Spoiler notice: This blog will discuss characters and plot points in various Star Trek shows, including Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Discovery.
When we began working on our QueerSpace project, especially our second episode that explores queer worldbuilding in science fiction literature, I immediately began wondering about Star Trek and its history with including LGBTQ+ characters and storylines.
To be honest, I expected Star Trek to be at the forefront of LGBTQ+ inclusion. After all, Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969) is so well known for being a leader in terms of gender and racial integration — featuring an initial cast of men and women of different races working together. But it turns out this environment of inclusion did not extend to queer identity. I sat down with space history curator and the Museum’s resident science fiction (and Star Trek) expert Margaret Weitekamp to learn more and explore Star Trek’s history with LGBTQ+ stories and characters.
According to Weitekamp, part of the reasoning behind Star Trek's groundbreakingly diverse cast was to signal that the show took place far in the future: “To have a truly integrated group of men and women and aliens of different races working together, we must be centuries from where we are now.” But that representation then had a profound effect in its contemporary moment.
This makes the delay in introducing LGBTQ+ characters even more pronounced. Surely this future society wouldn’t be exclusively heteronormative and cisgender?
The first openly gay characters in the Star Trek television universe weren’t introduced until the first season of Star Trek: Discovery in 2017. (Although it is worth noting that in the 2016 film Star Trek Beyond it is established that the Hikaru Sulu of the Kelvin Timeline, portrayed by John Cho, is gay — a nod to George Takei, who originated the role of Sulu in Star Trek: The Original Series and publicly came out as gay in 2005.)
Star Trek: Discovery’s Paul Stamets and Dr. Hugh Culber, portrayed by out actors Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz, are the first openly gay characters and the first gay couple portrayed in the central cast of a Star Trek tv show. “They don’t start with some big reveal,” Weitekamp explains. “They introduce each character in his professional role, doing his professional stuff, and then there’s this great intimate moment of them standing next to each other, brushing their teeth, just like any couple would.”
There is one disappointing moment where it seems that Discovery is playing into the “bury your gays” trope with the (spoiler alert!) murder of Hugh Culber. But fear not, he is brought back to life (this is still sci-fi, after all). The team behind the show insist that his short-lived death isn’t a “bury your gays” moment, with executive producer Aaron Harberts saying in an interview with IndieWire: “It was essential that this crime not be gratuitous. It had to push the story, and it had to come from character and emotion. Culber is killed because he’s the smartest person on the ship. He’s not killed because he’s gay. He’s killed because he’s a threat…”
Later on in Star Trek: Discovery, a non-binary teenager named Adira is introduced, portrayed by non-binary actor Blu del Barrio. In a scene in season 3, Stamets, not yet aware of Adira’s pronouns, refers to them as “her,” and Adira corrects him, saying, “‘They,’ not ‘she.’ I’ve never felt like a ‘she’ or a ‘her.” I would prefer ‘they’ or ‘them’ from now on,” which Stamets accepts in stride. When we discussed Adira’s coming out scene, Weitekamp was especially impressed by a moment later in the episode when, with Adira asleep at their workstation, Culber and Stamets have a conversation, both referring to Adira using their correct pronouns without hesitation. Seeing those scenes in succession really shows how simple it should be to respect a person’s identity: Stamets didn't know, now he knows, and now he'll use the right pronouns.
Through Adira we also meet their boyfriend Gray, a transgender Trill portrayed by Ian Alexander, the first trans actor in Star Trek history. As Adira and Gray’s story unfolds, “they really present Stamets, Culber, Adira, and Gray as a kind of queer family of choice,” Weitekamp said.
With Star Trek: Discovery, the franchise made huge strides in introducing LGBTQ+ characters, casting queer actors to play them, and making those characters fully-realized and their experiences authentic.
But it took a while for Star Trek to get there. So what took so long? And was the absence of queer characters as conspicuous as it seems today?
