Star Trek is not just one of the longest-running sci-fi franchises ever, it is also the most hopeful. The Federation represents the pinnacle of humanity: the idea that we can and will make a better life for each other. Yet, despite Trek’s message of a better future for all, LGBTQ+ characters are few and far between, and this exclusion has led to more than a few clashes between Star Trek creators and fans in the past. As Star Trek: Discovery heads into its next chapter, let’s look back at the franchise’s history of LGBTQ+ representation. Does Discovery fulfill the promise of a more harmonious, progressive future? Or does it, too, fall prey to the pitfalls that have plagued Star Trek’s past?
Not in front of the Klingons
For decades, queer people have been drawn to Star Trek, and the shows have gained cult status within the gay community. Why? To answer that question, we need to slingshot around the sun and time-warp back to The Original Series, a show with so much sparkling chemistry between its male leads that Kirk and Spock became the OG ship, launching a thousand fan fictions – which, back in the '60s, were painstakingly typed out on typewriters and handed around at conventions.
Some typically innuendo-laden dialogue. Image: Paramount
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry did not vocally oppose the fans interpreting Kirk and Spock as lovers. Always a supporter of fan works, Roddenberry attended many of the first conventions, and encouraged his writers to read fanzines (Spockanalia, in particular) – and although these didn’t include 'slash' fanfiction, he wasn’t unaware of this fan response to the show.
When interviewed in 1979 for the book Shatner: Where No Man, Roddenberry was asked what he thought of the fan belief that Kirk and Spock were in love. His response was thoughtful: “Yes, there’s certainly love overtones. Deep love. The only difference being, we never suggested in the series [that there was any] physical love between the two. But we certainly had the feeling that the affection was sufficient for that, if that were the particular style of the 23rd century.”
“I was one of those kids who needed to be reassured of a hopeful future, and Star Trek did that for me. It helped me imagine a future where I could love whoever I wanted.”
But it wasn’t just the homoerotic subtext that LGBTQ+ fans subscribed to. Star Trek has long been a beacon of hope for marginalised people, as it presents the vision of a better future, one in which humanity has learned to celebrate diversity. Star Trek teaches us that we can not only resolve our differences but learn to love them, an idea that has strengthened countless viewers.
That was certainly the case for Wilson Cruz, who plays Dr. Hugh Culber, Discovery’s doctor and husband of Chief Engineer Paul Stamets. Speaking to me on the eve of Discovery’s season two premiere, Cruz explained that Star Trek was very important to him as a child. “I was one of those kids who needed to be reassured of a hopeful future, and Star Trek did that for me. It helped me imagine a future where I could love whoever I wanted, and inspired me to do whatever I needed to do to get us closer to that.”
This message, along with a comparatively broad scope of representation in terms of race and gender, has long appealed to the queer community. We watch Star Trek because it gives us the rare opportunity to see a version of the future where we also have a place among the stars. Or at least, it does in theory.
Unfortunately, there is a divide between what the Federation claims to be, and what it actually is. Star Trek’s writers want us to believe that the Federation is a utopian society, wherein the social problems of the past have been solved. And yet, nothing is ever that simple, and fiction can’t help but be a product of its time. The Federation might be beyond sexism, racism and homophobia, but its creators certainly aren’t – which became more evident as the years wore on, and fans started to demand canon gay representation.
Infinite diversity… except for the gays
Trek’s vision of a utopian future was perhaps strongest in The Next Generation, as the crew of the Enterprise-D traversed the galaxy, solving conflicts with diplomacy and staying true to the Federation’s values (even veganism). With this new era of possibilities came the idea that Star Trek could actually feature a gay character. This was suggested to Gene Roddenberry during a Boston fan convention in 1987, and he pledged to introduce a gay character in The Next Generation. This led to 'Blood and Fire', an unaired episode penned by David Gerrold in 1988 that has become infamous among LGBTQ+ fans.
Eager to address the AIDS epidemic, Gerrold’s proposed script saw the Enterprise crew encountering a ship infected with Regulan bloodworms. The solution called for Enterprise officers to donate blood, a plot point that Gerrold hoped would encourage viewers to do the same, as he told TrekMovie in 2014: “I wanted us to put a card at the end of the episode saying you can donate blood, contact your local Red Cross.” Aboard the infected ship were two male characters (Lts Freeman and Eakins) in a committed romantic relationship. Tertiary characters at best, the two men only appeared in 'Blood and Fire', and their relationship was established in a few lines of dialogue. “How long have you two been together?” asks a one-episode character from the Enterprise. “Since the Academy,” replies Eakins, and nothing more is said about it. As representation goes, it was refreshingly matter-of-fact – or it would have been, had the episode ever made it to air.
