Reporter Issue 42/Perspectives
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- USA TV's first prime-time male-male liplock occured in May 2000, on Dawson's Creek.
Perspectives: Alternative Sexualities in Star Trek
Written by: Lieutenant Akino Janaar
Over its thirty-year existence, one of the main strengths of the Star Trek franchise has been its ability to balance futuristic storylines and technology with important issues of the present. From the moment the world saw James Kirk’s crew including a Russian, an Asian American and an African American woman, it was clear that Star Trek was not going to be another “it came from outer space” type of show; it was going to be a vehicle for change, a window to what the world would be like without prejudice.
In Gene Roddenberry’s Utopian Society not only did members of different ethnic races interact freely and comfortably but also members of different species lived and worked together in harmony. The Star Trek universe was one were racial differences were embraced and celebrated, where together these alien races had developed amazing technology and set out as peaceful explorers and where humanity had evolved to a point where they are no longer driven by greed and the accumulation of wealth. These are all positive goals for us as a society; the only one problem with the Star Trek vision of the future is that everyone appears to be heterosexual. For a franchise that has attacked social issues from racism to genetic engineering with such gusto, the omission of alternative sexualities seems to be exceptionally out of character.
One of the main themes of The Original Series was racial tolerance; this was a particularly potent message in during the 1960s when the Civil Rights movement was at its peak. Two of the most enduring images from Kirk’s time in the big chair was the first interracial on-screen kiss between Kirk and Uhura and the intense hatred between two men who’s only difference was in their monochrome skin colour.
While racial tolerance may have not been an extremely popular concept for some in the 60s, the television audience was not ready to deal with homosexuality in any depth beyond perhaps, Kirk briefly inhabiting Janice Rand’s body and the brief possibility of Kirk-Rand having sex with another female.
The TOS movies came and went without much controversy, although as in the case of Star Trek IV it once again became a platform for an important social issue of the day: in that case it was saving whales.
It was then passed to the Next Generation crew to carry on the tradition of tackling the tough issues. Unfortunately, when it came to dealing with alternative sexualities they failed to attack the issue with such determination as had seen in Star Trek from its conception. In it’s seven year run, Next Gen failed to deal with alternative sexualities in any great detail. The episode “The Host”, in which we are introduced to the joined race of Trills, Dr Crusher is seen falling madly in love with a Trill male who subsequently dies and the symbiont is passed onto a female host.
Although the Trill is willing to carry on their relationship as if nothing had changed, indicating for the first time the inherent bisexuality of joined Trills, Beverly is unwilling to continue the relationship saying:
"Maybe in the future our ability to love won't be so limited."
This is a fair sentiment, but it is a somewhat disturbing thought that in the 24th century people would be claiming that, when Star Trek is supposed to be presenting a future where such things have changed and the boundaries and prejudices that plague present day society don’t exist. One can’t expect too much however, from a character seen in Insurrection talking with Troi about how the metaphasic particles are causing their “boobs to firm up”.
The other main episode in which alternative sexualities are dealt with is “The Outcast” in which the Enterprise crew encounters a single gender race called the J’naii. Within this race there are a number of individuals who feel they identify with one gender (as opposed to a neutral gender). Such individuals are forced to hide their feelings which the society views as distasteful, immoral and a disease.
While a reasonably effective metaphor for homosexual and bisexual people in today’s society, there are a number of problems with this episode. It claims that the single gender evolved from two genders, thus those who identify as male or female were an evolutionary throwback and more primitive than those who identify themselves as the single gender. Furthermore, the episode ends with the “female” J’naii giving in to the witch-hunt against her, being medically treated as if her gender role was a mental illness and at the end is seen happier because now she has been “cured”. This doesn’t seem to fit in with how the franchise tackles other issues and in the long run did little but perpetuate the myth that those who are different from the majority are insane.
Neither Deep Space Nine nor Voyager were particularly shy about their use of gay and bisexual characters. The virtually annual visits to the Mirror Universe by Sisko’s crew threw up bisexual and homosexual versions of virtually every main DS9 character. This could have been the long overdue introduction of alternative sexualities in an interesting way, exploring the issue with well-known characters without actually making any main character gay or bisexual.
However, in reality these episodes continued negative stereotypes of alternative sexualities. The characters, well at least those portrayed as bisexual or homosexual in the alternate universe, are the manipulative, brutal, mercenary, hedonistic villains. Most notable is the obviously bisexual and overtly sexual Intendant Kira who, while in command of Terok Nor, surrounds herself with a harem of men and women and later on seems to have engaged in a relationship with the alternate Ezri Dax. The mirror universe version of Ezri is a manipulative, duplicitous character who betrays Quark and Rom for her own profit. The first suggestion of a male homosexual in Star Trek is when the alternate Garak, a man who had been seen previously wanting to randomly kill terrans, offers sexual favours to Worf.
