Thursday, September 10, 2009

He Was My Lover (Halo)

This article was written for Halopedia:

I would like to address the subject of homophobia and Halo, both the franchise and its community. Although I previously went over it in my blog article Politics... How Tiresome, there I only gave it a brief paragraph because the focus of the article was much greater. Here I will describe my thoughts in detail. The word ‘homophobia’, while it might literally mean ‘fear of sameness’, is used to mean ‘fear of homosexuality’ and is typically used as a general term referencing prejudice against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual) people for their homosexuality. LGBT individuals make up a part of the gaming community, and I know there are at least four registered on Halopedia. I believe all demographics should be respected within both the franchise itself and the Halo community. There are a few explicit instances of homophobia within Halo, which are basically throwaway comments made by soldiers. While these comments may not be that bad in the grand scheme of things, I believe that their presence negatively colors Halo in the absence of truly gay characters in the series.

First of all, just so we’re all on the same page, I’ll go over some of the basics. Homosexuality is a sexual orientation in which one feels romantically toward members of the same sex/gender. While there are many stereotypes associated with someone being gay, generally involving gay guys behaving in manners associated with femininity and lesbians behaving in manners associated with masculinity, this is not universally true. Many gay people blend into the heterosexual community without much effort and are only recognized as gay when they themselves choose to come out or are outed. It is often said that if all gay people were to turn blue, we would be shocked by all the blue faces. Betty DeGeneres has made this statement: “Let me suggest that we all know someone who is left-handed. Lefties make up roughly the same percentage [of the population] as gay people. And yet millions of Americans say they don't know someone who is gay. Unless those people who claim ignorance are living in a place called Fantasyland, they are most likely mistaken.” Homosexuality is not a term for sexual perversion, and gay individuals are no more likely to be pedophiles, rapists, or into bestiality than are heterosexual individuals. See Wikipedia’s article on homosexuality for more information. I think it’s a shame I have to say this at all, but experience in discussing respect for LGBT persons in the Halo community suggests this is the case.

The first explicitly homophobic comment is in Halo: First Strike, page 283. Corporal Locklear, while preparing to blow up the Forerunner Crystal, muses to himself that he needs to get away before he gets so desperate that he asks a Spartan out on a date, and then shudders when he thinks of the possibility of asking out a male Spartan because he can’t tell their genders apart when they’re in armor. Okay, I get that he’s heterosexual and wouldn’t want to date a man, but is that really worth a shudder? It might be an awkward faux pas, but a shudder indicates revulsion. Technically Locklear’s not the nicest character, but given the lack of explicitly gay-friendly characters in Halo it seems as though the line would unfairly pander to the homophobic readers.

The second comment is in Halo: Contact Harvest, page 83 (original full-sized paperback version, anyway). Petty Officer Healy has become aware that Avery Johnson and Nolan Byrne have some kind of history. He asks Johnson if they’re friends, and Johnson takes a while to answer that he’s “known him a long time”, perhaps hinting to the reader that they were in the Spartan-I program together. In response, Healy teases that they must be “lovebirds”. The conversation is then quickly forgotten when Byrne comes in and tries to kill Johnson.

It is a common occurrence in the present day for straight guys to playfully accuse each other of being gay. The context of the scene with two straight male soldiers would suggest that this should realistically be a lot more graphic than “lovebirds” and that author Joseph Staten deliberately downplayed it to keep his novel from being vulgar. Does the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy still exist in 2524? The culture still seems unfriendly to gay people, anyway. The soft-core sex scene at the end of the book shows that the author sees a heterosexual sexual affair as something beautiful, actively promoting expression of heterosexuality, let leaving behind homosexuality as just a joke between a couple of straight guys.

The third comment is in Halo: The Cole Protocol, page 22 (original full-sized version). It is similar to the second one with soldiers teasing each other. Edgar Sykes notices Jacob Keyes reacting to an old injury and offers a hand to help him out of the cryo tube, and Keyes jokes “You asking me out on a date?” to take control of the situation and make himself appear the tough Lieutenant. Aside from the ridiculousness of a soldier asking out his superior, there is the element of homophobia to turn that into an insult.

The fourth comment is in the same book. The same sentiment is later repeated on page 119 when Peter Bonifacio strikes Ignatio Delgado as retribution for a previous insult. Delgado then says “You’re such a charmer. You like this on all your first dates?” Sarcastic, obviously ridiculous, and homophobic too.

