Homosexuality in Star Trek
In Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future there is no place for racial stereotypes as they were still commonplace in the 1960s, or for traditional gender roles. At least theoretically. We need to bear in mind that the original Star Trek had three Caucasian men in the key roles, and that it was made under the surveillance of conservative network directors who initially wanted to get rid of the alien Spock as well as of "Number One", the woman in a commanding position. Yet, in the following the series spoke out against the preconceptions on many occasions. Sometimes by breaking taboos like with Uhura's and Kirk's first interracial kiss on US television in TOS: "Plato's Stepchildren" - although that kiss was forced. Residual racism and sexism still exist in today's society, and they occasionally show up in TV programs. But all in all, in the past few decades the question of skin color and gender on screen has become a non-issue, so that the decision to get a black commander for DS9 or a female captain on Voyager was not anywhere as bold as it would have been in the 1960s.
Yet, there is one last field (at least, one field of high social relevance) in which Star Trek did not accomplish the goal of equality for a long time. Except for a few allusions, homosexuality was absent from the Star Trek Universe. Everyone of the characters seemed to be straight by default. And while other mainstream TV series did include same-sex relationships in some fashion, the gay, lesbian and bisexual Star Trek fans were waiting to be acknowledged in their favorite fictional universe. Since the early days of TNG their hopes were nourished by occasional testimonies from the producers or actors who kept promising that one day there would be outspoken homosexuality in the show, as well as by rumors whenever a new character was to appear who could be gay. Several groups are committed to promoting lesbian, gay or bisexual appearances on Star Trek.
The motivation to get homosexuality into canon Star Trek should be distinguished from another phenomenon, the so-called slash fiction. "Slash" because it all started with the "Kirk/Spock" stories whose authors took it for granted that there was a sexual liaison between the two. While the motivation to work towards sexual diversity is generally the same, the slash authors take it one step further and often too far. They have written erotic slash stories about virtually every combination of regular characters of equal sex. Getting gay or lesbian characters onto the screen is about adjusting the statistics and doing justice to a group of fans who have been ignored so far. Slash fiction (which is often not even written by fans who are homosexual themselves), on the other hand, is not political but chiefly a matter of taste. Perhaps more than usual fan fiction that is well within the bounds of canon Trek. Ultimately slash's lacking acceptance lies in the nature of the stories that are purposely written to appeal only to a minority of fans, rather than in homophobia of those who just don't like it.
I refrain from commenting on "evidence" from the series that may justify slash fiction. There are subtle gestures that purportedly imply that a character is attracted to another one of the same sex and that may require a sensitive "gaydar" and a good deal of wishful thinking to be decipherable. As already mentioned, fans either like to read or avoid slash fiction, and I freely admit that I'm doing the latter. The key to slash fiction seems to be romantic transfiguration anyway, so there would be no need for a perfectly rational explanation.
It certainly is inconsistent that homosexuality is almost completely missing from the fictional Trek Universe. This is the "Investigations" section at EAS where I generally try to put some things straight (Sorry for the pun, I noticed it too late but found my own awkwardness amusing). Nevertheless it is not the goal of this essay to find proof for the existence of same-sex relationships in the 24th century. Even if the statistics of canon Trek may insinuate otherwise, I reject the reasoning that homosexuality may become extinct in the Federation. It would not be the Federation of tolerance and diversity that we all know, much less do I want to support the bigotry that gay people must be "healed" or "re-educated".
I wholeheartedly support the demand of getting gay characters into the show. Yet, I have no political or personal interest; my look at Star Trek's history of dealing with homosexuality is rather unemotional and may not reflect the "official" position of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) movement. I also try to keep in mind that homosexual people are not a monolithic group but a multitude of individuals most of whom probably don't want to make a big deal of being "different" but who just want to be accepted the way they are - in the real world as well as in the media. Speaking of LGBT as an umbrella term, it includes transgender people, whose absence from the fictional world of Star Trek may be easier to explain or to justify because not all forms of transgenderism would be as visible as (socially accepted) homosexuality. So rather than trying to sort out a variety of gender identity topics I will focus on homosexuality in Star Trek.
