Science Fiction’s Queer Problem

Sci fi has a problem with gay and lesbian characters. This is especially true of TV science fiction, but print is almost as guilty, and most games with a sci fi flavour are exercises in testosterone-fuelled head-stomping (which, while good fun, does not generally make for nuanced or diverse characters). I can probably name on the fingers of maybe both my hands the number of gay or lesbian characters I’ve come across in the genre as a whole, across all media.

For a category of fiction predicated on imagining worlds stranger than and off at an angle to our own, it seems a rather glaring failing to exclude the minority aspects of human sexual identity from the vast majority of its stories. With a few notable, excellent exceptions, gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters are simply not present in science fiction. And that’s a problem.

There’s a throwaway exchange in an episode of that wonderful, short-lived, and much loved space Western, Firefly, which provides a very good example of this issue; not in itself, but in the reaction it engenders in its gay and lesbian viewers. Malcom “Mal” Reynolds (the captain of the eponymous smuggling ship and its crew) and a brothel madame whose house he’s agreed to defend during the course of the episode are flirting over some very pretty handguns, when she asks him if he’s “sly”. To make the neologistic slang perfectly clear to the audience, she quickly follows with “…’cause I’ve got my boys…”, making it equally clear that being “sly” – i.e. gay – is simply a fact of existence even out there on the rugged frontier of the far-flung future. It’s merely an explanation she suggests for Mal’s standoffishness, and a potential business transaction. The avowedely heterosexual Captain is of course quick to reassure her of his attraction towards the fairer sex, followed by a roll in the hay just to make certain, but those few lines were enough to send a shock all the way up my spine when I first watched the episode.

That shock will be familiar to any readers who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or otherwise not heterosexually-inclined. It’s the feeling of being recognised, of being treated not as a marginal or external part of society, but as an integral, everyday part of it – however small. It’s the same reaction, in a far smaller context, as the visceral, joyous response I saw in the faces and on the cheeks of my friends when Barack Obama mentioned gay people in his election-night victory speech in 2008 (this was before he started reading our email). It was a powerful, though brief moment. It told every LGBT person watching, in and outside the US, that we were no longer outsiders, no longer an Other. The President of the United States had extended his arms and welcomed us into society. Even if some people still didn’t get it, we did. In a few short, completely incidental lines of dialogue, Joss Whedon manages to achieve the same effect, albeit on a much smaller stage.

But, wonderful as the initial excitement of inclusion is, it’s problematic in and of itself. It shouldn’t be that much of a shock merely to be acknowledged; least of all by a genre that often prides itself on pushing social boundaries and dealing with a diverse range of identities and social frameworks. Science fiction is supposed to get there ahead of reality, not the other way around.

There are any number of shows, books, or games – frankly, most of the genre – to which I could turn for examples of LGBT characters’ marginalisation or simple nonexistence in the worlds sci fi authors and screenwriters create. But if any one property, universe, or franchise is to be singled out on these grounds, it must be the grandfather of all modern TV sci fi, Star Trek.

One of the great things about Star Trek and its spin-off series and films was its ability to push boundaries, challenge social conventions, and do so in a way that still made it one of the most popular shows ever on American television. It was the single most progressive show on the air for all of its truncated, three-season run. It had a woman, and a black woman at that, doing the same competent, professional job as her male counterparts; not to mention Russian navigator, Chekov, and the ever-fabulous Asian helmsman Hikaru Sulu (George Takei). It even had the first ever on-screen interracial kiss on American airwaves. When Nichelle Nichols informed Martin Luther King Jr. of her plans to quit the show and move to stage acting after the first season, he persuaded her to stay, explaining that she was on TV showing the world “how we should be seen every day”. Her representation of a strong, confident black woman on equal footing with her mostly white, male colleagues was incredibly important at a time when black Americans still lived under – and were fighting against – the awful reality of segregation. Unsurprisingly, she stayed.

As a vehicle for Gene Roddenberry’s utopian, post-racial vision of the future, Star Trek didn’t just break the mould, it vapourised it.

