Panel Report: ‘Star Trek’ Reads Queer

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Women of Trek: Marina Sirtis, Nana Visitor and Terry Ferrell
Women of Trek: moderator Amy Imhoff, Marina Sirtis, Nana Visitor and Terry Ferrell, whose Dax was a focus of the Queer Trekkers panel. photo by Corrina Lawson

Star Trek is hella queer,” was the consensus of a panel held at Star Trek Mission NY on Labor Day Weekend called “Queer Trekkers: Gene Roddenberry’s Galactic Utopias.”

The premise of panelists Alex “Dax” Wood, Carson Chodos, and Dr. Katia Perea was not that the Trek shows are full of queer characters. Indeed, Trek has lacked, for the most part, proper LGBTQ representation. But the panelists focused the show’s many incarnations as structurally queer. (Note: If you want to go more in depth on this, there is a Facebook group run by the panelists called Queer Trekkers.)

This wasn’t an interpretation that I’d considered before, focusing, as many people do, on Trek‘s themes of hope for the future and the glory of exploration. I had noticed–as much of the world has–that the X-Men stories have a queer subtext, in the sense of being hated and feared because of who they are, not because of what they do, a subtext that was made explicit in the “coming out” part of admitting one is a mutant.

Likely because I am straight, I’d never thought intensely about how Trek would read to a member of the LGBTQ community, and that’s on me.

But as I sat through the panel, I realized their premise resonated strongly as a true reading of Trek. Because one of the reasons I subconsciously loved Star Trek TOS, especially as a teenager, is that you could be anything on Trek–disembodied beings, failed gods, blue, green, shapeshifters, Klingons, Romulans, worshippers of a computer–and the crew of the Enterprise would go out of their way to accept who you are and, even sometimes help you to become your best self. That idea is implicit in the make-up of TOS crew, including the alien (Spock), and the other diverse representatives from our world–Sulu, Uhura, Scotty, Chekhov (you laugh about Chekhov but Russians were serious enemies at the height of the Cold War, so adding a Russian crew member was a leap of faith for the future).

For someone who is younger than me and also grew up with other incarnations of Trek, particularly Deep Space Nine, the message of the outsider being accepted is even more open on the screen. And more openly queer, especially with any storyline surrounding Jadzia Dax of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. As the actress who portrayed Jadzia, Terry Ferrell, said in an earlier panel on Women in Trek, “Jadzia is gender-fluid.” Indeed, Ferrell was quick to correct someone in the audience who termed Jadzia Dax as “trans” to the more appropriate gender-fluid.

Not to mention that Star Trek also gave birth to “slash” or male/male fiction as we now know it, with the punctuation in the middle of Kirk/Spock pulled out to be used as a fandom term. Gene Roddenberry himself seemed fine with that interpretation, to judge from his comments about the relationship.

As the panelists described, all the incarnations of the Trek shows are about accepting those who are different, i.e. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination. The main characters are supportive of those against the norm, even from the beginning in the original series, such as in “Devil in the Dark.” The panelists wanted to talk not about how well the characters represented being queer but that the themes of the show are often queer and all about dismantling the patriarchy.

“We’re less interested in gay representation for the sake of putting together this panel and more interested in new ways of queerness,” said Perea.

“So much more than who you have sex with makes you queer. It’s also about being the outsider,” Chodos said.

“Lots of queer things happen in subtext,” said Wood, who had a terrific presentation mostly centered on DS9.  He talked about how subversive much of the language surrounding Jadzia can be, such as Sisko calling her “Old Man.”

“We see a lot of queer elements filtered through straight encounters,” and he pointed out the example of Dax’s previous lover visiting the station, and how Dax often references her seven lifetimes, thus creating a blurring of identities, which is much like the blurring of boundaries reminiscent of queerness. Dax, Wood noted, was always very lusty and flirts with everyone, not to mention that the sex between Worf and Dax seems to be particularly kinky. (Lots of physical fighting before the sex.)

DS9 also had the homoerotic subtext between Garek and Bashir, including the fact that the actor playing Garek has stated that he was playing the character as bisexual. Unfortunately, the show deliberately made Bashir “less gay” deliberately as it continued. (Which is one of the reasons the panelists wanted to avoid talking about the not-always-great representation but the overall queerness of themes.)

There were also what Wood called “playful transgressions” used to decode gender normative roles across the Trek shows, such as Bashir and Sisko having a quick conversation about having a baby shower for a man.

In fact, Trek is probably more conservative than makes sense for this kind of future, they concluded.

A failure, I suspect, of current human imagination, particularly straight imaginations. Trek has consistently reflected the times that each show was created in. TOS had women on the Enterprise bridge but put them in miniskirts or had women other than Uhura in roles like aide and nurse. By the time the movies aired, Nurse Chapel had become Dr. Chapel, and a Vulcan crew member could be a woman as well. Star Trek: The Next Generation included a Klingon, an AI, a female doctor in charge of the medical services, and ditched the miniskirts for the most part. The roles became ever more varied in DS9 and Voyager, became the times became more varied and  accepting, plus I imagine the creators of those shows wanted to stay with Gene Roddenberry’s original vision of acceptance and moving forward.

All of which makes me anticipate the impending arrival of Star Trek: Discovery in May 2017 even more. What will this new Trek show about how we view the world and ourselves?

Where are we as a people, and will Trek show us the way again or will it lag behind?

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1 thought on “Panel Report: ‘Star Trek’ Reads Queer

  1. re: “TOS had women on the Enterprise bridge but put them in miniskirts or had women other than Uhura in roles like aide and nurse”

    I get what you’re saying and pretty much agree with you. But in TOS defense I will say that all the women characters who were featured on the show were always scientists, historians, medical experts or specialists of some sort.

    I’d also like to give honorable mention to Yeoman Janice Rand from the shows first season. I’d argue that a ships yeoman is incredibly important to the day to day running of the ship. They’re in charge of protocol which means that she would have been in charge of educating officers how to properly interact with foreign or alien dignitaries or ambassadors. They’re also basically the ships council/legal advisor at least while at sea(or space). They can be charged with distributing ships orders. Unfortunately, the show never really took advantage of the more interesting and varied responsibilities a yeoman and focused on the more menial tasks. And yes, while a yeoman does have a lot of secretarial responsibilities, they also have incredibly important ones as well.

    Of course all of this goes to your point about underutilized female characters. I just thought I’d add a little context for what Yeoman Rand was doing all those times we didn’t see her being rescued or handing Kirk a clipboard. 😉

    Anyways, great article.

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