The Doom Patrol has an interesting history among DC’s lineup of having been written by transgender or otherwise non-cisgender writers three times out of seven volumes, with two of those writers writing a single extended run and one of them writing two shorter series (or three, if you count the crossover event Milk Wars as officially under the Doom Patrol umbrella). Many of the iconic later characters were created by those writers, including satirical takes on cisgender masculinity in superheroes like Flex Mentallo and more gender-bending bandage people than you’d think possible. But it’s the less famous characters that I’ve always found myself more attached to—like DC’s first official transgender superhero, Kate Godwin, created by Rachel Pollack, who at the time was DC’s first transgender writer. (Since then, people like her direct predecessor on Doom Patrol, Grant Morrison, have come out.)
This almost continuity-long dance with real-world gender diversity and gendered issues manifests in interesting ways, often surrounding beloved Doom Patrol founding member Cliff Steele.
Cliff’s backstory is quintessentially Silver Age. He was a daredevil who found his body destroyed in a racing crash, leaving only his brain behind, which was salvaged and put into a robot body by the enigmatic Dr. Niles Caulder, an act that turned out to be carefully planned from the start. His relationship to humanity is tied up in something completely out of his control, which spreads further into his relationship with gender and manhood; to start with, Cliff is utterly rigid in the way he asserts gender onto the people around him and onto himself. Admitting any disconnection with his gender identity admits a sense of disconnection from humanity for him. Thus he finds comfort in playing the hypermasculine role in a way that can’t solely be attributed to the time the story is set in and the tropes for male characters that accompany it, especially in the late 80s and early 90s under Grant Morrison’s pen. Morrison specifically plays it up to an almost parodic degree while simultaneously bringing Cliff closer and closer to psychological breakdowns—their run on the team even famously begins with Cliff meeting a new friend in a psychiatric hospital.
In this hospital, we find one of our first instances of Cliff’s destructive views on gender. Rebis, the alchemical marriage between three beings, is explicitly neither man nor woman, and many characters use a neutral possessive pronoun for them. (The sensitivity of hir exact portrayal is a topic for another day.) Cliff consistently insists on referring to them as a man and by a name they do not want to be called anymore (“Larry,” who is, of course, one piece of hir being and a part of hir memories but not an identity that they claim), including trying to convince hir that that’s who they really are and correcting others who express confusion over Rebis and hir existence. Malicious intent doesn’t matter. Cliff will forever see someone who doesn’t want to be labeled as such as his former friend, regardless of hir feelings on the topic.
The pattern carries over to Jane and the rest of the Underground, too. There is a difference here in that as a body with Dissociative Identity Disorder, many of the alters present do not need to be cisgender for Cliff to try to stuff them into a box they refuse to align themselves with. As many times as they express that they aren’t Jane—Hammerhead, Driver 8, Scarlot Harlot, and several others express very explicit discomfort with being told they are someone they aren’t—Cliff decrees that they are and even tries to force the name Kay back onto them, something none of them identify with, not even the first person present in the woman’s body. The messaging from the character, though not the narrative, is clear. You belong the way you were when you were born because anything else would, in his eyes, be an implicit denial of his own humanity.
If Rebis is Rebis, and Jane and the other alters are themselves, then there’s a possibility that he isn’t a man, and therefore isn’t the human he still so desperately wants to be. That doesn’t excuse his actions. As much as he cared about Rebis and especially Jane and the rest of the Underground, he still didn’t respect them in ways that they deserved and required. But it does present an interesting side to him and his battle to reclaim his humanity.
And then Kate Godwin comes along and blows that internal expectation to pieces.
Kate is openly and proudly transgender among the people she loves. She understands how Cliff feels. Their first interaction is them bonding over a shared life experience, such as having a sudden revelation regarding their personal identity. Cliff says, to a woman whose name he just learned, “Tell me something—Kate Godwin. Have you ever found out that everything you believed—everything—about yourself, who you believed you were—was just wrong? Do you think you can understand what that feels like? Just a little?” Kate, of course, responds with “Yes. Yes, I think I can understand that.” She assumes, likely from this moment forward, that Cliff is aware that she is a transgender woman and easily applies those experiences to him.
