The TV in the Closet

The other Captain Jack. Copyright BBC.

Seeing a celebrity at a convention is a certain joy, be it at an autograph stand, a private booth, or sitting among a crowd of hundreds in a Q and A panel.  I went to MegaCon in March with my coworker Tyler.  To our amazement, they had booked half a dozen A-list celebrities — or what passes for A-list celebrities in the geek world.  Stan Lee.  William Shatner.  Half of the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast.  These are our heroes.

Our first panel that Saturday was one James Marsters, a versatile character actor trained in theater, and best known as the loveable bastard Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  His public image has been spotty, especially after the fiasco that was Dragonball: Evolution.  To my surprise he was approachable and forthcoming during the panel, although it took some time to get used to his natural American accent.

One fan asked if it was difficult kissing Sarah Michelle Gellar.  “You’re asking,” Marsters said, “if it was difficult. . . to kiss Sarah Michelle Gellar?”  After a gentle mocking, he said that it was difficult to kiss well in front of the camera, which Sarah provided much guidance for.

He was then asked about his part in the upcoming Torchwood miniseries.  The show was jumping broadcasters, going from its home at the BBC (where it began as a spinoff of Doctor Who) onto premium cable network Starz.  As part of the show’s revamp, American characters were being added to the team, including Marsters and Bill Pullman.

Marsters spoke about kissing John Barrowman.  “Let me tell you one thing, guys,” Marsters said.  “Shave.  Your boyfriend or girlfriend will appreciate it.”  He then said something about the nature of the show that he liked.  “One of the things that the show goes out to prove,” he said with all earnestness, “Is that gay people can be heroes.”

His statement hit me like a sucker punch.

Captain Jack Harkness, John Barrowman’s character on Torchwood, is certainly a hero.  He first appeared on Doctor Who during Eccleston’s run.  Harkness is a foil to the Doctor: where the Doctor is romantic in a very chaste way, Harkness is sexually aggressive, yet still charming.  He’s immortal like the Doctor, but lacks a place he could call home, whereas the Doctor will always have his TARDIS.  Harkness also shows moral ambiguity, much more than the Doctor even in his darkest moments, placing him square in the middle between the Doctor’s idealism and the dark machinations of the Master.

And he does something the Doctor could never do: create a stable family.  The Doctor is content to have a companion or two (or three!) for a short while, then let them go when he gets bored with them or they grow tired of his eternal road trip across time and space.  Harkness eventually sets roots in Torchwood’s Cardiff branch; it takes a monumental tragedy to push him back into his past nomadic ways.  The Doctor may long for companionship, but Harkness puts his money where his mouth is.

What’s most striking, though, is Harkness’s pan-sexuality.  He doesn’t hide his attraction to men and women alike, but it never becomes an issue with the people he works with (apart from when they walk in on him having fun with Ianto).

He is easily the strongest gay character in genre fiction.  So why aren’t there more like him?

Gay lead characters in TV, even in genre TV, have been few and far between.  There are characters that, well, ping fan’s gaydars at times.  The lovable, dastardly Garak in Deep Space Nine is one; he never explicitly claims to like men, but he never shows an interest in women on the station, and he has some very unusual chemistry with a few male characters.  J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5, was never allowed by the network to explicitly state that Susan Ivanova was bisexual, despite her maintaining a relationship with another female character that was romantic in nature.

Joss Whedon plays often with such characters.  Willow and Tara’s relationship on Buffy the Vampire Slayer was part of the emotional core of the series; its sudden and violent end was a blow to many fans of the show.  Although Andrew, a reformed villain and uber-geek, was never stated to be explicitly gay, it was made all but clear from the sixth season onward.  Lorne likewise; he remains my favorite character from Angel, one of the few good-natured people left in Los Angeles before it went to hell (and, we find out, afterwards as well!).  Dollhouse, with no explicit gay characters, did dive deep into the nature of sexuality in the mindwipe-happy antics of the Rossum corporation, leading to the conclusion that while attraction is programmable, love isn’t.

There are others (Gaeta in Battlestar Galactica, for instance), but the problem with most of the above characters is that none of them are out.  With the exception of Willow, they never outright state their attraction to the same sex, or are written as bisexual.  Most are female, too — lesbians appeal more to hetersexual males, TV executives think, than gay males.  They reason straight men find lesbian couples more attractive; straight men might be turned on by gay male couples and become insecure; a lesbian couple would escape the notice of the moral majority, whereas a gay couple would not.  Such reasoning kept gay characters from the most progressive of genre TV, Star Trek, during its entire run.

But the above reasoning is bullshit.

Genre prose fiction has had fewer issues than TV has.  Ever since the New Wave, from Ursula K. LeGuin’s the Left Hand of Darkness onwards, characters with alternative sexualities have been welcomed.  There are even subgenres dedicated to gay characters.  Indeed, Captain Jack Harkness would be a late arrival in the world of genre prose fiction.

John Barrowman has been out about his orientation from the beginning of his stint on Doctor Who and Torchwood, and has been proactive in gay rights issues.  Other genre actors have come out after being in the closet for years, including George Takei.  Yet there is growing hostility in America to the gay community, coming after the inroads made during the’80s and ’90s.  This is why our stories need gay heroes more than ever: because how could we ever persuade the public that gays and lesbians are people worthy of our respect and tolerance if we never write them as more than cardboard characters?  Gay and lesbian soldiers can now serve openly in the US military; they are now, and have been, heroes in the real world.  Why can’t gays and lesbians be heroes onscreen as well as off?