I am going to keep this relatively short, because it involves two things that, at times, have limited circles: Star Trek and LGBT things.
Deep Space Nine is the gayest Star Trek.
I say this as a queer male, not as someone who uses that word like junior high school kids use it. After all, I became quite used to a particular homonym for French cigarettes and bundles of sticks in my youth, earning that cute little nickname before I was remotely out as…something not straight.
There probably needs to be some context here, which will certainly not span the history of the franchise. In Deep Space Nine, the action is not onboard a starship exploring the galaxy, looking for new life / new civilizations. Instead, the setting is a dingy, rundown space station which formerly served as a military base for a race known as the Cardassians, who are basically imperialist space iguanas. They were the former captors of a race known as the Bajorans, who look human, except with nose ridges. When the Cardassians were deposed from the station after a guerrilla war against the Bajorans, the Bajoran government took it over. The United Federation of Planets, the parent organization of Starfleet (aka, semi-military doofuses like James T. Kirk) was sent in to assist with control of the station.
There are two factions at play in the station: the Bajoran government and Starfleet. Starfleet are stodgy diplomats-meet-Army people, and the Bajoran government are former radical revolutionaries. They struggle at first to get along, but mutual military goals strengthen their ties, especially when they find a portal to another part of the galaxy with lots of weird bad guys on the other side bent on a quest for dominion. They’re called…the Dominion. There’s a black commander who pulls off “bald and goatee” without looking like a dorky Satanist, and a ragtag crew crammed together into a station that only half works. Now, back to my central point.
“Gay” is obviously a loaded term, but Deep Space Nine is really into queer politicking.
Even if you don’t like any Star Trek series, or sci-fi in general, there are still things to capture your attention in Deep Space Nine. The glistening, utopic hope of previous incarnations is replaced with a run-down, post-industrial surrounding. Military figures work alongside freedom fighters and form dark alliances with sometimes-enemies against mutual adversaries. Lots of wonderfully queer things happen in the space in between.
Warning things: ugh, the producers at some point came up with this “no gays in space” thing that meant that most of the time, everybody had to dance around the issue. So everyone just has to kind of hint or flirt to it or straight-act or whatever.
Which is why no one is just all “SURE, I’M SPACE GAY.” Gene Roddenberry, aware of his previous homophobia, wanted to start to put some gays in space, but most of the attempts before he died floundered. As, to be fair, did most of the attempts after he died.
No concrete gays in space ever really transpired aside from subtle hints, loose allegories, a couple “it’s ok to be gay…but I’m not gay!” moments and some other random smatterings. Like Data in TNG building a robotic child and letting it choose its gender. Or Beverly Crusher falling in love with a man whose essence is later put in a woman and deciding that she can’t hack the “being with a woman” thing. (That character is a Trill, we’ll talk about it later, and about this sort of essence-exchange thing.) Or an AIDS allegory that was supposed to be a much better AIDS allegory until it got toned down by squeamish producers.
What does this mean? Most queerness in Star Trek was relegated to Kirk/Spock slash fiction, half-fulfilled ideas…and not so subtle innuendo throughout Deep Space Nine. Which is what I’m here to talk about!
Everyone’s a little bit gay. Everyone. The doctor (Bashir) and the engineer (O’Brien) who hang out together all the time? The engineer already said he wishes his wife were more of a man. See this clip:
It’s an expression of subconscious desire for an “otherness” from his partner, and a confirmation that there’s at least a bit of a homosocial undercurrent between the doctor and the engineer. There are qualities to the doctor that the engineer wants to see in his wife, things he’s finding desirable from his friendship that he wants in his relationship. You know, like he’s just compartmentalizing in his mind “Man” and “Woman” out of an awkward way of classifying his Feelings. Capital letters are important here, obviously.
But it’s just a friendship! Which is exactly why his wife is afraid he likes the doctor more than her. (Starts at 1:30)
… and the doctor agrees. Then later, after they’re out of their whole “hostage situation” thing (which, I’m not a super-fanfic-y person, but like, that’s some real slashfic set-up there!) and they’re back home safe and sound, the engineer’s wife makes him a nice dinner. And then the engineer invites the doctor to join him for it. Sort of like a somewhat more optimistic version of Giovanni’s Room, where instead of completely hiding his love (Giovanni / Bashir) from his partner (Hella / Keiko) resulting in–well, you can go spoiler that for yourself–he just invites him to the same dinner of his own accord. How romantic!
