The Time Traveller, The Diver and the Poet

BCN 123 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 123, February 2014

At the beginning of December 2013 my Twitter feed suddenly erupted into discussion about Tom Daley, the Olympic diver who came out via a video on YouTube as being in a relationship with a man. Social media offered up multiple and conflicting opinions on his sexuality and whether he could or should be labelled by other people because, as reported in the last issue of BCN, had neither used the word ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ but had said that he was still attracted to women. A few weeks previously my social media was very, very full of all things Dr Who related, because of the 50th anniversary. During all this I was doing my usual trick of trying to have a life (or rather, find time to watch some telly) whilst slaving away at the PhD about Renaissance literature.

One of the arguments that has been raging in my field over the last few decades is the homosexual versus homosocial debate. One side claims that because Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries wrote love poems to men or other suggestive passages, they were therefore homosexual. Those who are worried about the anachronism of that word might use terms like ‘homoerotic’ or even ‘Same-sex associational primacy’ instead. The other side claims that everything that was written, all the men (including James I) who referred to other men as their wives, the declarations of love, the rude puns, all of that relates to a type of friendship that we simply do not understand any more. Some advocates of this ‘homosocial’ explanation use that to claim Shakespeare as straight and other simply to opt out of the discussion altogether, claiming that Renaissance friendship and sexuality is fundamentally unknowable and alien. Of course, the debate is less binary than that. It’s always less binary than you think, right? I wouldn’t have much of a thesis otherwise. But that’s the main thrust of it (Shakespeare would have a field day with that innuendo by the way).

Debates about Shakespeare’s sexuality have even made it into Dr Who. In the 2007 episode ‘The Shakespeare Code’, Shakespeare flirts with the Doctor, causing him to suggest that ‘fifty-seven academics just punched the air’. Of course I’d be one of those academics, not least because the Bard had also been hitting on the Doctor’s companion, Martha. It would be amazing to have actual evidence of which genders Shakespeare was or wasn’t attracted to. It would probably, but not certainly, shed light on much of his work.

And what of our Time Lord? Recently there have been increasing numbers of debates about the Doctor’s relationship to sex. There have been murmurings of unhappiness from some long-term fans about the increased levels of ‘love interest’ in the show, the Doctor’s dalliance with Madame de Pompadour, his relationship with River Song, and so on. One of the BBC’s programmes over the 50th anniversary celebrations tackled this directly. Whilst watching ‘The Ultimate Guide’ with my family I suddenly found myself listening to a very familiar debate. One side was arguing that it was only natural that the Doctor should have relationships and mentioning that he had kissed Rory (and been kissed by Captain Jack) as well as several women. The other side was arguing that we have to remember that the Doctor is an alien from another time and doesn’t understand sex in the same way we do. So, Doctor-sexual versus Doctor-social.

It’s not that the ‘Whoniverse’ shies away from sex. The character of Captain Jack (John Barrowman) is variously described as bisexual, pansexual, or omnisexual, although these words are not used on screen either in Dr Who or in the spin-off show Torchwood. The character himself describes classifications of sexuality as ‘quaint’ (Torchwood, ‘Day One’, 2006). Torchwood is intended for a more adult audience but attraction, love, and desire also feature prominently in the post 2005 incarnation of Dr Who: River Song is overtly sexual, Amy and Rory get and conceive a child (apparently in the TARDIS), and so on. But the Doctor’s sexual or romantic thoughts are kept very much more vague and elusive. His relationship with Rose, for example, is intense and far reaching in its impact, but almost exclusively ‘chaste’. I think there is an element of wanting to preserve the mystery of the Doctor’s character in all its aspects but there is also a feeling that a significant number of fans do not want a sexual Doctor. (For more debate about the evolution from chaste Doctor to kissing Doctor you could do a lot worse than read Queers Dig Time Lords (2013, particularly the introduction).

Perhaps a sexualised Doctor breaks the magic for the fans who remember the show from their childhoods, or perhaps it is more than that. Marjorie Garber wrote that ‘a bisexual Shakespeare fits no one’s erotic agenda’ (Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life, 2000, p.515) but to a large extent a sexual Shakespeare of any kind could be seen as going against the agenda of people who wish to see themselves reflected in  a blank mirror. I think the same is true of the Doctor. Cultural icons like these are trapped between the extremes of being the kind of public property that attracts invasive information seeking about every aspect of their lives, including their sexual and loving relationships and being revered to the extent that people want to see them as ‘unsullied’ by common or garden sexuality and also available for projection and reflection of the sexual identities of everyone who admires them.

