Airing Out the Closet

Spoilers ahead for mid-nineties TV shows. You have been warned.

By the end of middle school, I’d hit a couple of Star Trek conventions with my parents. They were both long-time fans of science fiction. I’m not going to go so far as to suggest a literary genre has inherent political stripes. After all, the novel most entwined with Tea Party politics is ostensibly science fiction. I think it’s fair to say there’s a certain progress streak in a lot of science fiction, including Trek that’s always resonated with my family. The appearances of DOMA and Prop. 8 in the U.S. Supreme Court this past week remind me of how perceptions have changed just within the past ten years. The court decision will be important in some ways, but in others, almost incidental. The fact of the matter is, today the majority of Americans support marriage equality. I don’t normally pay much attention to what Rush Limbaugh says–except when it’s, “We’ve lost.

So it looks like, come what may, Americans will almost inevitably be able to marry a person of the same sex sometime, somehow. This is a big deal.

So looking back, how did our favorite futurists do?

Star Trek is like many others in that LGBT characters were either absent or… well… metaphorical.

There’s a blog by Adam McGovern at TOR about representations of sexual minorities in science Fiction. McGovern writes,

Star Trek producer Rick Berman used to answer gay and gay-positive fans’ calls for more representation of sexual difference in that franchise by saying the creative team would rather provoke thought by dealing with the issue metaphorically, and it wasn’t just a matter of “having two men or two women in [the Enterprise lounge] holding hands”;

A later episode of Star Trek’s Deep Space Nine depicts a taboo relationship between main character, Jadzia Dax and a former flame. Both characters are women, but that’s not why the relationship is taboo. It’s taboo because their race, the Trill, a symbiotic species, are forbidden from revisiting relationships from their past. It’s silly and arbitrary and that’s kind of the point. Almost beautifully, the fact that they’re both women is never even made an issue.

Of course in the end, it doesn’t work out. It can’t. Society just isn’t ready. Hm.

We establish that same-sex relationships are theoretically possible in the world of Star Trek, but they just aren’t depicted–this from a franchise that brought America one of its first interracial kisses. What’s problematic in the case of Trek is this–forget tokenism. Most Americans know someone who is LGBT. At the very least, how many people haven’t at least seen a same-sex couple holding hands somewhere?

How many crowd scenes are there in the history of Trek?

I’ve been working my way through Babylon 5 and, as much as I love it, I’m struck by how terribly… mid-nineties it can seem. Creator and executive producer, J. Michael Straczynski was quite progressive at the time with regards to depictions of sexual minorities. What stands out is how nonchalant he was about same-sex relationships and marriage (and yes, gay marriage did exist in the B5 universe). Same-sex couples appear to meander around the station and the first couple of seasons are loaded with Commander Ivanova and Psi-corp. operative, Talia Winters subtext.

And now for the mid-nineties part: the episode in which the subtext becomes main text ends with Talia Winters going nuts. She’s dragged off and, as is later implied, killed off-screen.

Talia and Ivanova

On right: Babylon 5’s Mad Woman in the Attic

This happens. And let’s not even talk about lesbians going nuts in media (yes, I’m looking at you, Joss Whedon).

I don’t necessarily fault producers who kill the lesbian with heterosexism in the same way I don’t fault most of them with overt racism in killing the black guy. The black guy and the lesbian are quite often noble, positively-depicted characters. They’re just not the hero or heroine. They tend to be incidental characters: “people-we-kind-of-care-about-but-hell-we’ve-gotta-kill-someone.” In short: marginalized. Andrea Thompson left the show in part due to Talia’s relative lack of screen time. Yes, the show depicts same-sex relationships, but in a peripheral way. And yet, it was something at a time when the rest of American television had nothing.

So here’s the question: will history more harshly judge problematic depictions of sexual minorities or their long stay in the closet?

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2 thoughts on “Airing Out the Closet

  1. Does it matter who the writer is? Gay writer Russell T Davies introduced bisexual character Jack Harkness to Doctor Who (in the noughties, admittedly). Perhaps they just write what they know. And- the relationships between Dax and Worf, Pickard and Crusher, the counselor and no.1 (it is a long time since I watched) are important, but there are not that many hetero relationships either.

    • Phenix Nash says:

      Thanks for the response. You are right that relationships aren’t exactly at the fore of Star Trek. And I don’t know if it really does matter who the writer is, though as you say, people do tend to write what they know. I’ve been reflecting on how acceptance of sexual minorities has often been a topic of science fiction and here we are at the Supreme Court. What were revolutionary works (for heterosexual writers and readers) can now come across as sometimes quaint or problematic, I think.

      For example, Ursula Le Guin wrote The Left Hand of Darkness to explore the idea that one can fall in love regardless of gender. A human becomes involved with a neuter alien who turns male or female during a mating season. Le Guin has since criticized her own work. In hindsight, the alien couples becoming opposite sex reinforces a heteronormative world view. I’m just musing I suppose.

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