A Queer Trek History

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As a gay man who has been a Trekkie for over half a decade, I am quite aware of how the LGBTQ+ representation within the Star Trek universe is not as perfect as it could be. To be clear, this has not been so insurmountable an obstacle that it has stopped me from enjoying Trek as a whole. Within the vast canon of stories, there have been so many characters that I have related to, particularly the outsider characters like Spock, Data, Odo and Seven. Being able to see parts of yourself in characters that you care about (and even characters that you don’t like so much) can be a very powerful thing. With that said, it is rather disappointing that, despite a sizeable queer following, Trek has so little representation when it comes to queer characters within canon.


Since The Original Series in the 1960s, there have always been queer undertones running through Trek, partly thanks to the core dynamic between Captain James T Kirk and Commander Spock, his First Officer. Through the combination of the writing and strong acting performances from William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in classic episodes like ‘Amok Time’, Kirk and Spock’s friendship was depicted so beautifully that many fans have often viewed it as being perhaps more than platonic. During the years between the cancellation of TOS and the arrival of 1979’s The Motion Picture, fanfiction was one of the ways that Trekkies kept the love for the series alive and this included ‘slash’ fiction, which paired up Spock and Kirk in a romantic relationship. There is still a large amount of ‘Spirk’ fanfiction being written today, alongside many other non-canon same-gender pairings within the franchise (and the few canon ones). In many ways, fanfiction can often make up for the lack of actual on-screen queer representation in Trek. Notably, the fanmade TOS sequel series Star Trek: New Voyages brought a rejected TNG story, ‘Blood and Fire’, to life, including what would have been the first openly gay crew members within a Trek series, had it not been for producer interference preventing the original script from being filmed.


TNG’s fifth season episode, ‘The Outcast’, was the first of Trek’s attempts at dealing with queer issues that actually made it to screens. The episode features an androgynous species called the J’naii, with the main story focusing on Commander Riker’s interactions with Soren, a skilled pilot who wishes to live openly as a woman. In the process of working together on a mission to rescue two J’naii scientists who are trapped in a ‘null space’, Riker and Soren begin to fall in love, which brings many complications to the surface. As Soren explains to Riker, J’naii individuals are forbidden from expressing themselves as male or female in any way because, if discovered, they would be subjected to mockery and ridicule before being forced to undergo a series of psychotectic treatments that would purge them of all inclinations towards a certain gender. This is the unfortunate fate of Soren when her relationship with Riker is discovered by the J’naii and she is taken into custody. In a scene that remains relevant today, Soren proudly refuses to deny the charges against her in the J’naii court, urging them to understand that she (just like other male and female J’naii) wants to be allowed to live her life in peace as the person she is meant to be. Despite her plea, Soren is forced to undergo the psychotectic treatments and, in an attempted rescue, Riker is devastated to find that Soren has been re-assimilated into the androgynous ‘status quo’ of J’naii society.


Although it could be argued that ‘The Outcast’ did reasonably well as an allegory for LGBTQ+ issues (such as the harmful practice of conversion therapy), it is clear that the episode could have pushed the themes much further. Following its initial airing in 1992, many have criticised the decision of having the entire J’naii be played by women, with Riker actor Jonathan Frakes stating in multiple interviews how he wished that the producers had taken more of a chance by having Soren be played by a man. The remainder of the 1987-2005 era of Star Trek would see little progress, with any queer elements being presented through subtext (the Bashir/Garak dynamic in Deep Space Nine, for instance), or further allegory (T’Pol contracting Pa’nar syndrome in Enterprise being likened to HIV).


