The amazing thing about Doctor Who is, it means many different things to different people. And a new anthology, Queers Dig Time Lords, aims to open up the meaning of Doctor Who for LGBT fans. Here's an essay from the book, by Nebula Award-winning author Rachel Swirsky.
The Girl Who Waited (for the Guidance Counselor to Get to His Point)
It will surprise no one who has given the matter any deep consideration that, given the existence of an extremely powerful being who is documented to engage in time travel and have a predilection for messing about with human history, it follows that there would be many individuals - even possibly contemporary ones -who have had experience with the aforesaid entity.
(In point of fact, the ubiquity of the entity’s interaction with humans raises a number of world-building questions. Why would the time-traveling individual insist on secrecy? Indeed, if the universe is regularly punctured by web-winged time-eaters, evil scarecrows, and farting things in zip-up human suits, then how is it even possible to maintain secrecy?)
Setting my parenthetical meandering aside, the point here is simple: if a time-traveling madman with a screwdriver exists then, logically, he’s already got acquaintances among us. In fact, at this very moment, he may be raising a banana as he flips through this book (a copy found on the shelves of an abandoned used bookstore in a far-flung post-apocalyptic future), wearing an amused and condescending expression as he “keeps score” of his past exploits.
Look. Enough beating around the proverbial bush. Let’s just be honest. If the Doctor exists, someone knows him. And yes, that person is me.
Excuse me. Perhaps that was a bit misleading.
I want to be extremely clear. I, Rachel Swirsky, have never met any individual who referred to himself as the Doctor, except for an extremely pretentious academic who is best left out of the discussion. I have never entered a blue police box; I have never seen a screwdriver wielded with the confidence of a gun and the elegance of a fencing foil; I have never been annoyed (in person) by the tendency of villainous robots and aliens to repeat stock phrases as if they were using tedium as a battle tactic; I have never applauded for a shriveled old creature until Tinkerbell was revivified by the power of belief.
That particular time-traveling entity and I have never crossed paths. Remember that. It’s important, especially if you’re a lawyer.
Now, if I happen to have encountered someone who shares traits in common with that individual - well, it’s a big universe out there. I assure you that it will be purely coincidental if there is any resemblance to persons either living, dead, or desperately trying to retcon the number of regenerations they’re allowed.
My acquaintance, the Guidance Counselor, resembles - but is legally distinct from - the Doctor.
Also, he’s a much more entertaining drunk.
“You know, fuck it,” the Guidance Counselor slurred to me just the other night, pushing a bottle of whiskey into my face. “Everyone thinks they’re so fucking on it. They look at me and they think they know everything. They see a pencil-neck geek who wears bobby socks and an ascot and they say, ‘Oh, how quaint, how eccentric.’ Do they ever think about what’s beneath? You know? Do they ever try to untie the ascot? Oh, sure, there’s the academic shit, the essays and the rambling on message boards, the critiques and the deconstruction. Well, fuck your deconstruction! I’ll deconstruct your face! I’ll deconstruct your nose with my fist! I’ll deconstruct... I’ll deconstruct—”
It was at this point that the Guidance Counselor lost track of himself and began squinting at our surroundings, looking for inspiration. He looked down at his lap and for a horrible moment I thought he was going to threaten to deconstruct his trousers, an impression that was only worsened a moment later when he proclaimed:
“I’ll deconstruct the motherfucking moon!”
Fortunately, bare ass cheeks did not ensue.
The Guidance Counselor and I were sitting together in an Iowa field, the requisite corn aspiring to grow as high as an elephant’s eye. Light breeze stirred the night air, providing all-too-brief respite from the humidity. In the distance, we could hear the lows of cattle busy fertilizing the American heartland.
We’d brought a couple of blankets and laid them out next to each other so that we could recline and watch the night sky as we drank. Empty beer bottles lay scattered at our feet. Only the headlights of my car, parked a few feet away with the doors open, illuminated the concealing night.