Cliff’s actual reaction to finding out that she’s transgender, and therefore in finding out that someone he’s starting to have romantic feelings for is transgender, is anger. I think that’s something a lot of people like to gloss over, just as I’ve noticed they tend to brush past Cliff’s treatment of Jane and his disrespect of her autonomy. But it’s an important character choice and one that falls in line with his past behavior toward Rebis in particular. His response is anger and betrayal at the mistaken belief that Kate has been lying to him. He hits all the usual talking points for transphobes (transmisogynists specifically, in this case, and I can speculate that they’re things people have in the past said specifically to Rachel Pollack herself), centering primarily on one idea in particular—that if Kate at one point had a penis, that will forever make her a man.
This is the logic he applies to himself, now leveraged as violence against Kate, in a potentially subconscious attempt to trap her in a “lie.” In his mind, to assert her own humanity would be to deny him his.
Her reply is, “Really? Then, what about you, Cliff? Do you have a penis? What are you?” A statement which should, to him, prove him right. He doesn’t have a penis anymore, but he once did, which should lock him in as forever a human man. But it’s this that makes him stop and seemingly utterly reconsider his previous position. Why?
This isn’t the first time Cliff has seemingly sided with inhumanity by distancing himself from human masculinity. Under Morrison, he is allowed to enter the depths of the Underground by proving to Black Annis, a protector of the system with a specific hatred of men and male violence, that he isn’t a man anymore because he doesn’t have “male” anatomy. At that time, it was for what would objectively be the greater good, at least to him—saving his friend from destroying herself in the Underground and essentially forcing herself into permanent dormancy. Here, the only one Cliff is in a position to “save” is himself. Kate is confronting him, and all onlookers either side with her or don’t particularly care about the conversation one way or another. Kate has already proven that she views him completely and totally as a human being regardless of his body and ability to pass (her words) as normal. He says he’s a man. He says he’s human. Therefore he is. She says she’s a woman. Therefore she is. Nothing needed changing about him for him to be a man, and even though she did change herself (to match her vision, her desire, as she says in one of my favorite lines not only from that arc but from any transgender character), she was always a woman.
This is demonstrated in another instance where their experiences are paralleled, in more of my favorite scenes in comics period. After Cliff and Kate fuse their bodies through sex to experience a transcendence and petition godlike beings, the Teiresiae, for help (roll with it, it’s Doom Patrol), they experience a horrible tangled mix of their past experiences with doctors trying to control their lives, as their memories have merged just as they have. They go through what the other did; Kate must face Niles attempting to deny Cliff his humanity on the basis of him now being a robot, and Cliff has to contend with a surgeon trying to refuse Kate hers because he was the one to make her into a “real” woman. The ownership taken over their transformations, as different as they may have been in the moment from everything to their content to the consent of their modification, binds them together in a way that is impossible to deny. When the antagonistic Contract, the manifestation of a deal with the devil carrying a clipboard with a checklist of the kind you would receive in a doctor’s waiting room, tries to offer them a set of “real” bodies—that of a cisgender woman and a cisgender man, respectively—he’s laughed off, as they say together they “don’t want your real bodies. We just want ourselves.”
Cliff is a human being because he chooses to be. He can even be a man if that’s what he decides for himself. Kate is a woman. She’s known it since she was at least a teenager, and that’s how she’s decided to live her life, by following that internal truth bravely into the sunlight that may or may not is cast by a fox-headed god of age. This is who she is. This is who he is, too. Niles can’t take ownership of that, nor of Cliff’s internal self, no matter what he thinks. Hypermasculine posturing was always a lie. It damaged him and very much hurt many of the people around him. He can take ownership of that, but he still has to let it go, which he does in this arc and in an issue following, where he actively rejects his former self as a piece of history while still keeping the parts of him that matter. The lived experiences that matter.
It’s about acceptance and decision, not destiny or the outside machinations of a surgeon or a mad scientist that thinks they own you because they may have helped you reach your greatest potential. There is no “real body” ready-made and waiting for you out there. There is only yourself and the person you could become. The courage comes in accepting that—and deciding what you want to do about it.