Gay Iconography: Sci-Fi Superheroics From John Barrowman


It's rare to find an LGBT protagonist at the heart of a successful science-fiction story. Rarer still to find one played by an openly gay actor. That's not the only thing special about John Barrowman and his portrayal of Torchwood's Captain Jack Harkness, but it's certainly worth celebrating.

At a time when comic book-inspired movies and television shows are dominating popular culture, one shouldn't underestimate the importance of LGBT visibility within the historically straight male genre. Spun out of the wildly popular relaunch of Doctor Who (which returns tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern on BBC America), Barrowman's character went on to headline his own spin-off. Torchwood ran four seasons (or "series" as they like to call them across the pond), including one co-produced by the BBC and U.S. cable network Starz.

Harkness, written by the same guy who created the United Kingdom's Queer As Folk, is an intergalactic lothario. While many gay characters on television are still criticized for being sexless, Barrowman's work as Captain Jack didn't shy away from his sexuality (even though it did sometimes fluster the network).

“He is unique as a gay man on television in that he's overtly sexual,” Doctor Who and Torchwood scribe Russell T. Davies told the Telegraph in 2008. "But he's also an expert at modulating his own personality for different audiences while remaining essentially himself. That's a hard thing to do. He has a gift for it."

As a regular participant at comic conventions, Barrowman dazzles the crowd with his wit and candor. Whether it's discussing the power of marriage or dropping trou to reveal his Captain America underwear, he's a much-needed role model for gay geeks the world over.

Though he's best known for Doctor Who and Torchwood, that's only the tip of Barrowman's very talented iceberg. Watch some of our favorite clips of Barrowman singing, dancing and smooching, AFTER THE JUMP


Before becoming a prominent sci-fi swashbuckler, John Barrowman got his start in the theatre. He appeared in several productions in London’s West End, including The Phantom of the Opera, Hair and Sunset Boulevard. In 2009, he played Albin/Zaza in La Cage aux Folles in the West End. See him perform “I Am What I Am” on a television appearance in the clip above.


He became best known as the omnisexual space hero Captain Jack Harkness, a time-traveler at the center of an alien-hunting team. His charm and smile have beguiled men, women and all sorts of interstellar creatures across time and space, including a steamy makeout/slugfest with James Marsters (whom you might recognize as Spike from Buffy The Vampire Slayer).


In addition to his acting chops, Barrowman is known as a host/presenter in the United Kingdom. He served as a judge alongside Andrew Lloyd Webber, Zoe Tyler and David Ian on How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? on BBC One. The show searched for an actress to play Maria von Trapp in a London production of The Sound of Music.


Now you can see Barrowman as the villainous Malcolm Merlyn on Arrow. The CW’s superhero drama is already packed full of hunks with stars Colton Haynes and Stephen Amell, but with Barrowman added as a series regular for the upcoming third season, each episode should come with smelling salts.


Barrowman has been outspoken about issues affecting the LGBT community. "I've never had to hide who I am,” he said to Vulture in 2011. “And if somebody tells me that I'm not going to get a job because of who I am, which I have really no control over, I turn around and say, 'Well, [expletive] you, I'm going to change that.'" He partnered with Stonewall to promote the “People are gay. Get over it!” campaign. He also recently worked a man-on-man kiss into the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, which many took as a response to the 42 out of the 53 competing nations that criminalize homosexuality.

Are you a John Barrowman fan?


  1. Mike in the Tundra says

    It would be hard not to love him. He was so great in “De-Lovely”. It was so cute how he lost it when the big flub occurred in “Putting it Together”.

  2. WRR says

    This kind of visibility has real (positive) consequences. I’m an elementary teacher, pretty open in a small community. The father of one of my students stopped to talk with me after school one day. His son had heard from another student that I was gay and didn’t know what to make of it. The father said, “Oh, well he’s like Captain Jack, that’s all.” And that’s all this boy needed to hear. (By the way, this is a dad who told me early on that part of their nightly reading was “children’s Bible stories.”)

  3. Wayne says

    I went to high school (Joliet West) with John. He was crazy talented even back then. He was the envy of all us Drama club kids (and he threw some pretty kickin’ parties!! lol).

  4. RJ says

    My favourite singing performance from John Barrowman is his duet with Daniel Boys performing “I Know Him So Well” from the musical Chess.

  5. Beatrice says

    Captain Jack Harkness was created by Steven Moffat for the episode(s) “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances”, NOT Russell T. Davies.

    It was RTD, however, who used the Moffat character as a cover for the show he really wanted to produce – a female cop chasing aliens (see Gwen Cooper)- that the BBC declined prior to his Dr. Who reboot.

    Just wanted to clarify that point.

  6. L G. says

    Do I like / love John? Of course. Until I expatriated to Europe I had never heard of him. AND low he grew up and went to school about 125 miles north of where I lived….he was with his expatriated Welsh family in Joliet Illinois
    The first I saw of him was on that dreadful Maria search.
    He´s talented, he´s PR smart, and just good at what he does and most importantly good at WHO he is.

  7. R says

    I miss Torchwood terribly. In many ways, it was better than Doctor Who, especially its later seasons.

    I take a little solace in the fact that, last I heard in terms of its status, Torchwood has never officially been cancelled and that the reason why further series haven’t been filmed has been timing and rights issues as much as anything.

    So it’s not inconceivable that we wouldn’t get another series or miniseries or tv movie. Stranger things have happened and Barrowman has made it clear he’s game, as has Russel T Davies.

    BBC has always treated this property weirdly, though, for reasons I can’t understand… it was not only groundbreaking work for the genre, but was almost always a big ratings hit. (The Starz show never caught on in the US, but it shouldn’t have ever been on Starz anyway — it should have been on BBC America, where people would expect it, where the fans were already at… and which is on far more TVs).

  8. Brian Krakow says

    Beatrice, it may have been Moffat who wrote that episode, but it was Davies who created the character and cast John Barrowman in the role.

  9. anon says

    Torchwood was mostly a crappy show trying desperately to be edgy, but often just tedious. Children of Earth, however, was fantastic, and also starred current Dr. Who Peter Capaldi. JB’s portrayal of Jack Harkness was very different on the two shows. He’s very buoyant on Dr. Who and very somber on TW, which always seemed very odd.

    However, he needs another ten years of work before “icon” begins to fit. Longevity is an important part of icon status.

  10. Nancy Lion-Storm says

    As a 60+ yr old bisexual I became aware of Mr. Barrowman when I saw him portray Captain Jack Harkness in the Doctor Who episode The Empty Child. The moment it became clear Capt. Jack was bisexual, my friends and I jumped up from our seats bellowing Xena Warrior battle cries. Shortly afterwards, we learned that Mr. Barrowman is as heroic in real life as he is as Capt Jack: a gay man Out and Proud. Everything he does challenges the establishment: from getting married in the US (2013) & UK (2006), to his AIDs charities performances, to his NoH8 photos to even his ALS Challenge

    John Barrowman’s influence continues today. There is no doubt in my mind that his presence on the cast of Arrow had something to do with the writers including lesbian characters and story arcs.

  11. RonCharles says

    “Torchwood” is one of the TV shows that is no longer around that I miss most. It was one of the best Science Fiction shows ever.

    There is just no-one to compare to Captain Jack Harkness. John Barrowman created an unforgettable character with his portrayal of Harkness.

    Fortunately, the entire “Torchwood” series is out on DVD; therefore, one can watch it again and again.

    You can look for it on-line, or just try Amazon:

  12. Andrew says

    He is my favourite role model of what a gay man should be in the 21st century and a superb ambassador for the gay community.