Commentary: We need a queer Batwoman more than ever. Just look at the Supreme Court
Like many of the most well-known comic book superheroes, Kate Kane’s journey involves tragedy and sacrifice.
Sunday’s series premiere of the CW’s new “Batwoman” reveals early on that Kate (played by Ruby Rose) is haunted by the childhood memory of watching her mother and twin sister Beth die after Batman failed to save them. Viewers also see that, before leaving on a years-long quest to train with various combat and survival specialists, Kate was kicked out of a military academy for refusing to deny she is a lesbian.
And, more than eight years since the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Kate’s back story remains more relevant than ever.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear three cases considering whether it is legal for employers to fire someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, setting up the court to make its biggest LGBTQ rights decision since its 2015 ruling on marriage equality.
This week’s oral arguments come at a fraught political moment for the LGBTQ community. The Trump administration’s transgender military ban went into effect in April. In May, the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, which would extend federal protections against discrimination to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity, but the Trump administration has been clear that it opposes the bill.
Only 21 states (including California) have laws that expressly prohibit workplace discrimination against LGBTQ people, which is why the rulings on Bostock v. Clayton County, Ga., Altitude Express v. Zarda and R.G. and G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC will be significant.
At issue in the three cases is whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans workplace discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community. Title VII states that people cannot be discriminated against “because of … sex” and some courts have interpreted this to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Others, however, have maintained Title VII does not apply to LGBTQ discrimination — meaning they believe it’s acceptable to treat members of the LGBTQ community differently.
Despite the broader political climate, LGBTQ-inclusive TV shows and movies are increasingly celebrated. GLAAD’s annual report tracking LGBTQ representation in mainstream films found that there was an overall increase in LGBTQ-inclusive releases in 2018 (though not all of the findings were positive).
Batwoman, while making history as the first lesbian superhero to headline a TV series, joins a TV superhero universe already populated with a number of other LGBTQ characters: Alex Danvers, Nia Nal, Sara Lance, John Constantine, Anissa Pierce and more.
The CW series adapts the Batwoman origin story established in Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III’s 2009-2010 “Detective Comics” story arc known as “Elegy.” The circumstances around Kate’s mother and sister’s death were much more brutal in the comics: On their 12th birthday, the twins and their mother were kidnapped. Kate was the only survivor.
This event is what motivates Kate to pursue a military career; she eventually works her way to the top of her class at West Point. But she gives it all up because she refuses to lie about who she is.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was still in place when the story line first appeared in the comics, when the only way for LGBTQ soldiers to serve was by hiding their identity. The panels that illustrate Kate’s hurt and resolve, uncertainty and strength during the experience — including telling her father why she’s no longer with the army — were relevant and powerful.
Such details were also empowering because it meant being a lesbian was at least partly what led Kate to become a superhero.
Had the government’s policy not prevented her from serving in the military, Kate would never have been in a position to find her calling as Batwoman. The comics show Kate struggling for a period of time after leaving West Point, only for a chance encounter with Batman that she was inspired to forge a new path on her own.
Becoming Batwoman was Kate’s way of protecting the world, even if it had rejected her for being queer.
The nuance is much more subtle in “Batwoman’s” pilot episode, but it’s not something the series glosses over. And while there are still a number of things Kate seems uncertain about in the the CW’s version, being a lesbian isn’t one of them.
At least as far as the first episode is concerned, “Batwoman” doesn’t appear as interested in overt political engagment as fellow DC superhero shows like “Black Lightning” and “Supergirl.” But that’s OK.
It’s still a superhero origin story that feels particularly poignant this week, when the rights of the LGBTQ community are once again in question.
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