Sexuality in the Stars

Several instances of the Star Trek franchise coming very close to featuring GLBT issues can be seen in “Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine.”  It had been rumored that “Enterprise” was to have a gay crewman, most likely Lt. Reid, but it never materialized as part of the show.

In the “Next Generation” episode, “The Offspring,” the android character Data decides to build an android daughter, whom he calls Lal. Data educates her as best he can, but Lal becomes confused when she sees two people kissing. In a typically “Star Trek-ky” “What is this ‘love’ you speak of?” scene that takes place in the Enterprise D’s lounge, Whoopi Goldberg, playing Guinan, teaches Lal about the birds and the bees.

“According to the script, Guinan was supposed to start telling Lal, ‘When a man and a woman are in love …’ and in the background, there would be men and women sitting at tables, holding hands,” says Richard Arnold, Roddenberry’s research consultant on “The Next Generation” and a columnist for the official “Star Trek” newsletter. “But Whoopi refused to say that. She said, ‘This show is beyond that. It should be “When two people are in love.”‘ And so it was decided on set that one of the tables in the background should have two men holding hands — or two women, or whatever. But someone ran to a phone and made a call to the production office and that was nixed. [Producer] David Livingston came down and made sure that didn’t happen.”

That was back in 1990. The next year, Roddenberry responded to a Gaylaxian-led letter-writing campaign by promising to bring gays into the “Star Trek” universe. “In the fifth season of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,’ viewers will see more of shipboard life in some episodes, which will, among other things, include gay crew members in day-to-day circumstances,” Roddenberry wrote in a statement to the Advocate.

A few months later Roddenberry suffered a fatal pulmonary embolism and heart attack. And many gay Trekkers took his statement to the Advocate as a promise that Rick Berman, Roddenberry’s successor, was dutybound to honor. Berman, however, didn’t see things that way.

Before he joined the “Next Generation” team in 1987, Berman had spent five years producing a children’s show called “The Big Blue Marble.” At Paramount, he oversaw production of shows like “Family Ties,” “Webster” and “Cheers.” Unlike the creator of “Star Trek,” Berman had little abstract fascination with the destiny of human civilization. No one I spoke with accuses him of homophobia. But he certainly wasn’t interested in putting “ensign tutti-frutti” on a show that, in some markets, was broadcast in the after-school time slot.

The last three seasons of “The Next Generation” came and went without gayness. Ditto for seven years of “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager,” both of which Berman helped create and produce. The fifth “Star Trek” franchise, “Enterprise,” aired without a gay character. Berman was head honcho for that project, too.

“Gene talked to me about the issue of how gay people could be depicted,” says Ernie Over, a Wyoming journalist who worked as Roddenberry’s personal assistant.. “And the consensus between us was that we should show people in background situations — two people walking down a hallway holding hands, for example. You would do it without dialogue, without making a big deal about it. In the 23rd century, that would be accepted as normal.

Over the years, some gender-bending has been permitted — but always with a sci-fi twist that makes it something more confusing than garden-variety homosexuality. For example, in “Rejoined,” a 1995 “Deep Space Nine” episode, female science officer Jadzia Dax and a female guest character named Lenara Kahn exchanged a steamy smooch. Without the sound or context, it could have been confused for a lesbian kiss.

But in space, just because something looks gay doesn’t mean it is. It turned out that Dax and Kahn were, to use a “Star Trek” term, “joined trills” — compound entities whose biological form (the human-looking “trill” part) is inhabited by an ethereal creature called a “symbiote,” which jumps from trill to trill as the hosts die. Although Kahn and Dax were strangers trill-wise, their symbiotes shared a straight relationship back when the Kahn symbiote had a male host.  The show featured a Trill taboo, not because both characters were women, but because they had known each other previously with different hosts.  When a symbiote moves to a new host, they must leave their old romantic relationships.  However, this was basically forgotten when Ezri became the new host when Jadzia died.  Ezri does attempt to rekindle the relationship with Worf, but ultimately, it does not work out.  

However, “Rejoined” did show the fluidity of sexuality in the Star Trek universe, but not all fans saw it that way.  “That kiss was not a ‘lesbian’ kiss because both women were actually heterosexuals,” complains Rochus Boerner, a 27-year-old Arizona State University graduate student who maintains a Web site devoted to uncovering what he calls Paramount’s “saga of deceit, lies and broken promises.” “Their desire for each other was induced by their symbiotes, who were remembering a past heterosexual relationship … [W]hen the episode ended, Jadzia was ‘back to normal’ again.”

Gay Trekkers undoubtedly uttered an even greater sigh of disappointment following the airing of a 1992 “Next Generation” episode, “The Outcast.” In the story, Commander Riker becomes romantically involved with Soren, a member of an androgynous race called the J’naii, whose leaders ruthlessly suppress any manifestation of sexual identity. “I am taking a terrible risk,” Soren tells Riker. “Some [J’naii] have strong inclinations for maleness. Some have urges to be female. I am one of the latter … In our world, these feelings are forbidden. [We] lead secret and guarded lives. We seek each other out, always hiding, always terrified of being discovered.”

When Soren is outed, she is put on trial by the J’naii council. “What we do is not different from what you do,” she pleads. “What makes you think you can dictate how people love each other?”

Her arguments fail, and she is brainwashed into androgyny. According to one “Next Generation” supervising producer, “The Outcast” was supposed to have been “the gay episode.” But many gay viewers wondered why Berman felt the need to slink around in allegory.

Jonathan Frakes, who played Riker, complained later that the episode wasn’t “gutsy” enough and that “Soren should have been more evidently male.” On e-mail chat groups, some gay Trekkers saw the episode as worse than timid. “The depiction of Soren’s society seemed to be something taken right from Rush Limbaugh’s show or Pat Buchanan’s campaign literature,” complained an anonymous message poster. “If you listen to those people, you’ll hear them talking about how the feminist and homosexual political agendas want to destroy the traditional family and make society into a sexless, genderless collection of politically correct clones … Soren’s society was a depiction of those people’s worse nightmares.”

A 1999 “Deep Space Nine” episode that touched on lesbian motifs, “The Emperor’s New Cloak,” provoked similar reactions. Viewers saw Lieutenant Ezri Dax, the station counselor, exchange a kiss with one woman and express interest in another. Unfortunately, it was not the genuine Ezri Dax they were watching but, rather, her menacing counterpart from an alternate, more evil universe. The “real” Ezri remained solidly heterosexual in her normal, heterosexual world.  Another example is in the Deep Space Nine episode “Crossover.” Kira Nyres, Deep Space Nine’s executive officer, encounters her mirror self, who is Intendant of Terok Nor, the Mirror universe’s Deep Space Nine. The mirror Kira falls in love with her double from the other universe. At the time, Nana Visitor, who played Kira, dismissed the idea of her character being bisexual, saying that she intended to portray this as “total narcissism on her part. It had nothing to do with sexuality”. However, later episodes continued to show her surrounded by a mixed-gender harem, and eventually depicted her being in a romantic relationship with her universe’s version of Ezri Tigan the unjoined Ezri Dax.
Do any of these close calls to having GLBT characters matter?  That is what we will discuss tomorrow.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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