In The Flesh is very important to me (you can read an introductory review of Season 1 by Ace here), and Kieren Walker, in particular, is very important to me. He’s an artist. He doesn’t want to stand out but at the same time he stands up for the mistreated. He spends a lot of time wanting to run away from everything but when it counts he decides to stay. He has a history of depression. He is also a LGBTQ+ character, which is one of his defining characteristics but not the defining character feature. The way Kieren’s sexuality is portrayed on the show and talked about by the creators isn’t perfect, but it is also extraordinarily positive in quite a few ways.
Trigger warnings for brief mentions of suicide and depression below. Also mild spoilers concerning Kieren’s character development and relationships.
Let’s start with the basics—Kieren’s sexual identity, which is actually where most of the issues arise, because there is some question as to what Kieren actually identifies as. Kieren’s only two love interests in the show so far are two men and, as a result, a part of the fandom is very quick to shout “gay zombies!” However, the show’s creator Dominic Mitchell has stated multiple times that Kieren is, in fact, not gay:
He’s not gay but he’s not straight. He’s more in love with the person than the gender. Rick is very uncomfortable with his relationship with Kieren. I don’t think it got to the point of having sex but it was maybe going that way and he couldn’t handle it. What’s so great about horror and fantasy is that you can talk about gender politics and identity freely. In the Flesh is really story of identity. How do you fit in when you’re completely different and people are labeling you? The Government has labelled him a PDS sufferer; the HVF have labelled him as rotter and his family don’t know what he is. He goes through hell. (interview with SciFiNow)
Because the show is in a lot of ways about labels, Kieren is called a lot of things: a Partially Deceased Syndrome Sufferer, The First Risen, an Angel of Heaven, a Rotter, a Dead ‘Un. There are all these labels that people put on him, and it’s the same in life as well. People like to put others in boxes. So I kind of wanted Kieren’s sexuality to be that he falls in love with the person. Obviously he’s attracted to men, I think he’s attracted to women too. He’s attracted to their personality, and I quite like that, rather than “oh yes, he’s a gay zombie”. I didn’t want it to be a big deal. (interview with IWG)
The slightly iffy wording aside (who falls in love with someone’s gender?—everyone falls in love with the person, except that some people only fall in love with people of certain genders), this makes a lot of bisexual and pansexual fans very happy, because we’re told that Kieren is neither gay nor straight. It’s not implied that he switches between gay and straight or that he has to choose “a side”. Bisexual and pansexual people are so rarely represented and it’s wonderful to see a character like Kieren, who is a subtly constructed, complex protagonist. However, he is never explicitly labeled bisexual or pansexual either on the show or by the creator who, as evidenced by the quotes above, dances around the words bisexual or pansexual just as most of the media does—I was unable to find a direct quote of Mitchell using either of those words, even though there are articles labeling Kieren bisexual but the words aren’t in quotes. This makes Kieren one of the many (relatively speaking) TV bisexuals (or pansexuals) who appear dead-scared of labels.
This is a problem because it perpetuates harmful ideas that bisexuality/pansexuality is something one doesn’t talk about, that it’s somehow shameful to embrace these labels and identities (as opposed to how characters on TV openly state and embrace the fact that they’re gay), or that bisexual and pansexual people are somehow “above labels”, which is untrue to most bisexuals. It’s quite the contrary. In fact, the bisexual label is a source of comfort; it helps us find community and support, while being unable to define ourselves leaves us feeling lost and alone. As such, I find it interesting (and by interesting I mean it makes me angry) that Mitchell says that genre fiction allows one to talk about identity freely and that In The Flesh is very much about labels, yet he avoids labeling Kieren’s sexuality.
On one hand, I can try to understand this decision because most of the labels in the show are forced on Kieren (and other PDS sufferers), so not labeling his own sexuality can be seen as an act of defiance—a desire to escape the system, so to speak. But on the other hand, In The Flesh doesn’t exist in a vacuum and viewers are told by yet another program that the bisexual or pansexual label is something to be avoided, that it’s better not to label yourself at all. It leaves many bisexual people, especially young bisexual people who may not even be aware of the label, feeling like their sexuality is something not to be talked about and, by extension, something shameful.
