As a kid growing up being a Star Trek fan, I thought the fandom would be a great and happy place without bigotry. It wasn’t that I didn’t think mean and bullying people didn’t exist in fandom, going on a forum talking about Enterprise in the days it was on the air taught me plenty enough about mean Trekkies. But at the very least I thought, Star Trek taught its viewers about infinite diversity in infinite combinations, it posited a world without bigotry that we would all want, so surely the fandom would reflect that. However, as the years went by and I grew to be more aware of various issues in the world, it became more and more obvious to me that this bigotry-free fandom was not what it often claims to be.
A few months ago, I made a tweet about how this realization saddened me, and now I feel like I must expand upon those feelings, and perhaps this article will reach out to the people who need to hear it, maybe it will influence them to reconsider their ways.
Star Trek may have the reputation of standing up for diversity, but I’ve noticed especially in recent years how more and more that reputation has become a shield to hide behind for some fans. No longer is Trek’s reputation of diversity supposed to be used to push the envelope for more diverse representation, but rather it’s used to silence marginalized communities as if to say, “haven’t Trek done enough already?”
When the characters of Gray and Adira were officially announced as the first nonbinary and transgender characters, so much of the discourse I saw by even well-intentioned fans were about how technically that wasn’t true because nonbinary and transgender characters existed in Trek before, so they weren’t the first. Examples of the J’naii and the Trill were brought up to defend that diverse representation was not just something only newer Trek shows did, but that older shows did it first. Yet what was consistently missing from that discourse was acknowledging the difference between using alien metaphors to represent marginalized groups versus having actors from those marginalized groups getting to play those characters, especially in the case of Adira being a nonbinary human and not an alien. When marginalized groups only exist through alien metaphor, it still is a form of othering someone, by implying that they are not human, that this is not a human condition. When stories of marginalized people can only be told occasionally as a teaching lesson, we become nothing but tools, a prop to be used instead of accepted and treated as human beings. And when the only big stories told about us leaves us hurt at the end with the characters never to be seen or mentioned again, we fade into the background, our reality and pain forgotten.
But that’s not the case with Gray and Adira, they do not fade away, their stories are here to stay in the foreground, their voices are important, their stories are important. They are not aliens of the week to be seen and moved on from, but rather are important characters to the narrative whose feelings matter. All of that is why it saddened me that what should have been a celebration about marginalized characters and actors finally getting their moment to shine and be seen, turned into a discourse over semantics about who is and isn’t first.
I know that some of you meant well, you were only speaking to canon, you weren’t trying to outright shut out diverse characters. But when the first-time characters are being played by nonbinary and transgender actors is met with “yeah but technically”, it dismisses the importance of this huge milestone, it undermines the importance of what it means to Trek fans from those communities to see people like them accurately represented onscreen, and it sucks the joy out of what should have been a full-on celebration of Star Trek living up to its principles.
Because quite frankly in the area of LGBTQ+ characters, Star Trek has failed that community for many decades. Out of the hundreds and thousands of characters across its 55 years, you can barely count on two hands the number of characters who are explicitly LGBTQ+ and nearly all of them have only come in the last 5 years. When sitcoms in the 70s and 80s had more explicitly gay and lesbian characters than Star Trek did, when it took Star Trek until the late 2010s to include explicit gay characters played by gay actors, it really is not a good look for a franchise that prides itself on diversity. Yet even with this tiny percentage of representation, when StarTrek.com would post articles about those characters or a fan talking about how they love those characters and what they represent, the post across the social media handles would often still be met with complaints about LGBTQ+ characters being “shoved down our throats” or there is some “gay agenda” or “everything has to be gay now”.
This is almost instinctive defensiveness as if LGBTQ+ people have taken up a place that we don’t belong because for decades our stories were the forgotten ones, the ones left on the sideline that never took up this much space until now. And this has been even used to further demarcate the “real” Star Trek from this new “fake” and “woke” Star Trek. Adira’s scene of pronoun usage was often cited as an example of shoving the agenda down the throat. Yet in this 45-second scene, all we saw was a nervous teenager admitting a personal thing to someone they just knew for a few weeks and being accepted by that person. There was no fighting, no drama, no preaching, just someone stating their feelings and being accepted, and the scene moved on. Next, we saw the crew had already started using the proper pronouns for Adira. The interaction was no different than in DS9 when Kor changed calling Dax from Curzon to Jadzia. Yet one is accepted without anyone blinking an eye while the other is dissected apart as if it had done something wrong. So, I have to ask people to consider this, why is it that we can accept and respect an alien changing names and who they are, but we cannot afford the same level of acceptance and respect for a human being? When a fictional alien is given more respect than real living breathing human beings, what does that say about us? Is that the future free of bigotry that Roddenberry wanted us to build?
