Monday, March 1, 2010

Homosexuality and Star Trek

This is a bit of a touchy subject for me and I seriously debated whether I should delve into it in this forum. Ultimately, I decided that it would at least spur some interesting conversation, and that's why we are here. When you get right down to it, if you made a pie chart showing how my mental resources are apportioned by topic, that pie chart would look a little something like this:
The biggest two popular culture influences of my life are hands down watching endless reruns of Star Trek and endless reruns of The Golden Girls. Sadly, Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty's passing makes the irresistibly charming crossover now impossible. But can't you picture it? Admiral Zbornak, the tough as nails bureaucrat, giving Captain Picard a hard time? Ambassador Deveraux sleeping her way through the crew? I digress, but it's safe to say that it's even odds on any given day whether "nerdy homosexual" or "homosexual nerd" is the most accurate description of me. So, it's sad that Star Trek has at best been silent on an issue of such importance to me. I've decided to structure this essay around a list of episodes and incidents that touch on this issue, discuss them individually, and then wrap up with some thoughts and conclusions. Structure is good. It will keep the post devolving into me loudly typing how I want to see hot guys making out on the bridge of the Enterprise. Though, for the record, I do. I really, really do. Anyway, first up is TOS...

The Original Series

TOS and its movies don't really touch on this issue at all, and I can't really find fault with that. They were busy tackling other hot button social issues, and I think we were still calling them "inverts" at this point. I ask that a show that prides itself on being socially forward-minded actually be forward-minded, but not psychic or suicidal. The closest we get is some quasi-slash action between Kirk and Spock, like the back-rub incident from "Shore Leave."

“Thank you, Yeoman, that’s sufficient.”

 So moving right along...

The Next Generation

TNG is a different kettle of fish all together. Premiering in 1987, AIDS had been around long enough to get a name that wasn't "gay cancer," but the disease was still mysterious and misunderstood. Apparently, David Gerrold, a writer on the first season of TNG tried to, in true Star Trek fashion, do a parable story on the show, called "Blood and Fire." The basic plot is that there is some sort of infection, a "bloodworm" if memory serves, that is incurable and eventually causes violent madness. Anyone infected must be quarantined and any affected facilities must be destroyed. The episode centered around a crew member who becomes infected and his same-sex partner who must deal with the consequences. Not quite as heavy handed as having half-white/half-black faces, but there you go. The idea was shot down and Gerrold was so offended he left the series. The blood worm idea eventually filtered down into "Conspiracy," a good episode in its own right, but definitely lacking the social commentary.

Somehow, this still works out to be a better AIDS parable than "Stigma."

What kills me here is this was the hot button social issue of the late 80s. It is the equivalent of The Kiss in Plato's Stepchildren. It's the kind of moment that makes you immediately worthy of the mantle of TOS. Whatever viewers you lost, you would cement the adoration of the ones that stuck around. To say nothing of the fact, that your fans tend to be educated liberal people. I don't think there would have been a backlash, or at least not an appreciable one. I'm going to throw in here the characters of Lt. Hawk, Malcom Reed, Seven of Nine, and all the other characters that were rumored to varying degrees to be Star Trek's first open LGBT character and then weren't. In the 80s, dodging the issue was a sign of cowardice. In the 90s, it was a sign of apathy or laziness. In the 21st century, it begins to look like overt homophobia. DS9 and VOY ran concurrent with Will & Grace for crying out loud. Your precious 18-35 year old white male demographic wasn't fleeing from positive depictions of LGBT characters. Sure Will was gay read asexual, but even talking about it is a step.

My sorrow is compounded by the fact that TNG arguably takes a few steps backwards on gender issues, especially in its early years.  After the loss of Tasha Yar, the women on board are all in caregiver functions, and get far too little screen time. And then we have "Angel One." This episode is annoying because it indicates they couldn't imagine a matriarchal society not run by militant, mulleted biker chicks lording over effeminate sissy boys. They were essentially men in really bad drag.  It would have been interesting to see a society where traditionally feminine qualities were the ones over-valued. Cooperation and compromise and empathy have their limits and their pitfalls, just like aggression and physical force do.  That planet would have been an interesting addition to discussion of gender roles. Instead we get an episode that almost lampoons the concept of women in power by showing them as aggressive and power hungry as men, but just not as good at it. Plus there's the whole "let the white man teach you how it's done" speech from Riker.