Am I sensitive to the issue? Definitely. As homophobic comments go, I have most certainly been exposed to worse. Overall these comments are not that bad. It is, however, objectionable that there are no gay characters in Halo canon. There are plenty of straight characters, an explicit sex scene, and other sexual elements, but homosexuality has been relegated to only a few odd comments.

Now I can understand why Bungie would not want to have an explicit LGBT character out there in the games. The games are largely produced with the average unsophisticated gamer in mind, leading to such classically corny moments as Miranda’s “to war” line, which I suppose is on the surface cool but really makes no sense in context (But, Miranda, where do they go?). As homophobia runs rampant in the general gaming community, I can see where it would be a bad business move to have a gay character right out there in the open. It’s in the expanded universe that I would like to see more of teh gay. But no, the 26th century seems pretty gay-free, both in the human faction and in the aliens’. In a world with diverse alien species, one would expect that at least one of them would exhibit sexual orientations other than heterosexuality. Not that it wouldn’t be an issue of its own if there was homosexuality but only among the aliens, but it would at least be something.

Although Bungie has not had any real gayness in Halo story canon, they have, however, made a few non-canon gay jokes. These are either tucked away in hard to get to areas of the games as Easter eggs or posted on the Internet. I will examine the jokes I can recall.

First, we have the bonus Legendary ending of Halo: Combat Evolved. If the player beats the game on Legendary difficulty, they are treated to a bonus cutscene. In this ending, we see Johnson and a Sangheili fighting some distance away from the Pillar of Autumn. When the ship starts to explode, they halt their fight and embrace. Just as the explosion happens, we see the Sangheili reach down and grab Johnson’s butt.

This is a very silly scene. The main humor is derived from these two mortal enemies spontaneously transforming into loving companions, ending the scene in a very different place from where it began. It is made further surreal by the fact that the Johnson character was implied to have died a few levels back, and that the Sangheili’s armor color pattern is never seen on a live character. Still, the characters are both male1 and I would imagine a fraction of the humor is based on that.

Second, we have a line of combat dialog audible in Halo 3 that suggests some of the Jiralhanae are gay. Generally when the player kills one of them, a live Jiralhanae may shout “He was my brother!” or something similar. However, when the IWHBYD skull is activated and funny/interesting lines enter combat dialog, Jiralhanae may instead shout “He was my lover!”

Now, I wrote a gay Jiralhanae character in my fanfiction Ascension, so when I first heard this line I was like “Yes! They’re canon!” But, no, I now realize that this isn’t the case. Lines heard while IWHBYD is on can be extremely weird, and simply can’t be accepted as canon. Are we to believe Unggoy go to Nipple Academy? No, of course not. So, Halo still has no gay characters really.

And third, I can think of Frankie’s Shaw and Fujikawa joke. Tobias Shaw and Wallace Fujikawa are known in Halo as pioneering Slipspace researchers who got their names on the UNSC Slipspace engines. In a 2006 interview with Halo writer Joseph Staten, he included a short fiction written by Frankie about the pair. It consists of Shaw and Fujikawa lounging on a beach when they’re old and ugly, and having a stupid little argument. The two are presumably supposed to be gay, with Shaw calling his partner “queer”, “poof”, and “queen”. As far as I can tell, the fiction is just supposed to be bizarre, making them gay to add to the weirdness.

And fourth, not quite homophobic but kinda transphobic, is a Bungie joke relayed in the old July 13, 2001 Bungie Update. Back then, the updates were written by Matt Soell and detailed the production of Halo: Combat Evolved. He describes the development of the Bumblebee pilot model, how they took the Marcus model and had artist Chris Hughes transform it into a female model, a process Matt Soell describes as “rather unnerving”. When Chris Hughes finally changed the face to match the body, he said that “hormone therapy for the post-op Marcus was successful”. Now, there’s no malice in that language, really, but it seems insensitive to use it when the company has not been outwardly LGBT-friendly. I don’t know; I could be splitting hairs here. It just catches my attention.

Now, I complain about Bungie’s attitude because I think they could be better. They are pretty cool overall, and I don’t want to leave that ignored. If you look at the general gaming community, you can see that homophobia really does run rampant (and not the fun Rampancy). In today’s rude society (as opposed to yesterday’s rude society), “gay” has become synonymous with “not cool”. Lots of kids just spout out about how something is “so gay”.

