The 1993 U.S. Military policy known as Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) prohibited openly homosexual and bisexual people from serving in the military, but loosely protected closeted LGBTQ+ service members. DADT framed the issue in terms of military function.

The policy states:

“The presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are in the essence of military capability.”

While prejudices against LGBTQ+ military services members remain, DADT was repealed in 2011. However, the discharge of soldiers for homosexual acts is explored in the DC comics character Kate Kane (AKA Batwoman).

As Kate learns as a cadet at West Point Military Academy, there can be lasting effects for homosexual soldiers discharged under DADT. Batwoman’s narrative highlights the tension between her identity as a soldier and as a lesbian. Moreover, it proves that the two are not mutually exclusive. However, her drive to maintain her integrity, as a soldier and gay woman, complicates her identity. 

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Integrity and (Dis)Honor

DETECTIVE COMICS #858-860 and BATWOMAN: REBIRTH #1 explore Kate Kane’s origins. Kate and Beth are the twin daughters of soldiers Gabrielle and Jacob “Jake” Kane. A running thread in these comics is the military family’s dedication to integrity.

As Gabrielle declares in DETECTIVE COMICS #858, integrity is “the foundation of honor.” The mantra returns in DETECTIVE COMICS #859 when Kate comes out to her father after being “separated” from the military. Jake praises Kate for keeping her “honor and… integrity.” Indeed, unlike what DADT suggests, Kate’s ability to come out as queer and thereby maintain her honor demonstrates a very strong sense of “morale, good order, and discipline.”

Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Ultimately, the tug-o-war between the military and her lesbian identity informs the rest of Kate’s narrative. Despite making the correct ethical choice, she accepts the fact that she broke a rule. At the heart of the issue is Kate’s integrity as a good soldier, and a lesbian. However, integrity has two meanings: moral integrity, and a state of unimpaired wholeness.

From the very beginning, readers can see that Kate has moral integrity. However, she lacks a feeling of stability and completeness. Her mother was violently murdered and her sister taken from her in a military-related attack. Then, after years of hard work, she’s stripped of her military station.

Kate’s obsession with finding integrity is the root of her own sense of honor. However, her dubious character and inability to decide on a new direction for her life reveals her lack of stability. Ironically, Kate’s coming out to the military and her father is a step towards claiming her integrity. However, due to DADT, she’s unable to maintain a sense of wholeness since she loses her place in the military.

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Soldier Vs. Bat

Kate’s rebelliousness is partly innate. In DETECTIVE COMICS #858 and BATWOMAN: REBIRTH #1, writers play up Kate and Beth’s rascally behavior. However, Kate’s natural willfulness seems to routinely damage her relationships. Not only does Kate lash out when other characters try to connect with her emotionally, she’s a wildcard within the Bat-Family.

DETECTIVE COMICS #974. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

For example, in DETECTIVE COMICS #974-975, Kate uses military logic to defend her decision to kill Clayface. Instead of finding “another way” as Tim Drake (AKA Red Robin) naïvely berates, Kate shot one person in order to save hundreds more.

Her independence is at odds with Batman’s rules, Red Robin’s optimism, and the rest of the team’s sense of structure. Indeed, Kate’s decision to kill Clayface in order to save the city threatens the (patriarchal) order that Batman established in order to keep Kate from behaving like a soldier.

Again, Kate faces the irony of being shunned for trying to do the logical and right thing. Kate’s repeated use of military logic, first in brave and rational defiance of DADT, and now in defiance of Batman’s no-kill rules, again works against the established order. As a result, Kate’s actions to maintain her integrity again make her an outcast.

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Rule Breakers: Queering the Military?

Kate’s struggle with authority makes her a more accessible character. Unlike many the DC characters, Kate is flawed. She isn’t the godly Wonder Woman, nor the paragon of masculine power that is Superman. In fact, she’s almost a foil to those archetypes. Despite actively trying to make the “right” decision, to save the most lives, and to be true to her own identity, Kate frequently fails. She figuratively disintegrates when her mother dies, she’s discharged when she comes out, and she is eventually dismissed by Batman, the person who inspired her superhero career.

Yet in all of her failures, Kate challenges the status quo. First, she challenges the concept of wholeness or perfection, making for a more empathetic character. Secondly, she challenges DADT and the heteropatriarchal structure of the American military. Finally, she challenges the motives of her fellow superheroes. As a result, Kate queers the rules. Her shifting agenda, or lack thereof, proves that not all who wear capes are heroes. The systems with which we measure good and bad cannot be simplified into a basic set of rules. Indeed, Kate would surely break them.

BATWOMAN: REBIRTH #1. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

In fact, Kate can hardly even settle on her own identity, having lost her twin, her military station, and her status with the Bat-Family. Her inability to follow the rules of any governing system makes her queerness all the more obvious and important. Although she cannot seem to move past her internalized system of military logic, Kate can neither always successfully deploy said logic. As a result, Kate undermines the binaries that are often used to oppress others. Whether or not Kate can use her subversive tendencies to help others is the ultimate question.

Is Batwoman That Groundbreaking?

Kate is a wonderful example of queer representation in comics. Her internal instability makes her more human, if more flawed. Additionally, the Batwoman character arc isn’t afraid of looking at personal trauma and its societal results. She could be an important figure for people who have lost family, anxiety as a result of military duty, and insecurities about identity. Indeed, despite her failures, Kate is independent and resilient.

Nevertheless, there are some issues with Kate Kane’s portrayal. First among them is the limitations in the kind of queer representation DC provides. Although it’s important to recognize that feminine lesbians are real lesbians that do exist, in terms of comics, the female body is often limited to ultra femininity (regardless of sexual orientation). In Kate’s case, her military background, shaved head, and muscularity adds to her apparent butchness, which illustrators are quick to hide behind an Escher girl figure that highlights Kate’s chest and impossibly narrow waist. Her red wig, lipstick, and femme-fatale aesthetic add to the overwrought femininity of her character.

DETECTIVE COMICS #975. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Additionally, although Kate challenged DADT and the heteropatriarchal system that guides the military, that’s where her subversion of militarism stops. The Batwoman arc doesn’t scrutinize the historically white capitalist (neo)colonial motives of American military efforts. Batwoman isn’t always a force of liberal disruption. 

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Conclusion: To Protect and Serve

Despite Kate’s failings, resulting both from trauma and her own stubbornness, she reminds readers that the right answers aren’t always clear. Moreover, staying true to yourself sometimes means making sacrifices or breaking rules. Kate is a complex character with a very fluid identity. Her queerness isn’t always comfortable. Nevertheless, Batwoman’s depiction helps reinforce the problem of banning dedicated soldiers from serving.

Indeed, it seems that Batwoman’s fate is full of irony. In 2016, DC’s creative team abandoned BATWOMAN because the company rejected Kate’s marriage to her partner, Maggie. Kate is an important figure of LGBTQ+ representation in the mainstream. Her discharge from the military and the subtle critique her comics make of DADT, gives power to the series.

Unfortunately, preventing her marriage canonically is a step back into the closet. Moreover, it’s not what Kate would do. Finally, I would be remiss to not point out the significance of Kate’s storyline in the wake of recent attempts to ban another group from military service. The Trump Administration’s work to ban transgender military members from service has parallels to the illogical DADT.

Kate refused to lie to the military despite DADT. In the real world, the consequences of military bans such as DADT and the alarming suggestion of the trans ban are hugely damaging to American soldiers, their families, and the country. Comics that tell stories like Kate’s are a powerful tool to explore identity and power structures in nuanced ways.

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