I would be remiss if I did not discuss the fascinating travesty that was Trent, arguably, the first openly gay character in Star Trek.

Pictured: Trent being pissed that Beata is the one who gets to bag Riker.

This is the gay equivalent of Code of Honor.  He shall have no treaty, no vaccine, and no Commander Riker! All we need is a scene of him spying on some school boys from the bushes or giving nuclear secrets to Communists in order to complete the stereotype.  It's offensive to me both as homo and as a feminist.  It reinforces the idea that men out of power are in this position because they're sissies, and that the only way to be in power is to be aggressive and violent. I originally hadn't thought to discuss this episode in this post.  It's inclusion was recommended by my co-captain, Matthew, but I am glad he did so. This episode crystallizes for me how far behind their own time this particular group of writers seemed to be. Homophobia and misogyny are two sides of the same dumb-assed coin. Being gay is bad because it makes men act like women and being a woman is bad. It makes women act like men, and they can't be allowed to do that, or they might start having opinions and wanting to vote and stuff. I have to say, reviewing this episode has actually caused me to move it above Code of Honor on the offensive scale.  Code of Honor stumbled into offensive with an inept director.  Nothing in the script required we visit Darkest Africa or borrow all of Rick James' Jheri curl wigs. The dumb idea at the center of Angel One is intrinsic to the script. Code of Honor was reckless. Angel One was malicious. Taking a deep breath and moving on...

The Trill

The reason only one in one thousand Trill are suitable for joining is only that portion is this attractive.

I'm going to tackle all the Trill episodes at once. It will save time. There must be some policy in the Trill Symbiosis Commission that requires that the subsequent host for a Trill that fell in love with a hot chick also be a hot chick. On the one hand I am annoyed that when Star Trek actually acknowledges the possibility of same-sex attraction, it's always under the cover of "It's not the hosts, but the symbionts, so they aren't really lesbians." That being said, I do want to give DS9 credit where credit is due. "Rejoined" is, first and foremost, a good hour of television. The leads have great chemistry. I like how they quietly acknowledge that Jadzia and Lenara would probably have hit it off anyway, regardless of the baggage of Torias and Nilani. It made their current attraction more credible. And here, silence on the issue of same sex relationships was golden. No one was shocked by the fact they were both women; it didn't occur to them to mention it. The best of all possible reasons for this is that same-sex relationships are so common, to mention it would be the same as observing that they are both left-handed. I particularly liked Kira's line about how could any society object to two people who love each other being together. A risk of any science fiction show dealing with prejudice is a tendency to over discuss it. "Isn't it great we aren't prejudiced anymore?" is a line that robs your show of realism and tends to kill the moment. And even in "The Host," they didn't have Beverly frame her problem as a problem with the current host being a woman, just a problem with the host thing in general. It's not a ringing endorsement of same sex couples, but sometimes the lack of an objection is the same thing.

Enterprise and Pa'Nar Syndrome

Here we see T'Pau (The Vulcan, not the 80s band) curing T'Pol of her horrible plot device...I mean affliction.

I'm only going to mention Enterprise's foray into these issues to say that they sucked at it. They did an AIDS parable twenty years after AIDS stopped being controversial and did so at the orders of the studio and did so in a way that broke continuity and sullied one of Star Trek's founding members. That's not progress. That's a half-assed attempt to pander to everyone at once.

The Mirror Universe

I love Intendant Kira for the same reason I love drag queens. I appreciate a woman who wears silver lamé to work.

While I am working on a good rant, let me say how deeply, deeply annoyed I was at the DS9 mirror universe episodes, particularly "The Emperor's New Cloak." Narcissistic, bisexual Kira was actually fine. She wasn't really bisexual per se; she was just self absorbed and was aroused by whatever flattered her. A narcissexual, if you will. Nana Visitor has said as much in interviews both before and after the episode that that was how she conceived of the character, and I'm with her.  Standing alone, in a vacuum, her first appearance in "Crossover" was really quite good.

