Before Susan Ivanova came out on Babylon 5, there were no explicitly LGBT characters in genre TV. There were, however, a lot of characters who were, well, let’s just say they may have mistaken the closet for the transporter room.
Television has always been scared to handle gay themes and issues. And unfortunately, SF and fantasy shows are no exception to that rule. In fact, one could argue that SF/F television and movie writers (and by extension comic and RPG fandoms) are more conservative than they’d like to think. But still some characters who were ‘obviously’ gay managed to make it into genre TV and some writers used science fiction and fantasy to present allegorically gay situations, even long after the need to cloak things in allegory had passed.
We’ve put together a list of those characters and why they qualify. Keep in mind these come from American TV or shows that end up on American TV and while we’re pretty sure the list is exhaustive, we may have missed one or two. We also limited things to recurring, rather than one shot characters.
Doctor Zachary Smith – Lost in Space (1965-1968)
What can we say about Dr. Smith? He went from a sinister villain in the first season to a very, very campy comic foil in the second. With his distinctive falsetto wail of terror, battle cry of ‘Oh, the pain! The pain!’, a habit of clutching the pearls when he was upset and a demeanor so light in the loafers that we suspect anti-gravity inserts, he was the gayest thing on TV for several years. Interesting enough, the actor who played Smith, Jonathan Harris was straight and apparently happily married for 64 years.
Uncle Arthur – Bewitched (1962-1974)
Uncle Arthur didn’t make his debut on Bewitched until 1965 but when he did, he made a splash. Arthur was played by Paul Lynde and there was no mistaking the character or the actor for anything but an extremely flamboyant and comfortable in his skin gay man. Snarky, capricious, sly and sardonic but one of the few members of Samantha’s family to actually like her husband, Uncle Arthur tended to steal the scenes he was in, mainly because even with the draconian restrictions of TV at that time, Paul Lynde could make anything funny and slightly naughty.
Gene Jean – Quark (1977-1978)
This show came and went with a speed that made it as elusive as the particle it was named after. But it did break genre ground by introducing a genre character who was intersex. Sorta. Gene Jean was a ‘Transmute’. A person with a full set of male and female genes. The character had a split personality, with ‘Gene’ being the dominant, masculine, aggressive personality and ‘Jean’ being the docile, timid and feminine personality. It was, by modern standards, just about as offensive as you’re picturing. And less funny. And yes, that is Tim Thomerson, Jack Deth of horrible Trancer movie fame.
Sam Beckett and Al Calavicci – Quantum Leap (1989-1994)
Genre TV went more than a decade without a significant nod to LGBT people. And to be honest, Sam and Al almost didn’t make this list. They were both heterosexual, for one thing. But the show put both of them in situations where they had to deal with their sexuality and gender expression, once with Al falling in love with the girl Sam became during a leap and another time when Sam jumped into the body of someone whose roommate (and probable boyfriend) had just been thrown out of school for being gay. And they seemed to like putting Scott Bakula in a dress. We’re not judging.
George Francisco and Albert Einstein – Alien Nation (1989-1990)
Now these two were interesting. Believe it or not, Alien Nation was a show that had a history of tackling some fairly thorny issues, if from oblique angles and these two characters typified that. The Newcomers (the alien species in the show) had two distinct male genders, both of whom were required for successful fertilization. Not to mention the fact that one of those genders was capable of carrying the fetus thus conceived, after a certain amount of time. Somewhere between a sea horse and a kangaroo, in terms of terrestrial biology. That allowed the show to tackle issues of polygamy, bisexuality, gender roles and transgender issues that were fairly radical to see on TV at the time, even if none of it was explicit.
Jadzia Dax – Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)
For those unfamiliar with the show, Jadzia was an alien humaniod from a species called the Trill. The Trill have evolved a symbiotic relationship with slug-like aliens called Symbionts (original, no?). The Trill gets the experience of the sometimes hundreds of years old slugs and the Symbiont gets to not be a slug. Her Symbiont is named Dax and has several hosts before her, both male and female. That premise allowed Star Trek to explore, in it’s usual, plodding way, themes of sexuality and morality that it couldn’t approach head on, because of entirely self-imposed restrictions. The high point of this exploration was an episode where Jadzia was shown to be willing to pursue a lesbian relationship with one of Dax’s lovers from a former host.
Xena and Gabrielle – Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001)
Well, if you haven’t heard of these two, you are either very young or never had a TV. While the subtext was never fully made text in the series, it was heavily implied that Xena and Gabrielle were bisexual and either in an on again, off again relationship or polyamorous. For six years they stomped on the bad guys of various ancient mythologies while casting longing glances at one another and finding time to bed down in the same haystack occasionally. Entirely platonic, of course. Even death couldn’t keep the two of them apart, as Xena came back from it more than once and the ending has to qualify as one of the creepiest stalker ‘I will always love you’ moments in television history, in retrospect, though it was a tear jerker at the time.
After Xena and Babylon 5, the ice was broken, so to speak and genre shows have started to embrace openly gay and lesbian characters, though bisexuals and transgendered people are still woefully under-represented. On the other hand, with nearly a dozen(!) LGBT people represented in genre shows at the moment, things are definitely a million light years away from the Jupiter 2 and the lonely odyssey of the only gay man in space.