This article will outline the road from the early days of representation of gender and LGBT equality in Star Trek, from a black woman on the bridge of the Enterprise, to the starring role of Dr. Hugh Culber, an Afro-Latino, Puerto Rican gay man, in Star Trek: Discovery.
Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek has been a shining beacon of the future for almost fifty five years. It has done its absolute best to show that we, as a species, can overcome our petty differences and move toward a brighter tomorrow.
In 1966, after the experiment that was The Cage, Star Trek was picked up for series. A crew was assembled that consisted of not just white, american actors – but also George Takei and Nichelle Nichols.
For years, the idea of conflict between the crew was quashed by Roddenberry. He believed that by the time of Star Trek, such squabbles would be meaningless. This was a double edged sword when it came to writing drama into the show. Several writers have gone on record claiming that their lives were made more difficult by trying to make the Starfleet crew’s lives easier.
Women In Positions Of Power From The Earliest Days
Yet, for decades, this was the norm and we were offered depictions of multi-ethnic crews, living together in harmony, all men and women equal at last. It would take twenty years to see our first female captain, a person of colour at that, played by the late, great Madge Sinclair in Star Trek IV. Thankfully, the idea that ‘only a man’ could command a Starship had never been enforced in the series.
This was taken a step further in the third season of the Next Generation. Not only did we meet a female captain, but we discovered that one of the Enterprise’s, NCC-1701-C was commanded by Captain Rachael Garrett. She commanded the flagship of her time and her bravery in trying to save a Klingon outpost resulted in the beginnings of decades of peace with the Empire.
What added to this message was the fact that it didn’t feel like we were being handed a message. There was no agenda, no soapbox spouting: this was a captain, she was commanding troops and her gender had nothing to do with it.
From the days of Nichelle Nichols manning the communications station on the Original Series to Sinclair, Garrett and into the time of Captain Janeway, Star Trek has presented that in the future, we have done away with gender inequalities. All humankind are created equal. However, the LGBT portion of the community was yet to be seen.
Racial Representation in Star Trek
This too is true for racial equality. The issues surrounding racism would be approached in the Original Series, most notably in the third season entry Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. There, Belle and Loki argue the merits of which is superior – Black on the left, White on the right, or vice versa?
What may seem like a silly argument highlights the utterly ludicrous nature of that age old argument. Does the colour of my skin affect my ability to do this any differently from the colour of yours?
Gene Roddenberry put a black woman on the bridge, along with an Asian man. He would later write in the character of a Russian man to join them. All them were working alongside the remainder of the crew – a mix of various nationalities and ethnicity.
Love had never been something that the show had shied away from. Kirk, though well known as a ladies man in the Original Series, had professed his love for several women through his adventures. This at least suggests that there was an intention for something deeper than ‘woman of the week’ for him.
There has been much discussion on the infamous kiss featured in Plato’s Stepchildren. This received huge consideration and quite a lot of feedback though, as Nichols remembers in her autobiography, almost all of the feedback was positive.
Spock would also meet his share of love interests, as would several of the rest of the crew. Much fan fiction would focus an an LGBT portrayal of Spock and Kirk together, as their friendship was considered one of the strongest elements of their series. Moving into the films and we discovered that Kirk had a great love from his past in the form of Carol Marcus. He also had an adult son, David. This would be one of the first examples of the idea of love having consequences, positive as they may have been.
A New Generation with An Old View On Love
Coming forward to the Next Generation and this mix remained, with both Michael Dorn and LeVar Burton stationed on the bridge. Marina Sirtis and Denise Crosby were also there, with Will Wheaton. Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes and of course Sir Patrick Stewart made up the rest of the bridge crew, all the while with Gates McFadden running sickbay.
When the Next Generation was in the writing stages, naturally the question of love came up. How can we put the crew into a new dramatic situation each week? Relationships would seem like the best way to go.
Making the characters sexually active was seen as something natural by Roddenberry. Riker would be the most obvious example of this, debuting as something close to Kirk in his early days, though each of the characters would experience their own throughout the course of the series.
Roddenberry was asked about his view on LGBT Equality in Star Trek at a convention in 1986, where he replied in the positive. He said that he was certain a gay character would appear on the Next Generation.
