males and females in their appearance and behavior.” The counterargument of course, is that animal behavior is not always a model for civil society, as there are plenty of species who eat their own young. The point, however, is that attempting to decry homosexuality as being against nature is just as absurd as the notion that we can always equate animal behavior with human ethics. In a similar vein, anti-mutant hate crimes in Marvel Comics are instigated by the idea that mutants are a corruption of nature or a corruption of God’s Grand Design, and in some cases both. Hate groups known as the Friends of Humanity and the Church of Humanity are known for the relentless persecution of mutants under these premises. Both have an uncanny resemblance to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) a hate group known for promoting racial segregation and violent crimes against ethnic minorities. Few people realize the KKK is a Protestant sect of Christianity. Volume 1 of the Encyclopedia of Women in Today's World (2011) states, “[f]irst established in the 1860s, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is a right-wing white protestant American organization that seeks to preserve the purity and supremacy of white Christian America. Jews, African Americans, immigrants, and homosexuals are regarded by the KKK as threats to this mission, and its activists have included propaganda, protests, and violence against these groups during its various waves of activity.” I’m not suggesting the KKK be taken as a legitimate Christian organization (the very idea is ludicrous), but it is a matter of historical fact that their beliefs are based on their interpretation of scripture, no different from the Westboro Baptist Church. However, in the same way we view we clearly define the fictional terrorism and fear mongering of the Friends of Humanity and the Church of Humanity as unsound ideology, real life hate groups should be seen as nothing more than perpetrators of hate, regardless of whatever religious affiliation they claim.
In depicting anti-mutant hate crimes by religious terrorists, Marvel Graphic Novels and Related Publications: An Annotated Guide to Comics, Prose Novels, Children's Books, Articles, Criticism and Reference Works, 1965-2005 (2008) documents that in Uncanny X-men: Holly War (2003), “[t]he anti-mutant Church of Humanity puts several X-Men, including Jubilee and Skin, on crosses in front of Xavier’s school, and leaves them for dead. The X-Men investigate this atrocity, which leads them to Church of Humanity headquarters.” When Nightcrawler confronts a member of the Church and reveals himself to be a Catholic priest, the church member scoffs, stating “you are a man of the cloth? I would find that laughable…” believing Nightcrawler’s genetic mutation renders him inherently unholy. However, genetic mutation in and of itself is not something that can be evaluated on a moral gauge, only the use of ones powers in civil society that are the result of a mutation. As X-Men and Philosophy: Astonishing Insight and Uncanny Argument in the Mutant X-Verse (2009) notes, “[h]aving blue fur, pointy ears, and a tail doesn't make Nightcrawler satanic, and the mutation that led to his fur, ears, and tail has nothing to do with his religious views.” Nightcrawler’s persecution is a matter of perception, not fact. Similarly, LGBT people in the United States and around the globe find themselves to be the victims of a negative religious perspective, one which opposes scientific fact and one that can result in life or death situations if gone unchecked.
Organizations such as the Family Research Council (FRC), National Organization for Marriage (NOM), and Focus on the Family (FOtF), who’s names are as deceptively benign as the Friends of Humanity and the Church of Humanity, have all been involved in anti-gay activity, but the FRC specifically has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and with good reason. As Jamie McGonnigal reports at The Huffington Post, “[i]dentifying an anti-gay group as a ‘hate group’ is based on their propagation of known falsehoods—claims about LGBT people that have been thoroughly discredited by scientific authorities—and repeated, groundless name-calling. Viewing homosexuality as unbiblical does not qualify organizations for listing as hate groups. This is not and never has been about a disagreement of beliefs; this is about groups using lies to disseminate hatred toward a group of people.” The FRC has also financial supported the “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda, legislation that would broaden the criminalization of homosexuality, making such an “offence” punishable by either life imprisonment or death, and has even gone as far as lobbying to prevent Congress from denouncing the bill as a human rights violation. Peter Montgomery of People for the American Way stated: “If you ask me, 'Does the FRC promote hatred towards gays and lesbians?' I would say yes it does… The FRC is not the KKK. But that doesn't also mean they deserve a free ride from being called out on their hateful rhetoric." I would have to disagree on his assessment of association though—if even one dollar is utilized in putting a single person to death on the basis of sexual orientation, it is no different than participating in a lynching under the premise of racial purity.
