For 50 years, the many incarnations of Star Trek have been boldly going where other shows wouldn’t.
The recent announcement that Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) will be gay in this weekend’s third installment of the Star Trek reboot films has garnered intense attention, contention, and debate. Many jilted fan boys have cried foul over director Jason Lin and writer Simon Pegg’s decision to pay homage to the original Sulu George Takei, claiming that it ruins the integrity of the character. Many have rejoiced in the “first” LGBTQ character in the franchise. Both of these camps are misguided. Star Trek has always been a place for LGBTQ representation – even when studios and public opinion refused to allow it to be overt.
Star Trek: The Original Series was groundbreaking in many ways. It was the vehicle through which one of the first televised interracial kisses occurred between Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols). The show brought us an optimistic and inspirational view for the future. It also gave us the gift of slash – read: gay male erotica – fan fiction. The shipping of Kirk and Spock is widely believed to be the first male-male fan fiction phenomenon and it has irrevocably changed the way that fans interpret and interact with characters and franchises.
By the time that Star Trek: The Next Generation was in production, societal attitudes and Gene Roddenberry’s attitudes in particular toward the LGBTQ community had changed substantially from where they had been in the late 1960s. Roddenberry gave an interview with Humanist magazine in 1991 chronicling his struggle to overcome homophobia and advocated for gay characters to become part of the TNG cast.
Just after the interview Roddenberry gave, an episode of TNG titled “Blood and Fire” was written that was to feature two gay men on the Enterprise crew and feature an allegory to the AIDS crisis. Roddenberry died before the episode could be produced, and it was snuffed out by the CBS studio. The episode, which would have aired almost twenty-five years ago, would have been the first to feature explicitly gay characters.
In lieu of “Blood and Fire,” the TNG creative team slipped in two episodes that featured non-heterosexuality. In the 1990 episode, “The Offspring,” Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner) creates an android to be his child. He allows the android, named Lal, to choose her own gender identity. The Enterprise’s mysterious bartender, Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg), explains sexuality to the new life form and consciously refrains from using heterosexually coded language in doing so – leaving the door open for non-heterosexuality. The second LGBTQ-inspired episode, “The Outcast,” features a species of aliens called the J’naii who are totally androgynous and forbid all expression of gender – especially sex. When one of the J’naii falls in love with Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes), she takes on a female persona. The J’naii is played by a woman (Melinda Culea), but it is canonically accurate to describe her as the first transgender character portrayed in the Star Trek franchise.
Star Trek: Deep Space 9 featured even more LGBTQ characters and plotlines, many of which were arced over the entire series instead of relegated to a few episodes. Deep Space 9 was the first in the Star Trek canon to explore the inner life of a specific race of aliens known as Trills, who are symbionts in humanoid hosts. A trill is implanted in host after host, which gives them lifespans that are exponentially longer than that of the average humanoid. For six seasons, DS9’s resident trill is Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell). Over the course of the series, she is confronted with various aspects of her symbiont’s past, most notably in the episode “Rejoined.” In “Rejoined,” Jadzia is forced to work with the wife of one of her symbiont’s former hosts. Their feelings toward each other had not vanished, and the two share an on-screen kiss. The relationship between the two women is, of course, ambiguous, as Dax had been a man when the two were married.
A second trill, Ezri (Nicole De Boer), joined the DS9 cast in the show’s final season. She is very newly joined to her symbiont and faces struggles dealing with the experiences of her symbiont’s previous hosts. This manifests most clearly through her understanding and expression of gender, which leads many Star Trek fans to believe that she may be an early embodiment of nonbinary genders.
Deep Space 9 is also the only Trek series that explicitly portrays bisexual characters. In the mirror universe, Mirror Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) shares onscreen kisses with male and female characters on numerous occasions throughout the show’s seven seasons. Even more prominently featured is the character Garak (Andrew Robinson), Deep Space 9’s Cardassian tailor. Robinson has stated in interviews that he played Garak with a queer code on purpose because of the character’s heavily implied bisexuality. Garak has a brief relationship with a female, but spends most of the show flirting and attempting to seduce a flustered and very heterosexual Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig).
Star Trek: Enterprise saw the AIDS allegory episode that CBS had axed in the 1990s come to fruition. In the episode, titled “Stigma,” the NX-01’s first officer, T’Pol (Jolene Blalock), secretly suffers from a degenerative disease passed between Vulcans with the ability to perform the mind-meld, an extremely intimate form of telepathy. Those with the disease are ostracized on Vulcan and are denied medical care. The episode does a very good job being a parallel to AIDS without downplaying the severity of the very real-world epidemic.
LGBTQ characters have been woven into the fabric of the Star Trek universe from the start. In this universe, inclusion is not a matter of politics, but a matter of optimism about the future in which arbitrary divides like gender, sexuality, and race are not divisive but celebrated equally and in pursuit of a more perfect unity in the vast vacuum of space. By all means, celebrate Sulu’s queerness, but do not think of it as either destructive to the Star Trek legacy or unique to the franchise.