However, with love would certainly appear, this ended up being a love of a certain type.
David Gerrold, who had previously written The Trouble with Tribbles, wrote a script for the Next Generation called Blood and Fire. This script would not only feature Star Trek’s first gay couple but would also serve as an allegory for the ongoing AIDS crisis that was facing the LGBT community in America. He hoped that the episode would help to improve the number of blood donations, as these were dwindling at the time due to fear. LGBT Equality in Star Trek was a secondary message of the script.
Gerrold remembers that the script received negative reaction from producers due to its positive depiction of a gay couple, causing him to leave the writing staff. While there is much to say on this topic, suffice to say that despite protestations to the contrary, the powers in Star Trek were not interested in Queer representation during the gestation period of the Next Generation.
Ronald D. Moore, the writer who effectively defined Klingon culture and helmed the Battlestar Galactica re-imagined series, spoke in 2008 about this. He said that, in all honesty, it wasn’t a priority. It was an issue that would have required a definite push from all levels to get over the line in the early ’90s – and that push was not coming in those days.
Brannon Braga would also comment on this failing. He said that something as simple as showing two men holding hands in the background of Ten Forward was still deemed as something the producers were uninterested in depicting, not in those days at least.
Shortly before his death, Roddenberry spoke on the subject of homosexuality. He said as he had grown as a human being, his views had changed along the way, explaining that, while in his youth he would have used offensive terms such as ‘Fag’ in conversation, he had come to learn to that this was from a place of ignorance, not malice. Again, he would speak about LGBT Equality in Star Trek. He would go on to promise the inclusion of gay characters in the then-upcoming fifth season of The Next Generation. This was an idea that was openly supported by Leonard Nimoy.
The First Steps
The Outcast was the episode that attempted to depict something other than a straightforward heterosexual relationship. Riker meets and falls for Soren, a member of the androgynous J’Naii race. She, however, identifies as female. Through Riker, she begins to explore that this means and gives in to her feelings.
However, they are discovered by the authorities. Despite delivering an impassioned, beautiful speech about acceptance, she is forced to undergo the equivalent of conversion therapy. ‘Fixed’, she apologizes to Riker for confusing him, and returns to her happy, previous life.
The episode was both praised and criticised by the LGBTQ+ community, who felt that while it was well overdue to depict a person outside of the binary norms, the episode did not go anywhere near far enough to show this. Jonathan Frakes would also later comment in agreement. He felt that the message of the episode might better have been served if Soren had been played by a male actor.
The earlier episode from the Next Generation, The Host, also drew controversy. It included a line spoken by Dr. Crusher that commented on the human ability, or lack thereof, to be as open as they should when it comes to love.
This episode introduced the Trill species and a new interest for Crusher. While Odan is initially played as a male, after the symbiont is joined with a new host at the end, Odan appears as female.
The message that Crusher speaks is one that is quite sad. She, a woman living in the 24th century, effectively says that by this time humanity has not evolved to the point where they can accept this kind of love.
There has been much criticism of the ending. One critic went so far as to say that it made very little sense that a character who would happily jump into bed with aliens of all species and shapes and size would draw the line at ‘space ladies’. However, another critic would speak to the fact that love takes in not just spirituality but also physicality. Crusher had fallen in love with Odan, who was a man. The fact that Odan’s entire outward appearance had changed was too difficult to come to terms with. It was an idea that deserved a longer coda than the one offered in this episode.
How To Make A Statement Without Making It A Statement
Star Trek Deep Space Nine pushed the boundaries of what had gone before in the Trek universe. While Roddenberry had died before the show made it to air, Rick Berman was involved in both the genesis and show running of the show.
Rick Berman was named by David Gerrold as one of the villains in his experience. However, by the time that Ronald D. Moore and Rene Echevarria co-wrote this episode, he lent his support to the idea that Star Trek was created to make statements.
The initial script depicted Dax’s former lover as a male character, though this was quickly rewritten. The entire subplot featuring Dr. Khan’s research was simply a tool to get her on to the station and to reunite with Jadzia.