It hurts my soul just to post that picture.

It was Lesbian Ezri. Eesh. Talk about cheap pandering. It did nothing to advance the story. It was just there to titillate nerd boys, and it perpetuates the annoying Hollywood trope of all LGBT people are evil. To top it all off, it was a shitty episode. Seriously? Everyone, everyone in the Mirror Universe is a lesbian? Kira? Ezri? Leeta? No heterosexual women anywhere? If anyone is so inclined, go pick up the pair of books "Dark Passions," a literary foray into the Mirror Universe. They're fun in a pulp fiction kind of way, but again...all lesbians. And it's not that I don't love lesbians, for I do. It's that it robs the moment of meaning when you're just doing it to arouse straight men rather than make a point.

The Outcast

I have nothing funny to say here. There is nothing funny to say.

I have been saving this last topic for last. "The Outcast." I'm conflicted. It was the most explicit attempt to deal with the issues of alternate sexuality. And the speech at the end, on its own, is a good one. On the other hand, could we have found a way to portray these characters as anything other than stereotypically militant lesbians? And the fact that they actually "cured" her was annoying. Jonathan Frakes scored some points with me by saying in an interview he thought while the character should have identified as female, it should have been played by a male actor. It would make the kiss more shocking and make the J'nai a little more complex. Well done, Frakes. Well done.

And like Angel One, we can't seem to portray female characters of alternate gender or social mores without going right to 80s "career woman" stereotyping. Is smiling a gendered quality? And despite its attempt to give a nod to the gay community, I think this episode may actually do the opposite. The people with the alternate take on sex were wrong and they were bad for stopping their citizen from engaging in a form of sexual expression we recognize as normal. I understand they may have been trying to portray the issue by turning it on its ear, but there wasn't nearly enough meat to this story to pull it off successfully.

So in the end, the best I get out of my beloved franchise is a few instances where the lack of comment on same-sex relationships can be read as implicit acknowledgment of their normalcy. I understand the counterarguments to all of this. It's television, and you need to have viewers to have a show so you can't piss off all your Southern affiliates. But Star Trek has been sitting on its laurels since TOS for being progressive on social issues. If you want the accolades, you have earn them. Star Trek's underlying message of tolerance and acceptance are what got me through some annoyingly lonely teenage years, so I guess it just hurts that they never tackled such an obvious issue, especially when their involvement had a significant chance of making the problem better.

One of the most common phrases you hear when fans talk about Star Trek is "Because of [insert name of character], I became a [insert character's job]." James Doohan and DeForest Kelley repeated talked about how much it moved them that people told them how they became doctors and engineers because they grew up watching TOS. Whoopi Goldberg frequently credits Uhura's mere non-maid presence on the bridge as a major inspiration. The same is no less true for little gay boys (me) watching the show as kids. Most LGBT people go through a period in their lives, usually during adolescence, when they feel like something is wrong with them. Seeing two guys kiss on TV goes a long way to alleviating that. I think one of the most basic impulses we have is the desire to feel normal, to feel like we are part of the community around us. The way we determine what normal is by looking around and seeing what everyone else is doing. When everyone on TV is in a different relationship than the one my blossoming hormones are telling me to seek out, it creates a profound sense of isolation. One of the things that encourages me most about the future is that some many people, gay or straight have grown up in the last ten years with out LGBT people as part of the normal part of their lives. They are as normal as everything else. Not only would portraying LGBT characters in Star Trek have been a brave stand against prejudice, it would have been a start in helping change people's minds.

And to end this post on a high, and gay note, I'm just going to repost the picture of Trip with no shirt on from my Men of Star Trek post.


There...all better.


  1. More offensive: Code of Honor or Angel One?

    Gosh, that's a round table all its own. We should definitely podcast both when we get to them sometime in the next decade...

    I mean, both distill their main antagonists down to the crudest, most offensive possible stereotypes. In "Code," persons of African descent with dark skin are all horny Tom-Cats who lust after white women, bang on bongo drums, and solve their problems with violence. As you lay out above, in "Angel," masculinity is portrayed as violence and aggression, femininity as weakness and prissiness, and any blend of the two gender roles is viewed as a subject for humor and derision (even by the women, who poke fun at Riker in "angel" gear).