Imagine, if you will, that instead of “gay”, some other minority group was used. “That’s so Jew”, maybe, or “that’s so black”. Imagine hearing that over, and over, and over, everywhere and without a thought given to it. Kinda makes you angry, huh? Yeah. This comic illustrates my point, BTW (note: the clerk is gay). The word “gay” is even censored on, replaced with “-blam!-” when used on the forums. I get why they did that, but it’s still censoring the name of a minority group. Meh.

Remember the left-handedness analogy. I bet if someone polled the overall community about handedness, there would be a heck of a lot of people reporting their left-handedness. In the present day there is no real stigma attached to being left-handed. However, if I were to poll the community on sexual orientation, I imagine the number of out gay people to be very low – not because there are so few gay people, but because so few feel comfortable admitting so in the homophobic culture. Even the Joystiq post where I got the Fabulous Brutes image rationalizes the inclusion of the “he was my lover” line by saying it might be revealed that there are no female Brutes. Essentially saying it’s okay to have gay characters as long as they’re weird aliens, which was my earlier point about why having the only gay characters be aliens would be an issue in its own right.

Xbox Live has some problems of its own with extreme trash talking from players during games. It is generally unrestrained with no real moderators, and only players actively reporting other players to keep everyone in check. In some ways, this is an effective system that enables Xbox Live staff to quickly evaluate situations and ban violators without them actually having to witness it in person. However, this is the kind of system that can protect and enforce a culture based on the values of the majority by players mostly reporting the minority offenders while letting the majority offenders slide.

In late 2007, a video called Halo 3: Homophobia Evolved became popular. A player went on Xbox Live with the gamertag “xxxGayBoyxxx” and recorded the homophobic insults sent his way. Soon after, he was suspended from Xbox Live for having a gamertag that had content of a sexual nature.

I have to say that this is a silly manifestation of that rule because ‘gay’ does not really mean something that sexual. I mean, it is a ‘sexual orientation’, but here we are using the word in a very technical manner that does not explicitly reference sexual intercourse, which is what the fuss is about. When I have a crush on a girl with no sexual attraction involved, I would call that a manifestation of heterosexuality. I would call that crush ‘hetero’, and having a crush like that on a boy is ‘gay’. I would not call such crushes ‘sexual’ in the way that Xbox Live would consider offensive. Who are they to say what ‘GayBoy’ or ‘StraightBoy’ means?

Now, the word from Xbox Live staff is that they don’t discriminate. If there is someone with ‘StraightBoy’ as a gamertag, they’ll see it as something to ban as much as ‘GayBoy’, but what are the odds someone will report it? Gayness is often seen as deviant and somehow more vulgar than heterosexuality. I recall saying something about gayness in an abstract way on the Halopedia IRC and being told that it’s against the rules to discuss sexuality despite CommanderTony’s frequent openly lusting after Hayden Panettiere (not that I’m bitter, no siree). People go on Live all the time with real sexual innuendo in their names or just references to dating women, and ninety-five percent of them won’t be reported simply because the majority culture on Xbox Live won’t find that offensive. When something gay turns up, however, people pounce on it.

On a lighter note, there is a man named Richard Gaywood living in the U.K. This is his actual name. He decided to put his full name on his gamertag and subsequently found it banned for containing “sexual innuendo”. Seriously.

In response to the controversy over gamertags getting banned, Stephen Toulouse (Stepto) of Microsoft tweeted that he was going to look into some way for users to express their sexual orientation in their profile in some way that won’t be misused. That was in February, 2009, with no results so far. He is reportedly working with GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) to improve policy to make it more LGBT-friendly.

In conclusion, I find these various elements of Halo to be homophobic in nature. They may not be very bad, all things considered, but they make the series come off as not very friendly to gay people in the absence of actual gay characters. I’m posting this article in an attempt to promote good relations between gay and straight Halo fans. There’s so much homophobia on the web, and I’d like Halopedia to be a place where that isn’t a problem.

1This is a plausible conclusion, anyway. Covenant soldiers were always depicted as male until Contact Harvest in 2007.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have only one small comment to make, aside from that you look too much into quotations from the novels early on in your post, is that the Locklear's shudder is most likely caused by the thought of asking a Spartan in general out on a date, their physical nature in mind, not the thought of dating a man. I also think that his comment on the difficulty of telling the genders apart are more based in awkwardness than homophobia, given that the Spartans are generally encased in their armor.