I was fortunate enough to meet with Terry Farrell several years ago, and to ask her what her thoughts on the episode were. She spoke of how proud she felt to have helped depict LGBTQ+ experiences in Star Trek, very aware that it was something that had been so absent for much of the previous thirty years of storytelling.
In Rejoined, there is no special attention paid to the fact that Jadzia and Lenara are both women, but rather the fact that their society forbids a re coupling between two symbionts. It was the writers’ intentions to use this to highlight the stigma of homosexual relationships. This was the first portrayal, seen through a veil, of LGBT Equality in Star Trek.
When Tributes Do Not Have The Desired Response
In 2016, it was announced that John Cho’s Sulu would be raising a daughter with a same-sex partner in Star Trek Beyond. This announcement was met with criticism from George Takei.
He argued that retrofitting the character to have been a gay man the whole time inferred his having been closeted previously. He felt this sent the wrong message to fans. Simon Pegg responded to this, claiming that the change in the character was meant as a tribute to Takei’s own pioneering work for LGBT Equality.
Pegg went further, explaining that while they could have introduced a new character to the franchise who was gay, this character would then be defined by this single trait. They would be ‘the gay one’ from Star Trek Beyond, whereas in his view, making it a character who was well known strengthened the notion that his sexuality didn’t matter.
Bryan Fuller And The Final Frontier
When plans began for the next Star Trek series, Bryan Fuller was hired by CBS to develop the project. He wanted to bring representation to the franchise in a way that the Original Series had brought representation to black people and Asian people in the ’60s.
He conceived the character of Paul Stamets to begin with, who would be the first openly gay character in Star Trek. Anthony Rapp acknowledged the characterization of Sulu in Star Trek Beyond, but called it something closer to a ‘nice nod’, whereas Stamets would be seen interacting with his husband on a week to week basis, living a normal life on board ship.
Stamets is married to Dr. Hugh Culber, played by Wilson Cruz. Culber is an afro-latino, Puerto Rican and a gay man, something that is a combination and realization of what Roddenberry had originally set as a rule for the show – infinite diversity in infinite combinations.
The pair of them talk, they get ready for bed after a day’s work. They care about what the other has to say. Their relationship is as natural as any other. The fact that they are both men does not enter into the equation.
And then Culber died.
The fan backlash was immediate. There has been a trend in Hollywood called ‘bury your gays.’ Statistically, this has affected female characters more than make characters. According to various studies of television series between 1976 to 2016, only 11% of the shows measured featured lesbian or bisexual female characters and only 16% of that number provided a happy ending for them.
Very aware of the need to reassure fans of the future of LGBT Equality in Star Trek, the producers and Cruz quickly responded to the backlash, stating that death was not always the end in a show of this nature. Culber returned in season two, not just popping back into existence, but engaging in a riveting storyline where he had to truly find himself again.
Even this headed in a downbeat direction for a time, as Culber and Stamets were pulled apart. However, as of writing this article, they have traveled forward 930 years into the future together, a family at last. They are joined by Jett Reno, played by Tig Notaro, whose wife was killed in the Klingon War.
Star Trek first aired on television in 1966 and the first openly gay character, as conceived, appeared on screen in 2017. In a franchise that has explored the meaning of existence, the nature of life and love and the power of equality against adversity, it is safe to say that while it took far, far too long to get there, Star Trek has finally checked a very obviously overlooked box.
Dr. Hugh Culber is, in a way, as much a symbol as he is a character. An afro-latino, Puerto Rican, gay man in a position of power on the USS Discovery, having died and been reborn, is committed to his husband and is working to save his fellow crew members. If the critics cry ‘why must he be a gay man?’ then the simple answer is, because of the work of writers and pioneers, we are finally in a position to ask ‘why must he be anything but?’
As the franchise moves forward, it seems a dam has been broken. The momentary shot of Seven and Raffi interlocking hands has been confirmed to mean something deeper. Star Trek Picard looks like another positive step forward. It could be argued that this treads the same waters that Star Trek Beyond found itself in and time will tell how this relationship is handled.
One thing however is clear: the current representation of LGBT Equality in Star Trek has finally offered a seat at the table to a portion of the community who have followed it for fifty four years, even if it took them a while to get there.