Alex Blaze

Why Hasn't Star Trek Ever Had a Queer Character?

Filed By Alex Blaze | January 26, 2011 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: brannon braga, LGBT, series, star trek

AfterElton has an interview up with a Star Trek writer/producer, Brannon Braga, uhura.jpgon why the franchise never included an out gay character. He doesn't really answer, implies that the problem was unnamed people who worked on the show twenty years ago....

I recently rewatched all the Star Trek movies and was surprised not just by how progressive the franchise was - the future has all races working together, women in positions of power, and problems usually solved by learning to interact with a new species - but about the specific brand of hippie-ness in the older movies. There's a scene in Undiscovered Country where a Klingon accuses Uhura of racism for talking about "human rights"; Kirk's son in The Wrath of Khan goes on an anti-military rant; and the entire message of The Voyage Home was that our survival depends on biodiversity (that and "Whales are sentient"). Oh, and money doesn't exist in the future and everyone's taken care of.

So you'd think introducing a queer character wouldn't be too hard in that context. But apparently it was:

AE: I'm very much a fan of Star Trek but unfortunately none of the series ever included a gay character. You were involved with writing two of the movies and produced or executive produced for The Next Generation, Voyager and Enterprise. Can you speak to why that never happened?

BB: It was a shame for a lot of us that ... I'm talking about the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and there was a constant back and forth about well how do we portray the spectrum of sexuality. There were people who felt very strongly that we should be showing casually, you know, just two guys together in the background in Ten Forward. At the time the decision was made not to do that and I think those same people would make a different decision now because I think, you know, that was 1989, well yeah about 89, 90, 91. I have no doubt that those same creative players wouldn't feel so hesitant to have, you know, have been squeamish about a decision like that.

This from a show that gave us Uhura. Here's Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura in the original series:

One of the organizers came up to me and said that there was someone who wants to meet you; and he says that he's you're best, biggest fan and I'm thinking it's a Trekkie! [laughs] and so I said certainly and I got up and turned around and maybe 10 or 15 feet coming towards me I see Dr. Martin Luther King and I remember thinking whoever that little fan is, he's going to have to wait, because here's Dr. King, who walks straight up to me with this big, magnificent smile on his face and says, "I'm the fan!" because I'm sort of looking around for someone else, and he says, "I am your best fan, I am your biggest fan!" and I... I was at a loss for words, and if you know me, I am never at a loss for words.

I just couldn't say a thing and he began to tell me how important my role was, what an inspiration it was. And you have to understand we were in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, people were regularly being attacked by dogs, and marchers were being hosed on the television every night, real life things, and here I am in this futuristic thing on TV and he was so complimentary, he told me "I was so important and the way you have created this role," and I am just looking at him and looking at him and I remember I just kept hoping he'd never stop talking. Because his voice is just... you know the voice. And I finally just start saying, thank you so much Dr. King and I am shaking his hand and still shaking from nervousness and I said thank you so much and I am really going to miss my co-stars.

And at this his face totally changed, and he said "What are you talking about?!" and so I told him I would be leaving the show, because; and that was as far as he let me go, and he said, "STOP! You cannot! You cannot leave this show! Do you not understand what you are doing?! You are the first non-stereotypical role in television! Of intelligence, and of a woman and a woman of color?! That you are playing a role that is not about your color! That this role could be played by anyone? This is not a black role. This is not a female role! A blue eyed blond or a pointed ear green person could take this role!" And I am looking at him and looking at him and buzzing, and he said, "Nichelle, for the first time, not only our little children and people can look on and see themselves, but people who don't look like us, people who don't look like us, from all over the world, for the first time, the first time on television, they can see us, as we should be!

This is a show that didn't mind, at one point in history, being ahead of the curve.

Now if they launch another series or produce another movie (one's in the works), they're not going to be ahead of the curve or the first show to have an openly gay, bi, or trans character who's accepted as a peer - there already are plenty of other shows with that.

Still, one hopes that they would eventually get around to that. When I imagine a utopic future, people aren't all straight and avoid talking about same-sex love.