There are two important reasons why homosexuality should be depicted in Star Trek in some fashion:
Fictional motivation This the desire to picture a positive future in which sexual barriers don't exist any longer (just like racism and sexism have been eliminated too), to an extent that has not yet been accomplished today. In other words, whenever homosexuality is depicted on Star Trek, it should be a non-issue. It should not be anything like a gay couple on a starship who need to keep their relationship secret from a homophobic captain. No one in Starfleet is supposed to be that reactionary.
Real-world motivation The second motivation is the integrative and statistically correct representation in Star Trek of gay, lesbian and bisexual fans just like every national or racial group of today's world should have its place. In other words, even if there are certain reasons and good fictional explanations why a group shouldn't exist or shouldn't be visible in the future, Star Trek should be impartial and include them nonetheless.
Speaking of statistics, sexual minorities may be the most obvious example where Star Trek doesn't get the proportions right. But they are not alone. The national and racial imbalance of human Starfleet personnel is another case in point. Crew members of Asian descent, for example, are comparably rare in Starfleet. In my view the fanwank notion that their number is small because the Asian population was largely wiped out in WW III is condescending a bit like the stupid idea that a re-education from gay to straight could be possible or even desirable. So there must be other reasons why we hardly ever see Asians. We may want to ignore the mere statistics. The real-world excuse for the lacking integration that there are fewer Asian than Caucasian actors available in Hollywood is something we may grudgingly accept. Unfortunately the lack of gay, lesbian or bisexual humans in Star Trek is not as easy to explain without insinuating that TPTB were biased.
The portrayal of homosexuality in Star Trek was occasionally being discussed behind the scenes but was usually tackled on screen merely in the form of allegories.
David Gerrold's "Blood and Fire"
Encouraged by Roddenberry's explicit intent, David Gerrold of "The Trouble with Tribbles" fame came up with the script for an episode entitled "Blood and Fire" in which a Federation starship was infected with Regulan bloodworms. In the secondary plot a gay relationship of two crew members would be put to a tough test in the course of which one of the two would die. Gerrold clearly intended the bloodworm epidemic to be an allegory to AIDS. Fortunately he was sensitive enough not to establish a causal link between the epidemic and the homosexuality in the episode, which would have been just too contrived. Essentially the gay relationship was meant to be a side aspect of the story like those of several heterosexual couples before.
While the script in essence was well-received among the production crew, there were some concerns about the gay characters whose depiction was purportedly too blatant, considering that in the 24th century being gay should be a non-issue. Memos were being passed on for quite some time. Gerrold got the runaround and made a number of revisions to the script. Eventually, after Rick Berman had taken over the helm, the script was dropped from the production schedule.
David Gerrold later adapted the story for a novel of the same name Blood and Fire. Eventually "Blood and Fire" has hit the screen in spite of everything - in the form of an episode of Star Trek Phase II. Read my review of this great fan-made episode. Still, it is sad how this best opportunity to incorporate gay characters into mainstream Star Trek was wasted. It lets Roddenberry's repeated announcements appear as a mere lip service.
TNG: The Host
Yet, the revelation that the new host is female and that she apparently expects Beverly to engage in a lesbian liaison is rather a plot twist than a deliberate statement in favor of sexual liberality. Realistically, should Beverly overcome her "limited" sexuality and become lesbian or bisexual? Would it be "better" for her? Provided that she is as straight as her embarrassment tells us, wouldn't such a request be just the same as the absurd demand that gay or lesbian teenagers reconsider their sexual orientation?
But is sexuality really the key issue? I think Beverly is not even primarily baffled due to any sort of homophobia and the prospect of a lesbian liaison but it is Odan's alien nature that ultimately repels her. True, she may have hoped for the new host to be a man, as she is not bisexual. But she may have had reservations about a relationship with an old or ugly new male host just as well, or even with the otherwise sexiest Trill male to exist. We have to bear in mind too that Beverly already tried to rebuff Odan when he was misusing (by human standards) Riker's body for his advances.
In my view the episode only accidentally tackles the issue of sexual tolerance. It seems to close with an unrealistic plea for omnisexuality and, in a way, for gay rights when Beverly seems to insinuate that she wished she could love a woman. But most of all Beverly is just confused because she cannot put up with an alien partner who is switching bodies all the time. While the relevance for gay rights is limited, Beverly's situation is comparable to that of a woman whose husband comes out as transsexual and decides to undergo a sex reassignment treatment, although commenting on this may not have been the original intention of the story.