Given the vast amount of time, money and endless dialog religious leaders and laypersons have dedicated to stopping the “homosexual agenda” from dissolving society as we know it, one would think entire chapters of scripture were dedicated to subject. However, there are six—exactly six—passages of the bible (three in the Old Testament or the Jewish Torah and three in the New Testament) that allude to same-gender sex: 1) Genesis 18:20 to 19:29 2) Leviticus 18:22 3) Leviticus 20:13 4) Romans 1:21, 26 and 27 5) I Corinthians 6:9 and 6) I Tim. 1:10. It is worth noting that laws dictated in the Old Testament and Leviticus in particular are irrelevant to Christianity, as the birth of Christ establishes a new covenant between God and humanity, nullifying the Jewish Biblical Laws of the Old Testament. Therefore, any argument utilizing scripture found in the Old Testament as an argument against homosexuality contradicts the acceptance of Christ and the practice of Christianity itself. Moreover, no one who practices Judaism or Christianity (orthodox or not) is even remotely capable of upholding every law found in Leviticus—it’s a literal impossibility. The consensus among biblical scholars is that if we dismiss even one law from the book of Leviticus on the grounds of logic or reason, we must dismiss the entire book on the same grounds. As far as references to same-gender sex in the New Testament, I Cor. 6:9 is the only verse (in the entire bible) that (infrequently) uses the word “homosexual” in modern translations (remember that the bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek, not Latin or English). Such terminology is adamantly refuted by biblical scholars and linguists, as the words “homosexual” and “heterosexual” were invented by Hungarian journalist Karl Maria Kertbeny in 1868, centuries after the bible was written and canonized.
The semantics of language aside, aversion to same-gender sex in scripture is limited to three specific acts: rape, child molestation and prostitution. Thus, the historical and current culture war over sexual orientation has evolved due to false equivalency. Take into consideration that when we discuss male-on-female rape, female-on-male rape, male-on-male rape or female-on-female rape, it is simply rape. It is not a matter of sexuality, sexual identity or even sexual attraction, but a matter of violation. Male-on-male rape is no more a matter of homosexuality than male-on-female rape is a matter of heterosexuality. Similarly, child molestation, whether committed by an adult male or female with a child of either sex is not defined by gender pairing, but as an act of child rape; if an adult male engages in sexual activity with a prepubescent girl, we do not consider it “heterosexuality.” In other words, we do not equate the words “rape” or “molestation” with the word “heterosexuality,” even in situations where the perpetrator and victim are of the opposite sex. Conversely, history has equated “homosexuality” with all “deviant sexual behavior” and that false equivalency is the mentality that prevents perpetuators of anti-gay myths from seeing LGBT people as psychologically healthy, civic-minded contributing members of society. The false equivalency of homosexuality as deviant behavior is a direct contradiction to the consensus of the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association. Not only is it a matter of scientific inaccuracy, but as Bruce Lowe, graduate of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas (1936) and of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas (1946) states, from a religious perspective the New Testament “says nothing about homosexuality or homosexuals and nothing about same-gender sex unless that of temple prostitutes or possibly the molestation of young boys by heterosexuals. In view of the facts set forth above, we realize there is no moral teaching in the Bible about homosexuality as we know it, including homosexual sex (except possibly pederasty). The Bible cannot be used to condemn as immoral all same-gender sex.” The Rev. Peter Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School expressed the same sentiments before his death in 2011. In his study of scripture, he stated that “[t]he Biblical writers never contemplated a form of homosexuality in which loving, monogamous, and faithful persons sought to live out the implications of the gospel with as much fidelity to it as any heterosexual believer. All they knew of homosexuality was prostitution, pederasty, lasciviousness, and exploitation. These vices, as we know, are not unknown among heterosexuals, and to define contemporary homosexuals only in these terms is a cultural slander of the highest order, reflecting not so much prejudice, which it surely does, but what the Roman Catholic Church calls ‘invincible ignorance,’ which all of the Christian piety and charity in the world can do little to conceal. The ‘problem,’ of course, is not the Bible, it is the Christians who read it.”
