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Exploring Queer Love in Star Trek

Much hubbub has been made about the newness of queer representations in Star Trek: Discovery. The show boasts Dr Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and Jet Reno (Tig Notaro). Also, Human-Trill-Symbiont Adira Tal (Blu Del Bario). Therefore, Discovery has explored Queer Love in Star Trek. This commitment to telling our stories in the future tense has recently become more apparent.

In season 3 of Star Trek: Lower Decks, Beckett Mariner (Tawney Newsome) explores her relationships, real and imagined. Do not forget Zero (Angus Imrie) of Star Trek: Prodigy, a Medusan. This begs the question. Is it the case that positive representations of queer people and relationships have been absent from the Trek canon?

“Terra Firma, Part 1” — Ep#309 — Pictured: Blu del Barrio as Adira of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/CBS ©2020 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

A Queer Zoo?

Queerness isn‘t just about identity. It‘s about relationships and how we maintain them. The first episode of Trek that ever touched on this idea was the ST: TNG episode “Justice”. Here we are introduced to a planet that is essentially a production practice for the pleasure planet Risa. We can talk about Risa too, but Risa is mostly a theme park. Risa is for outsiders to come and play and less about queer enjoyment itself. Risa is the planet where folks go to have their stag parties.

In contrast, the planet portrayed in “Justice” is populated by the Edo. The Edo are a species with a caretaker … technically they fit the zoo definition … However, in this case, the caretaker is attempting to preserve their livelihoods. The caretaker views the Federation’s colonisation of a nearby planet as a threat. Don‘t get me wrong, given the choice of Risa vs the Edo; it‘s Risa all the way. The caretaker of Edo has implemented a death penalty for minor infarctions to preserve Eden. No thanks.

The Edo (L-R) Brenda Bakke as Rivan and Jay Louden as Liator (Via Paramount+)

Flipping Narratives

This is classic Star Trek storytelling. Flipping narratives to show us our society in a new light. “Free” love among the Edo is forcibly preserved, and that’s the problem. Some people don‘t want to or can’t live like everyone else. For example, in an episode featuring Risa entitled “Let He Who Is Without Sin…“ of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Years of the Federation using the planet as a resort have led to some deep resentment. This all plays out in a political attack on a weather control station.

An autocratic ruler enforces relationship norms for the Edo, and the Federation‘s own non-monetary economy does the same for Risa. Enforced cisheterosexuality is the actual theme of both of these episodes. I think the most controversial point I could make here. I am glad Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) survived the Edo‘s death sentence! Of course, some may disagree.

Terry Farell as Jadzia Dax and Michael Dorn as Mr Worf (Via Paramount+)

The Straightest Planet In Star Trek

I think one of the more important relationships and episodes for me involved none other than the dude-bro William Riker himself. Honestly, I love the guy, his style, his plethora of responsibly managed open relationships, and fundamentally also queer relationships for most of us in the know. But his most important relationship was with Soren for most queer audiences. It explored Queer Love in Star Trek.

In “The Outcast“ of ST: TNG, Soren comes from one of the straightest planets ever encountered. It‘s so straight they have mainstreamed a torturous conversion therapy. A “therapy” that essentially seems to overwrite a person’s personality to straighten them out. “Straight“, by the way, is a term that was reappropriated from trans communities. When folks would be forced back into the closet to survive, this was derisively labelled “going straight“. Cishet folks have strangely reappropriated it.

But wait, if you know the episode, you will know that Soren comes from a planet without gender differentiation. This is again the Roddenberryesque tactic of turning narratives on their heads to make a point. When this episode came out in the US, Democratic lawmakers were busy banning marriage and adoption for LGBTIQA+ people. Worse, conversion therapy was accepted, sterilisation was still forcibly practised on trans people, and all this was supported by most laypersons unfamiliar with the harm caused.

