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This post, while not strictly speaking about Doctor Who, contains a spoiler for the second episode in the current (sixth) series.

There was a rather splendid character in the opening series six storyline of Doctor Who by the name of Canton Everett Delaware III. He had presence, a beautiful wit, and, in the grand tradition, he helped the Doctor, Rory, and Amy save the planet. Towards the end, he is left standing in the Oval Office with President Nixon as the Doctor and company leave in the TARDIS, the litle blue box in which they travel the universe. We know that Canton had been made to leave the FBI because he wanted to get married, and President Nixon guesses that he was kicked out because this person is black. He’s right, as Canton tells him, but this person is also a man. It was a beautifully done scene, with well balanced writing, a perfect choice of camera angles, and some fabulous, understated acting. (It made my little drama school grad heart sing, can you tell?)

So, fond of Canton as I am, I typed the character’s name into my search engine, and his TARDIS Index File at the Doctor Who Wiki came up. The first line of the biography is this: ‘Canton was an FBI agent who was forced to quit the bureau due to his homosexuality and intention to marry a black man.’

I’m sorry, what? Were we watching entirely different episodes? Did the ABC iView copy of the episode miss a few crucial lines? Can you see what’s missing?

The thing is, there’s an assumption in that sentence I’ve seen repeated in conversations I’ve seen and had about Canton, and it’s been irritating me a great deal for a few weeks. I don’t remember Canton saying a word about his sexual orientation. But loads of other Whovians seem to have taken Canton’s saying that he is in love with this one man as his saying that he is gay. There isn’t any room for, I don’t know, the potential for nonmonosexuality, or letting a character go unlabelled. I don’t know if it’s a matter of my having interacted with Westerners who can’t quite seem to shake binary oppositions, (SOMEONE’S BEEN READING FOUCAULT) or just my unwillingness to ascribe identities to people without their say so, (see my Invisible Identities series) but this presumptive leap has been annoying me very much indeed.

It’s as though I – video and transcript at the bottom – heard this:

President Nixon: This person you want to marry. Black?
Canton: Yes.
President Nixon: Mm. I know what people think of me, but perhaps I’m a little more liberal-
Canton: He is.

And a fair portion of Doctor Who fandom heard this:

President Nixon: Sooooooo.
Canton: I’m gay, if that explains anything.
President Nixon: I’m just going to stand here and look really uncomfortable until the end of the scene.

Let’s try that with subtext, shall we?

President Nixon: Let’s see about getting you your job back, okay?
Canton: I’m gay. I’m gay like a gay thing on Gay Street in the gaytime. Gay gay gay, gay gay gay, I am so very gay. Gay.
President Nixon: Listen-
Canton: GAY.
President Nixon: Now, look, son, you’ve just upset the dramatic balance of the excellent scene we rehearsed with what you’ve now made a, I’m sure, vital, but nonetheless, in narrative terms, nonsensical outburst there.
Canton: But you see, Mr President, that doesn’t really matter. You see, some Doctor Who fans, including that Chally lady, have gotten a bit pissy since Russell T. Davies and Phil Collinson stopped working on the show and a lot of the queer characters and sensibilities disappeared.
President Nixon: So you’re here to right those wrongs?
Canton: Exactly. I’m also here to take a conversation about the 1960s United States civil rights movement and make it about a 2011-era fight for marriage equality for those of us who aren’t straight – er, I mean, people identified as gay and lesbian in particular, not all people who want the right to marry people who are not of their presumed or actual gender binary opposite.
President Nixon: Okay. So my role here is to look really awkward for a minute while you look confident and serene?
Canton: Appreciate it.

Yeah, but no.

You know, Canton might be gay. That’s fine, that’s cool, that’s okay. But in the absence of anything definitive, I think labelling might not be such a crash hot idea. I am particularly thinking that this is a kids’ show, one with, since the 2005 revival, the reputation of being pretty queer-friendly, and I am thinking of the young nonmonosexual folk watching it and being glad that queer folk like them are being represented, only to have a bunch of people make sure that, once more, a character who might be just like them is actually, definitively not.

I’m thinking of Willow Rosenberg from Buffy (a show I really need to watch properly one of these days!) and Callie Torres from Grey’s Anatomy, and how they go from being explicitly coded as bisexual to being, well, not (although there has been a bit of a turnaround with Callie, but we will see). While I’m on the subject, I don’t mean that there’s anything wrong with a character’s thinking about their own sexuality going from ‘I’m straight’ to ‘I’m bisexual’ to ‘I’m actually a lesbian/gay’. What bothers me in representations like Callie’s is that her thinking and processing gets made invisible, and, once she starts dating women, she automatically starts getting labelled as a lesbian in the script. The message there and in similar representations is that bisexuality is inevitably just a stop on the way to monosexual queerness, a trope harmfully directed at bisexual and other nonmonosexual people all the time.

What I am thinking, in short, is that coding every person of binary gender (or whom you read as being of binary gender…) you encounter who is in a relationship with a person of that gender as gay, or in a relationship with a person on the other side of the binary as straight, is a pretty shitty thing to do. It’s a big world, and I think that, both in the consumption of media and in our daily lives, we can do better than assigning identities to people they may well not share. Anyone marginally familiar with the bisexual community in particular will be aware of how damaging that invisibility, not to mention that requirement to “pick a side” and so forth, is.

I was wanting to recommend you two pieces related to the subject. One is gyzym’s this…is a 5,000 word rambling essay on bisexuality. no, i don’t know either., which I linked to just the other day, and is absolutely fantastic. The other is the piece that finally pushed me to write this after weeks of grumbling, Why I Write Bisexual Characters by Ingrid Diaz. I really suggest that you click through, but, in case you don’t: Ingrid is a writer and a lesbian, and the part of the post that really got to me was when she tells a story about her first love, a bisexual woman. They went to a university queer women’s group and had the heart wrenching experience of being subject to rants about how bisexual women were horrible and holding lesbian rights back. Ingrid’s girlfriend walked out. And reading that post made me cry, and it’s making me cry again, because it is a terrible thing to go into a space in which you believe yourself welcome only to be informed that you are an aberration.

I don’t know. I just think there should be a little more nuance in the world. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy – DRAMA SCHOOL – but this isn’t one beyond dreaming. Being a little bit open to difference isn’t hard and could save a lot of people a load of heartache.

Transcript:

The Doctor turns from President Nixon to Canton and shakes his hand.
The Doctor: Canton. Until the next one, eh?
Canton: Looking forward to it.
The Doctor fluidly turns back to President Nixon.
The Doctor: Canton just wants to get married. Hell of a reason to kick him out of the FBI.
President Nixon: I’m sure something can be arranged.
The Doctor: I’m counting on you.
[Part of the scene that is about President Nixon's legacy is cut.] The Doctor’s voice is heard as he moves out of shot.
The Doctor: Say hi to David Frost for me.
President Nixon: David Frost…?
Canton and President Nixon stand together as the TARDIS crew pile in and leave. The TARDIS is heard dematerialising as we zoom in on Canton and the President.
President Nixon: This person you want to marry. Black?
Canton: Yes.
President Nixon nods sympathetically.
President Nixon: Mm. I know what people think of me, but perhaps I’m a little more liberal-
Canton: He is.
President Nixon turns slowly to Canton as brass instruments start up.
President Nixon: I think the moon is far enough for now, don’t you, Mr Delaware?
Canton: I figured it might be.
Canton turns back to his front as President Nixon nods again and turns his head away from Canton and breathes out in a rush.