Above, the stars shone the way they do over open spaces, all blaze and splendor, freed from the competition of city lights. That’s the sort of thing that always becomes more portentous when you’re sitting with the Guidance Counselor. They don’t seem as far away, those stars. The danger they contain, the violence, the adventure, the strangeness.
“I probably could,” the Guidance Counselor mused. Catching my confused expression, he clarified, “Deconstruct the moon. I’d need a big lever and someplace to stand...”
“How about a soap box?” I suggested.
He stuck out his tongue.
He has a long tongue. It’s not forked, but it’s unnaturally pointy.
We were deep into our bottles by then. Gin-soaked enough that our moods had become fluid, could shift from derisive to angry to melancholy and then back again, all in the space between tick and tock.
“They never look underneath the surface,” the Guidance Counselor repeated. His finger absentmindedly stroked the rim of his near-empty bottle. “They never think, what if I’m wrong? What if I don’t know him at all? What if I don’t even understand the fundamentals?”
“Well, you know,” I said. “People. They kind of suck.”
But he wasn’t really listening.
He was building up to his reveal.
That’s something else that tends to happen around the Guidance Counselor. You’ll be in the middle of your life, and it’s just your life, the way lives are. Then all of a sudden something happens, and you realize that your life was just the exposition, that suddenly you’re in the rising action, rappelling up the mountain of plot, striving for that dizzy summit that propriety suggests we really shouldn’t call a climax.
He thumped the bottle onto the ground and turned to me decisively.
“I’m a woman,” he said.
“In what sense?” I asked.
I mean, I had to ask. You never know with him. Could be alien sex-switching microbes, or something to do with alternate universes, or a rather silly metaphor.
“Spiritual,” he said. “Mental. Metaphysical. Essential. If you prick me, do I not bleed? If you provoke me, do I not roar?”
She launched to her feet.
“Biology isn’t destiny! Even if it were, time travel doesn’t work like that! I reject essentialist notions. Just because I appear to be a man, must I be in essence a man? No! When they say that the Guidance Counselor has never been a woman, they are wrong, they are misguided. How blithely they erase the yearning, the suppression, the struggling against a perceived identity that isn’t really your own...”
“Wait,” I said. “You’ve gotten all muddled. Who blithely erases your... uh... whatever, blah, blah, blah.” I eyed her abandoned bottle. It contained more liquid than mine currently did. “You’ve probably gotten, um, confused because you’ve schmunk, brunk, er, drunk too much. B-better let me finish that.”
“On their Internets, in their letters, in their essays and ruminations, those who watch me complain that no matter how many bodies I go through, I always end up as a man. They want to know if I’ll ever present myself as a great ape with matching chromosomes. But they’ve missed it. The vital fact. I’m already a woman.”
“Oh,” I said. “That sense.”
She grabbed my wrist and hauled me, weak-kneed and protesting, to my feet. I stumbled as she dragged me toward my car, its doors still thrown open to the Iowa night, and pushed me into the backseat where her TTMCTM (Time Traveling Milk Crate™) sat among junk mail and half-read magazines.
“I shouldn’t tell you!” she proclaimed. “I should show you!”
With groaning and squeezing and swearing and shoving, into the milk crate we went.
# # #
First things first - you need to know this.
The damn thing is smaller on the inside.
# # #
Okay, perhaps this bears some expositing.
You may be wondering, for instance, how I met the Guidance Counselor.
I don’t remember. I was fucking drunk.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I was at a bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans where I’d gone after researching a story about a pre-Stonewall lesbian couple.
(I’m a short story writer. That doesn’t mean that you should mistake this for fiction.)
Though the place had once been a landmark of queer history, it was no longer full of sequined, sultry flappers, and dashing women wearing men’s button-downs. It had become a dreary, black-painted place with an unadorned bar at which no one sat, an empty dance floor, and a rope blocking the way upstairs.