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Didn't Next Generation have an episode involving a genderless alien who then violated its species' norm by choosing a gender? Or something like that? It seemed clear to me the plot was a thinly-veiled message of gay tolerance, but I don't really recall the details of it now.

But otherwise, spot on.

That episode was the first thing I thought of!

Very queer, but something that'd get by the network.

I think there was also a DS9 episode where Alternate Universe Kira Nerys and Alternate Universe Ezri Dax kissed.

But I was talking about the core cast of a ship in that statement, or even recurring characters.

The Mirror Universe is full of same-sex attraction. That is hardly the only instance.

The writers received quite some criticism for that. First for chickening out by placing it in an alternate universe and second for only having the "evil" characters act that way, thereby implying some connection.

No. Not gay at all. It was an episode that showed the intolerance of a society that think the exact opposite of what we think today in regards toward those who are gender different. In America, you are born one gender and you have to stay that you or you're an abomination. On that world, if you have a gender, you're an abomination.

Susan Jordan | January 27, 2011 1:45 PM

There was such an episode, in which Riker falls in love with an asexual being and is denied a relationship by her (his?) fellow beings, which was supposed to make a point about prejudice. But the asexual beings were all played by masculine looking women -- and the message that was sent, between the lines, was, "Lesbians are prejudiced against heterosexuals." So not as liberating as one might have wished!
It is strange that the crews of the Enterprise were able to relate to beings made of silicon or clouds of light -- but not ho-mo-sexuals!

Oh yeah, I remember reading that Frakes (Riker) thought those genderless aliens should have been played by men.

The novels (post 2000 for the most part) have numerous gay and lesbian characters. Or aliens with different biological genders and family structures. Sometimes their relationships are major story lines. Other times it's just mentioned.

And what he describes was typical for Star Trek's production. The writers constantly had to fight higher ups to do some things (that aren't necessarily controversial even). Sometimes executive producers like Berman in the case of DS9. Sometimes the studio.

I know a little about this.

Roddenberry wanted to include a gay character on the original (60's) series but there was no way that the network (NBC) would let that happen, so he had to settle for a crew of mixed race/species/gender organisms.

Later, in the 80's, when they were planning ST:TNG, the subject came up again, this time posited by David Gerrold and Dorothy (D.C.) Fontana but, again, the idea was shot down after a LOT of internal bickering by the studio (since that series was to be syndicated, the final say came from the Paramount brass).

I don't know about any of the other spin-offs, but I heard about those two from people who were there and directly involved.

The rumor for quite some time in the Trek fan circles has been that Rick Berman who has had a range of creative and administrative positions in relation to the Trek franchises really isn't comfortable pursuing queer issues in the series. There have been accusations that he has killed several attempts to bring queer characters into the show.

Of course, Berman is blamed by some for most everything that has ever went wrong with the Trek franchises. So it is something to consider with some speculation.

At any rate Star Trek has directly addressed a host of issues regularly and consistently but seems to avoid queer issues. Its a real shame.

Even the recent Enterprise series didn't include a queer character, and that's when the Sy-Fy channel had made a promise to include more queer characters in its line up.

Enterprise wasn't originally shown on Syfy (then known as the Sci-Fi Channel). It was on the now-defunct UPN.

You're right about there being no recognisably queer characters.

I netflixed Disc 1 of the original series a while back (and found, to my disappointment, that I wasn't that interested in continuing that commitment - apparently the joy of reruns on tv did not translate into actually watching the entire thing on its own). But I couldn't help noticing how strongly homoerotic the series was, and also how unafraid it seemed to take on the idea of friendship between friends. On the latter: As I recall, Kirk and Spock were quite explicit in constantly discussing the shifting contours of their friendship, as were Kirk and the Doc and so on. That seemed unusual, but not being a fan of other tv series of the period, I couldn't tell if that was a dominant narrative of similar tv shows or not

But on the homoeroticism - I'm thinking of this one episode in the first season (can't remember the name) where a certain new member, suffering from some ailment, developed what could only be read as a massive crush on Kirk. There's this scene with the two of them wrestling that was quite explicit but coded as two men struggling for power.

Two cents.

