The Transformers franchise is weird about gender.
Very weird. You can actually see whole theoretical concepts about gender as basically the purest possible examples if you delve into the Transformers franchise. When IDW picked up the Transformers license, writer Simon Furman insisted that Transformers didn’t have gender, and so female Transformers would not appear unless he could find a way for them to make logical sense to him. Let that one sink in for a bit. Despite the fact that the Transformers are voiced by men, despite the fact that they are visually obviously male, despite the fact that they use the pronoun “he,” despite the fact that they have “brothers” they don’t have a gender.
Men are such a societal default that no matter how gendered they are, they don’t have a gender.
Of course there is a very popular female Transformer that appears regularly and has many toys of her. So, eventually, she’d have to show up in the IDW’s comics, right? Well Furman’s story depicting how she came to be was… troublesome. The Cybertronian mad scientist Jhiaxus took a protoform and introduced female source code just (more or less) to see what would happen. The end result was Arcee, who was driven insane by the experience and became notably homicidal. I suppose women as rabid serial killers is a step up from damsels in distress and sex objects… but it doesn’t really feel like one.
So that was the state of Cybertron for years: an all male race except for the science experiment that was obsessed with killing her creator. Then IDW did something so outrageous it shouldn’t have worked: they ended the war. Every version of the Transformers brand is predicated upon there being a war between Autobots and Decepticons, even switching out the names to (for example) Maximals and Predicons still falls squarely into that one premise. Without a war, what is even the point of Transformers?
The Autobots won the war, and IDW launched two books reaching out boldly into this new direction, both of them excellent. Robots in Disguise followed Bumblebee as he attempted negotiate what the future of Cybertron would be (and how completely unprepared and ill-suited the Autobots were to winning the war they fought for four million years). Meanwhile More Than Meets the Eye would follow Rodimus as he took a large number of Autobots out into space on a quest, mostly due to the fact that they simply couldn’t adjust to life without a war.
Part of this new premise was that a signal had gone out at the end of the war alerting everyone to the fact that it was now safe to return to Cybertron, which had long been abandoned by anyone except the Autobots and Decepticons. The vast majority of Cybertronians were refugees attempting to stay one step ahead of the endless war.
What happened next is something that so rarely happens it is essentially a quantum miracle. Hasbro decided to have a “Fan Built Bot” contest. They created a poll with a series of options to allow fans to create a brand new character for the Transformers brand. Fans could pick everything from her faction (they chose Autobot over Decepticon), her alt-mode (jet over car, tank, or a few others) and all sorts of other aspects to the character. Among those choices was gender, and they picked female. The end product was Windblade.
Hasbro gave Windblade a big push. Possibly the biggest in the entire history of Transformers merchandise. In four years of existence, Hasbro has released nine toys of her and she appeared as a major character in their new cartoon, Robots in Disguise. As part of that huge push Hasbro needed even more promotional material, including material to insert in packaging along with the toys. Since IDW has the Transformers’ licence that meant they had to start producing a lot of Windblade-centric material. However a fundamental part of IDW’s Transformers stories is “No Chicks Allowed (except the Bride of Frankenstein).” But as always with Transformers, when the artistic intent clashes with the need to sell toys, the art loses.
Suddenly, in the comics, at the tail end of the rule of the 13 Primes, the surviving Primes and their followers left Cybertron in massive colony ships that could produce their own hot spots of new sparks. Windblade was from one of these colonies, where female Transformers were just a normal part of society. In fact, female Transformers existed on all the lost colonies of Cybertron. The Transformers were (via-retcon) never a genderless species that happens to all be male, but rather a multi-gendered species. But due to some lost or forgotten incident in Cybertron’s distant past, all the female Cybertronians had either died or left the planet, leaving the remaining male Cybertronians to forget they even existed. And Jhiaxus wasn’t just messing around on a whim to see what he could make, but rather recreating something vital to the Transformer species that had been lost long ago.
So here is something you will likely never hear again: an editorial mandate made strictly on the basis of selling more toys was a brilliant idea that created a whole slew of excellent stories.