The “good guys” within the Mirror Universe show no signs of same sex relationships, suggesting that alternative sexualities are an evil or at least a negative trait.
Throughout it’s run, Voyager, also included gay/bisexual characters. Again, all of the main characters were heterosexual, all of who engaged in relationships with members of the opposite sex. In the third season episode, Warlord, Tieran, a tyrannous warlord who murders a number of people including a Voyager crewman, inhabited Kes’ body. While under Tieran’s control Kes is seen to actively flirt with a male and female character, yet again an alternative sexuality is used to portray a ruthless, immoral character.
The following season saw the introduction of former Borg drone Seven of Nine. Once more the rumour mill went into overdrive, in this case it seemed to be focused on one thing: would Seven be a lesbian? These proved to be untrue and the hopes for a gay/bisexual main character were dashed once more.
Seven did participate in one of the most homosexually charged scenes in Voyager, between herself and the Borg Queen, in the shows finale Endgame, with the Queen telling her:
“You’ve always been my favourite, Seven.”
The sexual tension between the two female characters was unmistakable, but it was more of the same from Star Trek: a negative character, a villain, displaying non-heterosexual behaviour and they don’t come much more villainous than the Borg Queen.
Perhaps the only positive non-heterosexual character was Deep Space Nine’s Jadzia Dax. As a joined Trill, with the memories and experiences of both males and females, it was logical to conclude Dax would be bisexual and in the episode “Rejoined” we witnessed Dax reunited with her previous host’s wife. Unlike any previous foray into alternative sexualities this was not a nefarious couple and it wasn’t about a same sex relationship; it was a story about two people who were completely in love but were unable to be together because it went against their social norms.
It was the perfect metaphor for non-heterosexual relationship and for a brief, shining moment it seemed as if Star Trek had finally decided to tackle alternative sexualities the way it had so many other social issues in the past. The moment, however, was extremely brief. Other than some very mild flirting with Vanessa William’s character on Risa, this side of Jadzia was never explored again and the character eventually found happiness in a heterosexual, mixed race marriage.
When Jadzia died at the end of the sixth season and the rumours started flying that a new Dax host would appear in the final season, the thought of a male host was an interesting prospect. The idea of a male character still harbouring the feelings for Jadzia’s husband, Worf, presented another ideal way to introduce a gay/bisexual storyline with a main character. Alas, the powers that be again decided to play it safe and explored the same issues with a female host.
By the time Enterprise, the franchise’s fifth incarnation, first aired in September of 2001 gay and bisexual characters on television shows were becoming commonplace. The years since the start of Next Generation and the start of Enterprise had presented audiences with the first onscreen homosexual kiss between teenagers, the first television show with a homosexual lead and literally hundreds of gay and bisexual characters.
In fact, on turn of the millennium television it became “the done thing” to have a gay or bisexual character on your show. It seemed that Enterprise came along at the perfect time for the first main character with an alternative sexuality. It was quickly apparent, however, that this was not only a heterosexuals-only show but was also leaning heavily towards the patriarchal dominance of the franchise that had only just began to be broken down.
With the alternative sexualities embargo on the shows, it fell to the Star Trek fiction writers to include gay and bisexual characters and they did with some enthusiasm. A number of Star Trek novels have included openly homosexual relationships dealt with in a responsible and respectful manner, the way one would expect an issue to be dealt with in Star Trek.
It is difficult to ascertain just why the powers that be in Star Trek are so against exploring alternative sexualities onscreen. Of course it would be an issue unpopular with some viewers but as an entity Star Trek has never minded controversy in the past, the historic first interracial kiss on US television prompted outrage. Why would a franchise that not only dealt with incendiary issues but actively pushed the boundaries of audience and societies acceptance shy away from an issue now? Has the post-Roddenberry Star Trek forgotten about the trailblazing vehicle for social equality it had once been?
With Executive Producer, Rick Berman, appearing as adamantly against the inclusion of gay or bisexual characters within the franchise and a large section of its fan-base demanding and hoping for such an inclusion, the absence of alternative sexualities in Star Trek will undoubtedly be a hotly debated issue until gay and bisexual characters take their rightful place in the Star Trek Universe. After all, I doubt in the future Starfleet would use “don’t ask, don’t tell”... do you?