DS9’s ‘Rejoined’ stands as arguably the biggest risk for the Rick Berman-led era of Trek, with regards to LGBTQ+ visibility, through the depiction of the love story between fellow joined Trill Commander Jadzia Dax and guest character Doctor Lenara Kahn. As the post-credits scene explains, Dax and Kahn were previously married to each other, as different hosts, with the death of Torias Dax meaning that the relationship was forced to end. This created the main conflict of the episode, whereby a relationship between Jadzia and Lenara would have been problematic because of the taboo surrounding re-association within Trill society (not because they were both women at this moment in time). Naturally, the feelings that both Trill had for each other began to resurface as they worked together on a mission to create an artificial wormhole. In the aftermath of a kiss, Jadzia turns to Captain Benjamin Sisko for advice and is urged to consider the cost that pursuing a new relationship with Lenara would have (exile from Trill society and the Dax and Kahn symbionts ultimately dying with them). However, Sisko makes it clear to Jadzia that he will support her, no matter what she decides to do; a gesture that beautifully sums up the depth of their friendship. Unfortunately for Jadzia, Lenara decides that the risk is too great and makes the decision to return to Trill at the end of the episode.


As was the case with many queer depictions on TV in the 1990s, ‘Rejoined’ was met with criticism, especially for the kiss scene between Jadzia and Lenara, which some states refused to air. However, one of the reasons this episode works so well is that it remains a story about love and the consequences of love, as director Avery Brooks once put it, with the fact of the two characters being women standing as a non-issue in the 24th century. ‘Rejoined’ also continued to strengthen the off-screen associations between the Trill and the LGBTQ+ community, as well as presenting the first kiss between two women in Star Trek. However, it would be more than 22 years before a similar kiss between two men would make it to screens.


Star Trek: Discovery came in the wake of 2016’s Star Trek Beyond film, which contained an all-too-brief moment in which Lieutenant Sulu reunites with his husband and daughter. As the first of a new era of Trek series, Discovery was the first to finally include major LGBTQ characters within canon, beginning with Lieutenant Commander Paul Stamets and Doctor Hugh Culber (played by openly gay actors Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz). Throughout the four seasons, to date, both characters have proved vital to the series, with Stamets acting as the interface with the USS Discovery’s spore drive and one of the chief scientific minds on-board and Culber doing double-duty as medical officer and ship’s counselor (following the crew’s permanent jump into the 32nd century). As Trek’s first gay couple aboard a starship, the relationship has not been without a few hiccups. In a move that saw Discovery seemingly fall into the harmful ‘bury-your-gays’ trope, Culber was brutally murdered in the first season episode ‘Despite Yourself’. Fortunately, this was only the beginning of an arc that would see the character’s resurrection in the early stages of the second season. After spending the rest of the season struggling to adjust to a new body, as well as temporarily breaking up with Stamets, Culber considered transferring to the Enterprise in preparation for the Discovery’s permanent journey to the future, before ultimately choosing to remain with the Discovery and with Stamets; his home.


The third season of Discovery cemented the crew of its titular ship as the most LGBTQ+ inclusive in all of Trek, as Stamets, Culber (and Tig Notaro’s delightfully sarcastic engineer, Commander Jett Reno) were soon joined by Adira Tal and their boyfriend Gray Tal (played by non-binary and transgender actors, Blu del Barrio and Ian Alexander). After years of the Trill serving as something of an allegory for gender identity, Adira and Gray made the connection more explicit than ever. As the first non-Trill to carry a symbiont, Adira’s journey had a rather difficult start, especially because they were inheriting the Tal symbiont from their dying boyfriend, Gray (as depicted in ‘Forget Me Not’). However, with the help of Commander Michael Burnham and Trill Guardian Xi, Adira was able to reintegrate the memories of all previous hosts into themself, which also had the unforeseen effect of being able to communicate with Gray. As their journey on the Discovery continued, Adira opened up to Stamets about being non-binary in a beautifully understated scene from ‘The Sanctuary’, before eventually being made an Ensign, in celebration of their efforts to determine the cause of the Burn. Gray had an interesting journey of his own, as he went from being dead to having his consciousness transferred to a new golem body, allowing him to be truly seen by the entire crew. Gray embraced this second chance of life as he resumed his relationship with Adira and even helped Discovery’s computer, Zora, in its own journey of becoming sentient, before finally beginning training to become a Guardian on the Trill homeworld.


One of Discovery’s greatest strengths lies in how it has embraced the idea of chosen family, with its LGBTQ+ characters playing a big part in enhancing that. Their impact has also been recognised off-screen, as recently as June 2023, where Discovery’s LGBTQ cast and producers were honoured with the Outspoken Award at Outright International’s Celebration of Courage Awards and Gala event.


