Thursday, May 21, 2009

Some Of Us Aren't There Yet, But It's Time They Caught Up

(See Note)

One of the more interesting developments in science fiction television on the last few years has been the BBC series Torchwood. In many ways, it's been a ground breaker. Not the least of those ways is the lead character of the series, Captain Jack Harkness. Jack is in many ways a typical heroic character - strong, courageous, sympathetic, humane, and more than a little mysterious, but what sets him apart from most run of the mill heroic characters is that he is openly bisexual. What's more, Torchwood is often in your face sexual, so it's not just a case of a using a bit of dialog here and there to establish his sexuality.

The "Captain" part of the character's name comes from his status as a former Royal Air Force group captain, a senior rank equivalent to a U.S. Air Force colonel. He has had serious responsibilities, and it's clear that both his subordinates, and most people he encounters, respect him.

So what? It's a science fiction TV series, which means about fifty people with functioning brains watch it, right? That's probably true (well, a bit more than fifty, I suppose), but as part of the larger trend of acceptance of lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGBT) people on TV it's significant. Jack Harkness is a heroic character, and the series makes no bones about that. It's taken for granted. In many ways, Western society has learned to accept LGBT people. There are openly gay and lesbian entertainers. A couple have their own talk shows. Tens of millions of Americans watch these people every day and think nothing of it. Most of us, if we just forget how things have been in the past, think there's nothing terribly remarkable about that.

Which makes this next story all the more remarkable to me. You could say it's a story about a real-life Jack Harkness, but instead of his being respected for who he is and what he's done, he's being drummed out of the military, because he's been exposed as gay. As quoted by Steve Benen, Rachel Maddow explains:

[Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach is] an F-15 fighter pilot, 18-year veteran of the United States Air Force," Rachel explained. "On Sept. 11, Lt. Col. Fehrenbach was picked to be part of the initial alert crew immediately after the 9/11 attacks. The following years, in 2002, he deployed to Kuwait, where he flew combat missions over Afghanistan, attacking Taliban and al Qaeda targets. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Lt. Col. Fehrenbach deployed there, flying combat missions in support of mission Iraqi Freedom.

Over the span of his career, he has flown 88 combat missions, including missions that were the longest mission sorties in the history of his squadron. He's logged more than 2,000 flying hours, nearly 1,500 fighting hours, 400 combat hours. Lt. Col. Fehrenbach is also highly decorated -- he's received nine air medals, including one for heroism. After 18 years of active duty in the Air Force, this experienced, decorated fighter pilot says he is ready and willing to deploy again. He's ready to do what his country and the United States Air Force ask of him.

Lt. Col. Fehrenbach

As Benen goes on to note, they're drumming him out while our military is involved in two wars, where his skills as an experienced fighter pilot could, presumably, come in handy.

To say this makes no sense is a vast understatement. The Air Force and other U.S. military services actively seek out these folks and discharge them. At the same time, the Army, in particular, has been, at least until the economy tanked, recruiting criminals and people with health problems to fill its ranks. LTC Fehrenbach is by no means the first highly skilled person the military have dismissed, either:

First Lt. Daniel Choi, 28, of New York City, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 2003 as an Arabic major and served as an interpreter in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. He later left active duty and joined the New York Army National Guard.

Two months ago, Choi joined a West Point alumni group called Knights Out (West Point's mascot is the Black Knights) to advocate on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender soldiers and their right to openly serve their country. Choi came out as a gay man and began a media blitz against "don't ask, don't tell," the military policy that forbids homosexual service members from disclosing their sexual orientation or engaging in homosexual acts.

Choi's decision had a price. Just days ago, he received a discharge notice from the Army: "You admitted publicly that you are a homosexual," the letter said. "Your actions negatively affected the good order and discipline of the New York Army National Guard."

Choi said he will not resign, even if it ruins his chance for an honorable discharge.

"It's not honorable to hide. It's not honorable to lie," he said. "That's not what soldiers do. All I know is how to put up a good fight."

West Point Grad Targeted

Lt. Choi is fluent in Arabic, which is the language spoken by most of the people who live in Iraq. Arabic is one of the more difficult languages for English speakers to learn. Damn few of us speak it at all. Yet, once again, the military is trying to drum out someone with an extremely rare and valuable skill.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, the Obama Administration could put a stop to this right now:

A report issued last week by UC Santa Barbara's Palm Center research institute said Obama had the power to thwart the discharging of military personnel for their sexual orientation. Under the "stop-loss" provision, Obama can issue executive orders to retain any soldier deemed necessary to the service in a time of national emergency, the report said.

The president also could halt the work of Pentagon review panels that brand troops as gay and thus excluded from service, the report said. And Obama and his Defense secretary could revise discharge procedures, as allowed under the 1993 law banning gays in the military.

Obama In No Hurry To End 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Neither of those steps is extraordinary, and both are well within the accepted prerogatives of the commander in chief. Yet this foolishness goes on. It's high time that those in our service who insist on living in the early Twentieth Century get with the program.

(h/t Dana Hunter)

NOTE: Torchwood is a copyrighted work of the British Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC is in no way responsible for this article, nor did they approve it.


Dana Hunter said...

I really, really love this post. I hope you cross-posted it at Oxdown Gazette.

Now I'm gonna have to start watching Torchwood....

Cujo359 said...

Thanks. Yes, it is cross posted there. Sans picture, sadly.

Efrique said...

Good Post.

Torchwood is most enjoyable, if a little silly at times. I adore the characters of Jack and Gwen.

One thing I enjoy about the series is they don't make a big deal out of Jack's sexuality - he just is who he is - heroic, tragic, brooding but brimming over with cheekiness and life (that's not to say they're coy about sex either); his sexuality is part of who he is, but (unlike so many other shows involving non-hetero characters), he could as easily be gay or hetero without it changing him much; he'd still be heroic, either way. His sexuality is also presented with no comment, either pro or anti. It just is.

In fact, I watched a pile of episodes before it struck me that the show was as unusual as it is, because (apart from a couple of scenes where they were a little heavy-handed), they downplay it so well.

The usual Hollywood fates of characters with gay or lesbian attributes are simple, tragic ones - death, usually (and often rapid). That fate is, literally, impossible for Jack.

The stories don't usually grip me as much as the better ones on Dr Who, but some of them are quite good.

I wish more shows that would present GLBT characters in such an uncondescending manner.

Eventually, shows like that can shift attitudes. For the sake of gay, lesbian and bi people in the military, I certainly hope that happens sooner rather than later.

The story with James Marsters (as in Dana's photo), was interesting. (As usual, I have some quibbles with the plot, but, hey, it's still fun.)

Cujo359 said...

Hi, Efrique,

I suppose in some ways I have been conditioned to accept silliness. After Farscape and Buffy I've certainly learned to get over it and enjoy the story.

That's what I meant by "makes no bones", incidently. Jack just happens to have that sexual preference. It doesn't mean he's a tragic or comical character. It's just a part of who he is. That really is a unique thing in the shows I've watched.