LGBT+ History Month: Star Trek and LGBT+ Representation

Eleanor Tarr celebrates LGBT+ history in an unconventional fashion by charting its development in the popular sci-fi series Star Trek.

The sci-fi behemoth Star Trek first hit our screens in 1966, a time when the US was consumed by the Cold War and gripped by the Space Race; it was indeed a time of immense social and political change. So, in 1964, a forty-two-year-old Texan and ex-fighter pilot named Gene Roddenberry pitched an idea for a series that would change the world. He dubbed it the Wagon Train to the Stars, and it followed the exploits of a team of space travellers as they attempted to ‘explore strange new worlds’ and ‘seek out new life and new civilizations—to boldly go where no man has gone before’. Star Trek was born.

Yet, despite being hailed (no pun intended!) as the space opera, it has come under fire for ignoring LGBT+ characters. In this article, I aim not only to discuss the treatment of LGBT+ sensibilities in the Star Trek universe but also to suggest that those who have labelled Roddenberry’s creation as ‘heterosexual-central’ are wrong.

While the franchise’s first incarnation, the aptly-named Original Series, did not provide its viewers with LGBT+ characters, any Trekkie will know that queer readings have often been applied to the series’ protagonists, Kirk and Spock. Since the 1970s, the intense friendship between William Shatner’s Kirk and Leonard Nimoy’s Spock has been interpreted by some as homosexual, or at least, homoerotic. Though the on-screen relationship between Kirk and Spock appeared to be of friendship, there are scenes which support such queer readings. Spock commonly refers to Kirk as his ‘t’hy’la’, a Vulcan word which means ‘friend, brother, lover’, which could be construed as homoerotic. Both Shatner and Nimoy favoured this interpretation. As such, Star Trek became the source of ‘slash’ fiction — fan-generated stories which ‘ship’ same-sex characters in romantic relationships. 

After a screen absence of 18 years, Star Trek: The Next Generation started airing in 1987. It was set 100 years after Kirk’s adventures and followed Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) as he led a new ship and crew. As a more modern take on Roddenberry’s vision, The Next Generation reflected how views on homosexuality, bisexuality and transgender experiences had developed since the 1960s. While screenwriter David Gerrold’s script ‘Blood and Fire’ was not picked up as an episode, it was made into a novel and subsequently adapted for a fan-made Trek series. ‘Blood and Fire’ narrated the troubles faced by two male crewmembers whose romantic relationship was destroyed when one of them falls prey to a deadly virus – an allegory for the AIDS crisis, which claimed thousands of lives in the 80s and 90s.

Furthermore, in the episode ‘The Offspring’, the alien Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) answers an android character’s question about human sexuality by saying, ‘“When two people are in love…”’. The original script called for Goldberg to say, ‘“When a man and a woman are in love”’, but Goldberg changed the words herself because, as she noted, ‘This show is beyond that’. The Next Generation was the first sci-fi series to tackle the issue of gender neutralism; ‘The Outcast’ sees Commander Riker fall in love with a member of an alien species which is androgynous. Even if one argues that the Original Series failed to be ‘modern’ in its depiction of future sexuality the same cannot be said for its successor.

While The Next Generation was still running, a new Trek series was ordered. Called Deep Space Nine, it was a darker, grittier take on Roddenberry’s heretofore utopian vision, and tackled themes like as racism, rape and war, as well as engaging more openly with LGBT+ portrayals. Trek’s ‘first gay kiss’ aired in 1995. In the episode, ‘Rejoined’, the Trill Jadzia Dax is reunited with the ex-wife (named Lenara Kahn) of one of her symbiont’s previous hosts. The Trill species was mostly humanoid, except that they could ‘join’ with a ‘symbiont’; that is, they could have a small, sentient creature placed inside of them which would form a part of their own personalities, and would also contain the memories and experiences of the Trill individuals who had previously joined with said symbiont. In Trill culture, it was forbidden for current hosts to continue previous hosts’ relationships; this taboo was intended as a representation of homophobia.

Star Trek

Jadzia and Lenara’s kiss was an improvement on the Next Generation’s treatment of this taboo. In the episode ‘The Host’, the Starship Enterprise’s doctor Beverly Crusher, falls in love with a Trill man named Odan. When Odan becomes fatally ill and dies, the symbiont inside of him is placed inside a new host, and, as the new host is a woman, Doctor Crusher feels unable to continue their relationship. This is a contrast to the reaction of Deep Space Nine’s Lenara Kahn, who felt comfortable with acting on her feelings for Jadzia Dax (even though she had originally fallen in love with the previous, male host of Jadzia’s symbiont). This characterisation of Trills also engages with ideas about gender fluidity. Deep Space Nine’s inclusion of the kiss between Jadzia and Lenara is of particular importance because it paved the way for the development of another lesbian romance in the series — the relationship between Intendant Kira and Ezri Dax in the so-called ‘Mirror Universe’ episodes. While it could be said that the other incarnations of Trek prioritise male-centric depictions of homosexuality, this cannot be said for Deep Space Nine.

However, the most popular and best-understood exploration of homosexuality in Deep Space Nine is seen in the relationship between Julian Bashir and Elim Garak. Unlike the Trill kiss, this relationship had an ongoing romantic arc, and Garak has been established as a gay character in post-series novels (although these novels are not considered canonical).

Finally, it seems fitting to discuss the place of Star Trek in the 2010s, in the form of JJ Abrams’ reboot series, and the Netflix series Discovery. In the 2016 film, the male character Sulu is depicted with a husband in a way that is entirely normalised. In addition, in Discovery, the lead characters Paul Stamets and Hugh Culber became the Star Trek universe’s first canonical gay couple, a massive improvement on the franchise’s exploration of homosexuality.

And so, I will leave with the axiom of Spock’s species, the Vulcans: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination.

Illustration by Maegan Farrow.

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