It for these reasons that the word “homosexual” has evolved into a stigma and is considered derogatory to call someone as such (take a look at a Google search for “homosexual marriage” vs. “same-sex marriage” and observe the radical difference in tone in the search results). We refer to homosexual men and women as gay and lesbian respectively, not only as a matter of respect, but because “homosexual” does not accurately reflect bisexual or transgender individuals. We also use the term “same-sex marriage” over “gay marriage” because two men or two women in a relationship will not necessarily identify as gay or lesbian; ex: a gay man and a bisexual man, a lesbian and a bisexual woman, two bisexual men or two bisexual women. Therefore, “same-sex marriage” de-emphasizes sexual identity and instead focuses on the semantics of the relationship—two men or two women. An unfortunate reality, as Lee M. Jefferson Ph.D., Professor of religion and humanities at Centre College states, is that such critical thinking and “discussions will likely never satisfy any opponent of gay rights or of same-sex marriage to any degree.” Blind devotion to cultural misconceptions is a plague unto itself.
So what do LGBT people do, when faced with unbridled hatred at the hands of religious extremism? In Nightcrawler’s depiction, both in print and on screen, we see very different paths LGBT people may take when dealing with such relentless attempts at dehumanizing their existence. In Marvelous Myths: Marvel Superheroes and Everyday Faith (2011), author Russell Dalton writes: “In the film X2: X-Men United (2003) Kurt Wagner’s faith is unfortunately portrayed as a disturbing aspect of his character. While the film does show Kurt saying the Lord’s Prayer and drawing on his faith for courage to survive his trials, it also depicts him as being overburdened with feelings of guilt. He admits to carving painful tattoos on his body as a sort of penance for his sins. By contrast, in the comics, Kurt’s faith has usually been portrayed as a source of serenity and as his motivation for loving and forgiving those who have persecuted him.” Self-mutilation as depicted by Nightcrawler is often a sign of suicidal tendencies, prompted by feelings of inadequacy, shame and a general lack of self-worth. Nightcrawler is no more responsible for his genetic mutation than LGBT people are for their sexual orientation or gender identity, but his willingness to repent for sins he has not committed (or over compensate for ones he has) is no different than LGBT people who commit suicide over their inability to change their orientation or those who subject themselves to dangerous “reparative” or “conversion therapy.” In volume 2 of Youth, Education, and Sexualities: An International Encyclopedia (2005) James T. Sears documents that “[g]iven the unequivocal condemnation of homosexuality in [Jewish, Christian and Islamic] fundamentalist traditions, it is not surprising that LGBT youth who have undergone years of religious training about the sinfulness and sickness of homosexuality often experience confusion, guilt, shame, depression, and low self-esteem.”
I hit puberty at age eleven, which was when I realized my sexual orientation. I had always known I “liked” boys in the same way girls normally did, but it wasn’t until my physical maturation that I really understood what the words “gay” and “homosexuality” meant and the grave circumstance it placed me in. I knew my relationship with my family would never be the same if they knew, and I believed God hated me for it. Looking back, it’s a bit baffling just how far my own self-loathing went. I saw myself as God’s failure, something that needed to be disposed of. Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, even Satan himself, I thought, God might choose to show mercy to on the Day of Judgment—but not me. I was the one who had to suffer. Over the next four years, my depression only worsened with time and my smiles only concealed my self-hatred. Although coming out to my friends and peers was a positive experience, coming out to my family and religious community was damning. Everyone told me I was possessed by a demon, one that needed to be exorcised. They told me God could only love me as a heterosexual man (which was doubly troubling being a transgender woman) and that Hellfire awaited me otherwise. For these reasons I was drawn to Nightcrawler’s character. I saw myself in him. I too, was the good little Christian demonized by the Church I once held so dear. Eventually, I was able to exorcise my own inner demons, but those of self-hatred, not sexuality or gender identity. I learned to love myself, in spite of what others thought of me.
Part of what is so awe inspiring about Nightcrawler is that even in the face of such betrayal, he never allows his heart to harden, nor does he return the hatred spewed at him. In the X-Men animated series episode "Nightcrawler," when Wolverine asks him “doesn’t it make you crazy?” referring to the persecution he faces due to his appearance, Nightcrawler responds: “It did once, but then I found peace by devoting my life to God. He directed me to this place [the monastery of which he is a member] where they value the character of my heart, not my appearance.” Wolverine rejects Nightcrawler’s heartfelt plea, believing God has abandoned mutants, much in the same way LGBT people feel God has abandoned them. Nightcrawler’s faith is tested when he is betrayed by Brother Rinehart, who tells the townspeople that wish to kill him that he resides in the monastery. In the ensuing chaos, and as the Monastery burns, Nightcrawler neither attacks nor condemns Rinehart, but simply points out such destruction “is the fruit of your labors, not mine.”