Given how much of a struggle it was to get that first kiss between Nichols’ and Shatner’s characters to air in the US (it was initially cut from some syndicated broadcasts), you wouldn’t expect any overtly LGBT characters to show up in the original series of Star Trek. George Takei’s shirtless swashbuckling was about as much as they could get away with. The 1960s were the decade of Stonewall and the start of the modern LGBT rights movement, but the cause hadn’t progressed far enough for any network to broach the topic in a primetime show.

Star Trek: The Next Generation is another matter entirely.

Launched in 1987, TNG is often viewed as the point where Star Trek really took off as a TV franchise. It entrenched a multinational, multi-racial, and multi-species crew in the minds of another generation of enthralled kids who stayed up late to watch, eyes glued to the screen. For me, and legions of fans, it’s one of the finest long-running series ever broadcast, up there with The West Wing, The Wire, and Battlestar Galactica (the reboot). The utopian, positive vision of the future Gene Roddenberry saw us reaching for if we could only conquer a few of our baser inclinations is still as relevant today as then. Modern TV sci fi should take a lesson. I could go on for pages about how brilliant it is as a show, but I won’t. That isn’t what this is about.

In light of how great TNG was at dealing with high-concept issues like the nature of humanity and sentience, slavery, or civil liberties and McCarthyism, it seems very odd that the show never deals with anything relating to LGBT issues other than tangentially. There’s an episode where Riker, who assumed Kirk’s duty of making “first contact” with every buxom alien woman in the galaxy, falls for a member of a race which only has one gender – and which treats their few citizens who believe themselves to have a binary-type gender as mentally ill, in need of treatment. It’s a decent analysis-by-proxy of trans issues, but that’s all there is. One episode. For seven series. With hundreds of supporting characters and a large group of main characters to choose from, they couldn’t have slipped one or two in? It’s statistically impossible that at least a few of the supporting characters wouldn’t have been partial to the same gender. But, except for one female-only romance in Deep Space 9 which ended after half an episode and was in itself illicit for reasons other than the fact Lieutenant Dax was kissing a woman, not a single character in any Star Trek series or film has been openly gay or lesbian. (As an aside: sci fi seems far more comfortable with lesbian romance than gay; probably something to do with the assumed audience being mostly straight and male, thus supposedly titillated by the idea.)

There are two reasons for this lack of representation. The hand-wringing, slightly mealy-mouthed explanation given by Gene Roddenberry when asked about the subject was that because people in his future didn’t care about sexuality, it didn’t need to be shown (despite straight male and female characters having sex all the time). Then there’s the real one, which is that network executives, all the way up to the end of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2004, were phenomenally uncomfortable with showing, or even implying the possibility of, same-sex couples on-screen. They figured it was a money-loser, was too controversial for US audiences, and so vetoed any real attempt at including gay characters in the franchise. Deep Space 9’s Cardassian tailor Garak, for instance, was supposed to be bisexual, but CBS vetoed the idea. To his credit, Andy Robinson, who played Garak, didn’t take this lying down and made up for it by flirting heavily with one of the more attractive male lead characters (Siddig El Fadil’s Dr Julian Bashir)non-stop for 7 series.

Whether it was cowardice or prejudice on the part of network executives, the idea that audiences would automatically reject any explicitly LGBT characters was enormously powerful even in the ‘90s and early 2000’s. It’s likely it persists to this day, given how few non-heterosexual characters there are in current shows. On TV, it was generally easier for sci fi to simply allegorise potentially uncomfortable issues such as sexuality via alien races and speak to general civil rights debates without addressing the real meat of the matter. J. Michael Straczynski’s epic Babylon 5 is probably the only show I can think of which had an unabashedly bisexual character in the form of Commander Susan Ivanova – an incredibly badass, no-nonsense career officer and the titular station’s second in command. She’s the only long-term, central character of a successful sci fi series I can think of whose sexuality is both non-heteronormative and where it isn’t treated as an issue. There’s no debate, no discussion, and it’s given in one line, after which no more is said. So while Straczynski’s addressing the issue is laudable, it isn’t used to reflect on contemporary debates surrounding the topic.

