The queer connection: Trans identity and the Doctor.


NOTE: This is a transgender-related entry. If you are confused by any of the terms used here, check out Ronen’s Trans Glossary.

Much has been made of the radical amount of queerness (radical by television standards, anyway) displayed by the program Doctor Who and its spin-off, Torchwood. Much of it today is thanks to the man who rebooted the show itself back in 2005, Russell T. Davies. RTD, a gay man himself, thought (logically) that in the future queerness would be even more tolerated than it is today and slipped all kinds of “throw-away” lines into the episodes he wrote. Like in the episode Midnight, where a woman talking bitterly about her ex rattles off “she needed her own space” without even a whiff of taboo. Or in that same episode, where the attendant on the bus tour keeps addressing the passengers as “Ladies, gentlemen and variations thereupon.” Some folks might have heard that and thought it was a joke, but for me? It was a nod to a future where my identity isn’t just accepted, it’s taken as a matter of course.

(That episode, by the way, is one of my favorites for reasons far beyond its queeritude. It’s also creepy as hell. Watch but beware.)

Anyway, like I said, much has been made of the Whoniverse’s general queerness, even going way further back than RTD’s involvement, but I wanted to focus in on a very specific aspect: the part where the character of the Doctor himself is analogous to a trans person.

As far as analogies go, it doesn’t take a whole lot of mental gymnastics – although it’s not quite as straightforward as, say, comparing the X-Men mutants to gay youth. But as a trans person myself, one who also happens to be an enormous geek, I’m willing to do a few mental handsprings to draw the conclusion. There aren’t a whole lot of “just plain trans” characters in popular media, and those that exist can rarely be held up as realistic examples or role models. So sometimes it’s up to us to take little clues and hints from the facts of a character – especially one that we might like or admire anyway – arrange those puzzle pieces into something vaguely picture-shaped, and then fill in the blanks ourselves.

That said, have some points:

“The Doctor” isn’t his real name. Except that it kinda is.

The Doctor was born with a different name. At some point in his history his House (aka his family) disowned him, effectively taking his birth name from him, and he took on the title of “The Doctor.” Stripped of the name he was raised with, he chose a new one that, whether intentional or not, defined who he would be for centuries to come.

This is a point that’s true across all the renegade Time Lords: The Doctor. The Master. The Rani. The Monk. Each of them supposedly chose their titles, which effectively became their names, based on a truth they saw in themselves, something they believed they either already were or could become.

Not all trans people put that much deep thought into their chosen name, but I know I did. I didn’t want my name to just be some masculinized or androgynized version of my birth name, I wanted it to be a reflection of the person I wish to become and, in many ways, already am.

Even when a trans person doesn’t put that amount of thought into their name, there is usually a sense of the need to own one’s identity. We are not (necessarily) the way our parents raised us to be or the way greater society would have us – but in order to be recognized as such, we have to own ourselves. We have to declare ourselves. Name ourselves.

He passes, and as a result is constantly coming out.

Among trans folk, there’s a phrase: “going stealth.” A person is going stealth when they’ve progressed so far into their transition that they are passing consistently as their gender. New people they meet – new coworkers, new friends – don’t have any way of knowing that they were declared a different gender at birth. Coming out as trans suddenly becomes a deliberate choice, something that has to be actively done in order for people to know.

On the flip side, there’s also an idea of being “undercover.” In this case, a trans person might not have started their transition yet, or they might plan on never physically transitioning. They are more likely to still pass as the gender they were declared at birth, but this gives them a similar option to the ones who are going stealth. As long as they’re comfortable enough with it, they can pass as their declared-at-birth gender for as long as necessary under certain contexts, and come out when and if they’re ready.

The Doctor isn’t human. Still, almost everyone he meets, even the majority of other aliens, assume he’s human because on the surface he looks exactly like one. He passes. Even when his behavior marks him as something “different” or “weird,” he passes. Identifying himself as the other, the alien – coming out – is a choice, one that can be held off for as long as he needs.

Regeneration = Transition.

Anybody who travels with the Doctor long enough has to get used to the fact that his body changes. More than that, it changes in largely unpredictable ways. There have been some hints over the years that Time Lords in general have control over their regenerations, but for whatever reason – whether it’s choice or a skill he just doesn’t have – the Doctor doesn’t.

Physical transition, especially with the use of hormones, is a lot like that. Your body changes at a rapid pace and, though there’s some amount of predictability in the outcome, you never know exactly what’s going to happen. You can be pretty sure that by the end of it you’ll still have legs, but what about vocal tone? Body hair? Body shape? A lot of things can change over a transition and some might change more or less than others. And anyone who stays with a trans person through physical transition has a lot to learn to deal with – likewise, Rose got thrown for a loop when the Doctor regenerated before her eyes.

So in conclusion:

There are a lot of things about the Doctor as a character that are admirable and fascinating and just plain delightful, and I’d probably still be a fan even if I hadn’t been able to draw the above conclusions. But being able to draw parallels between his life and a trans experience has allowed me to identify even closer with him – and it probably helps explain why I’m just that obsessed with the series.

Maybe someday there’ll be a popular onscreen hero who also just happens to be actually trans. But a hero who is already loved by millions and who happens to be somewhat analogous? For now, I will definitely take that – and I’ll continue to proudly hold the Doctor up as an example of trans experience, even if it isn’t what his creators intended.

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Posted on April 8, 2011, in Geekery, Science Wibbly, Trans and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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