Star Trek Pride
Being on the margins makes it clear that those in power will hold on tightest to their ability to tell your story. My new home, Los Angeles, is a shrine to storytelling. Whose stories get told and how they get told is shaped by powerful gatekeepers. And it’s not just Hollywood. America is now violently gnashing its teeth, trying to pass bill after bill to not only prevent queer or transgender people’s stories from being told, but to even acknowledge our existence.
The story of Pride month began with a raid by the police on the Stonewall Inn on 28 June 1969. Having “same-sex” relations was codified as illegal in New York City at the time (a law that was not reversed until 1980, in the seminal case People v. Ronald Onofre). It was transgender women of color, such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who were at the forefront of the resistance from that raid. It was an intersection of identity that put them most at risk. Some of that risk comes directly from their stories being told by people who are afraid of them.
One storyteller who sought to set himself apart by embracing differences with love was Gene Roddenberry. From the beginning, the cornerstone of Star Trek’s original series was diversity. Inspired by the civil rights movements of the late 1960s, he wanted to create a future where all were equal. By having a Black woman on the bridge with a Japanese pilot and Russian weapons officer working together to explore space, Roddenberry demonstrated a proto-grasp of the phrase, “Existence is resistance.” Visibility is an important first step in turning an oppressive tide. Many of the episodes tackled a wide swath of social justice issues using allegory. “Plato’s Stepchildren” is credited as featuring one of the first interracial kisses on television. However, as Roddenberry once confessed to George Takei, the reason that “the gay issue” had not been addressed was because he was “walking a tightrope” – meaning that, if he pushed equality and visibility any further, Star Trek would be pulled off the air. Queer and non-cis-gendered folks’ visibility was sadly part of that sacrifice, leaving them outlawed and invisible.
While Gene had unrealized intentions of putting queer people on screen, Rick Berman, the next showrunner for the new iterations of Star Trek in the 80s and 90s, had no such plans. Berman has gone on record as saying that putting “human gays” on board the Enterprise would be ineffective representation and their stories of injustice are told best through “alien metaphor”. A straight man cavalierly admitting to leveraging his power to keep the viewing audience from hearing queer stories. His choice was explicitly to gatekeep the community from seeing themselves in the future. If Gene Roddenberry had said that the half-white and half-black aliens from the episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” was sufficient in lieu of having Uhura on screen, his legacy absolutely would not be what it is today. Interestingly, one such “alien metaphor” had unintended takeaways.
Gay Trekkies had written letters demanding a gay character. Instead, Berman attempted to appease them with an episode that did not include any. But where he had failed to present queerness, he had accidentally succeeded in telling a transgender story with the Season 5 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Outcast”. The episode featured an alien race called the J’naii, who oppressed any expression of gender. Shortly after Commander Riker began collaborating with a J’naii named Soren, Soren shared a secret: she wished to live as female. Soren revealed that there was a community on J’naii with similar feelings. When Soren was discovered, a tribunal was held, and Soren gave a surprisingly trans-affirming speech in front of a jury of her peers:
“I am female. I was born that way [….] I am not sick because I feel this way. I do not need to be helped. I do not need to be cured. What I need, and what all of those who are like me need, is your understanding.”
Unmoved, the J’naii decided to make an example of Soren and forced her to have a brainwashing procedure. This procedure was (possibly unintentionally) a parallel to conversion therapy. However, Soren’s brainwashing procedure appeared to “help,” which is contrary to the reality of conversion therapy’s effects. A recent study stated that the likelihood of a suicide attempt by LGBTQIA+ folks increases to 58% after enduring conversion therapy, which is still legal in nearly half of the United States.
While Jonathan Frakes correctly pointed out that making Soren a woman erased the queer message, the point about living in alignment with your truth regarding gender was loud and clear; and this was fifteen years before there was trans visibility on network television.
