Many Star Trek fans are celebrating following the news that, in the upcoming movie Star Trek Beyond, Sulu is confirmed as being in a long-term relationship with another man. This kind of queer representation has been a long time coming for the Star Trek franchise.
The Original Series wasn’t afraid to tackle social issues, with a racially diverse cast and episodes dealing – literally or allegorically – with women’s rights, racial divisions and the futility of war, but the later installments in the franchise have shied away from taking the obvious next step of including queer characters.
In 1991, Gene Roddenberry made a statement on his plans to include gay characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but following his death shortly afterwards, the production team were slow to follow up on his promises. Throughout the 1990s, fans were engaged in letter-writing campaigns asking for gay characters, some of which were endorsed by actors appearing in the franchise, but the response from Paramount was at best dismissive and at worst outright hostile.
The Outcast, a fifth-season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, at least made a sincere attempt at tackling queer issues. When the crew encounter a genderless species (who also don’t traditionally have romantic or sexual relationships), Riker falls for one of them – an individual named Soren who’s grappling with her femaleness and her attraction to men, Riker included. The episode gets plenty wrong – conflating having no gender with asexuality, using a character who is essentially transgender as a metaphor for gay people without really realizing that was what they were doing, and assuming that androgynous people would automatically wear drab clothing and have bad haircuts (a quick Google Images search of “nonbinary style” will show you how far off the mark that is).
Plus there’s the fact that the romance still plays out between characters played by a cisgender man and a cisgender woman – Jonathan Frakes pushed for Soren to be a man, feeling that this would make the message of the episode clearer, but this idea was ultimately rejected for being too “unpalatable to viewers.” The Outcast could have, and should have, gone a lot further. But Soren’s heartfelt speech at her hearing, in which she defends herself and those like her, is stirring and beautiful, and still speaks to queer audiences today.
The Outcast is just one part of a pattern visible across the Star Trek shows of the 1990s and 2000s, of attempting to tackle queer issues but falling short of the mark, or of backing away from dealing with them at all. Plans to have a same-gender couple holding hands in Ten Forward, in the background of a scene where Guinan explains the concept of romantic love to Data’s daughter Lal, were nixed at the last minute. When Doctor Crusher fell in love with a male ambassador from the joined Trill species who later moved to a female host, the episode hinted that in other circumstances they could have continued their relationship, but ultimately Beverly couldn’t handle the idea of a lover who looked different from one day to the next.
The ill-fated AIDS-allegory episode Blood And Fire, written by David Gerrold, would have featured actual human gay characters, but it was shot down at the script stage. There was speculation that Seven of Nine might be a lesbian, but those ideas were never realized, and Voyager reinforced the idea of heterosexuality-as-default in countless other small ways across all seven seasons.
Deep Space Nine fared a little better in some respects, with possibly the most positive and unembarrassed portrayal of queerness so far seen in Star Trek.
In the fourth-season episode Rejoined, Jadzia Dax – the latest host of the long-lived Dax symbiont – encounters a woman called Lenara Kahn. Two earlier hosts of the Dax and Kahn symbionts had been in a (male-female) marriage, and in the episode Jadzia and Lenara make an ill-fated attempt to rekindle their relationship. This episode does plenty right – none of the characters are surprised at the idea of a same-gender relationship, and the tension comes from the Trill taboo around reassociating with lovers from past lives, allowing the episode to comment on some of the difficulties of queer relationships while still making it clear that same-gender attraction is normal in Star Trek’s future.
What’s more, Jadzia and Lenara even got to kiss onscreen – an important moment for queer kids growing up in the ’90s, including the one writing this article. Even the sad ending – and the furious reaction from some viewers – didn’t ruin the excitement of seeing a main character on Star Trek kiss another woman.
Having established Jadzia’s bisexuality, though, the production team more or less forgot about it for the rest of the show’s run – except for her flirting on Risa with her previous host Curzon’s old lover Arandis, in the fifth-season episode Let He Who Is Without Sin… Both times Jadzia was attracted to women, it was connected in some way with her previous male hosts. While that doesn’t invalidate her sexuality – she’s still the first queer regular character in Star Trek – it is a shame that her story was never taken further than that, especially given that joined Trill have the potential to be so fascinating from a gender and sexuality perspective.
