Gay "Trek"

After three decades and four series, the Starship Enterprise has never seen a gay ensign. Will "Star Trek" ever cross the final frontier?

Published June 30, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

"Their lips touched. The shock jolted down the Vulcan's spine ... Then Kirk moved against him, the velvet of Kirk's lips so much softer than Spock had imagined -- and that awareness came crashing through him, tearing down layers and levels of carefully placed defenses. Imagined, yes, in all those dark, forbidden hours of the night. Dreamed of, yes, though Vulcans claimed not to dream such things. He had wanted this for so long that he could not remember a time before he had wanted it. His eyes closed against his will, and he moaned faintly against the human's mouth."

-- From "Turning Point," a 1995 "slash" fiction novel by "Killashandra"

The Starship Enterprise, arguably the most famous vessel in the history of fiction, has seen some amazing sights. Its crew has gone back in time, averted intergalactic war and defeated monsters that eat whole planets. In one "Star Trek" episode, crew members were turned into little crystalline polyhedrons. In another, Mr. Spock's brain was surgically removed by an alien supermodel wearing a silver miniskirt.

Yet there's one frontier that has consistently eluded producers: Through three seasons on television and six movies, the decks of the original Enterprise have never witnessed a single word or gesture of gay affection. The same goes for the Enterprise D from "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and the eponymous craft from "Deep Space Nine" and "Voyager." No same-sex kisses. No hand-holding. Not even a casual reference to the existence of homosexuality.

It is an odd distinction for the franchise that, 33 years ago, gave America its first televised interracial kiss. "You would think that occasionally a gay or lesbian character would [appear] somewhere in the 24th century," wrote a contributor to the Lavender Dragon fan newsletter a few years back. "Has the Federation [of Planets] found a 'cure' for homosexuality?"

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Over the past three-and-a-half decades, California science fiction writer David Gerrold has produced 42 novels, 11 of them nominated for major industry awards. But among Trekkers -- they hate being called "Trekkies" -- he is famous for another reason. In 1967, at age 19, Gerrold sold Paramount Pictures a lighthearted "Star Trek" script in which the Enterprise became a breeding farm for tiny, fecund balls of fur. "The Trouble With Tribbles," as the episode was titled, consistently polls as the most popular episode in "Star Trek" history.

In fall 1986, when Paramount announced it was creating a new "Trek" series, "The Next Generation," the now middle-aged Gerrold was brought on-board to help create it. Before Gerrold had done much more than move into his Los Angeles office, he traveled to Boston for the 20th anniversary convention of the original show. Following a speech to a large crowd of Trekkers, Gene Roddenberry, the creator of "Star Trek," took a question about "The Next Generation" from a fan named Franklin Hummel, a Boston Public Library employee and director of a gay science fiction group called the Gaylaxians. Gerrold was in the crowd, taking notes.

"Franklin asked whether there would be a gay character on the new show. He made the point that [the original] 'Star Trek' had been a leader in bringing black and Asian characters to television, that this was the next step," Gerrold told me in May. "Gene agreed. He said, 'Sooner or later, we'll have to address the issue. We should probably have a gay character.'"

Back in Los Angeles, Gerrold says, Roddenberry mentioned "the gay issue" in a meeting about the direction of the new series. Apparently some members of the staff were surprised. "Next Generation" producer "Robert Justman made a remark about 'ensign tutti-frutti,'" says Gerrold. "But Gene very calmly explained that it was time."

A few months later, in late 1986, Gerrold began work on "Blood and Fire," his first -- and, as things turned out, only -- "Next Generation" script. In the story, Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his Enterprise D answer a call from a distressed medical research vessel. When the mission team beams over, it finds that the ship's crew is infected with "Regulan blood worms," an apparently incurable pathogen so deadly that Starfleet Command has ordered its officers to destroy any ship they contaminate.

Aside from its obvious reference to AIDS, the script also contained a casual nod to homosexuality. "How long have you been together?" Commander Will Riker asks a pair of male officers who accompany him to the blood-worm-stricken ship.

"Since the academy," one replies.

"This was during one of the worst parts of the AIDS crisis," Gerrold says. "Before protease inhibitors, before AZT. AIDS was not a treatable condition; it was a fatal disease. And the fear of it was widespread, so much so that blood donorship had reached critically low levels.

"On a more personal note, Michael Minor [art director for 'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan'] and Merritt Butrick [who played Kirk's son in the 'Star Trek' movies] were also infected."

