Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek & SciFi

Utopian Views of Gender & Sexuality in SciFi

After 50 years, Star Trek is the obvious starting point for a discussion of fictional futuristic views of sex and gender. Given the unlimited possibilities of SciFi and Fantasy, it can seem disappointing when film, television, and books, often resort to binary genders and heterosexuality. Star Trek was groundbreaking with the first on-screen interracial kiss between Captain Kirk and Uhura in 1968 (“Plato’s Stepchildren” – episode 65, third season). Actually, the first interracial kiss was British, and in 1962. The Uhura episode saw Star Trek’s lowest ratings ever, and was not broadcast in the conservative American South.

Uhura Captain Kirk Star Trek Interracial Kiss
Uhura & Captain Kirk in Star Trek’s 1968 interracial kiss

The taboos of race and gender were paramount during the civil rights battles of the 1960s, whether about colour, sexuality, or indeed the Vietnam war. Science Fiction provided the opportunity to speculate and present utopian visions of what might be. This was particularly the case on some of the planets that the Enterprise was to visit on its mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before” (based upon a White House space exploration booklet, 1957).

[Discussion Tue 1 Nov, 6-7pm, Norwich Millennium Library]

Star Trek episode: The Outcast

Episode 117 of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), appropriately titled “The Outcast”, sees The Enterprise contacted by a genderless race called the J’naii.

Star Trek, genderless Soren in The Outcast
Star Trek, genderless Soren in The Outcast

“While being treated by Dr. Crusher, Soren asks her several questions about female gender identification. While Soren and Riker work on the shuttle, Soren confesses that she is attracted to Riker and further that she has female gender identity. Soren explains that the J’naii are an androgynous species that view the expression of any sort of male or female gender, and especially sexual liaisons, as a sexual perversion. According to their official doctrine, the J’naii had evolved beyond gender and thus view the idea of male/female sexuality as primitive. Those among the J’naii who view themselves as possessing gender are ridiculed, outcast, and forced to undergo ‘psychotectic therapy’.” – Wikipedia

Sexuality in Star Trek

Star Trek Captain James T Kirk William Shatner topless
Star Trek Captain James T Kirk William Shatner topless, again!

Star Trek doesn’t travel far into the unknowns of gender and sexuality, by current standards, but was ahead of its time, mainly around race, bisexuality and polygamy. Whilst the 1960s outfits could be said to have sexualised its female crew members, Captain James T Kirk barely kept his shirt on and became an object of female and perhaps too, male desire.

In later series, the Bolians and Denobulans are regarded as being polygamous and/or polyandrous, and the former, even bisexual with mention by Data in a 1999 epsiode of a Bolian man’s co-husband and wife.

Four years earlier, Babylon 5 had introduced a bisexual character in 1995. Susan Ivanova mainly had relationships with men, mostly bad ones, but seemingly also had one with Talia Winters. “Seemingly”, because more is alluded to than shown.

In 1997, Bruce Vilanch in The Advocate wrote despairingly:

“Probably the most egregiously overlooked area of gay visibility is, if you can swing me on this, is science fiction. With the exception of a telepathic meeting of two lesbian minds on Babylon 5, there has never been a gay creature – much less a gay human being – in any of the Star Trek series or movies or, for that matter the other Star Trek clones popping up all over the dial… Since all these shows are set in the future, the grim possibility exists that, at least in their creators’ minds, there are no gay people in the future. It’s a curious notion for science-fiction to embrace…” – The Advocate (21 Jan 1997), p.104

In 2013, Landon Palmer on IMDB suggested that nothing had changed.

Lack of Queer Sexuality in Star Trek

Star Trek Sulu, gratuitously topless?
Star Trek Sulu, gratuitously topless?

There is an irony in Star Trek in that George Takei who played Sulu is gay and his original character wasn’t, yet in the rebooted films, the character is now played as homosexual. A move, branded by Takei, as “unfortunate” and beyond Gene Roddenberry’s vision, who feared back in 1968, 37 years before Takei himself came out, that it would lead to the show’s cancellation. Indeed, it was, for other budgetary reasons, lasting just three seasons and dropping off the air just 7 weeks before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.

Roddenberry, raised a Southern Baptist, had turned to humanism as an adult and rejected organised religion. He also rejected conventional marriage and discouraged any representation of it in Star Trek episodes – expecting both religion and marriage to have died on Earth by the 23rd Century setting for Star Trek.

