In various interviews about her “Star Trek” role, Whoopi Goldberg describes why she wanted to be on the show: Up until “Star Trek,” people of color weren’t included in any vision of the future. She grew up in an era of segregation, with high-profile murders of civil rights leaders and activists, and a renewed push to build Confederate monuments. In such a time representation in science fiction might seem unimportant, but for 9-year-old Whoopi, it meant the world. Over the years she’s been very clear about how much it meant to her to see Lt. Uhura—a black woman—on screen. But despite the progressive history of “Star Trek,” LGBTQ children have never had the opportunity to see themselves represented on the show until now. This week’s episode of “Star Trek: Discovery” takes us inside the bedroom of a gay couple, putting their relationship front and center for the first time in the 50-year history of “Star Trek.”
“Star Trek” was groundbreaking for its representations of people of color and women. In addition to Nichelle Nichols’ portrayal of Uhura, George Takei played Lt. Sulu, who eventually becomes a captain, and Walter Koenig’s Ensign Pavel Chekov—at the height of the Cold War—showed a future where the Soviet Union was not an enemy. “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry wanted to show women in command; the original pilot had a female first officer, but the studio nixed it. The show was also groundbreaking for having one of the first interracial kisses on TV. “Star Trek” offered a view of the future that was so fundamentally different and inclusive that it inspired people about their possibilities.
None of this is meant to negate some of the very real problems with sexism and racism that did creep through. Women wore skirts and, according to one episode, were not allowed to be captains. And in one episode, Uhura’s mind was erased and she suddenly spoke Swahili. Those are relics of the era and mistakes we shouldn’t repeat. But the grand mission of “Star Trek”—to show a future where humanity has overcome racism, hatred and greed, and has united to expand our understanding of the universe—is one that is as necessary today as it was in the 1960s.
While “Star Trek” was a pioneer in depicting people of color and women, it’s been sadly behind the curve in its representation of queer communities. Of course, in the original series there wouldn’t have been LGBTQ representation. It was the beginning of the LGBTQ movement. The Stonewall Riots happened the month the show was canceled, and it would be another decade before Harvey Milk would burst onto the scene in San Francisco.
But by the 90s and early 2000s, when “Star Trek” had the opportunity to continue with Roddenberry’s progressive vision of the future and include LGBTQ people, it did not. The producers flirted with it; Roddenberry himself was supportive of an AIDS metaphor episode, which would have been fitting since one of the actors from the film series died from AIDS related causes around the same time. But the network scrapped that idea. An episode of “The Next Generation” did feature an agender species, and “Deep Space Nine” had two women kiss. This kiss was a big deal; it came two years before Ellen DeGeneres came out, and it generated more hate mail than most episodes. But despite efforts over many years to have a LGBTQ character on “Star Trek,” our communities were mostly left behind by the franchise.
More recently, the film reboots have retconned Sulu to be gay, with the introduction of a husband and child, seen from a distance in 2016. Hopefully, we’ll get to see more of Sulu and his family in the fourth film, and while it was a very nice step for LGTBQ representation, it was also a very small aside.
Part of what got Whoopi Goldberg so excited about “Star Trek” was not only the existence of a black woman in that fictional world but the dignity with which she was treated:
“When I was 9 years old, ‘Star Trek’ came on. I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mom, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”
Dignity is particularly important. LGBTQ people are often a punchline. Take a look at the recent remake of “Beauty and the Beast”; the gay character is a buffoon, someone to laugh at. Or producers will present a sexually charged scene with perfect bodies, meant more for eye candy than character development. And when it’s two women, it’s almost always directed for the male gaze. “Star Trek: Discovery,” however, takes us into the bedroom of a committed couple as they talk about their fears and their love for each other. It focuses specifically on an argument they have, centered on career and personal safety. This is a scene about them as people, whole and complete, struggling with what every other person struggles with. It affirms queer dignity, agency and love. It shows us that we make it to the 23rd century.
Before someone says “Of course you make it to the future,” just stop. The president of the United States made a joke about how the vice president would like to hang us all. He spoke at the conference of an actual real-life LGBTQ hate group this past weekend. Globally there are countries that still execute us. In the United States, poverty rates are higher for LGBTQ people, you can be fired in 28 states for being gay, and violence and hate crimes are on the rise. All of this is to say that we deserve to have a future to look forward to. We deserve to look at the TV and see ourselves portrayed with dignity—the way that Whoopi Goldberg and Martin Luther King Jr. did when they watched “Star Trek” in the 60s.
Growing up, I loved “Star Trek.” I discovered it when I was 6 or 7. It was the only show my mother allowed us to watch, because she too liked this vision for the future. My parents were going through a rather unpleasant divorce, and “Star Trek” offered a refuge, a stability in the future that I didn’t have in my daily life. I gravitated toward and saw myself most in the outsider characters—Spock, Data, Odo and 7 of 9. I wasn’t quite represented; yes, there were white men, but none of them were quite like me. I recognize now that it was those characters’ struggle to fit in that I connected with. Ultimately, I felt alienated from the people and relationships portrayed in the media. Kids today who watch “Star Trek” don’t have to feel like outsiders; they get to be full people in the series.
Throughout the 80s, 90s and into the 21st century, television made huge strides in LGBTQ representation. “Designing Women,” “Will & Grace” and “Glee” saw LGBTQ storylines develop from one-off episodes to central plots of the series. Even science fiction, full of male bravado and, too often, toxic masculinity, managed to begin to include us before “Star Trek.” “Torchwood,” “True Blood,” “The Walking Dead” and others have had LGBTQ characters and storylines. The “Battlestar Galactica” web series outed a main character; the prequel series “Caprica” had a major gay relationship. And “Stargate” had a lesbian main character in 2009. Of course, there was no “Star Trek” during most of the era when sci-fi began including us.
This may seem small, but it’s affirming and it’s exciting. “Star Trek” has finally come into the modern era and made us a part of the future.
Asher Huey is a DC based progressive activist and organizer.