It’s worth mentioning that there is some promising evidence of increased diversity of characters in more recent sci fi shows. Caprica, for instance, had a relatively major character (a tough mob assassin) who was married to a man (also a mobster). The two men’s relationship was simply there, without comment or any indication something was out of place, while still being very much present as a part of the show’s fabric. Which is how it should be. Sadly, it was cancelled after the first series, continuing the grand tradition of SyFy killing off good, big-concept sci fi for vapid fare like Warehouse 13. And so there’s a huge gap to be filled.

Print, on the other hand, has less of an excuse. Authors are always subject to a similar type of pressure from publishers to produce books which the company believes will sell, urged to write out contentious or potentially difficult characters, ideas, and situations to give their books a broader appeal. That being said, they have significantly more creative control of the final manuscript than screenwriters and directors, so “the publishers made me do it” is not really an excuse for the non-appearance of LGBT characters in most written science fiction. There are certainly many more individual authors whose books and characters have some flavour of non-heteronormativity to them, such as the late, great Iain (M.) Banks’ Culture universe, where people can change their gender at will. Ursula LeGuin, China Mièville, and Samuel R. Delaney also address issues of sexuality and gender politics in their work, and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War adroitly disrupts its readers’ preconceptions of sexual normalcy. I’d recommend Delaney’s Dhalgren if you like having your mind blown in a slightly uncomfortable fashion. But however excellent these individual texts might be, they’re the exceptions that prove the rule.

Despite the aforementioned exceptions, there are very few honest-to-god gay or lesbian characters in literary science fiction. There are, as always, myriad reasons for this deficit, but apart from publisher pressure to write to a particular demographic – which assumes that white, straight men can’t enjoy any characters that aren’t essentially like them – the two major ones are the type of people who are assumed to read sci fi, and the type of people who are generally perceived to write it. Both of these categories can, again, be boiled down to “straight, white men”.

Of course, in reality that’s completely wrong. Women and people of all races, sexualities, and gender identities read, write, and love science fiction. But it’s the perception that the only people who like or read science fiction are male, generally around middle age, and love breasts to the point where, as with David Brin’s Uplift, they are almost the only feature female characters are given. And perception – both audience-specific and generalised in the aether of public opinion – does help shape culture just as much as the people who produce the novels, films, TV series, comics, and games that make up most output in the genre. So in fact the problem of LGBT character representation in science fiction is a problem of patriarchy and gender as much as, if not more than, homophobia and transphobia – real or perceived.

Sexism and patriarchy in sci fi is another issue that’s far too large for a single post, or at least for the rest of this one. It is, however, a good demonstration of the fact that LGBT issues also tend to be women’s issues. If the market for sci fi is perceived to be entirely composed solely of white, straight men over 35, then publishers will continue to sign authors who produce work they believe caters to that market, and authors will feel pressure to conform to its supposed demands.

The fact that some of the greatest, most successful and lauded sci fi novelists are women – Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Octavia E. Butler, and Anne McCaffrey, to name but a few – and that the primary readership for “young-adult” science fiction novels like The Hunger Games and Catching Fire is female (as my 14 year old sister will attest) seems to have escaped publishers. Against this background things are, frustratingly, getting worse. No novel by a female author has won a Nebula Award since 2011, and there is a growing sense of disenfranchisement and exclusion of female authors, as well as readers, spurred by incidents like this.

While it would be wonderful to be able to suggest some kind of immediate solution to exclusion of women from sci fi, which by definition also largely excludes LGBT characters and themes in the same way it tends to reduce female characters to paper-thin vehicles for male agency or fantasy, there are unfortunately no quick fixes. Science fiction as a genre needs a much greater diversity of real, fully fleshed-out, strong LGBT and female characters to match the diversity of settings contained within its enormous bounds.

Surely, with all the imagination displayed in building the infinite worlds in which the fascinating, transformative stories of science fiction are told, authors can write better, more interesting LGBT and female characters than the cardboard cut-outs which are so often the case? As readers we can and should use the channels of communication which media like Twitter, blogs, and Facebook have opened up with our favourite writers and directors to demand more complex, more diverse characters in our sci fi. And, as queer writers and creators, we need to start putting work out there which shows people like us the way we’re meant to be seen. Because, unless we do just that, we’re going to keep on getting fed the same, often inaccurate, sexist and limiting assumptions about us, and about what we like reading and seeing in our characters.

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