Trek Tolerance

So what if Star Trek has not had a gay character? Who cares? To the average non-Trekker, all of this attention to what kisses who in which universe seems absurd — the comic obsessions of “Star Trek” fans encouraged and compounded by the gloomy obsessions of identity politics. There are now about two dozen shows on television that feature gay characters. Would it matter much if we added one more?

The answer, many gay Trekkers agree, is yes. To those reading the mass media’s political tea leaves, “Star Trek” is unique not because it’s set in space or in the future, or because it’s the most successful franchise in the history of television, but because it represents a Utopia.

True, there is violence and strife, but always thanks to outsiders: the Klingons, the Romulans, the Cardassians, the Borg, the giant lizard-man Kirk fights in “Arena.” Within the quadrants controlled by Starfleet, all is blissful tolerance and everyone gets to wear the same tight uniforms.

So it’s one thing to exclude a group of people from a world as imperfect as our own, but what does it say when you’ve been kicked out of Utopia?

“They don’t need money in ‘Star Trek’ and they don’t need religion,” says Cecilia Tan, founder and editor of Circlet Press, a Cambridge, Mass., publisher of gay-themed science fiction. “There are no Christians in ‘Star Trek.’ Everyone’s a sort of secular humanist. Everyone is accepted and happily employed. So everyone wants to see themselves in that world. It’s like, if everyone’s all happy and well-adjusted, where are the happy, well-adjusted gay people?”

It was precisely because the original “Star Trek” series was shot through with Utopian themes that it seemed natural for it to boldly go where no television show had gone before. In an era when such casting decisions were risqué, Roddenberry put an African-American actress (Nichelle Nichols, playing Lieutenant Uhura) and an Asian-American actor (George Takei, playing Lieutenant Sulu) on the Enterprise’s bridge. Not to mention a Russian helmsman during the height of the Cold War.

The stupidity of prejudice was a recurring theme on the show. In a famous third-season episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren,” Kirk and Uhura engage in the first white-black kiss American television viewers had ever seen. This was 1968, just one year after the Supreme Court struck down 16 states’ laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

How important was a competent, black woman on television at the time? “You cannot [leave],” Nichols claims Martin Luther King Jr. told her when she considered leaving the show after its first season. “Don’t you realize how important your presence, your character is? Don’t you realize this gift [Roddenberry] has given the world? Men and women of all races going forth in peaceful exploration, living as equals … This is not a black role, and this is not a female role. You have the first nonstereotypical role on television, male or female. You have broken ground.”

King persuaded Nichols. She stayed with the show and became an important part of its iconography. Uhura developed so much brand-name recognition that, in 1977, NASA asked her to help recruit female and minority astronauts.

Yet some point out that King was exaggerating when he said Nichols had a nonstereotypical role. “The three recurrent female characters in [the original ‘Star Trek’] all performed tasks that were accepted ‘women’s work’ in the mid-1960s,” notes Rex Brynen, a political science professor who teaches at McGill University, in his 2000 essay “Mirror, Mirror? The Politics of Television Science Fiction.” Uhura “was essentially a futuristic telephone operator … Christine Chapel and Janice Rand were a space-traveling nurse and secretary, respectively. All were young, attractive and dressed in very short skirts, as were most of the other women to appear in the show … Even the show’s slogan — ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’ — signaled its reflection of, rather than challenge to, established gender stereotypes.”

“There are an endless number of episodes that deal with the issue of ethnic and cultural tolerance,” Brynen added. “Though the show’s producers aggressively cultivated ‘Star Trek’s’ image as a trailblazer, they were far more progressive on race than they were on gender and sexual orientation.”

There may not have been any gay characters yet, but two Star Trek actors have come out as openly gay:  George Takei and Zachary Quinto.  Hopefully, in the new J.J. Abram Star Trek movies, we will finally see a gay character emerge.  With Enterprise doing so poor in the ratings, there is doubtful that a new Star Trek series will be developed, so it is up to the newly rebooted movies to bring us a gay character.

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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