The presence of a black US president in a summer blockbuster used to mean that the film occurred in The Future. But in 2010, we need a new signifier. I think I know the one: the openly gay general.
With the recent repeal-that-wasn't of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the gay military commander has replaced a black US president as the Ultimate Futuristic Symbol.
It's not that SF hasn't featured gay characters in military roles before. It's just that media SF, with the notable exception of Captain Jack "If It Bleeds, I Can Fuck It" Harkness and a single episode of Babylon 5 featuring Commander Ivanova and Talia Winters spending the night together, is decades behind prose SF in its depiction of those characters. And even then, the military-minded gays in prose SF are few and far-between, and their sexuality is often represented as subject to indecision or engineering. More than a few authors direct their future civilizations down the Spartan route, on the logic that those who sleep together will also fight together more effectively, or that the only way to cure over-population is to enforce homosexuality on the populace. The latter is a key component to Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, a military SF classic wherein the main character arrives on a future Earth to discover that his fellow grunts are all gay, and he's the only straight man left.
The alien Hwarath employ a similar strategy in Eleanor Arnason's Ring of Swords. The civilization splits males from females, and encourages the aggressive and war-like males to sleep together. A lone human, Nick Sanders, has been absorbed into their ranks, and enters a homosexual relationship with his commander despite never having been inclined to do so beforehand. A similar fate befalls Hunt Morgan, a boy in M.J. Engh's Arslan, the story of a third-world dictator who takes over the world in one week, in part because his armies use rape as a weapon. Arslan, the charismatic but evil dictator, continually abuses Hunt, twisting him into a terrified but loyal lover as his sexual and global domination grows ever more secure.
Sometimes, the gay characters in military SF either can't seem to make up their minds (like Aral Vorkosigan, who slept with his male best friend after discovering his first wife's infidelity), or they just don't seem to be present at all (like Lt. Felix Gaeta in Battlestar Galactica, whose sexuality was revealed in a webisode called "The Face of the Enemy"). Writing about Gaeta's outing, Michael Jensen of AfterElton said: "After seventy episodes, I was pretty well accustomed to the fact that one of the more diverse casts on television, which frequently dealt with some of the most pressing issues of our time including terrorism, torture and religious warfare, was going to completely ignore gay characters and issues."
It's not all bad, though. The main character of Adam Roberts' New Model Army is a capable officer who kicks ass and gets things done and just happens to be gay. And Jaym Gates is planning an anthology of queer military SF.
None of these characters have appeared in my next big SF popcorn movie, though. My demands are simple: I want an openly gay character in the military who just happens to be gay, who isn't defined entirely by his or her sexuality, who isn't tortured by it and who doesn't have to hide it. I want The Future to flicker across my silver screen without Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
Imagine if, instead of Vivica A. Fox, Will Smith woke up next to Taye Diggs at the beginning of Independence Day. Or what if the xenophobic hardass that Jake Sully reported to in Avatar made reference to his husband back home? (I mean, he clearly had an oral fixation, and he seemed really interested in Jake's legs. Doesn't seem like much of a stretch, to me.)
I'm not asking for saintly gays in my military SF. I'm just asking for men and women who don't have to hide foundations of their identity from the rest of the characters and the world they share. Because that's obviously our next hurdle in the pursuit of a more perfect union: a country where we stop requiring a layer of lies over what is a true sacrifice. And if we overcome that hurdle, we might finally be ready to face disaster, both real and imagined, together as one people.