As a long term Doctor Who fan, Karen Pollock explores whether LGBTQ+ characters being included in the show matters
The new series of Doctor Who started last night, with much fanfare at the arrival of a new companion. The companions on Who have become much more central on NuWho, partly because simply falling over as the bad guys attack has died as an acceptable trope. They always were a way of asking the questions the viewer might, a narrators voice in a sense, allowing exposition, and a juxtaposition of alien and human view point. The BBC have trumpeted the arrival of the new companion Bill who is, wait for it, not straight.
A few things we have to get out the way here, rather like the inevitable “It’s bigger on the inside” line. Bill is not the first LGBTQ+ character on Doctor Who. There are a number of old Who characters who are accepted to be canonically LGBTQ+. In Nu Who there is a lesbian marriage, with heavy dominant/submissive overtones. That one of the women is a lizard is neither here nor there to the Doctor or anyone else. There was at least one trans Timelord before the Master/Missy. As I wrote here even when there is not an open reference to someone being LGBTQ+, queer people write themselves into the stories which surround them. A great example of this is Ashildr who many fans saw as non binary, and did appear at one point to use gender neutral pronouns. Then of course there is Captain Jack, who I imagine would have a very strong reaction to anyone else being described as the first LGBTQ+ companion.
For whatever reason, the BBC have decided that they need a first, and so, Bill is being described as the “first openly gay” or “first out” companion. Terms like “openly” or “out” are heavily problematic. Even the idea of being out, or closeted, is a false binary, designed to fit into heteronormative narratives, and often reassure cis het people. Openly X means not a trap, not lurking, waiting to lure unsuspecting innocents over to the dark side. However, we are where we are, Bill is here, and she is in the opening episode decidedly not straight. So does this matter?
A few things we have to get out the way here, rather like the inevitable “It’s bigger on the inside” line. Bill is not the first LGBT character on Doctor Who.
Watching the show I was more concerned with how it was done. Relieved to see the matter-of-factness of Bill’s sexuality introduced. She fancied another woman, was overwhelmed by a crush, I am assuming she is lesbian, since the BBC has used gay to describe her. It was sweet, believable and totally unremarkable. In fact, watching it was one of the least important moments of the show. Afterwards, it was a different story. It seemed you could not move on social media without someone complaining about the BBC ramming homosexuality down their throats (presumably this time with a strap on). Over and over I saw variations on the same complaint, sexuality shouldn’t be relevant on a family show. This is a TV show which has featured a married cis het couple, which as a plot point had them fucking in the TARDIS. It has a married Doctor, it has married off a number of companions, but now, apparently, one gay companion is making too much of a fuss about sexuality.
The introduction of Donna was as a bride, the whole story arc of Rory and Amy was of romantic cis het love conquering everything (leading to said sex in the TARDIS). But one gay companion was apparently bringing sex into a show where it had never previously existed. Ignore that all Bill did was quite chastely imagine kissing another woman. Simply being LGBTQ+ is still seen as being sexual in a way cis het identities are not.
Terms like openly gay or out are heavily problematic. Even the idea of being out, or closeted, is a false binary, designed to fit into hetronormative narratives,
Whilst we still live in a world where LGBTQ+ identities are coded as obscene and unsuitable for family viewing, we need Bill. Kids need Bill, young people growing up, wondering if it is okay to be themselves need Bill. Whilst we live in a world where people can claim they are okay with LGBTQ+ identities, so long as they never see or hear LGBTQ+ people we need Bill. Perhaps we also need terms like “openly gay.” Not for us, not for those who understand that coming out is not a 1 time event, but for the cis het people. We need lines in the sand, symbols, and characters they cannot straightwash. We need the opening episode to say, to steal a slogan, some companions are gay, get over it.
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