I think we're still lacking shows with trans people or LGBT people of color. It seems like pop culture today just wants to sanitize and normalize "queerness" so they can handle it more easily. We need more progressive shows like "Star Trek" to remind people that we aren't one culture or one nation, but many individuals who deserve equal respect.

Star Trek was definitely always more about gender identity as opposed to sexual orientation. The J'naii characters in that one TNG episode (which really never made sense to me, but that's just me).

DS9 always seemed the most willing to address sexuality issues. There was the Mirror Universe Kira, who was clearly bisexual. Also, there was Dax, who had lived different lifetimes as both men and women. One specific storyline introduced Jadzia Dax to one of her former spouses. Both hosts were female and they were briefly intimate with each other before breaking up again.

There was that one episode of DS9 where Jadzia Dax and that other lady made out, the idea being that the second lady had the symbiote of Jadzia's late male lover.

From what I've seen, Gene Roddenberry actually did want to have gay characters in a season of TNG, but died before the season started filming. His wife, Majel Barrett, who appeared in several TOS episodes and played Deanna Troi's mom and the voice of the computer on TNG, put a halt to the plans.

I've read that there are plans to make a sequel or two of the new "Star Trek" movie, so that may open some possibilities.

Another thing, in "Star Trek: Nemesis," Data mentions "ladies, gentlemen and transgender species" in his speech at Deanna Troi's and William Riker's wedding.

On top of that, Kate Mulgrew (Janeway on "Voyager") lamented the lack of GLBT characters in Star Trek in an interview, and a number of actors from the TV series and movies have gone on to appear in GLBT movies or play gay roles, including Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner and Zachary Quinto; and, of course, George Takei and the late Paul Winfield (who played Captain Terrell in "The Wrath of Khan") are/were gay.

Cathy DeBuono is also gay. She played M'Pella on DS9 and was Dax's stand-in and body double.

She starrs in a few lesbian web series and other LGB movies

People put way too much stock in Roddenberry. He really isn't the sole brain of the series. He wasn't in TOS (give some credit to Gene L. Coon and Dorothy Fontana) and he certainly wasn't by the time of TNG. Towards the end of his life his lawyer actually decided everything for him - and drove tons of people away from the show in the process.

And that DS9 episode is called "Rejoined". One of the first lesbian kisses on TV in 1995. They received tons of supporting letters, but most of the phone calls were negative.

But Roddenberry was also a visionary whose thinking was way ahead of its time, and that's why Star Trek had characters like Uhura, Sulu and Chekov.

Trekkie fans may enjoy seeing the PBS show "Pioneers in Television" - the science fiction episode. Fascinating clip about how Martin Luther King Jr. got involved when once actress considered quitting.

SyFy has had several shows where they could have made characters gay, but they always wimp out & make them straight:

Will or Henry on "Sanctuary"
Fargo on "Eureka"
Just about any character on "Battlestar Galactica"

Gaeta and Hoshi are revealed as a couple in the "Face of the Enemy" webisodes. It was implied before in more than one of the gag reels (with Baltar as the target).

And there is certainly plenty of subtext with many of the Cylons.
BSG didn't put much of a focus on it, but when it did it's treated as a non-issue. Most notably Helena and Cain and Gina Inviere in "Razor".

The "Caprica" spin-off has an openly gay main character. A mobster and assassin nonetheless. Also a family in a group marriage with a female head. Colonial society is clearly portrayed as being past these issues.

"Stargate: Universe" has a lesbian main character. Her relationship has major screen time in several episodes.

I distinctly remember one episode of ST:TNG in which Commander Data builds a sentient robot of his own. The new creature is given a certain amount of time to gain experience interacting with humans, and soon thereafter Data asked "it" if it has a preference about whether to remain genderless, or would it like to select a gender? Eventually, the new creature decides it would like to be female, and the robot's presentation persona is adjusted accordingly.

It's not quite trangenderism -- but very close, seeing that the genderless robot was allowed to select its gender instead of having a gender imposed upon it.

I'm surprised this episode hasn't been mentioned by other commentators in this thread up to now -- does anyone else remember the episode which I describe?

