Why Pel Was My 1990s Queer Icon
A Short Reflection on My Favorite Ferengi
A lot of fuss has been made of having openly gay, trans and nonbinary characters on Star Trek: Discovery. Even though I knew it was coming, seeing Stamets and Culber just existing as gay men made me emotional.
The fact of the matter is, though, that despite the best efforts of the powers that be of network television, queerness has been a part of Star Trek fandom for as long as there has been Star Trek fandom. If you enjoy fanfiction, you should thank your local Kirk/Spock writer.
The most meaningful example of this, to me, is a one-time DS9 character: Pel, in “Rules of Acquisition”. Pel is the first time we see a female Ferengi in the series, and her impact on me when it first aired in 1993 was and still is immeasurable.
Pel shows up on DS9 disguised as a man, to work in Quark’s bar. She quickly proves herself as a Ferengi with “lobes for business” and as exceedingly loyal to Quark himself. She and Quark go on an adventure to make plot happen in the Gamma Quadrant. However, Pel’s cover is blown when a jealous Rom finds her fake ears, revealing her sex.
During Pel’s adventure with Quark, there is alcohol, there are smooches, there is an uncomfortable interruption – all the things that make a 1990s television romance, albeit an unrequited one. Whereas Pel is attracted to Quark, the feeling apparently isn’t mutual. When they learn the truth of Pel’s gender, Quark faints and the Grand Nagus is horrified. Not only is Pel female, but Ferengi culture forbids women to make profit or wear clothes, yet she is doing both!
By now, though, Quark has developed an affection for Pel and he ensures that her secret remain hidden, enabling her to flee to her next business opportunity. There is some oo-mox before she leaves, to keep the romance alive… and then she never returns to the show.
We eventually get another Ferengi female, Ishka, to carry the torch for female liberation. Ishka is fantastic and unabashedly female. She wears spectacular gowns and dramatic jewelry and is not just a dedicated parent, but a dedicated mother.
My mind always goes back to Pel, though. Pel, with snazzy suits she wore while playing tongo late into the night. Pel was one of the boys and, had Rom not found her synthetic ears, she likely would have remained so.
Pel is different to me because she isn’t just bucking Ferengi expectations of her sex but ours as well. She is comfortable living as a man in a way that would be highly unusual for even the most dedicated cis woman. Quark certainly fails to pull off the opposite in “Profit and Lace”.
Star Trek, especially 1990s Star Trek, had many examples of strong women I could look up to. Seeing a woman captain a starship in the late 1990s was pretty nifty, though the fact was she wasn’t just female, but feminine. When Janeway is off duty, she is depicted flouncing around the holodeck in a hoop skirt. I was far more drawn to Pel, the female Ferengi who not only is trying to change the world for other Ferengi females but doesn’t seem particularly interested in feminine pursuits.
In my childhood, I needed to see Pel. I needed to see someone like me who isn’t particularly dedicated to a binary gender, someone who doesn’t feel the need to be feminine. I needed to see someone who made the best of an inequitable gender structure and lived her own truth.
Discovery is doing amazing things for representation in the queer community, but let’s not forget those characters who flew just under the radar and gave some of us hope that we might just make it someday.