In contrast to Discovery, the on-screen queer representation within the other new Treks is not spread out as evenly, but still varied nonetheless. Alongside a few kisses involving nameless characters in the background of scenes (mainly holodeck simulations or illnesses affecting the crew), Lower Decks features an apparently asexual recurring character in Lieutenant Commander Andy Billups, the chief engineer. In the second season episode, ‘Where Pleasant Fountains Lie’, the former royal’s virginity comes to the forefront when his mother, Queen Paolana, tries to trick him into becoming King of Hysperia by faking her death, which would mean that Billups would have to have assume the throne through performing the Royal Copulation with two guards (one male and one female). Fortunately for Billups, the deception is quickly uncovered and he re-commits to serving in Starfleet. The third season of Lower Decks also touched on Ensign Beckett Mariner’s bisexuality through a relationship with Andorian Ensign Jennifer Sh’reyan, specifically in ‘Hear All, Trust Nothing’, where they share a kiss after Mariner met Jennifer’s friends (and rendered them all unconscious with her phaser to save oxygen when they became trapped in quarters). This came to an abrupt and frustrating end when Mariner was forced to leave the Cerritos after being falsely accused of badmouthing the entire crew when speaking with a visiting journalist, only for it to be revealed in the broadcast interview that she was the only one who had said anything positive about life aboard the ship. With the exception of a rather guilty look from Jennifer, upon Mariner’s return to the ship, there has been no on-screen contact between the two. Despite being largely confined to the first season, the level of representation in Strange New Worlds has been slightly higher, owing to a standout performance from trans actress Jesse James Keitel as the delightfully villainous (and non-binary) Captain Angel in ‘The Serene Squall’. Beyond this, there was a brief allusion to Nurse Christine Chapel being bi or pansexual in ‘Spock Amok’ and Oriana, a minor recurring character, who is shown to have two mothers in ‘The Broken Circle’. Picard has had what could be described as the most turbulent trajectory with queer characters. Following on from a brief, beautiful hand-holding moment in the closing scenes of the first season, Commander Raffi Musiker and Voyager veteran, Seven of Nine, spent almost the entirety of the second season together as part of the La Serena crew’s mission in 2024 to restore their timeline, sharing a kiss in the final episode. However, the third and final season started with the pair already broken-up, with Raffi working in Starfleet Intelligence and Seven serving as First Officer on the USS Titan. As shown through their reunion in ‘The Bounty’, they remained on good terms and, later in the season, they worked together to successfully retake the Titan, following the temporary assimilation of the bridge crew by the Borg, before helping Admiral Picard and his former Enterprise-D to ensure a final victory over the Borg Collective. The series came to a close with Seven and Raffi serving together on the newly-rechristened Enterprise-G, making history as the first queer Captain and First Officer partnership in the Trek canon.


Nearly 7 years on from Discovery’s launch, Star Trek has shown that it is able to bring LGBTQ+ characters into the fold, righting some of the wrongs of past eras. However, in the last two years, it has been difficult to shake the sense that things have been moving backwards. Discovery has not been immune to this apparent minimisation of queer elements, between Stamets/Culber kisses being left on the cutting room floor and Adira and Grey’s relationship becoming a long-distance one (with Grey being absent since ‘But To Connect’). As Discovery approaches its unintended final season, Trek runs the risk of returning to Rick Berman-era levels of on-screen representation of queer characters. Things could change with the upcoming Starfleet Academy series, which is set to succeed Discovery as a 32nd-century based Trek. Also, the fan support for a potential sequel to Picard, possibly fronted by Captain Seven and Raffi on the Enterprise-G, continues to grow. Since this would make the first Trek where a captain and first officer have been in a romantic relationship together, this has the potential of opening up new storytelling possibilities, as well as giving actors Jeri Ryan and Michelle Hurd further opportunities to highlight the wonderful chemistry they have together, as already shown on and offscreen. Whatever happens, I hope that Star Trek continues to try and live up to its creed of ‘infinite diversity in infinite combinations’, by building on the queer representation that has come before in a substantial and meaningful way.


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Chris

Talking Trek, Who, music and many more colourful things in the universe!

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