But what’s more interesting, when someone decides to give you lemons (or in this case a single gender species of alien robots) some writers decide to make lemonade. Or, in this case, throw their hands up in the air and say, “fuck it, they’re all gay.” By banning even the possibility of heterosexual romance, Furman blew up the Transformer closet and outed the entire species.
Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye began with Rodimus Prime flying off into space with a crew of misfits on a quest no one had any expectation of ever completing. Among his crew were Rewind and Chromedome, who were very explicitly married. Transformer marriage being called Conjunx Endura. And Rewind and Chromedome’s relationship formed the heart and soul of the comic. Their insecurities and tragedies and travails provided the pathos as the counterpoint to all the comedy in the title.
The comic took their relationship incredibly seriously, and always was very clear that this was a relationship between two men. It explicitly went out of its way to deny that the Transformers were genderless, or any implication that this wasn’t a gay relationship. It introduced the concept of Amica Endura, or a best friends ritual, in order to ensure that everyone knew Conjunx Endura was a romantic marriage. It introduced the idea of “holomatter avatars” where the Transformers use holograms to disguise themselves as human (usually operating them remotely), and the holograms are supposed to reveal a Transformer’s true self. Rewind and Chromedome are both drawn very clearly as men. The comic deftly cut off any possibility of considering their relationship other than a marriage between gay men.
But it wasn’t done there. While Chromedome and Rewind had been married for millions of years (while fighting in the never ending civil wars that plagued Cybertron), Cyclonus was trapped in a parallel universe and Tailgate was trapped underground. Both were saved, and through a series of accidents wound up rooming together on Rodimus’s ship. Over the course of fifty issues they are slowly drawn into their own romance, one even complicated by a love triangle with the Transformer Getaway. Furthermore Cyclonus’s holomatter avatar is explicitly female allowing for the interpretation that either their long love story is between two men or between a man and a transwoman (or even between two transwomen depending upon your interpretation of some artwork).
Of course there were two Transformers comics being written at this time. And while More Than Meets the Eye placed homosexuality as one of its most forefront elements, Robots in Disguise certainly didn’t shy away from it either. Towards the beginning of the run Soundwave faked Bumblebee killing a Decpeticon named Horri-bull as part of a complex plan to turn Cybertron against the Autobots (only a few people knew Soundwave had actually killed him, most everyone, including Bumblebee himself, thought the Autobot had killed him). This led to a slow burnning plot where Horri-bull’s Conjunx Endura, Needlenose, rises up the Decpeticon ranks to become the leader of a faction of Decepticons on Cybertron. He specifically did so to get revenge upon his husband’s killer, and Soundwave is blackmailed into working with the Autobots lest Needlenose find out what really happened.
Now, if you think the introduction of female Transformers into the comics would cause all these gay relationships to fall into the background for heterosexual relationships… well you haven’t been paying attention. Once the Transformers became known for gay relationships, then the writers felt free to just keep adding more. So the addition of female transformers simply introduced lesbians to the comics. Two parts of the all female combiner Victorian, Dustup and Jumpstream are Conjunx Endura. As are Anode and Lug. And just for funsies they also stuck Knock Out in a gay relationship with Breakdown. Also Tigatron and Airazor were also introduced in a relationship, making them the only heterosexual relationship depicted in any of IDW’s comics.And while originally while Conjunx Endura were presented as something close to a sexless platonic ideal of love… well it became increasingly more obvious that Transformers had something very much akin to sex. And that the Transformers were having lots and lots of it. So much so that Sentinel Prime, in the midst of his rant about all the degraded and decadent elements of post-war Cybertron made note of Conjunx Endura exchanging Energon in public.
If you had asked me five years ago what comic book line would offer a caring, sensitive portrayal of many different kinds of gay relationships, all of which would be deeply important to the plot… well the one about alien robots who turn into cars ‘n’ things wouldn’t have been the one I thought of. But here we are. So there’s an important lesson in the fact that slamming the door on progress in one area sometime opens a giant hole in the wall for unexpected progress in other areas.