In Nightcrawler, we see a reflection of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, the man who mentored and instructed Martin Luther King, Jr. on the methodology of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance and has become known to historians as “The Lost Prophet of the Civil Rights Movement” for his noticeable absence in the public consciousness. A deeply religious pacifist, Rustin was an adherent to Quakerism (Religious Society of Friends), a Protestant sect of Christianity with a focus on social equality. Rustin was also an openly gay man in the fiercely homophobic era of the 1950s, when homosexuality was still deemed to be a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. As an African American, a gay man and a Quaker, he saw the need for racial, economic and LGBT equality as one in the same. In addition to his mentoring of King, Rustin was a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a civil rights organization that served as the primary platform for King’s activism. Like Nightcrawler, Rustin faced betrayal when another member of the SCLC, House Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., threatened to “expose” a sexual relationship between Rustin and King to the media, if King did not sever his ties to Rustin. It was a bold faced lie, one sparked by his hatred of homosexuality, one which violated his supposed Christian ethics and one which Powell was well aware could have undermined the entire Civil Rights Movement. In his biography I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin's Life in Letters (2012), it is stated that the consensus of the SCLC was that “the attitude towards homosexuality at that time was largely a no-win gain in the media, that the mere public allegation [that King was having a homosexual affair with Rustin], even if there was not a scintilla of truth to it, would take hold within a predominately anti-gay black church community. Take. Hold. And Martin would be in a difficult position of having to prove himself innocent after having been presumed guilty.” Deeply offended, angry and sincerely hurt, Rustin did not comment on the details of Powell’s threat, but in his resignation, he stated: “Congressman Powell has suggested I am an obstacle to his giving full enthusiastic support to Dr. King… I want now to remove that obstacle. I have resigned as Dr. King’s special assistant and severed relationships with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.” Rustin and King would later reconcile, as Rustin was responsible for organizing the 1963 March on Washington where King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. In the following decades, members of the King family, including his wife Coretta Scott King and daughter Yolanda King would become outspoken advocates of Gay Rights issues (Yolanda King gave a passionate speech on LGBT Equality at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Detroit Gala Dinner in 2000, which closed with a beautiful oration of Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise"). Whenever I come across religious bigotry, I turn to both Nightcrawler and Bayard Rustin as sources of inspiration, who following examples set forth by Christ, undermined hatred through passivity and simply pointing out the error of people’s ways—through logic, fact, and faith.
Of course, it is not all darkness at the intersection of faith and sexuality. Since the early 1970s, faithful religious voices have come out in support of LGBT Rights, not only as a matter of civil liberty, but as a matter of religious freedom. Organizations such as the United Church of Christ (UCC), Integrity USA (Episcopalian), Dignity USA (Catholic), Catholics for Equality, More Light Presbyterians, ReconcilingWorks (Lutheran), the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, and the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Jews: Keshet Ga’avah have all worked tirelessly to establish the full inclusion of LGBT people within their respective bodies of faith. In addition, as Edward E. Curtis states in Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History (2011), “Muslim Americans committed to challenging homophobia in Muslim America have formed several activist groups, including the New York-based Al-Fatiha Foundation.” While I no longer practice organized religion, I continue to work with religious leaders whenever the opportunity arises to spread the message of love and acceptance to LGBT individuals who may feel demonized by their religious communities. A friend of mine who is a pastor at my nearest UCC asked if I had considered going into ministry after I gave a lecture on religion and sexuality at Mt. San Antonio College. I smiled, but respectfully told her no. Like Nightcrawler, who eventual gave up his priesthood, but not his faith, I believe my path lies outside the constraints of religious practice. I study religion about as frequently as I read comic books; I have studied Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Wicca, Voodoo, Taoism, Buddhism, and several others, but I don’t believe there is any one path everyone must follow. More importantly, like Nightcrawler, no one defines my faith except me.
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