I took my pick of barstools and ordered a gin and tonic.
I drank the gin and tonic.
I ordered another gin and tonic.
I drank another gin and tonic.
There may have been some amount of swish and repeat.
Things got a bit... fuzzy... or, rather, shiny... the borders of my vision dazzled as if I was staring into a bright light... there were people’s voices, the smell of smoke... a brassy laugh that kept rising above the din... the sequins and the sultry voices and the grinning girls with popped collars...
I can’t tell you the sequence of events; it was all out of synch. I remember it the way one remembers a dream. Flashes. Smiles. It all seemed perfectly natural at the time.
Someone was leaning on my shoulder, and someone else was throwing a punch at the girl next to me, and someone was tossing pocket change into an empty glass. A shout: “Flatties! We’re going to get copped!” There was a crazy din, people stumbling over each other, pushing, hollering. I raised my glass in the direction of the bartender (who had already cheesed it, but I wasn’t sober enough to notice) and said, admiringly, “Man, you guys go all out when you go retro.”
A tall, slim, ebony-skinned gentleman drifted toward me. His was the one slow-moving body in the crowd. The opera cape slung over his shoulders rustled with his approach. (This was the guidance counselor's last incarnation, of course. Her current form is milk-pale, rose-cheeked, and stout about the trunk and legs.)
He laid his hand on my arm. “Pardon me, gal,” he said, slowly, in a voice that blended the best, mellow tones of British and Southern, “but I think you've got the wrong end of the stick.”
I then noticed that I had, all unawares, clutched the end of his walking stick. I let it go.
“You don’t seem to know where you are,” he continued.
“In New Orleans,” I replied.
He gestured broadly, encompassing the scene with his gesture. “I don’t mean locally. Or even temporally. You don’t seem to know where your, ah, what’s the expression? Where your head’s at.”
“On my shoulders,” I replied.
He tilted his head. “You’re rather drunk, you know.”
“That’s probably why you thought that was funny.” He paused. “You need orientation.”
I asked, “Like freshman orientation?”
He smirked. “You can call me the Guidance Counselor.”
Outside, there were shouts and footsteps. People were pounding on the door.
With a flourish, the gentleman offered his hand. “You’d best come with me,” he said.
Later, when the milk crate had safely delivered us back to Iowa, he leaned against my doorframe, outrageously and gorgeously out of place in red-lined black silk.
“Sometimes people time travel on their own,” he explained. “It’s rare, but when it happens, it’s dangerous and glamorous. Like dancing on an open flame.” He grinned. “All the things I like best.”
“Are you sure,” I retorted, “that it wasn’t just a costume party?”
From his cape, he withdrew a candy cigarette in a long, golden holder, which he proceeded to raise to his lips. “I try never to be certain of anything.”
# # #
It takes a long time to get anywhere in the milk crate. Or at least it feels like it takes a long time to get anywhere in the milk crate. My happily drunken state wore off quickly.
We were jammed together, her elbow pushing against my eye, my knee wedged someplace totally inappropriate, exhaling hot air on each other while the TTMCTM made wheezing noises.
“It does that,” the Guidance Counselor said, “to annoy me.”
“Why does it want to annoy you?”
“It doesn’t like time travel.”
“But it’s a time travel machine. Crate. Thingy.”
With a bone-jittering thump, we landed on solid ground. The Guidance Counselor pried open the crate’s lid. “Here we are,” she said. She stepped out gracefully, untangling herself with ease while I tried to force my cramping muscles into some semblance of an upright position.
Once I made it out of the crate, I saw that we had landed someplace truly strange - not, itself, an oddity when one is traveling with the Guidance Counselor. We were in an alleyway from which I could peek out at a major street. Tall but narrow, brightly colored buildings were crammed into each other, competing for space, their peaked roofs making the horizon into a zigzag. Blinking lights cascaded from windows, competing with neon, ropes of sequins, and joyful effigies made of tulle. Murals painted in primary colors splashed across the walls that dared to be blank.