“It’s really in the 1980s that people start to ask questions about same-sex relationships and that kind of representation in Star Trek,” Margaret shares. In the mid- to late-1980s, a group of science fiction fans formed a group called the Gaylactic Network with the truly incredible slogan, “Out of the closet and into the universe.”
“As various groups of gay and lesbian science fiction fans, like the Gaylactic Network, start to push that they wanna see more positive representation, Star Trek seems like a really likely place because it had been so out in front in terms of positive depictions of African Americans, Asian Americans, women in leadership roles,” Margaret explains. “So they really start pushing for some way of seeing this addressed.”
There are conflicting accounts on whether Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry promised that there would be an out gay character in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), but ultimately there isn’t. Instead what we see are a few allegories to queer experiences, most notably in the Season 4 episode “The Host” and the season 5 episode “The Outcast.”
In “The Host” (1991) Dr. Beverly Crusher falls in love with a Trill named Odan. The Trill are a humanoid species joined with a symbiont who can pass from host to host with little concern for the presenting gender of their Trill host. After the symbiont Odan’s host body dies, he is eventually transferred to a new host — this time with a female body. Although the new Odan professes love for Crusher, she rejects the overture from Odan as a woman, saying “Perhaps it is a human failing, but we are not accustomed to these kinds of changes… Perhaps, someday, our ability to love won't be so limited.”
And then there’s Star Trek: The Next Generation season 5 episode 17, “The Outcast” (1992). When I spoke with Weitekamp, she told me this is an episode that she frequently used for classroom discussion when she was teaching. It’s quite fascinating to examine the episode in terms of what it hoped to accomplish, how it was perceived at the time, and the way we interpret it today.
The episode features the J’naii, a humanoid race that has no gender, believing that they have evolved past it. Will Riker meets a member of the J’naii named Soren and their chemistry and attraction is clear.
Soren confesses to Riker that she secretly identifies as female and the J’naii eventually realize this and arrest her. In order to return to her society, Soren must undergo “psychotectic treatments” to remove her gender identity and make her androgynous once again. Riker sets out to rescue her, but it’s too late. “The heartbreaking thing at the end,” Weitekamp explained, “is the character comes back and says essentially ‘I'm so much happier now that I'm a part of the way society is supposed to be.’ She’s clearly kind of brainwashed.”
This whole episode was intended as an allegory for the way that queer people are often treated by their communities. Soren’s identity is called a “perversion” and she is referred to as “deviant.” The psychotactic therapy is a stand-in here for conversion therapy.
And while this episode was very clearly Star Trek’s foray into a “gay rights” episode, it left many disappointed. After all, the couple at the center of this big moment in Star Trek history was unmistakably heterosexual. Right off the bat, Weitekamp notes, it’s immediately evident that all members of this adrogynous race — including Soren — are played by female actors: “They very clearly cast a woman as this androgynous figure. So you, the viewer, are not made uncomfortable or made to confront an actual same-sex relationship.” Actor Jonathan Frakes, who played Riker, has since spoken on the subject, saying that the show wasn’t bold enough with their casting in the episode and that it would have been more effective if Soren had been played by a male actor, to really push boundaries.
It’s also fascinating to look at this episode, 30 years on, in the way it approached gender identity. In 1992, it used gender identity as an allegory for homosexuality, but watching it today, you can’t help but wish it could have treated the idea of being non-binary not as an allegory but as an idea to explore respectfully in and of itself. This may have been many viewers’ first exposure to non-binary individuals, yet they are presented as the bad guys, trying to oppress others. And their non-binary identity is telegraphed by removing their personality and emotion, implying that a binary gendered identity is what makes someone lively and interesting.
Although we cannot change the past, what we can do is continue to establish science fiction as a realm that is welcome to people of all backgrounds because, after all, the future — real or imagined — is what we make it. It’s gratifying to see the strides that Star Trek has made in Star Trek: Discovery and I hope it continues on this show as well as across other Star Trek properties. And who knows, maybe someday we’ll revisit the J’naii and see that storyline play out in a more satisfying way.