what i'm watching: a kiss on the wrist: the absence of same-sex love on star trek as a measure of how far we've come

Earlier this year, I re-watched the original "Star Trek" series end-to-end on Netflix - a thoroughly entertaining experience - then decided to watch "Star Trek: The Next Generation" for the first time. It wasn't long before I was completely hooked.

The show has a lot to recommend it: compelling story lines, mostly good writing, progressive politics, and the brilliant acting of Patrick Stewart meshed with the commanding character of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. I especially appreciate how Star Trek TNG improved on the worldview of Star Trek TOS. I remember reading about this when the show premiered in the late 1980s, especially how the role and status of women had been updated, but I didn't realize how far it went. The show is actually anti-sexist.

That's why the absence of any gay or lesbian characters, or any same-sex relationships whatsoever, is such a glaring omission.

A quick search online revealed that this topic has been well-discussed. (No surprise there.) On TrekMovie.com, a Star Trek writer and producer explains that same-sex relationships were excluded because Star Trek was "a family show", which I find more offensive than the het-only love itself. The best response I found was from Autostraddle, "Gay Me Up, Scotty: How Star Trek Failed To Boldly Go There".
Berman was afraid that parents would freak out about their kids watching gays on afternoon reruns and so, under his direction, TNG began what would be a long and illustrious tradition of awkwardly bumbling around gay issues but NEVER DIRECTLY MENTIONING GAY PEOPLE AT ANY COST.
So far, I've seen three episodes that "bumble around" and miss grand opportunities.

In "The Host," Dr. Beverly Crusher falls in love with a Trill, a life form that lives in a symbiotic relationship with a humanoid body.* When Crusher and the Trill Odan fall in love, the host body is an attractive male. Later, after all the drama has died away, the Trill lives in a female host body. Does Beverly Crusher realize that she can love this person no matter what its gender? Does she even consider it? She does not. Indeed, the emotion and passion of the earlier scenes has completely disappeared. Crusher says she can't "keep up," continually adjusting as the Odan inhabits different bodies, but seriously, she doesn't even try. Once her lover has become female, she can barely eke out a polite goodbye.

At the end of the episode, female Odan lifts Crusher's hand and kisses her wrist. Crusher is shocked. Really, Dr. Crusher? It's the 24th century, and a kiss on the hand from another woman shocks you? Crusher may not be bisexual; fine, whatever. But the straightest women I know wouldn't look so astounded.
"Prepare to be shocked! My lips will touch your wrist!"
(Image from Autostraddle)

The episode "The Outcast" is an obvious metaphor for the repression and criminalization of gay and trans people. (Obvious metaphor, a redundancy in science fiction.) But the norm on the planet J'naii is androgyny, and Commander William T. Riker falls in love with a "misfit" who identifies as female. So Riker loves a woman, as he usually does, and the potential for something different and expansive is lost.

On the episode "The Masterpiece Society," a genetically engineered society defends its planned perfection against the chaos of outsiders. The denizens of this society are thoroughly multicultural, just so we're clear that this is not Nazi-style perfection. But as the black, white, and Asian families drift happily by, not one same-sex couple or family is seen. Another lost opportunity.

Why is this noteworthy? Because Star Trek TNG is a show that aggressively embraced an all-inclusive ethic - as Wired put it, "infinite diversity in infinite combinations". In this vision of our future, war is a last resort, imperialism is the greatest evil, women and men live and work as equals. Monogamy is not especially valued. Even animals have been liberated; as Riker explains, "We no longer enslave animals for food purposes". The concept of my favourite Star Trek TOS episode, "The Devil in the Dark" - life in completely foreign forms, all deserving of respect and compassion - is creatively pursued in nearly every episode.

In this context, the absence of normalized same-sex relationships is one gigantic elephant in the room.

The show I'm watching aired from 1987 to 1994, but apparently this LGBT void still has not been filled. In 2010, Autostraddle wrote, "Star Trek has yet to acknowledge the existence of LGBT people and, in my opinion, has slowly died because of it." An excellent Wired story from only a few months ago, "Star Trek’s History of Progressive Values - And Why It Faltered on LGBT Crew Members," explains why it matters.
The invisibility of gay characters isn’t neutral; it’s negative, and represents a glaring double standard. After all, many a heterosexual romance has played out on the Star Trek screen, often involving notorious ladies’ men like Kirk and The Next Generation‘s Commander William Riker. The omission of a simple homosexual storyline, regardless of how many interspecies or interracial or almost-homosexual romances have been featured, is still very much a point of concern. We are, after all, still living in the 21st century, not the 24th, and it would still be significant to see an LGBT officer serving on the bridge today, much as it was to see a black woman in the ’60s when civil rights battles were being waged.
Thinking about this conspicuous omission has made me (once again) realize the sea-change gay liberation has achieved in my lifetime. Few of us would fault Star Trek TOS (1966-1969) for not including a gay character. If Star Trek TNG (1987-1994) had done so, it might have been daring. It certainly would have been noteworthy. By now, the absence of any gay character or theme seems bizarre, even homophobic.