“Welcome to the future!” the Guidance Counselor said.
I squinted at one of the murals. “This looks like San Francisco.”
The Guidance Counselor looked annoyed. “It is San Francisco,” she admitted. “San Francisco in the future!”
I pointed to a billboard visible in the distance. “Why is Paris Hilton advertising Coca-Cola in the future?”
“Fine. It’s San Francisco a few months in the future. Are you happy now?”
We walked out onto the street. Revelers shouted to us. There were leather girls with whips and drag queens in pink wigs, and more than a few gay couples in khakis who looked like they’d strolled in from Kansas. The Guidance Counselor, in her rumpled ascot and striped bobby socks, looked more in tune with our surroundings than I did in my generic early-Iowa-autumn long skirt and light coat.
A nearby girl was inflating rainbow-colored balloons, shaping them into cocks, and passing them out. I narrowly avoided being given one.
“Gay Pride parade?” I asked.
The Guidance Counselor turned to me, excited. “No! This future is so tantalizingly close to you! I just couldn’t wait for you to see it. A team of rogue geneticists in Iceland is already working on genetically recoding the virus they plan to release globally. It will erase gender essentialism, heteronormativity, and all the trite hang-ups about sex that have bound human societies since Og differentiated himself from Ogga. In the future, every day is pride day!”
I pointed at the billboard again. “If this is a gender utopian future, then I must ask once again. Why is Paris Hilton advertising Coca-Cola?”
The Guidance Counselor pouted. “You’re no fun anymore.”
“You said you wanted to show me something. What is it?”
“This,” she said.
This time her voice rang with sincerity.
“Even in your world, there are people who get it. People who understand. Chromosomes aren’t destiny. Men can wag their wrists. Women can have penises. Everyone can fix a truck or dress in satin or lip synch for their lives!”
Six naked men painted in the colors of the rainbow ran by, screaming.
“Community,” I said. “That’s what you wanted to show me.”
I paused, looking out wistfully at the rabble rousers, the dozens of red and blue and purple balloon penises bobbing in the sky.
“I understand,” I said. A bit sadly, I added, “I wish it were a virus. Almost. If everyone really could be themselves... if that were the future...” I shook my head. “Is that the fantasy you come here for?”
“That,” she agreed, “and I want to come out.”
# # #
Questions that have probably occurred to you by now:
Why does the Guidance Counselor always take people to places that revolve around a twentieth-century ideological perspective?
Why does she, as an alien, have an identity that slots into the binary sex division entrenched in human culture?
Since she’s an alien time traveler who has lived for a gobsmackingly long time, why has it taken her so long to come out?
These are good questions.
These are the questions I asked her as we walked to Union Square.
She did what she always does.
She replied with jokes.
# # #
In Union Square, a crowd of gay men had set up a stage, on which they were conducting a beauty contest for men with highly defined, glistening abdominal muscles.
The Guidance Counselor leaped onto the stage, brushing aside the bicep-brandishing beaus, and seized the microphone.
“I’m a woman!” she shouted.
I shrank away from the crowd, trying to make myself look as if she and I had arrived separately, and I had no idea who she was.
“People have asked!” she said, pulling the microphone free of its stand. She stood back, her free hand sweeping outward, her body language like that of a minister addressing his congregation. “They have wanted to know! When would I be a woman? Well, I am! I am! I am the Guidance Counselor! And I am a woman!”
I expected people to boo and shout for her to let the beauty contest continue, but I had underestimated that strange quality of hers, that sheer charisma that crowns her queen of any crowd, that lets her martial small, ragtag bands of people so that they can face down aliens and robots and sentient garbage dumps.
They congratulated her, they cheered for her, their sister and their comrade. They raised her aloft and carried her through the crowd. She pulled out her ever-ready sonic screwdriver mixer and poured one for everyone. They were pink for the occasion. We drank them with umbrellas.
