Wednesday, August 15, 2007

TNG's "The Outcast": Star Trek on Homosexuality and Gay Rights

by Jared B.

"In more than four decades, Star Trek... has broken through many barriers, such as being the first to have an interracial kiss (between William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols) on broadcast television, as well as touting the values of peace and tolerance for all. Yet the series has refused to address forthrightly the topic of homosexuality where it would most matter—on television or film."
- AfterElton, "Star Trek's Forbidden Gay Frontier," April 20, 2006.

For many years, progressive fans of Star Trek have cried foul at the franchise's refusal to adequately address the subject of homosexuality. Trek has been accused of depicting a future where gays simply don't exist. Every 24th-century relationship is heterosexual, while every character is presumed or proven to be straight. Again and again, as many fans pleaded for a more representative future, the producers and writers failed to deliver.

How is it, fans asked, that Star Trek, with its reputation as progressive, open-minded, and tolerant, shuns away from the topic of homosexuality? How can the series that challenged racial prejudices of the 1960s now ignore the gay civil rights movement?

While it is true that years after other shows, such as Roseanne and Will and Grace, included homosexual characters, Star Trek refused to do so. There have been many excuses given. Producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga said they didn't want to highlight a character's alternative sexuality as something that defined the person as unique or different in an age of equality and social tolerance.

Yet, many fans see homophobic prejudice and studio spinelessness as the culprits. Whereas Gene Roddenberry used deragatory words to describe gays during the 1970s, he indicated a willingness to breach the subject in 1987. This willingness inspired David Gerrold's "Blood and Fire" script, an AIDS allegory containing homosexual characters. Unfortunately, studio executives (including Rick Berman) resisted. According to Andy Mangels:

"Berman was ultimately responsible for killing almost every pitch for gay
characters, and in interviews, was mealy-mouthed and waffling about the need for
GLBT representation. At the very least, he was gutless and didn't care about
GLBT representation. From the information and evidence I've seen, heard, and
read, I believe that Berman is the reason we never saw gays on Star
I shed no tears that he's gone, except that he did his best to ruin
the franchise on his way out.” (AfterElton, 3)

Advocates of gay inclusion view the few episodes of Trek which contain homosexual themes as inadequate and insulting. TNG's "The Host," for example, rejected the normalcy of same-sex love, because Beverly Crusher could not continue loving a man when he suddenly became a woman. DS9's "Rejoined" showed two women kissing, but their love stemmed from a "normal" heterosexual relationship. Another DS9 episode, "Profit and Lace" failed to deliver because "the context of male homosexuality and transgenderism are set up as comedic and insulting instruments." (AfterElton, 2) Lastly, Enterprise's "Stigma" is sometimes viewed as a copout AIDS metaphor because T'pol was presented as a victim, rather than as a consenting adult who deserved equal treatment.

These critics make many great points, and it is regrettable that Star Trek hasn't done more to live up to its claims of tolerance, equality, and "infinite diversity in infinite combinations." Yet, perhaps these critics overlook one episode which did forthrightly address the topic of homosexuality: Next Gen's "The Outcast."

In this season 5 episode (written by Jeri Taylor), Cmdr. William Riker falls in love with Soren, a member of the androgynous J'naii, a species which rejects gender distinctions and stigmatizes any individual who displays male or female preferences. "The idea of gender," Soren explains to Riker, "[is] offensive to my people. You see, long ago we had two sexes, as you do. But we evolved into a higher form... I don't mean to sound insulting, but on my planet we've been taught that gender is... primitive."

Later, when Soren discovers an attraction to Riker while coming to terms with her gender identity as a female, she confesses, "I'd like... to tell you something. Something that's not easy to say. I... find you attractive." Riker looks at her adoringly, while anticipating a possible future together. The following dialogue takes place [with this author's inserts]:

Soren: "I'm taking a terrible risk, telling you that. It means revealing something to you... Something that, if it were known on my planet, would be very dangerous for me. Occasionally, among my people, a few are born who are -- different. Who are throwbacks to the era when we all had gender. Some are born with strong inclinations toward maleness... and some have urges to be female. I am one of the latter. [read: I am not straight, like everyone else]"

Riker: "I have to admit... I got the feeling you were different."

Soren: "I was hoping you would. But in front of Krite and the others, I must be careful not to reveal myself... On our world these feelings are forbidden. Those who are discovered are shamed and ridiculed. Only by undergoing psychotectic therapy and having all elements of gender [read: homosexuality] eliminated can they become accepted into society again... Those of us who have these urges live secret, guarded lives. We seek each other out... always hiding, always terrified of being discovered... I've known I was different all my life. But I didn't understand how or why until I was older.

"I remember when I was very young... before I understood what I was... there was a rumor in my school that one of the students preferred a gender... in that case, male. The children started making fun of him... every day, they got more cruel... They could tell he was afraid... and that seemed to encourage them.

"He appeared in class one morning, bleeding... his clothes ripped. He said he'd fallen down. Of course the school authorities heard about it... They took him away and gave him psychotectic treatments. When he came back, he stood in front of the whole school and told us how happy he was now that he had been cured... After that, I knew how dangerous it was to be different. And as I got older, and realized what I was, I was terrified. I've lived with that fear ever since."

Riker: "Do you have relationships with others?"

Soren: "Yes -- with those who have discovered they are male [read: also Gay]. I've had to live a life of pretense and lies. With you... I can be honest."

When Riker starts to speak, Soren pleads, "Don't say anything. Just... think about it."

This episode does not end on a happy note. J'naii officials discover the forbidden affair, and Soren's "deviant sexuality" is put on trial. There, she makes an impassioned speech on the behalf of all J'naii who are like her:

"I am female [read: Gay]. I was born that way. I have had those feelings... those longings... all my life. It is not unnatural. I am not sick because I feel this way. I do not need to be helped, and I do not need to be cured. What I do need -- what all of those like me need -- is your understanding and your compassion.

"We do not injure you in any way. And yet we are scorned and attacked. And all because we are different!

"What we do is no different from what you do. We talk and laugh... we complain about work and we wonder about growing old... we talk about our families, and we worry about the future... We cry with each other when things seem hopeless. All the loving things that you do with each other... that's what we do.

"And for that, we are called misfits, and deviants... and criminals. What right do you have to punish us? What right do you have to change us? What makes you think you can dictate how people love each other?"

Clearly, Star Trek hit the mark with this episode, and critics should see it as an exception to Trek's broader discomfort with alternative lifestyles. It was subtle, in that it didn't openly show a same-sex kiss (because Soren was clearly played by a female actor). Yet, the message was powerful and provocative: J'naii society shouldn't dictate the rules of love. Likewise, neither should we.

Just as Riker expressed his disgust at the intolerance and bigotry of a supposedly enlightened people, so should we. And, in at least one episode, so did Star Trek.

*Thanks to TrekCore for the script to this episode. Original AfterElton critique can be read here.