“Running for Honor”: June 11, 1964
(Original air date: January 15, 1992)
Sam leaps into a Naval Academy track star named Tommy York on the eve of a big competition. The race has grown into something of a grudge match—his school, Prescott Academy, has been losing to a rival school for years. But Sam is there to grapple with grudges far more insidious: Tommy’s roommate and good friend Phillip has been expelled from Prescott…for being gay.
Considered by some fans to be the most controversial Quantum Leap ever, “Running for Honor” takes place not long before (and glancingly mentions) the Stonewall Riot, an event considered by most to be the birth of the U.S. gay rights movement. Tolerance in the world at large in 1964 is rare enough, but within the patriarchy-rich environment of the military, it is essentially non-existent. Tainted by association with Phillip and on a quest to prove that another of their other classmates is behind a series of local gaybashings, Sam ends up in deep trouble with remarkable alacrity.
Meanwhile, Al is showing the limits of his usual “live and let live” attitude, by voicing traditional establishment arguments against having queer soldiers in the armed forces.
I selected “Running for Honor” for this rewatch project because of all Quantum Leap’s “issue” episodes, it seemed most pertinent to me—I’m queer, I’ve been gaybashed, and I remember the specific tenor of homophobia in the 1990’s—when the episode aired—vividly. Now, twenty years later, I also have a shiny legal marriage Certificate from the Province of British Columbia, which is my personal touchstone for the possibility of change.
I sat down to view the episode in the same week that the topic hit Glee in the form of the episode “Furt.” (I blogged about this episode in detail, and about the It Gets Better project, here). The parallels were amazing: Sam (as Tommy) and Kurt Hummel are targeted by beefy aggressive guys full of hate, all within a school environment. Both Sam and Kurt advocate for themselves beautifully, and in both cases their natural allies come close to letting them down because, on some level, they don’t get it.
To see the same story told, within two days, at this twenty-year remove from each other was to me a startling reminder that societies can change, but human nature is more intractable.
Our collective taboos do, of course…and television can only reflect that. On Glee, Kurt is openly, proudly gay. In “Running for Honor,” Sam’s merely accused of homosexuality. Quantum Leap takes a cautious approach to this material by never specifying whether the real Tommy York is or isn’t bent.
In the nineties, of course, this was tricky ground for a network series to be covering at all. One of the Quantum Leap’s big conventions—and a thing that makes it such a delight—is that Sam always absorbs some personality traits from whoever he’s leaped into. Having him actually swoon in the direction of a fellow cadet, I’m sure, must have seemed like taking things too far. So we end up with “Don’t ask, don’t tell”: “Running for Honor” never answers the question of Tommy’s gender preference. In a peculiar twist of art prefiguring life, it aired just about a year before this approach became official U.S. policy on gays in the military.
As Sam copes with the violent backlash against Tommy, Al accuses him of seeming, essentially, more effeminate. This carries the story onto the slightly safer ground of stereotyping, and away from any suggestion that Sam’s inner Leapee might find boys hot.
(And it says so much, doesn’t it, that it’s more okay for him to wear a dress than to have a homoerotic thought?)
This delicate “is he, ain’t he” dance is quite possibly the reason why I found this episode, and Bakula’s performance, strangely distancing. Ultimately, Sam is there to save Phillip from himself—the expelled student has decided to frame his tormentors for murder, forcing Sam and the track coach to talk him out of hanging himself. This plot lets the bashers off the hook without really nailing Phillip’s suicidal distress on their abuse.
But there is something that works for me in this, and works well—and it is Al. He is honest and up-front about his feelings when he’s saying the Navy should exclude gays, and as peculiar as some of his arguments may seem, they were widely held and deeply felt. I’m sure there are people out there who still believe every word he utters on this subject is absolutely true. It’s harsh, it divides him and Sam painfully, and as a result, the thoughtfulness and sincerity shine through when he reconsiders his position.
In “Running for Honor,” Sam saves one life and one career, and he changes a couple of minds as he goes. It’s not bad for a leap’s work. Then he’s off again, just in time to let Tommy—gay, straight, or whatever—simply be a runner, and to win the big race for Prescott.
A.M. Dellamonica writes novels and short fiction and teaches writing online. She is passionate about environmentalism, food and drink, and art in every form, and dabbles in several: photography, choral music, theater, dance, cooking and crafts. Catch up with her on her blog here.