A few months ago, I wrote a piece about what I termed “Magical Obligatory Queer Dating”: to make a long story short, some characters have greatness thrust upon them, and some have seemingly obligatory relationships with the only other LGBTQ+ character on their show thrust upon them. However, we sometimes see an alternate, almost opposite, scenario—queer characters on TV shows who rarely or never seem to have any romantic relationships. In essence, I believe both situations ultimately end up stemming for the same problem: time constraints. When there are LGBTQ+ characters on TV shows, they are more likely than not to be side characters, rather than main characters. As such, they have limited time to explore their love lives, so writers either end up pushing them into an ultra-convenient same-sex relationship, or just not bothering to have the character date at all. However, I don’t think the latter option has to be as problematic as the former, and can actually be a source of good queer representation.
Curiously, the same character can fall into both categories on different points on the show. When discussing Magical Obligatory Queer Dating, I spent a good bit of time talking about Danny from Teen Wolf. However, that was due to the entrance of love interest Ethan in Season 3A; prior to this new arrival, love life was not so exciting for our friend Danny. Okay, he had a male date for a school dance whom we saw for all of five seconds in the first season, but by Season 2, this guy is referred to as his ex (during an extremely brief cameo), and overall Danny is, for all intents and purposes, a single gay character for the first two seasons.
Now, there are some considerations that must be made when showcasing a queer character who is single. Because heterosexuality is still often perceived as the norm, characters are pretty much just presumed straight until proven otherwise. Since there isn’t a queer relationship to establish a single character’s sexual orientation, the character must actively say or do something to come out to the audience, regardless if the other characters are aware of this person’s sexuality or not. These days, it is less likely to be an actual coming out scene, and more often than not, it ends up being a punchline to a joke.
Danny, and his homosexuality, were mentioned by everyone’s favorite lacrosse coach in the second episode of the first season (Danny is out and open about being gay, so it’s not like Coach outed him), but he wasn’t formally introduced until the third episode. Danny’s first spoken line on the show went like this: when asked why he is allowed to sit across from Lydia when another guy was told to move, he answered, “Because I don’t stare at his [Jackson’s] girlfriend’s coin slot”. Zing! Homosexuality makes for great one-liners and punchlines. His replacement token PoC gay best friend, Mason, (who in fact proved to be much more than a token replacement) was already outed in casting updates before the season started, and none of his lines in his first episode had any mention of his sexuality. Next episode, he made his first (and so far only) on-screen declaration of homosexual intent, which involved him telling Liam that he found Brett, a lacrosse player from another school, attractive. Not only do we once again have a seemingly unnecessary line to show or “prove” a character’s sexual orientation, once again the moment was played off for comedic effect, instead of letting a queer character just state their feelings.
Another prime example of a single gay character is Agent Steve Jinks from Syfy’s Warehouse 13 (did anyone watch this show besides my family?). His coming out moment felt more organic than some out-of-place one-liner: during his first stakeout with fellow agent Claudia, she mistakes his banter for trying to flirt with her, causing him to explain, “I’m gay.” It didn’t feel particularly forced in my opinion, but seemed like a plausible situation that might happen when two people who don’t really know each other are stuck together for a long period of time. The fact that Steve was single for all three seasons he was on the show also wasn’t something that really singled him out (pun intended), because for the most part, the romantic lives of the agents were not at all a primary concern for the show. Most of the characters spent significant amount of time single, and even when dating, it was never explored for them in the depth it is on most shows.
Obviously, it only makes sense if a single queer character brings up their sexuality from time to time, but it shouldn’t be exclusively for a cheap laugh. There are plenty of options to write lines and stories that can reference a character’s queerness in ways that aren’t jokes. There is an episode of Warehouse 13 where the group meets Steve’s ex-boyfriend, and viewers got to explore some of his relationship history, including why the couple broke up. This is a good example of engaging with a single character’s sexual orientation in a serious way. In Season 2 of Teen Wolf, there is a minor subplot (more of an incidental factoid, really) that Danny has a crush on new character Matt. It’s unrequited because Matt is straight, but that actually works out best for Danny because Matt is secretly controlling an evil monster that’s slaughtering people. Even just talking about a crush can be a good way for a single queer character to mention their sexuality without having to crack a joke.
I think the inclusion of single LGBTQ+ characters is an important part of queer representation in media. First of all, it does reflect the reality of many viewers. I can’t be the only queer viewer who finds themselves single for extended periods of time. Just as importantly, if not more so, single queer characters open the door to a dialogue about something pretty insidious—the implicit demands on queer people to “prove” their queerness. It can begin starting from a person’s first coming out, when people might say things like, “Are you sure? Have you tried it? etc.” Obviously no one is ever asked the reverse, as heteronormativity is so deeply engrained in most of society. The only definitive proof of sexual orientation that many seem to accept is actual sexual activity.
This is a horribly insulting, demeaning, and reductive way to think of queer people and queer sexuality. If single queer people are not engaging in sexual activity, what evidence can they show to the heteronormative world to “prove” their sexualities? In the realm of pop culture media, the answer is: well if you’re not doing it, at least be talking about doing it. This again is an unfair burden of proof laid on queer people. It is likely that people, straight or queer, will talk about their sexuality with their close friends at various points, but a character shouldn’t have to continuously have lines that bring up their sexuality if it just serves to remind the viewers that yep, So-and-so is still gay. This is further compounded for characters who are attracted to more than one gender. There’s the old stereotype that bisexuals need to be involved with a man and a woman at the same time, hopelessly doomed to never know monogamy. If they are not in this arrangement, they must be continuously proving they aren’t just gay or straight, which is offensive and utterly ridiculous.
Single queer characters have the potential to carry a powerful message: I am queer; take my word for it. A queer character should have the freedom to come out, and then never date anyone and never again have a single mention of their sexual orientation without it impacting how their own sexuality is perceived. Their lack of a relationship and even lack of further discussion should never make them seem somehow “less” gay/bi/etc. Trust me, I am currently single and if I go several days without mentioning I’m gay, I don’t suddenly start backsliding into heterosexuality. While we certainly don’t want singlehood to mean our queer characters are absolutely silent about sexuality, we have to understand—even a silent queer character would still be queer.