Casting announcements were finally made for Star Trek: Discovery this week, the long-awaited return of Star Trek to our TVs, or at the very least our streaming sites. The very talented Chinese actress Michelle Yeoh will play Starfleet Captain Georgiou, the multifaceted Doug Jones will play the alien Lt. Saru, and Rent star Anthony Rapp will play science officer Lt. Stamets. Although this was big news, the bigger news is that Rapp, star of a Broadway show that spoke so clearly to a generation of queer people (not to mention their peers), would be the first openly gay main character on a Star Trek series, and considering the show’s commitment to diversity, it’s way past damn time.
It’s strange to think that Star Trek, a series that established credentials in diversity by filling the bridge of the Enterprise with a rainbow coalition of admirable characters, still has one final frontier to cross in terms of inclusivity. It’s all the more surprising given that we’ve since learned that one of the original cast members, George Takei, identifies as gay, and has become an outspoken advocate on queer issues and equality. It’s a gaping hole in the social justice bonafides of a show that broke taboos and courted censorship by showing a white man and black woman kiss on TV in 1968.
“I did very privately bring up the issue of gays and lesbians,” Takei told Time magazine in an interview last year. Takei called Trek creator Gene Roddenberry a “sophisticated man” who was mindful of what Takei was saying, but after “Plato’s Stepchildren”, featuring the now famous kiss between Kirk and Uhura, Roddenberry was walking a tight rope tackling Vietnam, civil rights and the Cold War, and he felt broaching the then-burgeoning gay rights movement would be pushing his luck. “He said, ‘If I dealt with that issue I wouldn’t be able to deal with any issue because I would be canceled.'”
Roddenberry was also a man of his time, meaning that he had an uphill battle of his own in terms of homophobia. It’s a struggle he talked about quite candidly before his death in 1991. “I came to the conclusion that I was wrong,” Roddenberry told Humanist magazine. “I would, sometimes, say something anti-homosexual off the top of my head because it was thought, in those days, to be funny. I never really deeply believed those comments, but I gave the impression of being thoughtless in these areas. I have, over many years, changed my attitude about gay men and women.”
In 1991, Star Trek: The Next Generation was at its apex as one of the most-watched, and acclaimed dramas on U.S. television. If the show were to address LGBT issues in a meaningful way, or were to include a character that identified as queer, it would have been a powerful message. To his credit, it was a message that Roddenberry wanted to send in his latter years. He said a gay character would appear in the show’s then in-production fifth season, which got a huge thumbs up from original Mr. Spock Leonard Nimoy who said to the Los Angeles Times, “It is entirely fitting that gays and lesbians will appear unobtrusively aboard the Enterprise—neither objects of pity nor melodramatic attention.”
Of course, Roddenberry died very early in the production of TNG’s fifth season, and had been suffering to greater and greater effect from his illness, turning over much of the day-to-day showrunning of Star Trek to Rick Berman, who, according to lore, was not as big on proving Trek’s dedication to gay rights in the same way Roddenberry was. Many have suspected that Berman was harboring some strong homophobic inclinations himself; others have said it came top down from the studio. Next Gen producer and later Voyager and Enterprise showrunner Brannon Braga said that affiliates wanted to keep TNG a “family show”, citing backwards thinking still uttered by anti-gay groups to this day that same sex relationships undermine the family unit.
So Star Trek, once a leader in social justice, missed the train on LGBT rights. In 1997, while there were two Star Trek series on the air, comedienne Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian, as did the main character she played on her eponymous sitcom. The next year Will & Grace debuted on NBC, a long-running series about the friendship between a gay lawyer and his straight female roommate. Oddly enough, Will & Grace was filmed at CBS, the studio lot owned by the American broadcaster bought by Star Trek owner Viacom in 1999. If the studio suits were so freaked out by gay people, they certainly weren’t bothered to make money off them.
Still, you can’t help but feel that there was some sort of effort into not letting gay pride fly on the set of Star Trek. Berman gets most of the credit for putting the kibosh on “Blood and Fire” a script developed for TNG by “The Trouble with Tribbles” writer David Gerrold that served as allegory for the AIDS epidemic and “AIDS panic” in the 80s and early 90s. According to Gerrold and others, Berman and key members of the production team bristled at the “positive depiction” of a gay couple on the Enterprise. “Positive”, of course, meaning that they weren’t being punished for being gay.