    I think, in its historical context, "Code" is the worse sin against propriety. Race issues had been given much more air time in the public sphere than gender issues. Remember, this was 20 years after the great Civil Rights struggles for African-Americans, but in the midst of debates over the ERA.

  2. You only devote that much of your brain to helping abused women? For shame.

    Just kidding.

    I did like your final picture in the post.

    Malcolm was supposed to be gay? Really? I never knew that before.

    ...and... I'd go more in depth with my comment, but I need more time to come up with intelligent remarks.

  3. Onion AV club came down pretty hard on the kiss in Plato's Stepchildren:
    "This was something of a big deal with the ep first aired, being arguably the first interracial kiss to air on television--despite the fact that the kiss was far from pleasurable for either party. ... And hell, not minutes after that kiss, Kirk is threatening Uhura with a whip. Clearly, not really a sex-positive message."
    I haven't seen the episode yet (tonight's ep was The Cold War Made Boring And Annoying, aka 'Assignment: Earth') but the clips I've seen of the kiss do make it look so uncomfortable you'd be forgiven for thinking interracial kissing is physically painful. For me, that puts 'Code of Honor' over the top in the offensiveness sweepstakes, because it's the low point of a continued trajectory of being really racially tone-deaf.

    ...Sooo... If I read the entry on Stigma right, and Enterprise's AIDS parable is that Vulcan mind-melding is like sex, would that take away Kirk's man-whore championship title and give it to Spock? 'Cause he seems to mind-meld plenty of people, sometimes while Kirk or McCoy watches.

  4. Well, besides my obvious affection for an episode that features PLATO (however mangled a version it is), I will defend the episode on these grounds:

    1. It was 1968. And that's not just saying "oh, it was the past, people were different back then," that's saying "it was the most tumultuous year culturally in American history in decades, if not since the Civil War." Black people were rioting in the streets (mostly for good reasons), people were getting assassinated, American citizens were rejecting monogamy, patriotism, sobriety, gender roles, and who knows what else left and right... and Star Trek had their white hero kissing his black co-star. Arguing the particulars of the story is ignoring heaping helpings of context.

    2. But as far as the particulars of the story, Kirk and Uhura are kissing and playing with whips at the behest of the Platonians, who are manipulating their prisoners for amusement. So the disdain that Kirk and Uhura show is not directed at the notion of interracial smooching, it is at the abrogation of their personal liberty and sovereignty. I would argue that showing a black female in popular entertainment with such dignity is a revolutionary step, given the context mentioned above. They could have had him kissing Nurse Chapel and no one would have batted an eyelash.

    It's a pretty good episode. I'm sure we'll discuss it deeply, maybe even podcast it. In the rush to not overrate things, we shouldn't lose our appreciation for context and reflexively underrate them.

  5. "My sorrow is compounded by the fact that TNG arguably takes a few steps backwards on gender issues, especially in its early years. After the loss of Tasha Yar, the women on board are all in caregiver functions, and get far too little screen time."

    I'd argue that Tasha Yar is as much a stereotype as Troi is, if not moreso. TNG is a product of 80s feminism, and it doesn't move beyond it. A large part of the reason I love Voyager so very very much is that the female characters are actually well-rounded. But that's all a whole different post.

    Either way, I think it's clear that even when they push the envelope a bit, Star Trek is always a product of its time. If you had a good Star Trek series now (good meaning more forward-looking than Enterprise), I would assume there would be gay characters, if not storylines. As long as they keep with movies, though, I doubt we'll see it.

  6. @Matt: I'll argue more when I've actually seen the episode, and I'm not just talking out of my ass, but I don't think the context makes the kiss any better. I've argued a lot that you have to consider things in their historical context (in a lot of very different arguments) but when I'm looking at the pop culture landscape context I'm seeing 'Guess Who's Coming To Dinner' released in 1967. That's about an interracial couple actually being a couple and dealing with the personal and social fallout, which makes two people being forced by aliens to kiss seem pretty weak.

    But I don't even know, I've been messed up about Uhura since that episode ('The Gamesters of Triskelion') where she's in cell and her evil-brain-thing assigned trainer announces that he's been picked for her, and walks menacingly in while she starts screaming her head off and it really comes off like she's getting raped. WHAT THE HELL.