The thing about Renaissance literature and the sexual versus social debate is that it is not important who does what with whom and that the quest for verification of ‘real’ homosexuality or what Lilian Faderman calls ‘genital realisation’ is meaningless (Surpassing the Love of Men, 1985, p.67). What matters is the status that these connections had for the people involved and the culture surrounding them. So a love poem is a love poem whether it is written to a friend, a lover, a patron, God, or anyone else. Emotions do not need sex to be legitimate and if we don’t obsess over heterosexual literature for signs of ‘consummation’ we shouldn’t make it the standard for any other connection either. Dr Who seems to go one step further and apply this sense of denial to the Doctor’s other-gender relationships but when the relationship between the Doctor and Rose, for example, has such far-reaching impact through space and time, it is a nonsense to keep claiming they don’t count as a couple.

I’ve often been asked for my opinions about Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Are the poems to the fair youth really homoerotic? Was the Fair Youth the Earl of Southampton? Who was the dark lady? Were they all involved in some kind of triad? It is heavily hinted in the Dr Who canon that the fair youth and the dark lady are the Doctor and Martha respectively, which is only marginally more unlikely than some of the theories that get put forward. It’s the poems that matter, not the biographical guesswork. Recently I was also asked my opinion on whether the Doctor and his married companions, Amy and Rory, formed an asexual polyamorous ‘V’. It depends how you look at it. Certainly there is a lot made about Amy potentially choosing between the two ‘men’ (I find it disappointing that ‘Time Lord gender works differently’ wasn’t considered worthy of exploration) and a lot of exploration of jealousy in that context. Amy explicitly and repeatedly chooses Rory, romantically and sexually, over the Doctor and the audience is left with the bond between Amy and the Doctor as something ‘other’, which neatly exempts him from becoming his own step-father-in-law or some other wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey paradox. But for the most part they do form a social and domestic partnership and it is the loyalties and bonds that this creates that drive many of the plots. There are lots of hints and nods to possible other attractions in various combinations (which Matt Smith’s version of the Doctor at least seems to find endlessly perplexing), and that’s fun, but it’s not the be all and end all. They all love each other.

But yet there remains this drive towards public ownership of the sexual or romantic lives of cultural figures, be they Olympic athletes, national poets, or fictional alien Time Lords. Accompanying this is a battle over labels. Are our heroes heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, or any other label? Can they be labelled? What do we do if they don’t or can’t label themselves? There is an understandable desire to claim a cultural figure for our ‘side’ because the search for the legitimacy that comes with historic representation is a difficult and important one. Cultural figures, whether a historical playwright in a globe or a raggedy man in a blue box, need to be available for reinterpretation by modern sexual minority groups. This is especially true of Shakespeare, whose words deeply influence how English-speaking people talk and write about love and relationships.

The labelling of sexualities can help in the process of reclaiming and identification. Often sexuality can seem like ‘airy nothing’ and the temptation is to make it more real and more like ourselves by giving it ‘a habitation and a name’ (terminology shamelessly stolen from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, scene 1). Sometimes it seems that the bigger the icon the more people resist seeing them as sexual. So sexuality is OK for Captain Jack, but not for the Doctor. It’s OK for A.L. Rowse to describe Christopher Marlowe as a ‘raving homo’ but he defends Shakespeare as a ‘red-blooded heterosexual’ (see Katherine Duncan Jones’ 2010 introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, p.50-51). Some of this is an attempt to preserve the image of the default hero from anything non-standard, whether that be homosexuality, bisexuality, or any sexuality at all. Ironically though, it’s the really iconic cultural figures who can best withstand the anachronism of reinterpretation by marginalised people, and it’s that very iconic status that makes it important to do so.

Whether Tom Daley eventually chooses to define or label himself is entirely his decision. Whether or not you see Olympians as public figures, he’s a young man in love who did a brave thing and deserves to be left alone. Dr Who on the other hand is a centuries-old fictional character and Shakespeare is a worldwide literary figure with a body of work that has been continually reinvented and reinterpreted since the sixteenth century. Seeing ourselves reflected in figures like these can be important and reassuring. It can be done without either labelling or raising these figures to godlike status that transcends human sexuality, simultaneously rejecting and embodying it in all its forms. But if we do want to use our own labels about these figures then that’s fine. They are established enough to take our own and other people’s interpretations. It’s wibbly-wobbly, sexy-wexy.

Kaye’s PhD title is ‘Violence and Liminality: A Bisexual Perspective on Spenser and Shakespeare’.
Kaye is organising BiReCon 2014, a research conference designed to bring together academics, activists, and communities. BiReCon is happening at Leeds Trinity University on 31 July 2014 and is free for people who have a weekend booking for BiCon. You can register for BiReCon when you register for BiCon, or alternatively email [email protected]