Berman’s never said, from his point of view, why “Blood and Fire” was never produced (on TNG anyway, the webseries Star Trek: New Voyages took it and ran with it), and his explanation as to why Next Gen, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise all seemed to shirk from featuring LGBT characters was a little backhanded. “That was really the wishful thinking of some people who were constantly at us,” Berman said in a 2002 interview with USA Today. “But we don’t see heterosexual couples holding hands on the show, so it would be somewhat dishonest of us to see two gay men or lesbians holding hands.” Sure, Rick.
One could point to numerous examples of positive heterosexual relationships on the show, but what’s more telling is the way that Trek treated homosexuality under Berman. Most famously, there was “The Outcast,” where Riker falls for a scientist, Soren, from an androgynous society that considers sexual preference a perversion. It’s a potentially powerful story as Soren is ultimately forced to undergo what’s basically conversion therapy to purge any trace of gender assignment, but it’s somewhat undermined by the fact that Soren was played by an obviously female actor. Even Jonathan Frakes noted that the effect would have been more powerful if the part had been played by a male.
Somewhat less serious, in terms of content, was on Deep Space Nine, where the Mirror Universe Major Kira dabbled in lip-stick lesbianism; clearly Berman et al had no problem with girls kissing girls as long as it was in the name of titillation. Before that, in the fourth season of TNG, an episode called “The Host” introduced the Trill and a boyfriend for Dr. Crusher, but when the host for Odan is killed, his symbiote passes to Riker before ending up in a new host who’s a woman. It seemed weird in the supposedly enlightened 24th century that Crusher would immediately dismiss what looked like an emotionally fulfilling romantic relationship because of a gender swap, it seemed weirder still that Crusher would be okay boning Riker while he carried Odan but showed the beautiful female Odan the door.
Speaking of the Trills, they formed the basis of what might be Trek’s only successful representation of LGBT issues with the season’s four DS9 “Rejoined.” The story is about how Lt. Dax reunites with a fellow Trill scientist named Dr. Kahn; the two symbiotes were married to each other in previous hosts, but its a taboo amongst the Trill for formally married “joined” Trills to continue that romantic relationship in their future lives. The episode featured the first romantic same sex kiss in a Trek series, but more importantly, the script by René Echevarria and Ronald D. Moore saw Dax’s crewmates react to the idea of two women being together like it’s no big thing, the cultural taboos of the Trill aside.
In many respects, “Rejoined” was ahead of its time, but it would be the last time that Star Trek would be ahead on the issue of LGBT representation. Rumors that the character played by Neal McDonough in Star Trek: First Contact was gay turned out for not, Voyager seemed non-bothered to even try and broach the topic, and Enterprise had a halfhearted attempt at trying to do what “Blood and Fire” was supposed to do more than a decade earlier. Star Trek novels, meanwhile, gamely embraced LGBT characters and conversation, and boldly went in directions that the series and movies would not, or could not. By the time Enterprise was cancelled, seeing a gay Starfleet officer seemed about as elusive as seeing a Wookie one.
Ten years later though, things are looking up. John Cho‘s iteration of Sulu in the new Star Trek movies was made a gay family man with a husband and daughter in this past summer’s Star Trek Beyond, and while some were critical that Sulu wasn’t terribly romantic with his mister, you can’t help but feel given the franchise’s history that this presentation of a modern family was a revolutionary act. Adding Rapp as Lt. Stamets is another positive sign because if Star Trek can’t be representative of queer-identifying people in its utopian future, what chance do they have.
Why does it matter? I’ve always liked the words of Avery Brooks when he described why the role of DS9 Captain Benjamin Sisko was important to him. He was of course talking about representation of African-Americans, but his insight might well apply to LGBT people as well. “Certainly the fact you have a black man in a command position is very important,” he said. “That is something that goes far beyond just having black people working on a show, which itself is also very important. It goes to children being able to see themselves on screen and visualize that in the future they will be doing something of importance to the world at large. It addresses the situation of having all kinds of people interacting and cooperating for the mutual survival of the planet.”