TNG: The Outcast
Although it does not tackle the very same matter, "The Outcast" is Star Trek's probably strongest testimony against sexual discrimination of any kind. Actually, the J'naii do have sex in some fashion but it does not seem to involve two partners in physical contact. However, the ironic twist that in an alien society any form of sexuality between two individuals is regarded as obscene, including the ones that are officially endorsed in all traditional societies of our own planet, makes it even more powerful. So while the mission to portray a gay relationship in the 24th century for the sake of statistical fairness has not been achieved, the episode is an important step in proving that Star Trek's Federation keeps the promise of a future without sexual discrimination (even though the Prime Directive puts a limit to helping aliens outside the Federation to accomplish the same).
Yet, all testimonies put forth in favor of sexual relationships (as opposed to the J'naii doctrine of androgyny) are made from either an impartial or from a heterosexual perspective and avoid to annotate that the Federation would endorse same-sex and possible other forms of relationships likewise. A mention of homosexuality may have been considered to be a too obvious broad hint to the purpose of the episode. Still, I believe it would have suited the episode on an in-universe as well as on a real-world level.
It has been criticized that all members of the J'naii were played by women and that particularly Soren should have been a man, as Jonathan Frakes once said. This would have bolstered the gay rights movement more than the encrypted fictional message of the episode. On the other hand, I think it would have been just too odd to have a man play a woman who should be genderless but falls in love with Riker, who in this case would have appeared as bisexual.
Considering that it boils down to sexual identity (which to choose the J'naii deny their citizens), rather than to sexual orientation (which is said to be a non-issue in the Federation, not addressing the exact problem on the J'naii homeworld), the story of "The Outcast" also has a great significance for transgender people. The necessity to undergo a treatment to comply with the gender identity that the society expects from each member (neuter in the case of the J'naii) is reminiscent of the attempts in our world to condition transgender and especially transsexual people to put up with the gender they were assigned to at their birth.
Lt. Hawk in "First Contact"
It is uncertain whether there is some truth in the original rumor that Lt. Hawk may have been supposed to be gay at some point in pre-production. If there was an according intention, it is even possible that in the light of they hype about his character the producers decided to drop any mentions or hints of him being gay. Because it just wouldn't have been desirable to have a good deal of the theater audience and critics alike focusing their attention on a minor character in a major movie.
Gay characters were actually being considered for Voyager at one point, as godparents for Naomi Wildman. The openly gay writer Bryan Fuller, however, didn't like the characters and "was kind of glad they didnít do it the way it was written." In 1997 the two organizations GLAAD and VVP announced that Seven of Nine, as an ex-Borg drone who has to rediscover her human nature, would turn out to be lesbian. Finally, in 2001 Malcolm Reed's character was rumored to be gay. Both claims were later officially repudiated.
DS9: Rules of Acquisition
While Dax' and Pel's brief dialogue is only of minor importance to the plot, the statement in favor of homosexual relationships is quite clear. Especially since the advice is directed to a member of the Ferengi society whose blatant sexism is most likely accompanied by homophobia. The plea is only somewhat weaker than it could have been, seeing that it comes from Jadzia Dax who is exceptionally open-minded even by 24th century standards. Perhaps someone else (like Sisko) may have considered too that Pel and Quark would become outcasts in case of a liaison. Interestingly the same would have happened in any case, even after revealing that Pel was a woman, because she violated the law by doing business. Furthermore Jadzia should have anticipated that Quark likely does not have a gay disposition, as it also becomes clear when he rejects the still "male" Pel.
In DS9: "Profit and Lace" Quark himself is forced to pose as a woman. But this installment is a mindless fun cross-dressing farce rather than anything relevant in this context.