In the decades since, opinions have differed on why the episode was canned. According to Gerrold in his interview with TrekMovie, producer Rick Berman raised concerns that the subject matter was too risqué for The Next Generation’s timeslot, and that it would cause the show to lose viewers. This led to weeks of heated debate among the staff writers, resulting in the episode being axed and Gerrold furiously quitting the series. While we don’t know exactly what went on behind the scenes, it seems safe to say that there were concerns among the producers that showing gay characters onscreen would hurt ratings. Roddenberry, however, didn’t give up on his promise to fans – though he wouldn’t live to see it fulfilled.
On August 8, 1991, Roddenberry was quoted in the magazine The Advocate as saying: “In the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, viewers will see more of shipboard life in some episodes, which will include gay crew members in day-to-day circumstances.” This interview was conducted in response to a fierce letter-writing campaign from fan group the Gaylactic Network, which implored the Star Trek writers to include gay characters. Both sci-fi novelist Arthur C. Clarke and actor Leonard Nimoy (Spock) wrote letters in support of this campaign. Yet, despite Roddenberry’s renewed pledge to include gay representation, he died just two months later, leaving Rick Berman at the reins of the franchise. The Next Generation never featured a gay character… although it did come close.
The Next Generation often explored social topics through allegory, and in the season five episode 'The Outcast', the writers tackled themes of sexuality, gender, and ostracisation. In the episode, Riker falls for Soren, a member of an androgynous race who identifies as female, in defiance of the accepted neutral gender. Soren is ultimately forced to undergo 'treatment', a brainwashing procedure that is a clear criticism of conversion therapy – a bold stance to take in 1992. For Jonathan Frakes, however, the writers fell short of making a real impact.
“It seemed to me that it was such a great opportunity, since Roddenberry had always taken such pride in addressing these issues, to cast a man in that part instead of a female actor.” Frakes, who played William Riker and continues to direct many episodes of Star Trek shows, told Gizmodo that he feels that by casting Soren as a woman, The Next Generation missed the chance to show a true outcast story, as two male actors portraying a romantic couple would have challenged viewer perceptions at the time. “I mean, that was the message of the whole show,” he said, “But we had this girl and we put a Puck wig on her to make her look unisex. I don’t know, it was very bizarre.”
“At this point, love between two women was very controversial to portray.”
Considering that 'The Outcast' was The Next Generation’s only response to the fan campaign for gay characters, it’s a shame that the writers yet again fell back on allegory. And it didn’t have to be allegorical – although having a male actor portray Soren only occurred to Frakes years later, the writers considered casting a man, but the idea was shot down. Explaining the situation to the San Jose Mercury News later in 1992, Berman again raised his concern of viewer reactions: “Having Riker engaged in passionate kisses with a male actor might have been a little unpalatable to viewers.”
Had 'The Outcast' featured a male actor in the role of Soren, this would have been a huge stride forward for television, as there had only been four gay couples on TV thus far. Yet, just like with 'Blood and Fire,' attempts to make Star Trek queerer were prevented before the episode aired, and Soren was portrayed by a cis female actor instead. As it stands, 'The Outcast' was still an important step for Star Trek challenging the boundaries of gender and sexuality, and it was one which paved the way for the next spinoff to be even bolder.
“Time to win the war”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Discovery marks the first time a queer relationship was depicted on Star Trek. But while Stamets and Culber are the first long-running gay couple, the honour of the first kiss between two women in Trek history goes to Deep Space Nine.
Jadzia Dax was a Trill, an alien comprised of a 700-year-old symbiote and a mortal host. As symbiotes switch between male and female hosts, this enabled the Deep Space Nine writers to push the boundaries of sexuality: Jadzia commented on the attractiveness of various women, and would often talk about her experiences living as a man. This came to a head in the 1995 episode 'Rejoined', wherein Jadzia is reunited with Lenara Khan, wife of Dax’s previous male host. Despite the Trill law against reassociation, i.e.: rekindling old romances, Jadzia and Lenara are unable to overcome their attraction to one another – and thus was born Star Trek’s first gay kiss.