In Gerrold's script, curing the disease required a complete blood transfusion. To treat the infected, the worried Enterprise D crew was asked to donate blood. "I felt this plot point would raise the consciousness of 20 million 'Star Trek' fans overnight," says Gerrold. "In fact, I was hoping that we could put a card at the end of the episode encouraging people to donate blood."

Gerrold never got a chance to lobby for that card. After a series of arguments with Roddenberry's underlings, Gerrold quit the show, and the episode was permanently shelved. Gerrold says, half-joking, that the script got caught up in "orifice politics."

The breakup was bitter. Roddenberry, who had sent Gerrold a telegram congratulating him on "Blood and Fire" ("Everybody loves your script"), now began badmouthing his work at "Star Trek" conventions.

"A large part of the problem was that Gene's health was failing," Gerrold says. "He didn't have the physical strength he needed -- and he was experiencing mental lapses as well."

Gerrold says that some of Roddenberry's collaborators stepped in and began to make decisions about the show. Other writers, including Herb Wright, were fired. Roddenberry's lawyer, Leonard Maizlish, even went so far as to write story memos and rewrite scripts. And Maizlish was hardly sensitive to the gay issue. "The last time I saw [Maizlish] I was helping Herb Wright pack up his office," says Gerrold. "The lawyer came to make sure we weren't stealing anything. To my face, he called me 'an AIDS-infected cocksucker. A fucking faggot.'"

Some details of Gerrold's story are disputed (though not the bit about Maizlish, who is now dead; David Alexander, Roddenberry's authorized biographer, referred to the lawyer in his discussions with me as "Roddenberry's dark presence").

Many "Star Trek" insiders say Gerrold's "Blood and Fire" was simply a bad script. "David has made a career out of this sort of claim," says Ernie Over, a Wyoming journalist who worked as Roddenberry's personal assistant. "He had an agenda, which was to get gay people onto 'Star Trek.'"

"I knew Gerrold from 1972, and I'd read all his books up to that point. 'Blood and Fire' was not his best work," says Richard Arnold, Roddenberry's research consultant on "The Next Generation" and a columnist for the official "Star Trek" newsletter. "I was almost offended by the stereotypes. The scene I remember particularly was when the gay couple was having a sort of lover's dispute. The one we could call the wife was expressing concern to the other about getting into dangerous situations. He was saying stuff like 'You know how much I worry about you when you're away.' I mean, come on. This was absolutely ridiculous -- for Starfleet officers or for gay men."

But whatever the merits of the "Blood and Fire" script, Arnold, Over and other "Star Trek" insiders agree that Roddenberry's subordinates have deliberately kept the official "Star Trek" canon free of any explicit mention of homosexuality since the creator made his comments to the Gaylaxians 15 years ago.

One anecdote Arnold told me about the filming of a third-season "Next Generation" episode, "The Offspring," stands out. In that story, 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," Arnold says. "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 Los Angeles gay magazine.

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. This fall, a fifth "Star Trek" franchise, "Enterprise," will air. Berman will be head honcho for that project, too.

"Gene talked to me about the issue of how gay people could be depicted," says Over. "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.

"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 (though outwardly female) 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.

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So what? 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.

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 when I spoke with him. "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."

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But for some "Trek" fans, even seeing a gay character in the series wouldn't be enough. In a sense the show never gave some fans what they wanted, and in return, they've done it themselves: They've imagined Kirk and Spock as gay lovers.

The idea has been explored thoroughly in the mode of sexually explicit self-published fan works called "slash" fiction. In slash fiction, devotees use established characters from their favorite books, movies or television shows -- "The X-Files," "Harry Potter," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" -- and write their own plots. The genre allows its writers to become part of a world that they could previously only experience through a television screen, says Henry Jenkins, an MIT media studies expert who has written widely about slash.

"I often reference that moment in 'Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan' where Spock is dying and Kirk stands there, a wall of glass separating the two longtime buddies," explains Jenkins "Both of them are reaching out toward each other, their hands pressed hard against the glass, trying to establish physical contact. They both have so much they want to say and so little time to say it. Spock calls Kirk his friend, the fullest expression of their feelings anywhere in the series. Almost everyone who watches that scene feels the passion the two men share, the hunger for something more than what they are allowed. And, I tell my nonfan listeners, slash is what happens when you take away the glass."