Actually, Roddenberry in 1987 promised that TNG would have gay characters – but did it fulfil that promise? Leonard Nimoy, in 1991, also supported that view. Roddenberry died before he could realise or “materialise” that ambition.

Star Trek Screenwriter (1988-99), Ronald D Moore said:

“We’ve just failed at it. It’s not been something we’ve successfully done. At Star Trek we used to have all these stock answers for why we didn’t do it. The truth is it was not really a priority for any of us on the staff so it wasn’t really something that was strong on anybody’s radar. And then I think there’s a certain inertia that you’re not used to writing those characters into these dramas and then you just don’t. And somebody has to decide that it’s important before you do it and I think we’re still at the place where that’s not yet a common – yeah, we have to include this and this is an important thing to include in the shows. Sci-Fi for whatever reason is just sort of behind the curve on all this.”

It took the fan-fic spin-off series, Hidden Frontier, to unofficially portray the first gay male kiss on Star Trek when Lt Corey Aster in reveals his feelings for another crew member he’d fancied since Starfleet Academy days over a story arc lasting a few seasons between 2001 and 2004.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Seeing Red Willow And Tara
Buffy the Vampire Slayer ‘Seeing Red’ Willow And Tara

Meanwhile, over those same years, it took Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to be the first to portray an overt lesbian couple – Willow and Tara, their first kiss in 2001 and by 2003 to air the first lesbian sex scene on mainstream American television.

Between 2006 and 2011, Doctor Who spin-off, Torchwood, took the British SciFi series to new places that the seemingly asexual Doctor himself could never go to.

John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness and Gareth David-Lloyd as Ianto in Torchwood
John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness and Gareth David-Lloyd as Ianto in Torchwood © BBC Worldwide

Torchwood doesn’t just introduce gay characters, it actually introduces almost universal bi and pansexuality, or even omnisexuality with the sexually voracious Captain Jack Harkness, whereby the strict limitations of hetero and homo are dealt with by going beyond them, with nearly every characters having same-sex and/or alien attraction encounters.

“Without making it political or dull, this is going to be a very bisexual programme. I want to knock down the barriers so we can’t define which of the characters is gay. We need to start mixing things up, rather than thinking, ‘This is a gay character and he’ll only ever go off with men.'” – Russell T Davies

Star Trek rebooter, JJ Abrams, said in 2011 that he was “frankly shocked that in the history of Star Trek there have never been gay characters in all the series”.

Star Trek Deep Space Nine Jadzia Dax same-sex kiss
Star Trek Deep Space Nine Jadzia Dax same-sex kiss

The closest Star Trek came was in 1995, “Rejoined” – episode 78 of Deep Space Nine (DS9), when Jadzia Dax kisses another woman. The taboo made an issue not reuniting with the loved ones of former hosts, not of their gender. DS9 was probably the most forward-looking with a more adult script actually mentioning sex, and not just love.

Success or failure in LGBT inclusion?

It’s been argued that that Star Trek’s aliens are so diverse and its plots so full of social justice that adding a gay character would have been redundant.

“…a homosexual character simply doesn’t add anything of substance when you have an alien species (the Cardassians) literally putting another (Bajorans) in concentration camps. Gay acceptance issues in the Star Trek universe would be both redundant and trivial compared to the deeper ethical questions the franchise regularly poses.” – Adam Selene

That said, its omission is noticeable, and seems to be a mark of film studio and writers’ sensitivities to the US family entertainment market. Its very success making the likelihood of a gay portrayal diminish.

Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek, David Greven
Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek, David Greven

David Greven seeks to challenge, in Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek: Allegories of Desire in the Television Series and Films (2009), the “…frequent accusations that the Star Trek saga refuses to represent queer sexuality. Arguing that Star Trek speaks to queer audiences through subtle yet provocative allegorical narratives” containing a “queer sensibility” from the 1960s original’s “deconstruction of the male gaze” through to the “constructions of femininity”, particularly in Star Trek: Voyager with Captain Janeway and Seven of Nine.

So, did Star Trek fail in its mission “to boldly go”? Have other SciFi franchises done any better, or has the world finally overtaken SciFi in terms of LGBTIQAP sexualities and gender. Tumblr is certainly way ahead of TV!