Comment: Doctor Who’s contribution to the LGBT community

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Today marks the 10th anniversary of the revival of Doctor Who. Wilfredo Cohen looks at what the show has done for LGBT representation.

Several years ago a friend suggested I give this Doctor Who thing a try. At first I was extremely sceptical but I decided to give it a shot. The following image sums up my reaction to the show fairly accurately.

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Not only was the show clever, funny, and exciting. It also had a ton of character development for both the main character and his companion in less than 12 episodes. To top it all off, there were characters I found myself personally identifying with in ways I was surprised to. This piece is a breakdown of some of the LGBT characters featured in Doctor Who and why I’ve come to love them and the show.

Now, if you’re new to Doctor Who, or have yet to begin watching, “spoilers”.

With that out of the way, back to the Doctor. In exactly two episodes I was intrigued. I could tell right away that this would be unlike any show I had seen so far. In “The End of the World” the main antagonist, Lady Cassandra O’Brien.Δ17, casually reveals that she was born a boy!

Played by John Barrowman, Capt. Jack was a stunning specimen of masculinity and arguably the most sexually fluid character in all of Doctor Who, until recently that is.

Male, female, human, alien, robot, it was all fair game to Capt. Jack! Not only was my mind blown by this character, I was also educated by him. Until Jack Harkness I was completely oblivious to the concept of pansexuality. The idea that someone could feel sexual attraction, sexual desire, romantic love, or emotional attraction toward people of any sex or gender identity was completely foreign to me right up until that point. That discovery indirectly lead me to discover and understand the concept of asexuality.

By the end of the first season of “New Who” I was hooked.

Fast Forward to the season 3 episode “Gridlock”. In this episode we’re introduced to May and Alice Cassini. The Cassinis are only shown in a few scenes in the episode. At one point they’re referred to as sisters to which Alice responds, “You know full well we’re not sisters. We’re married.” To me that was an emotional and all too real moment. In 2013 the Supreme Court of the United States opened the door for marriage equality, thanks to the landmark ruling in the “United States v. Windsor” case. That ruling made it possible for millions of Americans (myself included) to finally get married to the people we loved. Also that year, The legislation to allow same-sex marriage in England and Wales was passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. However, when the episode first aired in 2007 marriage equality was barely on the radar. For decades many couples lived together very much like May and Alice Cassini. “Married” behind closed doors, but publicly living as “sisters”, “friends”, or “long term companions”. Unable to publicly show who they were, or how they felt, for fear of reprisal. Today some people still live those secret lives out of fear, in spite of the steady increase in public acceptance of the LGBT community. But for the most part, we’re free to be open and honest about who we are and who we love.

Fast Forward again, this time to the season six episodes “The Impossible Astronaut” and “The Day Of The Moon” . Here we’re introduced to former F.B.I. agent Canton Everett Delaware III, who was forced to quit the agency because he wanted to get married.

Canton was the Doctor’s fourth companion (as he already had Rory,River and Amy) during his investigation of the Silence in 1969 America. He was an instrumental part of the Doctor’s team during this time. As the Doctor departed, he suggested that Nixon allow Canton to get married, Nixon asks Canton if the person he wants to marry is black, explaining that perhaps he is more liberal than people think. Canton respond with, “Yes, he is.” Nixon says, “I think the Moon is far enough, for now, don’t you, Mister Delaware?” Once again, my mind blown! While watching the episode I assumed that the opposition to Canton getting married was due to race, which in part it was. However, I never considered that gender would have a role in it. Not only was I thrilled to learn the character was gay, I was also left thinking about all the men and women who experienced discrimination and harassment in the workplace, simply because of who they loved and who they were. Sadly, it is a very real problem we still face today. In seventy percent of Pennsylvania (my home state) you can be fired, evicted, or refused services for being LGBT. As of this writing, Arkansas lawmakers are trying to pass laws that would bar cities and counties from sanctioning LGBT anti-discrimination laws.