  7. Betsy, I actually just watched that one. And the scene is disturbing, no doubt. But dialogue indicates clearly that Uhura does not end up getting raped. Chekov, on the other hand...

    Kelly, I agree that Star Trek pushes envelopes at times but doesn't always blaze new trails. Looking at context fairly, it's Enterprise that really drops the ball, here. It was on the air at a time that gay characters were already on television, and it seems like at least 5 or 6 out of 80 crew members should have been homosexual. There is a storytelling question, though - you have to be sure you're not just "making a point," or worse, simply pandering (e.g. the ongoing DS9 lesbo-festival), you have to tell an organic story in a way that doesn't seem forced. Straight characters don't walk around for whole episodes whistling and proclaiming "whee! I like straight sex!" Although there are some instances of this for gay persons in our day and age (with the word "gay" replaced for "straight" in the above sentence), presumably in such an enlightened future, no one would bat an eyelash or feel the need to be so "flamboyantly OUT."

    So I wonder how a gay character/theme/romance would and could play out.

    In your basic 7-8 person core cast, you really only want one key romance. Otherwise, it just ends up being a soap opera. In TNG, it's Troi/Riker. In DS9, it's Worf/Dax. In Voyager, it's B'Elanna/Tom. In ENT it's T'Pol/Trip. I think experience shows that when you branch out from the one romance per show limit, things go off the rails REALLY quickly (Exhibit A: Kira/Odo. Exhibit B: Picard/Beverly. Exhibit C: Chakotay/Seven).

    The only other solution is to bring in outside characters to serve as romantic interests for the core cast. These can either be one-offs (practically every one) or repeating characters (e.g. Kasidy Yates).

  8. OK, now, if you have a straight character, you want to have one or two romantic possibilities for them. Otherwise, there's little to no dramatic tension.

    So now let's say you have your one gay character. Let's make it Harry Kim.

    It seems like you can do one of three things.

    1. You can have no potential love interests for him. Then it seems almost worse to have him on the show than it would be to simply make him straight.

    2. You can make another core cast member gay and pair them up. But isn't that like saying "Hey, you're gay, and I have a gay friend. You two should date!" ? You're positing that since character X is gay/black/vulcan/android/whatever, they should naturally be attracted to the person who shares their minority status. Seems rather conspicuous and demeaning. The only way around it is to add even more gay characters, which begins to strain credulity, unless:

    3. You pair up your gay cast member with minor recurring and/or one-shot characters. This would get around profiling concerns, perhaps, although you would need to take care not to portray all gays in all places in all centuries as promiscuous sluts who'll do the nasty at the drop of a hat. The plus side is that you might open up some interesting storytelling avenues. Are other races homophobic? Trisexual? Who knows?

    3.5: I suppose you could have stories about gay characters (Harry) crushing on straight ones (Tom). But is that really somewhere you want to go? Is Star Trek really about sexual harassment or unwanted inter-sexual-preference attraction?

    I think #3 is by far the most preferable, done well.

    But the main point is, for me anyway, and this applies to straight romance as well, that Star Trek isn't about people hooking up in space. It shouldn't be a main theme. Star Trek is about a kind of society and a future time period that's better than ours. Sure, people should have relationships in it, but it shouldn't be the main theme of more than 1 out of let's say every 20 episodes. How love survives in this future world is interesting, but it can't be the ONLY interesting sci-fi story to tell in this backdrop.

  9. Now that I think about it, probably the best place to have told a story about intolerance towards homosexuality would have been DS9. I mean, you have a whole PLANET of people with strong religious leanings. You also have the episode "Accession," in which religious authorities argue from scripture that there are particular places, roles, and lifestyles that should be adhered to by each Bajoran.

    So you could have had the same apply to sexuality, affording Avery Brooks the opportunity to mercilessly chew scenery during a speech about how "people... should be FREE... to LOVE... in whatever way they WANT!"

    And you could also establish that Dr. Bashir is actually gay (because YEESH...), and no one really cares.