On the Web, "Star Trek" slash stories are archived according to their protagonists. Among the most popular categories are "P/Q" (Picard paired up with the Continuum's Q), "J/7" (Voyager's Captain Kathryn Janeway with Borg beauty Seven of Nine) and, of course, "K/S" (Kirk-Spock). (A large collection of well-reviewed slash appears here.) For reasons that are the subject of much speculation, almost all of it -- including the male-male stuff -- is written by women. Much of it is full of soul-searching dialogue, torpid stares and inner ruminations: "Spock averted his eyes. He felt a powerful desire to make Kirk stop, ask him the dangerous questions which hovered unsaid on his tongue." Even once the action begins, the foreplay is endless.

In P/Q slash, Picard is often depicted as a hypersensitive lover patiently teaching a frustrated Q how to enjoy sex. A typical K/S plot leaves Kirk and Spock stranded on a planet -- one of the pair is injured and the other must care for him. In some of the female-female slash, there is no sex at all. The money shot in "Only Over You," for instance, a Web-posted J/7 story by a woman identified as Magiluna Stormwriter, consists of Seven lying in Janeway's arms while the captain sings her a lullaby: "People say they know me, but they don't see. My heart's your future, your future is me. Angel, please don't go ... I'm out of my mind and it's only over you." As far as I can tell, they don't even bother to take their clothes off -- it's just two women sitting around Utopia, being gay.

In some cases, authors of slash take pains to make clear their same-sex protagonists are heterosexual at heart. But many fans go a step further and say that Spock and Kirk, Q and Picard, and Janeway and Seven are truly gay -- or at least have gay tendencies. In the early and mid-'90s, when "Trek" slash was at its height, this led to accusations of homo- and heterophobia on "Trek"-related listservs and message boards. In the "slash wars," as some call them, arguments turned on obscure plot details and alleged double-entendres.

But the majority of gay Trekkers I spoke with don't particularly care whether Q is gay, much less whether Spock and Kirk have ever done it. Most just like reading stories that show gayness as part of Roddenberry's universe. They'd be more than happy with Goldberg's idea of a background shot of two nondescript men holding hands in a bar.

Brynen points to the mid-'90s Warner Bros. television series "Babylon 5" as an example of how the issue could have been covered. "It was just a throwaway line or two in a single episode," he told me. "Two male characters have to go undercover to Mars to contact the local resistance. And their cover is that they're a honeymooning couple. When they're told this, they make faces at each other and the scene is good for a few laughs. It's not a big part of the plot. But it's important. They're not gay, but the clear implication is that it's perfectly normal for there to be male-male honeymooning couples. It speaks volumes, even though it was just a few seconds of one show."

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Since Franklin Hummel put his question to Roddenberry at the "Star Trek" Platinum Anniversary Convention, 15 years and three "Star Trek" series have come and gone. Hummel is now 48 and lives with a partner named Tom. He is no longer an active Gaylaxian. But he still works at the Boston Public Library and still devotes a lot of his time to what he calls "fandom." This year, Hummel is co-chairman of an international convention focusing on the works of horror author H.P. Lovecraft.

When I get Hummel on the phone, I ask him the obvious questions about the new "Trek" series, "Enterprise," which will debut on UPN this fall. This might be the one when it happens. As I had imagined things, Hummel and his friends would be assembled around a television in a Vulcan-eared imitation of the gay groups that gathered to watch Ellen DeGeneres' character come out of the closet in 1997. To my disappointment, however, there's little enthusiasm in his voice. Fifteen years ago, getting a gay character into Utopia meant a lot to Hummel. Now it doesn't.

"The original 'Star Trek' series was groundbreaking," he tells me. "It had women and blacks and Asians as part of the crew. And they were just there doing their jobs. That was one of the things that really set 'Star Trek' apart. That's what I felt they should have done for gay people when 'The Next Generation' came around. But it never happened. And in the meantime, other television series, including other sci-fi series, have broken that frontier. It's 2001, not 1991. TV has done gay with 'Will & Grace' and 'Queer as Folk.'

"I mean, yeah, I'll be watching 'Enterprise,'" he says. "But do I believe an openly gay character will appear as a regular? I doubt it. Even if I'm proven wrong, I think my reaction will be 'been there, done that.' A decade ago, five years ago, if 'Star Trek' had done this, it would have been important, it would have meant something. But now? Not much."

By Jonathan Kay

Jonathan Kay is Editorials Editor for the National Post, a Toronto-based Canadian newspaper. He is also Senior Editor of

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