Being Queer and Jewish: Superheroes with Intersectional Identities

Recent news shows both queerness and Jewishness being attacked more than ever, with a surge in hate crimes both homophobic and anti-Semitic across the US since the Election Day 2016, and there's not much evidence that this will change anytime soon.

The intersectionality of a queer and Jewish identity has been represented in a few comic characters, among which are DC's Batwoman and Marvel's Wiccan. In regards to their queer identity, these characters have received applause from both the comic book community and the LGBTQ community, gaining status as high-profile LGBTQ characters with engaging storylines and accurate representation. Yet regarding their Jewish identity, more could be said.

Batwoman’s Jewishness can be seen throughout her comics, from a menorah in her home, where she was shown lighting candles for Hanukah in a holiday issue, and asserting it in an issue of DC Bombshells when attacked by an anti-Semitic opponent, she screams, loud and proud, "I'm a Jew!" On the theoretical discussion of which fictional characters would endorse Nazi punching, it'd be safe to include Batwoman on that list.

Wiccan's Jewishness is explicitly depicted as the character confirms his own identity, calling himself a "Gay, Jewish Avengers fanboy," (in Avengers: Children's Crusade #3), as well as the fact that he is related to other canonically Jewish characters: Magneto, a confirmed Holocaust survivor, as well as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. Yet it's only mentioned incidentally, leading to the current assumption that their queer identity speaks louder than their Jewish identity.

Some may wonder why religious representation within comics is a necessary point of discussion in a cultural medium that is often a source of escapism. Like its readers, superheroes cannot escape their identities behind the masks anymore than we can. It might not be innate, like their ethnicity, sexuality, or gender, but a superhero's faith or religious affiliation is a deep part of their sense of identity, and shapes the way they see the world and the way the world sees them.

Various comic storylines have focused on superheroes and religion, whether using their faith as a basis for moral discussion, such as Daredevil connecting with Roman Catholicism as a source of spiritual strength, Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel seeking advice from her Imam and finding solidarity within her Islamic community. For other faiths, such as Judaism, characters like Batwoman and Wiccan provide positive counter-examples to negative depictions of Jews, and demonstrate that not all Jews live according to a type-cast appearance or behavior.

Batwoman has always been one of my favorite heroes. Brave, strong, and committed, whether during her time as a soldier before being discharged due to "Don't Ask, Don’t Tell" to her current status as crime fighting vigilante, Batwoman has been one of the many figures within the comic world who shows that is doesn’t take superpowers to be a superhero. And as a Queer Jewish woman, she has been one of the only characters to represent this specific identity of mine.

In the series DC Bombshells (by writer Marguerite Bennet and artist Marguerite Sauvage), various superheroines are united along the warfront during World War II, one of whom is Batwoman. Many fans have applauded the comic, noting the beautiful artwork and thrilling historical drama, as well as discussion of issues that are still relevant today, such as anti-Semitism. In one particular story arc, Batwoman talks with a young Jewish woman named Miriam, revealing one of the most accurate and beautiful discussions of Judaism I've ever seen in comics. In their talk, Miriam talks about the Jewish matriarchs Leah, Rebecca, Sarah, and Rachel, Jewish heroines that she derives strength from, and how she sees Batwoman as joining their ranks one day. In return, Batwoman says: "I know this is in my blood, but I don't know the words. It's just part of who I am."

In the same comic, Miriam leads her to a table to join in Sabbath prayers, and though she doesn't know the words, she closes her eyes and joins in the tradition that unites her and the people at the table, her people. In Batwoman I find a reflection of myself. Because of the Jewish diaspora and anti-Semitism in my parents' home country, many of the stories and prayers and words that belong to Judaism are lost to me, and it wasn't until later in my life that I took action to learn more about the history and culture of Judaism. But like Batwoman, being Jewish is something I find in my veins, something that is part of who I am. For me, Judaism is something that belongs to my family, found in our food and music and lives and links me to something older than myself, something that I don't entirely understand, but that still gives me pride.

"What they think is a shameful thing is what makes me strong," Miriam says of her faith, explaining that she can take pride in herself as a Jew, something which her people have been persecuted for and subjected to some of the worst crimes in history for, simply because of the courage and strength that her identity gives her. I think that is beautiful. The world so often tries to shame us for being different, whether looking different, thinking different, loving different, or praying different, and so often, the world tries to hurt us for it. But what make us different can also make us stronger, providing solidarity and community with traditions that reach back into history, and hopes that reach into the future. In the comic Miriam says: "They will never make me ashamed." And it is my hope to stand up to those who try to make us feel otherwise.

In the book Queer Theory and the Jewish Question, editors Daniel Boyarin, Daniel Itzkovitz, and Ann Pellegrini discuss the stigma surrounding this marginalized intersectional identity:

While there are no simple equations between Jewish and queer identities, Jewishness and queerness yet utilize and are bound up with one another in particularly resonant ways. This crossover also extends to the modern discourses of anti-Semitism and homophobia, with stereotypes of the Jew frequently underwriting pop cultural and scientific notions of the homosexual. And vice versa.

Often, being queer or Jewish, both of which involve being labeled as "other." To be both means that one finds themselves living on a double-edged sword. At times, I am more comfortable with one aspect of my identity than the other, and I know I am not alone in feeling this way. Yet because other identities receive more attention than mine (for example straight, white, male, Christian) I feel as though we are being left out of a larger conversation, which only serves to isolate us.

One of the best examples of this feeling comes from another of the highest-profile Jewish characters in comics, Benjamin Grimm, The Thing from Fantastic Four. In Fantastic Four #56, when asked why he hadn't come out as Jewish to the public, the Thing answers honestly that he did not do so out of shame, but out a personal understanding. "Nah, that ain't it," replies the Thing. "Anyone on the internet can find out, if they want. It's just... I don't talk it up, is all. Figure there's enough trouble in this world without people thinkin' Jews are all monsters like me."

I can't begin to explain how deeply this resonated with me. History has shown that my people have not been allowed to be proud their own identity, and have seen media across generations assail us with negative stereotypes that create shame and unease about who we are. I live in 2017 (the Hebrew year 5777), and still read articles that portray us as greedy and corrupt, or see depictions of monsters in children’s books with facial characteristics that are stereotypically Jewish. To hear a hero—one who has saved the world on several occasions—say that he is afraid of contributing to the negative stereotypes that surround his people is heartbreaking.

We need heroes like Batwoman and Wiccan to talk about this, to talk about our identities, to show a people who defy stereotypes, to show we are an emotionally dynamic people, who are united through strong ties to history and community even in the face of ignorance and persecution.

In Hebrew, the word shalom (שלום) holds multiple meanings, from "hello" to "goodbye," to connotations of harmony, wholeness, and peace. So shalom to Batwoman, and to all of her readers. May she and other characters like her help us embody these multiple meanings, and allow us to find strength in the political and personal battles to come.