“The Outcast“‘s Soren had a secret binary identity (she*) was trans, and Riker was in love. Soren was ultimately tortured and changed, and Riker left with a heavy heart. Leaving behind the straightest planet in Star Trek canon forever. Queer Love in Star Trek took a hit that day, much like Riker’s heart.

Melinda Culea as Soren in Star Trek: The Next Generation (Via Paramount+)

Send Me An Angel

But this isn‘t even the beginning of Riker‘s queer(ish) relationships. Some may remember his forays into queer love from an early ST:TNG season one episode, “Angel One“ . He falls in love with a powerful autocrat on a matriarchically dominated planet. He falls out of love when he sees her power as another harmful hierarchy. This episode perhaps best demonstrates african american lesbian intersectionalist philosopher Audre Lorde‘s adage, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house“.

Jonathan Frakes as Captain William T. Riker in Star Trek: Picard Season 3 (Via Paramount+)

Don’t Forget The Trill!

Yes, of course, the Trill! More than a few ST: DS9 episodes deal with trans-widowhood and the fluidity of sex/gender via the Trill. But one episode sticks out for anybody who has ever come out as trans in an existing relationship. The first episode features a Trill and Symbiont in ST: TNG „The Host“. In this episode, Dr Crusher (Gates McFadden) falls in love with an ailing Trill-Symbiont ambassador named Odan.

Odan is dying, and the symbiont, his core, his continuing personhood, must find a new body to symbiose with. The episode ends with Odan and his/their/her lover Beverly coming to terms with this newly revealed identity. In real life, many trans people have dealt with precisely this situation, and there is not usually a happy ending. On the one hand, Odan wasn‘t honest with Beverly about who he was. On the other, Beverly fell in love with a person. But that person may no longer exist and maybe never did.

Dr Crusher and ambassador Odan‘s story still resonates with me today. I have been in this situation, which is always heartbreaking for everyone. I was glad to have this episode to go back to, to see the grace with which Odan and Dr Crusher handled it.

Gates McFadden as Dr. Beverly Crusher of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Trae Paatton/Paramount+ © 2022 CBS Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Future Tense And Chosen Families

Adira of TS:D hit us all like a nail on the head. Sure, for Season 1 of ST:D, we got plenty of (trans)formational narratives about life/death (Hugh Culber and Paul Stamets) and identity. But Adira, trans and nonbinary, is the big show. Even their Trill identity is initially problematised in-world as they are human and not a species that normally pairs with symbionts. Adira fights against the “should“ and “must“, indicating what many of us know already: we must fight for our relationships and existence.

Adira eventually forms a queer family with Dr Culber and Stamets. Frankly, this is not so hard in the always-chosen-families universe portrayed across all Trek series.

Zero, the Medusan, follows in Adira‘s footsteps, creating a family out of the runaway crew of the Protostar. Finally, a species without sex/gender that has successfully resisted binarisation in the cannon! Zeros non-humanoid, disabilities-coded, and nonbinary representation breaks moulds on numerous fronts. But my favourite way they break the mould is their nonchalance. Hardly anything is made of them being nonbinary other than a passing comment.

STAR TREK: PRODIGY: Ep#109 — Angus Imrie as Zero and Dee Bradley Baker as Murf in STAR TREK: PRODIGY streaming on Paramount+ Photo: Nickelodeon/Paramount+ ©2022 VIACOM INTERNATIONAL. All Rights Reserved.

In Conclusion

I am straight-up jealous of kids growing up with Star Trek today. They don‘t need to sift through coded messages to find the empathy and heroes that Roddenberry and other writers wished for all. Instead, it‘s right up front where it always should have been. I can‘t wait to see what comes next. On my wish list? I promise myself, and the rest of the queer Trek community, is crossing our fingers that the Andorians 4-sex/gender relationship system will be canonised from the non-canon materials. Or, a revolution for Soren’s homeworld.

Until then, this has been my look back at Queer Love in Star Trek! – QAPLA‘!!!

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