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Marvel celebrates trans kids on Disney Plus, but lacks trans heroes in comics

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The fifth episode of Disney Plus’ Marvel’s Hero Project is a reminder

Koi Boi, talking to Butterball the fish in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #39, Marvel Comics (2018).
Meet Koi Boi, one of Marvel Comics’ most prominent gender nonconforming superheroes.
Ryan North, Derek Charm/Marvel Comics

Disney has positioned its Disney Plus streaming service as an inextricable part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even though we won’t see our first MCU show installment until Fall 2020. In the meantime, Marvel offers viewers something more down to earth: Marvel’s Hero Project.

Marvel’s 20-episode docuseries celebrates kids who’ve “dedicated their lives to selfless acts of bravery and kindness.” Each episode follows its subject on a big day — a presentation, a meetup, a fundraiser, a protest — and unpacks their journey using interviews with family, friends, and community members. Just when you think you can’t get teary-eyed enough, the genuinely awesome kid is presented with a Marvel comic illustrating their victories, and a hefty donation to their chosen cause.

Episodes released so far have featured a disabled engineer, a blind athlete, and a young boy who rallied his town against child abuse. The connection to Marvel Comics characters are not much of a stretch: Iron Man is a guy who turned to engineering in the face of a medical disability; Daredevil and Hawkeye are superheroes who sometimes struggle with not being able to see and hear; and Captain America’s ability to inspire those around him is one of his most consistent not-exactly-super powers.

This week’s episode focuses on Rebekah, a transgender girl and an LGBTQ activist. The story is no less inspirational, but slightly tarnished by the undeniable fact that the Marvel Comics universe has virtually no transgender superheroes.

Over the decades, Marvel has introduced superheroes of color, female superheroes, and crusading young superheroes, but vanishingly few LGBTQ superheroes, and no prominent gender nonconforming superheroes. The list of genderqueer characters who do exist in Marvel Comics is chockablock with aliens, gods, and anthropomorphic entities with fundamentally different cultural norms around gender than human society. Loki, the trickster god of Asgard, freely takes female form when it suits him. Tong, the Moloid, came out as transfeminine to her brothers in the pages of Fantastic Four. Xavin, a member of Skrull royalty who appears in Runaways, explained to their lesbian betrothed that to Skrulls, changing gender from male to female was no different than changing hair color. These are characters that might function well as points of identification for gender nonconforming folks, but they don’t constitute representation of actual trans persons’ experiences.

Ken Shiga, AKA Koi Boi, a supporting character in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, is the only transgender human superhero in Marvel Comics at the moment. And even then, Ken’s transgender identity was never unpacked on the page, but rather confirmed by artist Erica Henderson after readers noticed that he was being drawn wearing a chest binder. Since Squirrel Girl’s finale, it remains to be seen when, if ever, Ken will appear again.

Marvel’s eternal competitor, DC Comics, isn’t exactly doing better. Sir Ystin, the modern version of the superhero Shining Knight, is a medieval knight who identifies as both male and female; but they’re not a regular cast member of any current comic. The same can be said for Alysia Yeoh, Batgirl’s former roommate; or Porcelain, a genderfluid member of the Secret Six. Beyond those, the pool dips into gods and entities, with the intersex, agender Greek deity of love, Atlantiades.

In the latest episode of Hero Project, Marvel champions a transgender girl who convinces her state legislature to teach LGBTQ history in public schools, and by the end, donates ten thousand dollars to an LGBTQ cause. The real world effects of those actions are fantastic and necessary. But Marvel has another superpower, in a time when its setting is being used as source material for the biggest media franchise from the biggest media conglomerate in history. And that one shouldn’t be neglected.