When Gizmodo spoke to Ronald D. Moore on Deep Space Nine’s 25th anniversary, we asked him why, as co-showrunner and writer of 'Rejoined', he chose to cast Lenara Khan as a woman. “It was really built into the concept of the Trill, so we thought what if Dax encountered a woman from the past that it had been involved with as a man, y’know, wouldn’t that be daring. At this point, love between two women was very controversial to portray.”
For Moore, this decision was rooted in a sense of duty to Star Trek’s history of social commentary. “We thought let’s do it, because we are Star Trek and we’re supposed to be challenging these things, in the way that the original series challenged a lot of taboos about race relations back in the '60s. So shouldn’t we be trying this too?” Challenging taboos was never going to be easy. But after much back and forth between producers and writers, Moore is happy they were able to get the episode on the air. “We were able to push it through the system and get the episode made,” he said. “Ultimately it was the right moment to win that war.”
'Rejoined' was a heart-rending love story, which still resonates with fans today thanks to its exploration of societal prejudices. But beyond the social commentary, 'Rejoined' established a crucial fact about the Federation – that same-sex relationships are not just accepted, but unremarkable, as none of Jadzia’s coworkers are surprised at the idea of two women being in love. This was a subtle but significant victory for Star Trek, especially considering how Beverly Crusher had balked at the idea of rekindling her own romance with a now-female Trill in The Next Generation episode 'The Host', which aired in 1991. 'Rejoined' was also something of a landmark episode for television at the time, airing just four years after the first gay kiss in USA TV history (on LA Law in 1991), and featuring the fifth lesbian kiss ever to be shown on television. And yes, it did indeed prove to be controversial.
Before the episode even aired, several of Paramount’s regional affiliates cut the kiss from the broadcast, and in the aftermath, Paramount’s phone lines lit up with complaints from conservative viewers. In an interview for the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion book, producer Steve Oster recalled one viewer phoning the show to accuse them of “ruining my kids by making them watch two women kiss like that”. According to Oster, the production assistant who took the call asked the man if he would be all right with his children seeing one woman shoot the other. When the man replied that this would be fine, the PA said, “Then maybe you should reconsider who’s ruining your kids”. However, Oster also revealed that for every phone complaint the show received, other fans wrote in expressing their gratitude to Deep Space Nine for showing romantic love between women.
The battle continues...
Ultimately though, this was just one episode, and for the rest of the show, Jadzia’s romantic plots focused on men. While modern viewers may be able to recognize Jadzia Dax as bisexual (and arguably genderfluid), much of her sexuality was confined to suggestive comments and subtext, and we never saw her in a romance with another woman. It’s worth noting that Deep Space Nine did feature queer characters in the Mirrorverse episodes, with Intendant Kira Nerys sharing a kiss with the un-joined Trill Ezri Tegan (the eighth lesbian kiss on TV) in season seven’s 'The Emperor’s New Cloak', but they were minor antagonists who didn’t return after that episode.
Then there’s the question of Garak, a recurring character whom actor Andrew Robinson played as “not having a defined sexuality”. Speaking to Liz Sourbut for Amazon in 2012, Robinson explained that for him, Garak’s sexuality was “inclusive”, and that the Cardassian tailor always found his close friend Dr. Bashir attractive. However, he hit roadblocks in trying to portray this attraction. “This is a family show, they have to keep it on the ‘straight and narrow’, so then I backed off from it. For the most part, the writers supported the character beautifully, but in that area they just made a choice they didn’t want to go there, and if they don’t want to go there I can’t, because the writing doesn’t support it.” However, Robinson has subsequently penned several Star Trek books that confirm Garak’s “inclusive” sexuality.
The battle to include queer characters in the main cast of a Star Trek show would rage on for years – and fans hoped this would finally happen when Seven of Nine was introduced to Voyager. In 1995, a fan organization dubbed the Voyager Visibility Project was formed to pressure Paramount to add a gay or lesbian character to the show. This project was endorsed by GLAAD, and Voyager producer Jeri Taylor seemed sympathetic to their cause. When it was announced that Seven of Nine would be added to the show in season four, rumours abounded that she would be a lesbian, or at the very least, that she would “experiment with her sexuality” while adjusting to life after the Borg.