* The internet tells me that this life form, Trills, becomes an important feature in "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine". No spoilers, please!


James Redekop said...

The "Mission Log" podcast recently interviewed David Gerrold (most famous for The Trouble With Tribbles and, with DC Fontana, one of the TOS authors most involved in TNG). Gerrold, who's gay, wrote a gay-themed episode for TNG called "Blood and Fire", which the show bought but shelved. According to Gerrold's account, Roddenberry had agreed that it was time that Star Trek addressed the issue, but other forces on set were actively working to undermine Gerrold, Fontana, and various other contributors, eventually leading to Gerrold & Fontana leaving the show.

Gerrold's "Blood and Fire" episode was eventually made as part of Star Trek: New Voyages (now called Star Trek: Phase II), a fan-led project to create new episodes based on the TOS characters. You can see it here: Part 1, Part 2.

Now that you're watching TNG, I highly recommend the Misson Log David Gerrold interview -- it gives a lot of insight into some of what was happening behind the scenes, and why some things happened or failed to happen on the show.

laura k said...

I did catch a few posts about "Blood and Fire". What year was it written, and when was it shelved?

Alas, I will never watch fan-fic of any kind, ever. (Sorry, fan-fic fans!)

I will check out that interview, though!

James Redekop said...

One of the odd things with Star Trek -- and SF in general up to the New Wave period -- is that it's been very reluctant to deal with same-sex relationships, but hasn't had much of a problem with different-species relationships.

Though recently a US preacher started calling for a boycott of Star Trek Into Darkness on the grounds that it promotes bestiality, since there's a brief scene with Kirk in bed with two aliens.

laura k said...

very reluctant to deal with same-sex relationships, but hasn't had much of a problem with different-species relationships.

That's partly my point. Dr Crusher is ready to have an affair with a life form that appears to be a man, but really is a twinned being, with a giant crustacean living inside it. But a kiss from a woman?! Oh noes!

James Redekop said...

Yup, exactly.

The new run of Doctor Who has had a great bi character in Captain Jack Harkness. It's never been the focus of a story (I haven't seen any of the Torchwood spinoff which features him yet, so I can't comment on that), but he casually flirts with male & female characters (including the Doctor) as if it's perfectly normal.

He's played by the very charismatic gay actor, John Barrowman. He hasn't been on the show in ages; I hope they bring him back from time to time.

laura k said...

Xena TWP was great that way, too. Although Xena and Gabrielle are obviously lovers and life partners, they both love men along the way.

I never got the whole debate over whether or not Xena and Gabrielle were lovers. It couldn't be more obvious without an X rating.

James Redekop said...

Yeah, well, some people just don't want to accept things which make them feel weird. :)

Captain Jack doesn't allow for any ambiguity:

Gwen: Have you ever eaten alien meat?
Jack: Sure.
Gwen: What was it like?
Jack: He seemed to enjoy it.

James Redekop said...

Since we're on the subject...

laura k said...

Jack: He seemed to enjoy it.

Real eye-rolling stuff. :)

Plus I've learned that Torchwood is related to Doctor Who. I didn't know that.

impudent strumpet said...

The Outcast always annoyed me, because of all the possible permutations, why would alternative sexuality on an androgenous planet manifest itself as a gender that doesn't exist in their species or on their planet or in their concept system? (But, conveniently, fits into heteronormative cisnormative human gender binary?) That would be like one of us coming to the realization that we're really a cogenitor. It just wouldn't work that way!

I mean, I get what the writers were trying to do and that they needed to frame it in terms their actual 20th century human audience could easily conceptualize, but I wasn't able to suspend disbelief.

impudent strumpet said...

(Also, The Host could have accomplished exactly the same thing more in line with open-minded 24th century values by having Dr. Crusher unable to stomach the fact that the Odan is in fact a giant crustacean parasite.)

laura k said...

I also found The Outcast a bit ridiculous for that reason. A planet with no gender where they all happen to look like flat-chested females with bowl haircuts! What are the odds!