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Science Fiction’s Queer Problem

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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-fueled 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.

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