Superficially "Rejoined" seems much like a rectification of Beverly's decision at the end of TNG: "The Host" in a way that Jadzia has the courage to come out while Beverly did not overcome sexual conventions. But the circumstances are somewhat different here. Jadzia and Lenara are both Trills. They had a relationship in their former lives, both in different host bodies. And even though it is illegal in their society (which is inconsistent with "The Host"), they still feel attracted to one another. So the episode is not about a lesbian relationship, but about an alien cultural taboo that exists regardless of sex. Initially Kahn was intended to be a man, so from a 21st century human viewpoint there would not have been anything special about the kiss. The "lesbian" kiss as a symbol was chosen just to emphasize the nature of the taboo to present-day viewers, playing with the still existing homophobia. The decision to choose an actress to play Kahn certainly made up for the missed opportunity to have a man as Riker's love interest in "The Outcast", and I think it worked out better in the context of "Rejoined" than it would have in the TNG episode.
It should be annotated that in some southern states of the USA the "lesbian" kiss was edited out of the episode.
There is one very obvious reference to the gay rights movement when Quark speaks of a "Changeling Pride" demonstration. Also, Laas says "I'll survive", when Odo tells him that he would rather stay with the Solids, alluding to "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor, the unofficial gay anthem. Finally, O'Brien comments on Laas' transformation to fog on the Promenade, "Can't he be fog somewhere else?", where "fog" may be replaced in mind with "fag".
DS9 Mirror Universe
However, this occurrence of sexually diverse characters shouldn't be seen as a triumph of the LGBT(Q) movement. On the contrary, it may even detract from their cause. We have to bear in mind that the Intendant, just as about everyone else in the Mirror Universe, is an evil or shady pulp version of the corresponding character in "our" universe. We may decide not to take the Mirror Universe stories too seriously, as they gradually lost credibility in DS9. And the playful sexual confusion, just like the fetish components, may be seen as an amusing new aspect of Star Trek. But it sheds a bad light on being lesbian or bisexual if it is shown in the Mirror Universe in conjunction with being sinister. There are examples from movies that particularly women who are shown to live out bisexual and lesbian desires are also villainous, like Sharon Stone's character in "Basic Instinct". Hence, I think that Star Trek didn't do the gay rights movement a favor.
Star Trek's main target audience (male and straight) may readily explain why the Mirror Universe arc shows gratuitous lesbianism, rather than gay characters. Well, with the possible exception of Mirror Garak and Mirror Worf (the Regent) to whose chair the Cardassian thug is chained at the end of DS9: "Shattered Mirror". The Regent answers Mirror Garak's implicit offer to please him with the words "You are not my type".
Although the AIDS allegory in "Stigma" comes at the expense of a defamation of the Vulcans and a gaping continuity error regarding the prevalence of mind melds that would have to be amended later, it is successful in relaying the message that minorities must not be segregated. Yet, the allegory has one weakness: Only the "melders" can contract Pa'nar in their normal life, whereas AIDS is something that everyone should be concerned about. So it doesn't work out as well as it could have if there had been at least a slight hint that every Vulcan could contract the disease in some fashion or another, not exclusively through the stigmatized practice of "melding".
It has also been criticized that the Star Trek producers came up with such an episode as late as UPN told all of their programs to contribute to an AIDS awareness week. But better late than never. And even though we can imagine that prejudices against gay or lesbian people may still exist in the 22nd century rather than in the 24th century, it was a wise decision to look at it from a science fiction perspective.
The focus of interest is more on the cultural clash than on any kind of sexual issues, with a statement that interference with other cultures may be imprudent and may turn out disastrous, as justified as it may seem. There is no clear indication of a significance in the real world, but seeing how the cogenitor is an accepted because necessary part of the Vissian society, she/he rather epitomizes a woman in an antiquated role than a homosexual person. The episode undoubtedly postulates sexual tolerance, even if the attempt to promote it is fatal, but the statement is generalized and the particular circumstances are probably too dissimilar to be specifically related to gay, lesbian and bisexual people of our time.
Gender switching episodes
Another incident of gender switching can be found in TNG: "Liaisons", where a male Iyaaran named Voval appears to Picard as a human woman, in order to explore the phenomenon of emotional attachment. Since something like love, as well as other emotional states, does not seem to exist in their society, Voval may not mind sharing it with a man or to pretend that he does. But seeing that the whole experiment almost involved a sexual component, we need to wonder which role sex (regardless whether it is straight or gay) can still play on a planet largely devoid of emotions. Since the Iyaarans, in a comparable fashion as the J'naii, are so much different and also because Picard is simply being tricked, the episode does not really qualify as a statement about gay relationships.