Another problem is that invisible representation is not really representation. So far, the show has made absolutely no reference to Kieren experiencing attraction to people who aren’t men. So even though it helps that the creator has talked about Kieren’s being attracted to other genders too (and I will defend bisexual/pansexual Kieren Walker to the grave), unless one reads something about it, it’s very easy to assume that Kieren is gay. The writing of the show also confuses the issue further, because among the very few references to Kieren’s sexuality, his best friend Amy says in the second episode of Season 2: “I love you, Kieren Walker. Not like that ’cause I know you don’t like that.” It can be interpreted in a few different ways, but the most obvious one is that Kieren doesn’t like girls at all. Other ways to look at it are that he simply isn’t interested in Amy like that or that Amy incorrectly assumes that Kieren doesn’t like girls at all. It is also important to note that a bisexual person doesn’t have to be attracted to all genders, so even if Kieren isn’t attracted to women at all, he can still be bi. But the show doesn’t make it clear either way.
However, some aspects of Kieren’s sexuality also make him a rare and positive portrayal of a bi/pan character. Firstly, Kieren’s attractions are very much not sexualized. Hypersexualization is something a lot of LGBTQ+ characters suffer from because all marginalized sexual identities are harmfully and incorrectly assumed to be inherently more sexual than heterosexuality. Bi/pan identities are perceived as even more sexual because of the incorrect assumptions that being attracted to multiple genders means that one can only be happy having sex with multiple people at once. For example,
Captain Jack Harkness of Torchwood and Doctor Who is constantly flirting with people and described as someone who would sleep with anything that moves (although I should note that once he starts a relationship with Ianto Jones he appears to be very much devoted and, I assume, monogamous). Whereas, in In the Flesh, Kieren’s attractions are presented as primarily emotional/romantic.
Mitchell also describes Kieren’s sexuality as “he falls in love with the person” (which makes me think that Kieren is actually on the asexuality spectrum as well, possibly demisexual). During the two seasons, Kieren only gets two beautiful kisses with Simon, both of which, to this asexual at least, appear to be more driven by emotion than sexual desire. He also gets a mention of having “fooled around” with Rick prior to the events of the show (even though that doesn’t mean that they even got to kiss, according to Mitchell). It’s wonderful to see that Kieren’s relationships are primarily about romantic feelings.
Additionally, despite everything that happens to him and his depression, Kieren is quite comfortable with his sexuality (as confirmed by Mitchell as well). Even though there’s little direct evidence in writing of the show, it appears that the whole town knows about or assumes Kieren isn’t straight: the ban from the pub for being “different than them”, the ban from the Macys’ house for making Rick a mix tape, Gary referring to Simon as Kieren’s “lover boy”. He doesn’t appear to make any effort to deny it or pretend to be otherwise. Kieren’s parents, although concerned when Rick comes back, appear to care more about the fact that Kieren’s suicide was linked to Rick’s joining the army and his death, rather than the fact that their son was in love with a boy. In any case, at the very least, to Kieren, his sexuality isn’t a source of self-hatred or self-denial.
Nevertheless, I think it would be wonderful and particularly fitting if Kieren were to clearly call himself bisexual or pansexual in Season 3 (if we get one). Kieren was hated by the town’s folks even before he got PDS because he “was not like them”. In the second episode of Season 2, Kieren talks to Simon about leaving Roarton even though he once thought he could change things, yet the season ends with Kieren deciding to stay in Roarton. His character arc in regards to PDS goes from him trying to pretend he isn’t a PDS sufferer to gradual acceptance, but he still is afraid to stand up and stand out much. A natural progression of this arc would be him getting more vocal about who he is, both in terms of being a PDS sufferer and in terms of his sexuality. We already have glimpses into the PDS part at least—in the fourth episode of Season 2 he defies his parents’ attempts at “normality” and talks openly and explicitly about his experiences in his untreated state. It would be beautiful to see Kieren speaking more and more openly and frankly about both his PDS and his (bi/pan)sexuality because prejudice against PDS sufferers isn’t the only thing that needs fighting in Roarton.
In The Flesh does such a good job at speaking about LGBTQ+ issues, both literally and in analogies and metaphors. Kieren is already a positively portrayed LGBTQ+ character who is comfortable with his sexuality and whose attractions and relationships aren’t hyper-sexualized. But if Kieren labeled himself explicitly, it would both enhance the show’s themes and would have an even more profound effect on many viewers. It could serve as an excellent counter-point to all the labels that are put on him by others: it would be a label he chose himself, not defined by other people. It would be a beautiful parallel to PDS sufferers choosing to call themselves The Redeemed. Additionally, bisexual and pansexual people would get a unique hero (because Kieren is very much a hero) who is proud of who he is, both in metaphorical terms as The Redeemed and in literal terms of his bisexuality/pansexuality.