Furthermore, to go beyond just the LGBTQ+ aspect of this discussion, the same issues come with characters of color, in particular the treatment of Michael Burnham. So often I will see comments on posts dismissing this character, saying that the character should be removed from the show, that the show would be better without her and she should be replaced by what is often suggested to be a white male character. I’m not here to say that everyone must love Michael Burnham, I’m also not here to say that if you don’t love her that automatically means you are a racist. What I am saying is consider what you are saying and where you are coming from with that statement. Do you judge male characters, especially white male characters, the same way you judge her? If Kirk or Picard or Riker or Pike or Trip had done this action that Michael did, would it anger you in the same way? Did it anger you when Kirk broke rules and disobeyed orders? What about Pike committing mutiny to protect people he cared about? Or Trip constantly butting heads with T’Pol and sometimes even outright yelling at her in front of others because he didn’t like her orders? Would you want those characters removed from the show and replaced? I would also ask you to consider, what does it say about Star Trek if it were to remove a Black female lead from her own show, especially if it were to replace her with a white male actor? How would you have felt if DS9 did that to Sisko or VOY did it to Janeway? And why is it the first thought is to remove? What about constructive suggestions on what you would like to change with the character’s behavior? Why completely write off the ability for a certain marginalized group’s experiences to be reflected in this character in such a central way to a Trek narrative?
Speaking of the Trek narrative, there is a sense of clinging to tradition that almost feels the antithesis of Star Trek’s message of exploring the new and unknown. For example, a while back I was in a Facebook group that was discussing the idea of Kirk perhaps being bisexual. It wasn’t even a post saying yes, he must be bisexual or that canon has changed him to be bisexual, just an exploration of that possibility, and yet some of the replies were so vehement and defensive against even the thought of it. Many people stated that established characters shouldn’t change but they would be fine with creating new characters who were bisexual instead. Now you may say to me, well that seems entirely logical, why change established characters when you can create new ones. And overall, I might even agree, we should create new characters instead of relying on old ones. Yet we have seen how new characters who are POC or LGBTQ+ or from other marginalized groups can be treated as if they are just part of some woke agenda.
It isn’t even just an issue in Trek fandom but across all forms of media, even in comics where characters pass superhero mantles to new generations so often that characters like Miles Morales, Kamala Khan, and Riri Williams taking over shouldn’t even be controversial, yet their inclusion is somehow a “woke” agenda. And I really just have to ask, why can’t Kirk be bisexual? Yes, he was established as presumably a straight character but that’s not because James T. Kirk is actually straight. He’s not a real person giving us insight into his life, he’s written by people living during a time where even if Kirk were bisexual, they couldn’t write him explicitly that way, to begin with. Kirk was never established as bisexual because the external forces of society in the 60s did not allow him to exist onscreen in that way lest the character be removed or punished or killed off. But that was over half a century ago, why must we treat characters in a fictional future to the standards of 60s era societal expectations? Especially in a future where we have moved beyond such bigotry? Why do we not change and update and modernize? If Kirk can kiss alien women who aren’t even his own species, why is it so unthinkable that he might kiss a human male? And what’s to stop a bisexual Kirk from having a preference for mostly women and only certain men? Sexuality is a spectrum, after all, not even all bisexual people have the exact same desires and preferences.
There is no canon to say that Kirk being bisexual is impossible, in fact, bisexuality allows Kirk to still kiss all the women and have those relationships. It doesn’t hurt anyone; it doesn’t affect anything. Kirk would still be Kirk, all the stories we have seen will still have happened the same way. We even see an example of this with Seven of Nine in Picard being canonically bisexual. Yet even the mere possibility of Kirk being bisexual can rouse such anger and I can’t help but think that beyond just not liking change that there is an inherent fear that the macho straight hero will be lessened by having relations with another man. That this will somehow ruin the image of Kirk as a hero and idol. And perhaps more, because many projects themselves onto Kirk, the idea of Kirk being bisexual somehow is saying something about themselves that they don’t like. And in many ways, this is the kind of bigotry that’s more dangerous and insidious. Outright bigotry is easy to spot, easy to call out and defeat.
Everyone knows outright explicit bigotry is generally not okay, you can easily see what is wrong. But a lot of bigotry in the world is hidden behind flowery language and excuses and backhanded compliments, and its often-inherent bigotry that everyone picks up sometimes unsuspectingly from simply existing in a flawed society. You are not an evil bigot if you do not think Kirk should be bisexual, but if your reaction to someone even suggesting or headcanon for themselves that Kirk is bisexual is to leave a long rant about all the ways Kirk can’t be anything but straight, then you may need to seriously examine why you are reacting this way. Some people commented regarding Seven’s bisexuality saying what about her relationship with Chakotay as if that somehow doesn’t fit with bisexuality to have had feelings for a man but now having feelings for women. And then some people couched their dislike of Seven’s sexuality in discussions of how she’s become violent, drunk, and promiscuous now that she is a bisexual character while completely ignoring the context and history of her character’s life. A deliberate attempt to tie her sexuality as the reason for her bad behavior while implying that pre-bisexual Seven was a pure, kind, and chaste being who was better. You don’t have to be an evil bigot calling for the blood of oppressed minorities in order to be influenced by or perpetuate bigoted beliefs, even perfectly kind and nice people can be wrongly influenced out of ignorance and inexperience with specific issues.