As an ex-Borg drone, Seven didn’t understand social conventions – so why was she automatically heterosexual? Image: CBS
However, in the March 1998 issue of TV Guide, Taylor regretfully debunked these rumours, saying: “The idea is something I’m absolutely sympathetic with, and I have tried several times to do it. But for various reasons there has been opposition, and it gradually became clear that this is a fight I could not win.” Neither Voyager nor prequel series Enterprise featured a queer character in the main cast, and as time wore on – Enterprise ended in 2005 – fans got increasingly exasperated with the lack of representation.
The producers were far from oblivious about the fans’ desire for LGBTQ+ characters. In 2011, Brannon Braga (longtime Star Trek producer, and showrunner for Voyager and Enterprise) told magazine AfterElton that he regretted never including a gay character in the main cast of any Trek show, explaining that the decision-makers were “squeamish” about the prospect. “There was a constant back and forth about how we [should] portray the spectrum of sexuality. There were people who felt very strongly that we should be showing [it] casually, just two guys together in the background in Ten Forward. At the time the decision was made not to do that.” Braga said he felt confident that nowadays, those same decision-makers would make a different call – and with Discovery, the time finally came for Star Trek to live up to Roddenberry’s promise, for better or worse.
Discovery fulfills the promise, but falters
Before Star Trek: Discovery even had a name, another promise was made that we would finally see gay characters walking the decks of a Starfleet vessel. In August 2016, then-showrunner Bryan Fuller told fans that there would “absolutely” be a gay character in the main cast, achieving what had been fought for but blocked for so many years. However, we’re far beyond the era of sneaking gay kisses past censors, and the new show’s queer representation has been contentious to say the least.
“Our lives are more than just our relationships and our sex lives; our lives are as complicated and complex as anybody else’s.”
Discovery season one introduced us to Lt. Paul Stamets and Dr. Hugh Culber, a married couple whose love story was already years in the making – which resonated well with Anthony Rapp (who plays Stamets) and Wilson Cruz’s long-term friendship. Reflecting on his time playing Culber, Cruz told Gizmodo how impressed he and Rapp were from the first moment they read the Discovery scripts. “We were moved by how seriously this relationship was being treated by the show, that it was being held up as an example of true love.”
Culber and Stamets are your typical married couple, and it is the understated nature of their relationship that, ironically, makes it rather remarkable. So often in media, if queer people are included it’s to make some kind of socio-political point. We even see this in Star Trek: both 'The Outcast' and 'Rejoined' revolve around relationship taboos, and feature tragic or bittersweet conclusions. While this has its place, LGBTQ+ life is not inherently political, and it’s important to show queer relationships as just another part of life. This was something that Cruz really appreciated about Culber and Stamets’ romance.
“Our lives are more than just our relationships and our sex lives; our lives are as complicated and complex as anybody else’s,” Cruz told us. “Not all our problems have to do with who we love. Most of them don’t actually. So I’m happy to see that that evolution is happening in media.”
However, Discovery’s approach to representation has not been without its share of controversy. Culber’s death at the hands of sleeper agent Ash Tyler led to huge fan backlash, as many people felt that Star Trek had fallen prey to the surprisingly common 'bury-your-gays' trope, in which gay characters are introduced only to be killed later. To say this is damaging would be an understatement, and while no one is arguing that LGBTQ+ characters should be immortal, when representation is so sparse and then queer and trans characters are more likely to die, that hardly sends an affirming message. For this to happen to Star Trek’s first gay couple after years of fighting for LGBTQ+ representation in the franchise, Culber’s death felt even more personal to fans – and to those working on the show.
As he directed 'Despite Yourself', the season one episode in which Culber is killed, Jonathan Frakes was reminded of 'The Outcast', and the shadow of what could have been. “Stamets and Culber’s relationship was so powerful,” he explained, “So important to them and to the show. And I thought oh my God, this is like a strange revisit of a missed opportunity. You don’t want to kill one of the lovers of what is going to be an iconic gay couple on a hit television show! It just doesn’t make any sense.” Frakes also recalled the moment that Cruz was told Culber was being killed off. “I was with Wilson weeping at the idea that he would die on that show. This show was huge for him. It was huge for all of us! But when he got the phone call before he shot that scene, it was devastating.”
Culber’s death was not without purpose, though, and at the end of season one he was able to guide Stamets from beyond the grave. This made for a beautiful moment, one which Cruz found heartening: “I may have died but it really was our love that allowed [Stamets] to save not just our universe, but every universe. Gay love did that! And that’s pretty incredible.”
