Gender Identity and Love in Legion of Super-Heroes

It has been 25 years since DC Comics' Legion of Super-Heroes broached the subjects of homosexuality, gender identity, and trans people at a time when mainstream comics didn’t talk about those subjects at all. In July 1992, issue 31 shined a spotlight on longtime member Jan Arrah, formerly known as Element Lad, and his relationship with former Science Police liaison Shvaughn Erin. It dealt with the revelation of Shvaughn revealing to Jan that she was using a drug called ProFem to transition from male to female.

For those not be aware of the Legion and their decades-long history, they're a team of super powered teenagers living a thousand years in the future, each from various planets. Jan Arrah (FKA Element Lad) is the last survivor of Trom, a planet where everyone has the power to change one element to another. Despite being able to turn anything to gold, money held no meaning to them and they valued the spiritual over the physical. As a result, their race was slaughtered by Roxas the Butcher for refusing to use their power to make him wealthy, and only Jan managed to avoid the fate of his race. Jan internalized the pain and trauma of survivor's guilt, feeling that he was unworthy of love and finding solace in his spiritual beliefs. Many fans felt that because of his constant use of pink in his costumes, his good looks, and "being out of his element around girls," signaled that Jan was gay.

Enter Shvaughn Erin. A energetic woman, full of life and a drive to do the right thing, she was assigned as liaison between the Science Police and the Legion. Her attraction to Jan was apparent from the start, and despite Element Lad’s reticence, they eventually became a couple. However, due to events beyond their control, their relationship was shattered when the Dominators took over Earth. The Legion was splintered, and Shvaughn was soon running out of ProFem, a drug that changes a person’s gender on the genetic level—as long as they continue to take it on a monthly basis. Knowing that Shvaughn would soon (and painfully) change back to male on a physical level, she admitted to Jan that she took the drug because she thought Element Lad would not be attracted to her as a male.

As another surprise to many long time readers, Jan admitted to Shvaughn (now physically back returned to her previous sex) that "what we shared physically was in spite of the ProFem, not because of it." This confirmed to fans that Jan is either bisexual or pansexual. He gave his full support to her and offered to help weather the painful effects of the ProFem wearing off. Shvaughn wasn’t as ready to accept that Jan still loved her in her previous gender, and asked for space so she could consider where to go with their relationship after such a revelation. In a letter to Shvaughn's former SP officer and best friend Gigi, she admitted that they came from a society where gender roles were rigid, where any love other than heteronormative was frowned upon, and therefore felt that it was shameful for a teenager like themselves to fall in love with a guy like Jan, and that Jan would never love a someone of the same sex. Once Shvaughn discovered ProFem, she took it and joined the SP. After a chance encounter with a younger clone of Jan (comics, everybody!), she realized that Jan truly could accept them as a woman or a man, and decided that they would take a break from Jan until she could accept fully herself too. So the issue ends with Jan and Shvaughn going their separate ways, meeting again months later after the Dominion War was over and she re-joined the SP as chief.

There are both good and bad points in this story. The good is the writers (a cis man and cis woman who were married) gently handled the issue of homosexuality, gender identity, and transness at a time when many writers still treated such subjects with disdain. Jan’s acceptance of Shvaughn regardless of gender was also a high point. One major downside is that while the comic doesn’t explicitly say so, it suggests that Shvaughn only took ProFem in order to attract Jan. In defense of the comic, it was never expanded on in later issues if Shvaughn regained access to ProFem after the Dominators were beaten and decided to stop taking it, or was going to seek other ways to transition. Within two years of publication, the timeline and canon of the Legion was severely altered (to what is known as the "post-Zero Hour" Legion), which left Shvaughn's fate and that of several other Legion characters hanging in the eternal nothingness of Comic Book Limbo. Perhaps when DC brings to Legion back into the Rebirth continuity, we'll see the choices Shavaughn has made since and see her reunited with Jan. As the team motto goes, "Long live the Legion!"


Note: I am not trans. However, I did consult with my fellow Geeks OUT collaborator Eli Knight, a trans person himself, for his feedback and advice on how to approach this topic with the seriousness it deserves.