Is Science Fiction Having a Gay Moment, at Last?

The emergence of out and open LGBT characters in sci-fi TV series suggests that yes, it is.

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Nov 21 2014, 3:00pm

Photo via ​Jeff Toth

This post originally appeared in VICE UK

A long time ago in a galaxy not far away (our own galaxy, in fact), the genre of science fiction was born. Groundbreaking and seemingly unrestricted, sci-fi put no limits on the imagination. Unless that imagination involved fairly representing the LGBT community. In which case, there were lots of limits.

Granted, geniuses like Samuel R. Delaney and Theodore Sturgeon were exploring sexuality in sci-fi literature as early as the 1950s, but there's always been a dearth of out and open LGBT characters onscreen.

However, things are changing. Sci-fi has finally started to see an emergence of gay characters who aren't concealed by a heap of sub-textual dark matter.

"If we're talking about mainstream media, we should look at the second word in 'show business.' It's never been more popular or profitable to cater to the geek audience or to a queer one," said Jono Jarrett, coordinator for Geeks Out, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to empowering, promoting, and rallying the queer geek community. They are currently busy raising funds for Flameco​n, a queer festival designed to bring geeky gays together in New York City.

"There are more queer writers, directors, producers, performers and executives in positions of power now than ever before," Jarrett said. "There's also a more persuasive and vocal queer and queer-allied audience encouraging the sci-fi community to include LGBTQ content." 

According to Jono, science fiction is about imagination, the new and unknown: "It's not a place to stifle expression of any kind, especially something so human as queerness."

The path to get to this point has been a long and laborious one. There has never been an LGBT character in any Star Trek franchises. That's quite a fucking achievement, considering the vast number of characters over the years, including all the aliens, some of whom you'd imagine might come from slightly more liberal planets than ours.

One exception—the steamy lesbian kiss in Deep Space Nine—certainly got hearts racing. Except one of the characters was formerly male and now inhabiting a female body, and the pair were once happily married heteros. So that doesn't really count.

Susan Ivanova in Babylon 5 

A nod has to go to Susan Ivanova in Babylon 5, as many fans believe she had a lesbian relationship with the character Talia Winters. But, again, this was never expanded or properly confirmed. In a genre dominated by mainly straight males, the most audiences got was a nod and a wink.

It was Torchwood's Captain Jack Harkness, played by John Barrowman, who provided the first notable break from the norm. Captain Jack isn't gay; he's "omnisexual." Or, as John Barrowman delicately pu​ts it, "He'll shag anything with a hole."

The refreshing thing about Jack was that he just seemed to stomp around the place saving the day, undefined by sexuality and unconcerned with social norms. He wasn't the creepy and effeminate closeted villain, nor was he the sassy and pedantic sidekick from times past (s/o C3P0). He was the hero.

Andy Brierley, of Andy Brierley Casting, has been involved in the sci-fi industry for over a decade and is certain that the "regaysance" is upon us.

"Torchwood was groundbreaking to have a character like Jack at its heart," he told me. "Now, we have the lesbian couple in Doctor Who and we have Benny in Wizards vs Aliens, which is a children's show. I think that's great, as it's reaching out to young people and it's not a watershed show like Torchwood—it's introducing gay characters to children as the norm."

Still from Doctor Who

"Russell [T Davies, screenwriter for Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Wizards vs Aliens] likes to represent the world as he sees it. To not have gay characters in any type of TV is not representing society. It's so integral and normal to me, so to say that it's important would be an understatement—it's essential."

There are other pioneers, like Graeme Manson and John Fawcett—the writers of Orphan Black—who are challenging heteronormative staples. The show, which features gay, bisexual and transgender protagonists, has gained popularity across the globe.

"There are obvious reasons why TV can have more LGBT characters than films, because TV is often about characters and serial television relies on relationships," said Lorna Jowett, Professor at the University in Northumbria and expert in gender, sexuality, and sci-fi. 

Jowett will be joined by academics Stacey Abbott and Ewan Kirkland at the British Film Institute's panel discussion "Gays of Fear ​and Wonder: Queer Sci-Fi TV" next week, which looks at queer icons and celebrates sci-fi's queer characters as part of the BFI's sci-fi Days of Fear and ​Wonder season.

"With television, it may be a smaller audience, but it will be a loyal audience," she continued, "which means writers can afford do things that they think audiences will accept and enjoy—and having diverse characters is one of them."

She added: "Mainstream science fiction cinema tends to focus on things like spectacle and action and effects rather than on characters. But if they're trying to sell a big commercial film, they're trying to not offend part of their audience, so they might be interpreting that quite conservatively."

Ezra Miller. Photo by David S​hankbonevia Wikimedia Commons

Cinema is still lagging behind, but even there things are stirring. Last month it was announced that Ezra Miller will be pla​ying the Flash, set to premiere in 2018. It will be the first time a non-heterosexual has played the lead in a superhero movie, and, coincidentally, bisexual actor Andy Mientus has been cast to play gay villain The Pied Piper in The Flash TV series.

The indy film C​redenceis another exciting project on the horizon. Filmmaker Mike Buonaiuto, tired of the lack of LGBT characters in cinema, created a crowdfunding page for his apocalyptic film, which follows two gay fathers giving up their child, who's set to leave a crumbling Earth with a younger generation of chosen ones.

There's clearly an appetite for his idea as the project amassed £22,000 ($34,500) in donations, surpassing their £6,000 target, and is currently in production.

When asked about his impetus for the project, Mike said, "It's very difficult to get someone to believe in the science fiction world, as it stretches the imagination to such an extent. So writers often build their characters around stereotypes, which make it easier for viewers to understand the world these characters inhabit. Now, as an adult, I see it as more important than ever to have that diversity and to have LGBT stories represented in film."

"The amazing response, comments and reviews we've had from the trailer show that people are just experiencing Credence as a film, not as a 'gay film,'" he continued. "The issues they're facing as parents—making the sacrifice to let go of their children—is something that parents of all backgrounds can relate to."

It could be argued that visual media is moving towards greater representation across the board, and that there's nothing particularly spectacular about what's been going on in sci-fi. Yet Britain had it's first onscreen gay kiss in 1987, and since then gay characters have littered the lexicon of mainstream TV and film. For a genre that looks to the future and explores progressive new worlds and utopias, it seems odd how long it's taken for mainstream sci-fi to catch up with the world we live in today.

LGBT sci-fi fanatics have long used the genre as a form of self expression, writing enough fan and slash-fiction to fill The British Library a thousand times over. But translating that passion onto the small and big screen has been a mission fraught with obstacles.

There's always been a huge gay sci-fi following; for decades, many on the queer spectrum have identified with feeling alien and out of place, and have looked to the future, to a place where all sexualities and genders are accepted.

When I asked him, Sir Ian McKellan agreed: "It's worth noting that the X-Men movies—like the comics—appeal to young gay people who identify with the mutants. Their disaffection with society mirrors their own. For example, the coming out storyline of Ice Man in X2, which made the parallel clear: 'Have you ever tried not being a mutant?'"

While allegories obviously exist, it's good to see LGBT characters depicted unapologetically. The sci-fi world has always welcomed outsiders, but now more than ever, it is giving them a voice. No time like the present, after all.

Follow Josh Willacy on ​Twitter

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