  10. Matt, I must've missed it during the episode, and I tried looking over a script but I still couldn't find where they say nothing happened to Uhura: where do they address it? It would make me feel a lot better.

    "In your basic 7-8 person core cast, you really only want one key romance. Otherwise, it just ends up being a soap opera."

    My brother told me that there was an edict from Gene Roddenberry forbidding personal conflicts between crew members in TNG, which I haven't been able to confirm AT ALL. But if it's actually true, and in the future there is no drama (at least not among the cast and crew... Once they got rid of the doctor lady who yells at Data...) that would limit your options for crew romance. It wouldn't limit an ex-girlfriend/boyfriend dropping by, but I guess the show decided not to throw down the glove like that. It's really hard to write a scene where somebody like that is introduced, and then never really mentioned again.

  11. After the act break, the scene pick up again with Kirk at the cell door, and the scene cuts over to Uhura's cell. Uhura, still clothed, is holding a metal pitcher in her hand as a defensive weapon. Her drill thrall, also fully clothed, angrily leaves the room, muttering "it is not allowed to refuse selection."

    Not ironclad, but the implication seemed pretty clear to me that Lars had not breached the Starfleet Granny Panty Barrier...

  12. What your brother says is consistent with what I've read. I'm sure it's in one of the books on our coffee table. You should come over sometime. There was an edict that it be kept to a minimum, anyway, which the writers, producers and actors strained against.

    PS: Why isn't your brother also commenting and/or contributing here?

  13. "...although you would need to take care not to portray all gays in all places in all centuries as promiscuous sluts who'll do the nasty at the drop of a hat."

    Any hat, sir. :)

    As for depiction, the more subtle the better, I agree. I would just like a pair of Bajoran dudes in the background in the throng of people greeting each other at the airlock. A quick peck on the cheek, a little hand holding as they walk off to the Promenade, and I'm a happy camper. A main or prominent guest LGBT character would be fun, if only for the eye candy, but I'll take what I can get.

    The thing is, when you get down to it, LGBT relationships aren't that much different than all the others. Yes, gay men have a tad more sex than everyone else, but that's because we're both dudes and both been socialized to equate sex with self esteem and, really it's not like you go to a worse Hell for sleeping with one guy versus sleeping with a thousand, so why not go nuts?

    Anyway, normalcy is what I think Star Trek had the opportunity to depict really well. Like in "The Offspring," Whoopi Goldberg had wanted there to be a same sex couple in the background of Ten Forward while she was explaining kissing to Lal, but someone nixed it. It's things like that. In the end, pride parades and IML aside, there is far more in common between gay and straight people than not. Under the protection of latex masks and alien cultures, Star Trek could have communicated that message in a thoughtful way and chose not to.

    And, Betsy, I don't know how much Season 1 of TOS you've been watching, but you have not yet begun to be creeped out by the sexual-assaultiness of TOS. Two words: Yeoman Rand. Go read my half of the review of "The Enemy Within" and come back. I'll wait...

  14. ...

    Man, that makes me feel even worse than usual about the short uniform dresses. I was just starting to get over them and convince myself that they were functional! Show-wise, at least, since the producer/director would be less likely to kill the red shirt who's showing some leg. (I know I've been proved wrong on this, btw, since I've seen the episode where the high-powered aliens turn two red shirts into cubes and then crush one... I'm still embarrassed about it, but I really did gasp when it was revealed that the black guy lived.)

    I think that it re-enforces your point though, that if the writers could have a 'favorite attempted-rape target' character, they could spare some time for a 'hits on dudes while on shore leave' character.

  15. I just did my half of the review for that episode ("By Any Other Name"). I really like it! I made a special point of mentioning that it was surprising that the black male redhsirt lived while the white female yeoman bought it.

  16. The writers play the audience hard by having the hot red shirt tell Kirk she's scared to die, and then having one of them killed, and then revealing it's her, but it's one of the many things in the episode that just works. The hallways littered with ex-crew/now-cubes was also a fantastic, cost-effective, supremely creepy moment.

  17. Betsy, stop stealing the comments I was going to put in my review! That's number two, right there :)

    BTW, the shapes are cited by memory alpha as "cuboctahedrons."

  18. How about Elim Garak, the gayest of all Cardashians?