It is very rare for heroic, romantic moments to be awarded to LGBTQ+ people; if romantic love is going to save the day, usually it will be the love between a man and a woman. Yet, as groundbreaking as it was for Discovery to give this moment to a gay couple, its importance was far overshadowed by the controversy of Culber’s death… although there was still more to the story. [Warning: Spoilers for Discovery season two to follow.]
“You’re my home”
Culber’s resurrection in a shocking season two episode allowed the show to explore him as a character, as he confronted his purpose and found it difficult to reunite with his husband. “I got to define him a lot more this year,” explained Cruz. “He’s such an empath and he really wears his heart on his white sleeve, and that makes him a better doctor.” This made for a compelling story that granted Culber some meaningful character development, while revealing what made Culber and Stamets’ relationship work, even as it fell apart.
Although this plot often falls prey to the trap of telling, not showing (and we’re left wondering if it was tacked-on last minute), every moment between Rapp and Cruz carries great emotional weight, which is due in large part to the strength of the actors. The scene in which Culber tells an ailing Stamets that he’s staying on the Discovery, because Stamets is his home, is one of the finale’s highlights. Of course, the show could always do more – we still haven’t seen any trans or non-binary characters on Discovery – and sole responsibility of the franchise’s LGBTQ+ representation cannot rest on just two characters. Thankfully, there are no longer just two in the main cast, but here, again, we see Discovery both succeed and falter in providing good queer representation.
In a touching finale scene with Culber, new character Jett Reno (played by Tig Notaro) refers to her late wife, continuing the trend of refreshingly matter-of-fact representation. This is an effective way to establish that a character is queer, as Reno’s story doesn’t revolve around her sexual identity. The only weight this revelation carries is to create romantic solidarity between Reno and Culber – not because they’re both queer, but because they have both experienced love and loss. So, points to Discovery for that.
Then there’s Michelle Yeoh’s deliciously amoral Emperor Georgiou, who seems to have a fluid sexuality: at the end of season one, she goes to bed with two Orion dancers, one male and one female. Georgiou being queer is fantastic, especially as she’ll be Star Trek’s first LGBTQ+ lead once her Section 31 series is released. However, she is also a textbook Depraved Bisexual, a damaging trope wherein a bi character’s sexuality is framed as another part of their villainy.
While you could argue that Georgiou doesn’t like boundaries of any kind, there’s a scene in the episode 'The Red Angel' which is stunningly tone-deaf, as Georgiou hits on Stamets only to be told that he’s gay, which she scoffs at. Not only is this a strange way to establish that the terms 'gay' and 'pansexual' are still being used in the 23rd century, it also perpetuates negative stereotypes about opportunistic bisexuality and sets a bi woman against two gay men. Again, Discovery tries for good representation but plummets into the pitfall of another damaging trope.
Yet, as the USS Discovery sails into the future in season three, Discovery has an excellent opportunity to provide LGBTQ+ representation that goes beyond the classic definitions of gay, straight and pan/bisexual, as well as binary gender. Everyone deserves to get a slice of that bright future, and showing LGBTQ+ youth a world where they are accepted and loved is what Cruz has always considered to be the most rewarding part of his role. For him, Discovery “sends a message to those young people that we have always been here. That we are a part of the human fabric, and that we will reach the kind of society where your sexuality and gender have less to do with how you’re valued than what you do and who you are. For me, the most important thing is the reassurance to young people that everything is going to be all right”.
Looking to the future
Speculative fiction plays a vital role in our narrative pantheon. It is the space where we can imagine literally any possibility, build better futures and hope to influence real life by showing what’s possible. If LGBTQ+ people are consistently ignored and cut out of this genre, then a clear message is sent: in all these realms of possibilities, queer people still don’t have a place. That certainly doesn’t support Star Trek’s core theme of inclusivity and celebration of diversity. The promise of the Federation is the promise of the future, a future free from prejudice, a future in which we’ve evolved beyond everything that holds us back.
After the years of prejudice that have plagued Star Trek’s journey to queer representation, Discovery has taken some huge strides forward. It’s no longer surprising if anyone mentions a lover who is the same gender as them. “The universe in which we live in on the show is a place where everyone is willing and capable of loving anyone,” says Cruz, and that’s crucial to establish for an apparently utopian society. Although Discovery has stumbled in providing representation, Star Trek is finally learning how to live up to the hopeful promise of the Federation: that one day, decades or centuries from now, we will all find a better future among the stars – regardless of who we love.
Featured photo: Iconic LE Prints