P.S. And I would like to second John B's encouragement for ppl to check out the PBS "Pioneers of Television" installment about Sci-Fi -- it discusses in considerable depth about how Roddenberry was ahead of his time on social issues (but not including GLBT), including an interracial kiss (gasp!) between Kirk and Ahura, and how Shattner cleverly manipulated the producers into including it after it had officially been "cut" against Shattner's and Nichol's wishes.

The PBS installment also covers how Roddenberry wanted to explore social questions, but the NBC admin constantly pressured him to include monsters and fight scens in each episode in order to compete against the CBS offering of similar genre, "Lost In Space" (which was targeted for kids and not adults -- so why should the two series with different target audiences compete directly with each other? Go figure.)

Yes, her name was Lal. Being trans and in the closet myself at the time, that was an episode I *never* forgot.

ShipofFools | January 26, 2011 6:24 PM

Alex- you must be kidding- as some people already wrote, Jadzia Dax's relationship with her former spouse was hugely discussed, even in the EU, as "the" lesbian episode, and compared to the "interracial" Uhura/Kirk kiss. Dax's next incarnation, Ezri Dax, has some lesbian scenes too. The cruel law that prohibits Dax to re-marry her former wife is criticized and serves as a stand-in for critic of anti-gay legislation.

Also, since the first episode of DS9, Dax is always called "old man" by Commander Sisco, his former "padawan", and was clearly written as a trans character. I believe the idea behind it was that you might change your sex from incarnation to incarnation (a common explanation for transsexuality in some east asian countries). I remember reading in interviews with the crew that the actress was chosen because she looks somewhat male, is pretty tall and so on. The actress discussed that she felt a bit akward in the beginning, as she didn't know how to play a male character.
Sadly, shortly after the lesbian/transgender kiss, they first heterosexualized Dax by marrying her off and then killing her off (Season 6), one of the many violent lesbian screen deaths (Tara from Buffy, Xena herself, also the butch security commander from TNG, Tasha Yar)

Some of the straight relationships were quite queer- the Klingons had BDSM sex in TNG, DS9 and Voyager, often with a female dominant. The relationship between Kira and Odo was between a butch woman and a "nelly" bisexual man.
I never watched Voyager much, but I think there was some lesbian tension between 7 of 9 and Cpt Janeway?

There was also an episode of DS9 in the last season (Chimera) where they tried something like a gay male relationship. Again, this was acknowledged by crew members in interviews. They said that because it were the last episodes, they could be a bit more daring. Odo meets another male changeling who tries to lure him away with him, and from his straight relationship with Kira Nerys. There are some pretty ecstatic scenes where Odo physically unites with the changeling. Kira behaves like Odo were a bisexual who has to chose between her and another man. Odo is clearly in love, as meeting other (female) changelings never induced that type of intense longing in him.
As this was screened in the 90s, the gay male stuff was symbolic, but I think everybody knew it was there.

By the way -- is there any truth to the rumor that Lieutenant Uhura is the true original inventor of Bluetooth?

Fact correction.... Gene Roddenberry certainly was not thinking of including a gay character in the original series. He admitted later on that he was homophobic at that time. It was always his vision, however, to have an interracial, interspecies crew. During the run of TNG he made noises that they might have actual gay content in an upcoming season, but then he died. Also, as he did not have any real decision making power for the series at that time, it probably wouldn't have happened anyway.

Another fact correction: The Next Generation was syndicated, so there was no "network" influencing the show's creative decisions. The real influence I think is straight male sensibilities, both of the producers and the assumed audience. One mustn't disgust the Heterosexual Male. So it's not surprising that the closest the series came to gay content was a kiss between two women (not actual lesbians, but genderless symbiotic abdomen-dwelling slugs). Babe on babe action! Yeah!

Sadly, for all the efforts he's put into "watching" Star Trek, it seems Brannon Braga has never taken the time to "read" it. If he had, he'd know that writers of the novels have been taking significant steps towards promoting equality within their visions of the future, including some very positive representations of LGBT characters and issues.

I did a post about it this weekend, and included a list of the novels I'm aware of (although I'm hoping readers will be able to add others)