Deep Space Nine did do a little better than its sister shows in terms of casual background queerness – Jadzia isn’t thrown by the idea of gay Ferengi, Bashir and O’Brien happily plan a baby shower for a pregnant male colleague, several characters in the Mirror Universe are queer – but they missed just as many opportunities as The Next Generation and Voyager. Odo’s identity was generally presented as uncomplicatedly, male, and heterosexual, in spite of his origins as a blob of goo with no concept of gender or sexuality. In Garak’s first appearance he unmistakably flirted with Doctor Bashir, but actor Andrew J. Robinson was asked to dial back that aspect of his performance in subsequent episodes (not that this stopped the army of Garak/Bashir shippers). And the Mirror Universe, for all that it did present interesting queer versions of several of the main cast, played into uncomfortable stereotypes about bisexuals with Intendant Kira, as well as leading to concerns that most of the queer representation in Star Trek was kept separate from the main universe, in a darker and more morally ambiguous alternate timeline.
Deep Space Nine also featured possibly one of the most offensive explorations of queer issues even seen in Star Trek – the episode Profit And Lace, in which Quark has to pose as a female Ferengi in order to take his trailblazing mother Ishka’s place in sensitive negotiations, is a solid 45 minutes of offensive stereotypes about women in general and trans women in particular. After Deep Space Nine’s comparatively decent record on queer issues, it was a disappointment to many queer fans.
The first season of Enterprise premiered in 2001, when lesbian Tara Maclay was appearing in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Queer As Folk US was airing, Dawson’s Creek had recently featured a kiss between two men, and Will And Grace was going strong. But in spite of increasing pressure from fans – and indeed from actors in other parts of the franchise – Enterprise still had no queer regular characters.
The show’s handling of issues to do with gender and sexuality was generally clumsy and occasionally deeply offensive – a man being pregnant was played as over-the-top comedy, Tucker and Reed made transphobic jokes on a night out, and a storyline about a disease passed by a subculture of mind-melding Vulcans was a deliberate AIDS allegory but didn’t actually discuss or include queerness in any way. While Star Trek has a long and honorable tradition of using allegory to comment on current issues, fans had expected that by now there would be straightforward depictions of queer characters and concerns as well as metaphorical ones.
Enterprise’s one genuine attempt to explore gender was Cogenitor, a second-season episode about a species with a ‘third gender’ treated as an underclass. While the episode had some interesting ideas, it was simplistic in its understanding of the issues it touched on, and the potential queerness of the storyline was smothered beneath the episode’s main point about non-interference with other cultures.
The one really bright spot in Star Trek’s portrayal of queer characters to date is the expanded universe of novels. In the years since Enterprise finished airing, multiple queer characters have had starring and supporting roles in tie-in books. Lieutenant Hawk, a minor on-screen character in Star Trek: First Contact, was written as a gay man, but references to it were removed from later versions of the script. The novel Section 31: Rogue, by Andy Mangels and Michael A. Martin, restored that aspect of his identity, and from there the books have built up a respectable roster of queer characters. Ranul Keru, the Trill partner of the doomed Lieutenant Hawk, serves as chief of security on the Titan. Jeri Taylor’s Pathways, which explores the life stories of the crew of Voyager, features a background gay couple and a gay Starfleet Academy roommate for Harry Kim. The Starfleet Corps of Engineers novels feature a gay couple, and the DS9 relaunch books feature a lesbian couple.
The DS9 relaunch also expanded on a canonical throwaway line about Andorian weddings to create a rich and detailed vision of an Andorian society with four sexes which interact in complex and fascinating ways, and novels set on Cardassia following the Dominion War featured Garak’s ‘close friendship’ with Kelas Parmak, a relationship that skirts so close to being canon that it’s basically the Xena and Gabrielle of the Star Trek tie-in universe. While the books have yet to feature new bisexual or transgender characters, they’re miles ahead of onscreen Trek’s efforts so far.
All that could be about to change, though. Many fans are hoping that the revelation of Sulu’s sexuality is just the beginning. One gay main character would have been pushing the envelope for The Next Generation, but now, well into the twenty-first century and with queer characters increasingly visible in film and television (egregious mortality rates notwithstanding), if Star Trek wants to maintain its reputation of being ahead of the curve on social issues, it needs to do better than that.
Fans are hopeful that Bryan Fuller, the showrunner of the new Star Trek series set to land in early 2017, who is gay himself, understands that and is ready to explore the full range of possibilities. We don’t just want one gay character. We want to see well-rounded gay, lesbian and bisexual characters who have more going on than their sexuality. We want to see human (and Vulcan and Klingon and Trill…) transgender, nonbinary and asexual characters – not just alien species that have a different concept of gender than the human status quo. We want to see queer characters of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, queer characters with disabilities, queer characters of all sizes and body types. We want to see a portrayal of the Star Trek universe that – much like Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who – casually includes queer characters and relationships in small but noticeable ways.
Perhaps we can’t have all of that at once, but the mood in the fandom right now is optimistic that we might at least make a good start. And the news that Sulu is happily married to a man in Star Trek Beyond feels to me like an exciting step in the right direction.
This article first appeared on Den of Geek UK.