Gene Roddenberry told The Advocate in 1991 that gay crew members would been included in the fifth season of TNG. Unfortunately, he died later that year and Star Trek has yet to put an openly gay character on any of its television or film series. The reason for the lack of gay characters and content in Star Trek has been of great debate; however, this article will focus on one gay person’s experience and the role Star Trek has played in his life.
I should begin by saying that I am not a ‘Trekkie’ by any stretch of the imagination. I loved watching TNG growing up and have recently started watching some of the other series since joining the fleet. However, I am not really interested in the continuity of the series, movies, books, and comics. Nor do I have any clue what the science is that Star Trek ‘technobable’ is based on. Yet, I would argue that I appreciate and love Star Trek in ways that even the most dedicated Trekkie couldn’t begin to.
Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s there was not a lot of LGBT-themed content in pop culture. The content that did exist was most often detrimental to the social and psychological development of queer kids, most often, showing LGBT characters as victims, promiscuous, diseased, troubled or villainous. However, many LGBT kids and teens stumbled upon other series that gave us hope and less obvious, but more positive, role models. The two that appealed to me (and many other LGBT youth) growing up were the X-men and Star Trek series.
X-men was more obvious. It tells the story of people who are different that must try to keep it secret to avoid persecution and stigma. They are mutants who, most often, discover that they are different as they approach adolescence and begin to develop their special mutant abilities. The parallels between the life of a mutant in the X-men series and LGBT kids are many and obvious. The majority of the characters were straight (with gay characters being added later), however LGBT readers were able to identify with the mutant’s internal struggles to become comfortable in their own skin, keeping their differences a secret from family and friends, the struggle for tolerance and acceptance, and so on.
The second series that I, like many other LGBT kids and teens, was drawn to was Star Trek. The connection was less obvious than the X-men series, but in my opinion, more profound. The X-men series offered a mirror for LGBT struggles and helped many kids understand and acknowledge that they were not alone. Helping to alleviate feelings of isolation was definitely important. However, Star Trek presented a future where prejudice seemed absent and different cultures were accepted and celebrated. Star Trek offered a hope for a better future for LGBT youth by inspiring tolerance, compassion, and ways of dealing with difficult social problems in very ethical and humanistic ways.
A brief look at the Enterprise bridge showed different races, species, genders, and cultures all working together in friendship and solidarity. This was something that seemed impossible as a LGBT youth in the 80’s and 90’s, yet there it was on T.V. Off the bridge we learn that humanity has evolved and outgrown prejudice and inequality. These were incredibly powerful messages and images for a gay kid hoping for a future where they could be loved and accepted.
The bridge of the Enterprise, I would argue, was filled with characters that easily paralleled archetypical roles found in school settings. Riker was the strong, athletic, popular type – the school star athlete. Worf was the aggressive, scary, violent type – the school bully. Data was intelligent, always trying too hard, and socially awkward – the nerdy type. It was easy for me, even as a young teenager, to recognize people at school in the Star Trek characters. Most importantly to me was that the sensitive, cultured, and eloquent type was in charge. He read poetry, recited Shakespeare, loved history, classical music and art. According to all the stereotypes that had been imprinted on me growing up, Captain Jean-Luc Picard was gay.
Of course I’m not saying that Picard was actually gay. What I am saying is that like the X-men, Jean-Luc Picard was relatable for me as a gay teen. Growing up watching these people on the bridge of the Enterprise, I felt like I was watching the bully, the jock, the nerd, and all those other ‘types’ of people from my school working together under the command of a strong gay role model. His character afforded me a more positive image of ‘being gay’ than any other openly ‘real’ gay character in pop culture at the time.
I was about 13 when I started considering coming-out to my parents. I was terrified! I grew up in a small village (that’s right, under 100 people) where prejudice, discrimination, and hate was common practice. Coming-out would not just have consequences for myself but would have lasting ramifications for my whole family. I struggled to understand why I felt like I needed to come out at all, what I would say, and what it would all mean. Around that time I saw the TNG episode titled, ‘The Outcast’.
In this episode, Riker falls in love with a J’naii – a race of androgynous people. However, the J’naii Riker has fallen in love with ‘feels’ like woman. This is unacceptable to her species, who views gender as ‘primitive’ and is not tolerated. Eventually, the J’naii is brought to court, sentenced, and forced to undergo ‘treatment’. In the end, the J’naii is ‘cured’ and has no desire for Ryker. However, before this happens the J’naii testifies in court and gave a speech that moved one 13-year-old to tears:
“I am female. I was born that way. I have had those feelings, those longings, all of my life. It is not unnatural. I am not sick because I feel this way. I do not need to be helped. I do not need to be cured. What I need, and what all of those who are like me need, is your understanding. And your compassion. We have not injured you in any way. And yet we are scorned and attacked. And all because we are different. What we do is no different from what you do. We talk and laugh. We complain about work. And we wonder about growing old. We talk about our families and we worry about the future. And we cry with each other when things seem hopeless. All of the loving things that you do with each other – that is what we do. And for that we are called misfits, and deviants and criminals. What right do you have to punish us? What right do you have to change us? What makes you think you can dictate how people love each other?”
It is indisputable that there has never been an openly gay character in the Star Trek television series. The truth is that queer issues have been touched upon in Star Trek in subtle, but powerful ways – like the quote above from ‘The Outcast’ episode. The premise of a humanity free of hate and prejudice is enough to capture the imagination of many LGBT people – young and old alike. Star Trek offered me, as a LGBT youth, hope for a better future. It presented me with a positive role model in Jean-Luc Picard and helped me understand and express my own feelings through the episode ‘The Outcast’.
Just over a month ago, I wanted to find a fun ‘flash game’ to play and did a Google search for Star Trek online games. I stumbled across UFOP: Starbase 118 by accident, but took a quick look around. I noticed the fleet had an LGBT guild and so I thought that I would give it try. I signed up for the academy and have been having an awesome time ever since! If you or your character is LGBT or you are an ally with interest, check out The LAMBDA Alliance on the forums. If you are a LGBT Star Trek fan that has stumbled upon this article I urge you to come take a look at our fleet and join us.
Bradyen Jorey has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and Sociology and is currently working toward his Master’s degree in Sociology: Applied Social Research. His focus of study and research is in education, social inequality, gender, sexuality, and queer culture. Brayden Jorey currently plays the USS Tiger-A Helm Officer and is a member of the LAMBDA Alliance, SB118’s LGBT Guild.