A few days before the world premiere of "Star Trek Beyond" actor John Cho revealed that his character would be shown as gay in the upcoming movie. Actually, we can see Sulu reunite with his husband (played by "Beyond" co-writer Doug Jung) and his daughter, who live on Starbase Yorktown.
The revelation that Sulu is gay, however, did not remain without a controversy. Criticism comes from George Takei, who thinks the decision to make Sulu gay is "unfortunate". He is sure that Gene Roddenberry always thought of Sulu as a straight character. "Star Trek Beyond" co-writer and co-star Simon Pegg, on the other hand, thinks it was a good decision to reveal that someone already established is gay, rather than introducing a "gay character", who would be generally identified by just that one quality.
Star Trek Discovery
Regarding the casting choices and the possibility of having a gay character in the new series, co-producer Bryan Fuller said that he'd "look at all of these roles through a colorblind prism and a gender-blind prism" and that "the progressive audience that loves Star Trek will be happy".
Many voices in the LGBT movement insinuate latent homophobia as one reason why truly gay characters did not make it to the screen for a long time. And really, in light of other mainstream TV series that successfully included homosexual characters, TPTB's commercial concerns or alleged protection of minors are a weak excuse not to do the same in Star Trek. Furthermore, Star Trek is showing heterosexual couples all the time, occasionally in clearly erotic situations, like Riker and Troi in the bathtub in "Insurrection" or T'Pol stripping off in front of Trip in ENT: "Harbinger". So what could be more hypocritical than refusing to show a gay couple just share a kiss - only because some reactionaries might feel offended?
The introduction of a gay character was overdue at the time of "Star Trek Beyond". There was already a negative long-term effect because of this shortfall. It is true that any fictional character, just as well as any real person we meet, should not be categorized by race, gender or sexual preference but should be seen as an individual with unique characteristics in the first place. Yet, if a multitude of characters are lacking the necessary diversity, their uniqueness as well as their credibility are at stake - at least in a statistical view. Continued ignorance can be almost as discriminating as overt segregation.
We have to keep mind, however, that in the 24th century Federation homosexuality is most definitely a non-issue. Therefore Star Trek naturally doesn't have the same storytelling potential as, for instance, Dawson's Creek, where the young gay people are facing problems that are not quite the same as in a heterosexual relationship. Star Trek, as a science fiction series, has different means of dealing with present-day problems, and it largely successfully commented on LGBT issues (in a broad sense) at least in "The Outcast" and more recently in "Stigma" and "Cogenitor". So it was a good decision to show Sulu as gay in a casual reference, rather than introducing a "gay character" or telling a "gay story" that would have had an inappropriately strong focus on the mere fact that someone was gay.
In a 2000 Fandom interview, Ron D. Moore suggested (from Wikipedia):
"Tell me why there are no gay characters in Star Trek. This is one of those uncomfortable questions I hate getting when I was working on the show, because there is no good answer for it. There is no answer for it other than people in charge donít want gay characters in Star Trek, period... Thatís one of the great things about Paramount. Paramount left us alone. They always left us alone. They let Next Gen do whatever it wanted. God knows it let Deep Space Nine do whatever we wanted. It lets Voyager do whatever it wants. The studio is not the problem here. The studio is going to let you go wherever you want to go, as long as they believe that this is quality, as long as they believe itís good work. Youíve just got to come up with something good."
Regardless whether someone like Rick Berman really deliberately kept out everything gay or not, the bottom line is that Star Trek could have done more to create awareness for homosexuality. It is good that finally something happened in "Star Trek Beyond" even if it didn't meet everyone's approval.
I found many facts and quotes at Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Star Trek. Thanks to Bond, James Bond for proofreading and additional suggestions. Thanks also to E. Gingras for calling my attention to a weakness in the "Stigma" AIDS allegory, to Mark Beckett who made me aware of a negligence in the otherwise good episode "The Outcast" and to Nick Stewart for correcting the semantics of "The Outcast". Special thanks to Manuel for the hints about DS9: "Chimera" and to Sophie for the suggestions about transsexuality allegories.