I know there are people who will say, if you can change an established straight character to LGBTQ+ then you shouldn’t be upset if 50 years down the line a character like Stamets is changed from gay to straight. Yes, that is an argument I’ve seen used. However, this is a false equivalency. First, straight characters outnumber LGBTQ+ characters disproportionately. Second, changing one straight character out of thousands of straight characters and changing a gay character out of less than a dozen LGBTQ+ characters do not carry the same weight. Third, a straight character can be LGBTQ+ and still fit into canon as an expansion of their story while Stamets is stated emphatically to be a gay character who likes men and thus changing him to straight explicitly ignores canon. This is an argument that simply holds no logic. Think about it, if Uhura and Sulu were changed to be white people, is that not hugely problematic to eliminate already the only representations for those marginalized groups that exist? Would that not go against the principles that Star Trek has been trying to teach us?
Now, I also know some will say that my calling out some of these issues with bigotry in fandom is to forbid any critiques of marginalized characters and how their representation is done. After all, there are some out there that criticizes the problematic representations that new Trek shows have run into. But as I’ve repeatedly stated, I’m not here to say anyone is definitely a racist/sexist/homophobe/etc., I’m simply here to point out that bigotry in Trek fandom takes various forms and sometimes people are engaging in it without even realizing. You should be able to criticize a piece of art, you should be able to criticize if a representation of marginalized groups is done correctly or not. However, there is a difference between calling for better representation and saying a story is the Social Justice Warrior agenda therefore it shouldn’t exist. And there is a good chunk of “criticism” for shows like Discovery or Picard that simply uses issues with representation to wholesale dump the shows for not being “real” Star Trek while ignoring that past Trek shows came with their own boatload of problematic representations.
When these bad faith and disingenuous criticisms use diversity as a shield to defend themselves and a weapon to attack the current shows, it creates the equivalency that the representations we are now seeing are bad things. That anyone speaking against this belief is just having an agenda and wants to ruin Star Trek or take Star Trek away from you. This is how the insidious kind of bigotry finds a root in Trek fandom because they will use what seems reasonable critiques and beliefs to hide their goals to make anyone wanting more representations look unreasonable. Because if you already have some bisexual characters, then why do you want more, why do you want to make everyone bisexual? Because if you already have some POCs, then why do you want more? Shouldn’t the white people get represented too so that it’s fair? These things don’t seem bigoted, they make them sound fair. But this also ignores how little percentage of bisexual characters that exist in comparison to straight characters, or how many shows have been led by white characters or how many shows where white characters were the predominant characters that had roles or speaking lines.
Bigotry exists in Trek fandom, and perhaps more dangerously, the hidden and subtle form of bigotry that can seem reasonable and sometimes comes from those well-intentioned. But therefore, it is important to listen to marginalized groups who have experiences in dealing with and recognizing the various forms of bigotry.
If this is difficult and inconvenient for you, then think how much more difficult and inconvenient it is for the marginalized people who must live with this as their reality. If you don’t like being dismissed and diminished, think of the people who feel dismissed and diminished by your actions regarding the treatment of certain characters or expression of certain views, however unintended they may be. As kids, we’ve all been taught at some point, treat others how we want to be treated. Would you like your existence to be scoffed at? Would you like your life to be judged? Would you like stories that represent you and are relatable to you to be attacked and told it’s just some “agenda”?
Assuming that Star Trek has taught us anything, it’s to empathize with those who are different from us, to see from their point of view and try to understand their experiences. That’s how we can grow. So, I’m asking the Trek community to exercise their empathy. To understand what marginalized people feel. And to listen.
As I write this, the Asian American community, my community, has been rocked by a horrible and senseless hate crime that has ended many lives. And almost immediately, a narrative has been formed that the murderer is not a racist because he said so, that he is just a man with a sex addiction problem who happened to have targeted places with Asian people. He’s not a racist, some says. The police aren’t racist either for believing him and perpetuating his reasons into the media. For some people, the word of a murdering racist has more credence than the community his actions have affected because it’s easier to believe it wasn’t racist than to believe such hateful bigotry is the cause. This mentality of denial, of pretending that bigotry doesn’t exist if the person perpetrating it says it doesn’t is as much an issue here as I’ve seen in the Trek fandom across the years.
I write this article in the hopes that we would all be aware of the issues and how we can recognize them so that they can be dealt with so that we can grow and do better. Because I still believe that the Star Trek fandom, of all fandoms, is a place where bigotry, outright or hidden, can be defeated because of the principles this franchise carries in its core. That what is new and unknown and different isn’t scary but rather something to embrace and learn.
The Star Trek fandom is not as inclusive as it thinks it is right now, but it can be. And if we all work hard, it will be.