A few more episodes later we have “A Good Man Goes to War”. In this episode we meet The thin/fat gay married Anglican marines, seriously, that’s what they call themselves.
The thin one introduces themselves to another marine by saying, “Hello, I’m the thin one. This is my husband. He’s the fat one.” She then asks if they have names, to which the fat one replies, “We’re the thin-fat gay married Anglican marines. Why would we need names as well?” They’re only around for a brief moment and one of them ends up becoming a Headless Monk. They were completely unremarkable, average looking men and weren’t at all relevant to the story. But that’s what I loved about them. It was a perfect representation of how LGBT people are everywhere and most of the time people don’t notice us unless we say something. We aren’t at all rare or uncommon. Most of us are fairly basic and average people, living unremarkable lives. We deliver your mail, work for the local sanitation department, stock shelves at your local grocery store. We’re teachers, landscapers, plumbers. Some are police officers, fire-fighters, paramedics, or serve in the military (ok, those are a little remarkable). But basically, we’re just like anyone else you might interact with on any given day.

This episode also introduced us to Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint. When we first meet the pair Jenny is working as Vastra’s maid and assistant.

Later, in “The Battle of Demons Run: Two Days Later”, we learn that Jenny had grown accustomed to a life of solitude — she was ostracised by her family due to her “preferences in companionship.” That in itself was incredibly relatable. Most LGBT people know the dread associated with coming out. It’s like being completely naked and vulnerable. You’re being seen for exactly who you are and you’re desperately hoping that you won’t be rejected. Unfortunately many LGBT youths are rejected. There are shelters, centres and charities all over the world set up to try and help as many of these lost boys and girls, who have been discarded by the people they once thought they could turn to and trust.

Next time we see Vastra and Jenny is in the season seven episode “The Snowmen”. By which point their relationship has evolved and they’re married. Unlike The thin/fat gay married Anglican marines, Vastra and Jenny are remarkable. They’ve been recurring characters on the show, appearing as recently as season 8 in 2014. They’re also among the Doctor’s most loyal and trusted companions. Dan Martin from The Guardian stated “with marriage equality so much on the agenda, the divine Vastra and Jenny can only be a good thing to have on screens at tea time.” I for one couldn’t have said it better. Yes, they’re crime fighting, sword wielding women. And yes, one is a lizard woman from the dawn of time. But once you get past that and watch the interaction between the two, they seem completely normal. They love and protect each other, they bicker and disagree, very much the way every couple does. And it’s sweet, funny and relatable. More than once my husband and I would look at each other and say, “that’s so you”, while watching them. What’s best about them is how insanely popular they are. For the most part, viewers don’t care that they’re a lesbian couple. In fact, they’re so popular that speculation of a spin off series has been floating around for sometime now.

Last, but certainly not least is Missy. It’s no secret that I was not a fan of season eight. However, Missy was such an amazing character that it more than made up for anything I disliked about the season. I was intrigued by the character from the beginning. She was quirky and funny and I speculated all season about who or what her eventual role would be in the show. Clearly she would be significant somehow, since they showed her off and on throughout the season, she also seemed to have a mysterious connection to the Doctor. In all my wildest speculations I could never have imagined what her secret would turn out to be, or the implications it would have for the show as a whole. It turned out that Missy was a Time Lady, a female alien of the same species as the Doctor. Not only that, she and the Doctor had a history he wasn’t initially aware of. You see, Missy wasn’t always Missy, in fact, Missy wasn’t always female! Missy, was short for Mistress, a slight alteration she had to make to her name after she went from male to female. That’s right, Missy used to be a male Time Lord called the Master.

Time Lords and Ladies have the ability to regenerate at the moment of death into a new person. Fans of Doctor Who have seen the Doctor go from regeneration to regeneration, always changing into someone new. Young, old, grumpy, silly, all these things changed but the gender was always a constant. Then came Missy. Before Missy we had heard regeneration wasn’t bound by gender. References had been made in passing to other Time Lords and Ladies who had switched gender, but it had never been seen. Now we have one of the most iconic villains the show has ever had go from male to female. Not only that, she was from the same species as the Doctor. This is a huge game changer because it means that at any point the Doctor could conceivably go from being a he to being a she! To me, this was monumental. This introduced a level of gender fluidity never before seen in the show. It sends a message that an individual isn’t bound by his or her birth gender, we can become anything at anytime!

In today’s world, where so many of us need to find someone or something to identify with, I feel like Doctor Who offers a bit of that. It’s a show with a wide array of diversity, in both subtle and vibrant ways. From the unremarkable married gay couple, to the iconic nemesis who transitions from male to female. At one point or another, the LGBT community has been represented by Doctor Who in some form or another.