People wept and told her their own coming out stories, their travails with bullies and unforgiving parents. The beautiful, oiled men embraced each other, bare chest to chest, weeping with catharsis. Others joined in, too, BDSM queens and topless ladies and couples with small children who had collected large bundles of abandoned penis balloons, all of them trading stories and tears.
I waited, patiently, at the back of the crowd, holding my story to myself, as I usually do, because I’m much better at talking about other people’s stories, even when I’m writing memoirs, as you may have noticed.
She came back to me as I’d known she would, beaming, a rainbow pin tucked into her ascot, her empty screwdriver mixer in hand. “Beautiful,” she said. “All of them, beautiful. All of it, beautiful.”
I smiled. It was hard not to smile while watching her glow pinkly with all that joy. “Now that you’re out, are you going to transition?” I asked. “Dress like a lady? Wear clothes without nearly enough pockets? Shirts that button down the left-hand side?”
She gave me a look of genuine, shocked offense. “What makes you think I’m not already dressed like a lady?”
I paused, mouth open.
She straightened her ascot. “How do you know what ladies wear in the future?”
She had a point.
I looked around at the crowd, still laughing and weeping and hugging despite the fact that their charismatic authority had slipped away. It was such a happy moment, such a resonant and perfect moment, that I distrusted it immediately.
“Well, then. What now?” I asked.
“I live my life,” she replied.
“No, I mean, what now on this trip? I’ve been around the crate with you a few times. It’s sometime around now when the giant invisible space rats appear.”
She raised her brows. “Giant space rats?”
“Swarms of radioactive space flies. Aliens using disco music to take over the world. One of your time-traveling doppelgangers who got loose when you visited the beginning of the universe.”
Sighing, she said, “Rachel, I brought you here because I wanted to share one of my most intimate moments. I travel through history. It’s my life, my calling. And yes, sometimes there are monsters, there are big flashy moments, there are times when someone has to save the galaxy. And yes, a lot of the time that’s me. But what I’ve learned, what I want to show you, is that really history is made by the small moments. By coming out. By sharing stories.”
Half-turning, she gestured into the crowd where a young boy was listening to a drag queen tell the story of her first performance.
“He’s going to grow up and because he was here, because of the many moments in his life, including this one, that will have made him into a man who understands and cares for everyone, no matter who they love, this little boy who will be a straight man is going to help enact legislation that will end homophobia in the United States. Not Band-Aid it, as all the legislation before it will do, but end it, in a way most of the people in this crowd would never think possible.”
She reached for my hand.
“That’s what I want to show you. You can be so cynical. You write about the future, but sometimes you have no hope for it. You need to see this. There is hope. Things will be better.”
As her voice trailed off, it became laughter and music. Rather, I heard the laughter and music of the crowd behind her, which had begun to sing, and - was it? Yes. A camp song. A song the Guidance Counselor had led them to.
Someone’s laughing, my Lord, kumbaya.
Someone’s singing my Lord, kumbaya.
She smiled. I smiled. The world was all rainbows.
“The giant invisible space rats,” I said. “They’re right behind me, aren’t they?”
The Guidance Counselor’s gaze flickered. Taking care not to move her mouth, she said, “Yeah, but they don’t know I’ve noticed them yet. Play along for a second while I get my mixer ready.”
“Oh!” I exclaimed. Hamming it up, I added, “You are so right, Guidance Counselor! I have been too cynical! But now I see the error of my ways!”
“Don’t overdo it,” the Guidance Counselor chastened. She pulled the sonic mixer from her pocket and brandished it in the air. “Get squeaking, space vermin!” she shouted.
And we fought off the space rats.
But that’s the boring part of the story.
Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Iowa. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and has been nominated for the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, and the World Fantasy Award. In 2011, she won the Nebula for best novella with “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window.” She would like to repeat, for clarity, that the following piece is in fact entirely autobiographical and includes absolutely no fictional elements.