Even if TNG shied away from the “gay issue”, Deep Space Nine attempted to embrace it with the episode “Rejoined”. Trill are known for being hosts to symbionts who experience many other lifetimes. For them, rekindling a previous host’s relationship is expressly forbidden and punishable by banishment from their homeworld. Hosts are meant to release themselves from all the previous host’s obligations. In “Rejoined”, Jadzia Dax reunites with a previous Dax host’s wife, Lenara Kahn. The taboo is not their passionate gay kiss on the Promenade, but their relationship as it related to Trill society’s expectation of hosts. Still, this was a bold choice for 1995. Actors and producers of Deep Space Nine confirmed that both Garak and Jadzia Dax were intended to be queer, but the mandate of no gay characters persisted in Berman-era Trek.
The AIDS crisis decimated an entire generation of the LGBTQIA+ community, especially gay men. At the time, many conservative Christians believed that AIDS was a divine punishment for what they consider sexual amorality. In the US, it was only through tireless protest that the plague was even acknowledged by the Reagan administration, never mind any treatment sought or provided.
Star Trek: Enterprise’s episode “Stigma” was a direct parallel to this global pandemic. The story detailed T’Pol’s experience with contracting the fatal Pa’nar Syndrome after being assaulted by a fellow Vulcan who forced a mind meld. At this point in the Trek timeline, Vulcans believed mind melds were abhorrent and forbade them. Since mind melds were the only way to transmit or contract the disease, contracting Pa’nar Syndrome was admission to engaging in that taboo act. It would destroy her career if the Vulcan High Council found out about her condition. T’Pol’s physician Phlox swore to keep her secret while seeking out a treatment. When they inevitably did, she was forced to defend herself. She used the opportunity to also defend the Vulcan minority who engaged in mind melds. While “Stigma” was a powerful and well-told story, it still removed queer and trans’ people’s specific experience which is key to the story of AIDS and HIV.
Metaphors, analogies utilizing other types of “forbidden” behavior and stereotypical queer coding, were as far as Star Trek allowed itself to represent the LGBTQIA+ community. But finally, in 2017, with the premiere of Discovery, the inclusion of a gay male couple broke that curse. When Bryan Fuller – who is openly gay – was developing Discovery, it was important for him to emphasize inclusion. “Absolutely, we’re having a gay character,” he said in 2017. When Fuller was a co-producer and writer on Voyager, they received a wave of hate mail over the rumor that one character might be gay. By 2017, though, acceptance of LGBTQIA+ characters had improved greatly.
Not only were Paul Stamets and Hugh Culber regular characters, but the way their relationship was portrayed still amazes me. The refreshingly ordinary moments between them, such as adjusting each other’s shirt collars or brushing their teeth in front of a mirror, showed a sturdy, tender and enduring gay love. Finally, the trailblazing nature of Star Trek did the queer community a long-overdue solid by showing how typical a gay relationship is.
In addition, both characters were played by actual gay actors: Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz. In later seasons, two transgender characters were added to the cast: Adira Tal, played by the nonbinary Blu del Barrio, and Gray Tal, played by the trans-nonbinary Ian Alexander. They too also play a couple. Together with Stamets and Culber, the quad formed a queer found family that spans centuries.
Pride is about celebration of the Stonewall Uprising and the overall LGBTQIA+ endurance in the face of adversity. With Discovery, queer and trans people finally are invited to see themselves, not just surviving, but thriving in the future and loving one another on their own terms. We still exist and do so without shame, overcoming decades of censoring and opposition from the people who pitifully designated themselves key masters. They reveled in the power to piecemeal a community’s humanity back to them, while arrogantly prescribing what’s best. They center their egos as a twisted and wrongheaded form of allyship.
The newest Strange New Worlds episode, “The Serene Squall”, features a transgender character, Angel, tied to the Spock family. The possibilities of what LGBTQIA+ characters can contribute to canon continue to expand and excite. It’s thanks to the community’s relentlessness and demand for visibility that this future is being made manifest. LGBTQIA+ people, particularly those of color, deserve to tell their own stories without having to ask permission. That future is finally within reach.