That doctor is also friends with the iguana alien tailor and they go on cute little not-quite-romantic lunch dates together. The guy who played the tailor, Andrew Robinson, has said in interviews that he pretty intentionally played him as a queer character. Like, seriously:
He’s not gay, he’s not straight, it’s a non-issue for him. Basically his sexuality is inclusive. But–it’s Star Trek and there were a couple of things working against that. One is that Americans really are very nervous about sexual ambiguity. Also, this is a family show, they have to keep it on the “straight and narrow”, so then I backed off from it. Originally, in that very first episode, I loved the man’s absolute fearlessness about presenting himself to an attractive human being. The fact that the attractive human being is a man (Bashir) doesn’t make any difference to him, but that was a little too sophisticated I think.
So there’s that. This video also tells you a lot of what you need to know, with a weird song to boot:
Robinson even took this a step further, writing an autobiography for the character, detailing his little male and female crushes along the way, all written as a letter to his only-sort-of-secret love, Dr. Bashir.
Then there’s the major, Kira, one of the ridge-nosed freedom fighter aliens. At many points she calls herself a terrorist, and is steeped in the language of revolution. Constantly. She’s also suuuuuper badass. See her beat everyone ever up better than anyone else in the show:
While any dalliances she may have had are pretty relegated to the realm of fanfic, that’s not the case for her evil doppelganger.
Ok, this is about to get (more) geeky. You PROBABLY know about the Star Trek mirror universe thing, responsible for the “evil twins from evil universes have evil goatees” thing?
So, Kira herself has a doppelganger, The Intendant, also portrayed as a badass, but sort of a conflictedly evil badass. Her partner in the universe is the doppelganger of the science officer on board the station.
The Intendant is played as a sort of omnisexual dominatrix type. The id of the real Kira. She’s supposed to be evil, you know? But in this version she’s still just ultimately working to provide the best for her people. There’s kind of a danger here in making her into the Evil Bisexual trope, as a friend so rightfully pointed out. If we take the mirror universe as more embodying id than evil, this is somewhat avoided, as The Intendant is more an adaptation to their environment.
Anyway, visuals! Id science officer and id Kira Nerys. All the YouTube fan vids were dreadfully heteronormative, so I guess here’s just a GIF, making me feel weird about GIFs of women kissing on the Internet:
That science officer is Dax. Err, Ezri Dax. Ok, there’s no way to avoid this part. We’ve got to get down to the really geeky parts here. Ezri Dax is a Trill, and Trills are these sort of two-in-one aliens. They’ve got the bio body you see, and then there’s a worm-like symbiont inside. The worms live a while, the human looking bodies don’t. So the worms get new bodies. This is just like, their culture, not some parasitic thing to get worried about. Every Trill does it!
So anyway, Ezri Dax was the new body for Jadzia Dax (THE MOST PERFECTLY BEAUTIFUL WOMAN THERE IS – Ed.), because the actress who played her wanted to leave the show. But of course, she’s not the first Dax! There have been a bunch of them, including one named Kurzon, whose bio-body was male. Jadzia gets called “old man” by the captain a bunch because he knew her when she was Kurzon. But every subsequent Trill host body has the memory of the previous host bodies through the worm symbiont. So you know, you can just be whatever: male, female, it doesn’t matter. You’ll probably be either at some point. Maybe your body will be bio male but you’ll more strongly identify with a different gender. That’s the beauty of being Trill. IT DOESN’T MATTER. The unbeauty is when a former host was a serial killer. Which is brought up in the show. That’s beside the point.
So when an old Kurzon lover shows up who’s female bio bodied, what does Jadzia do? Well, rekindle the flame. It’s the person inside after all, not whatever they do or don’t have dangling.
This was actually the first on-screen romantic same gender kiss in Star Trek. But there were others in the show, some unfortunately played for comedic effect. We’ll get to that in a bit.
First, let’s talk about the Changelings, though! See, there’s this dude Odo, he runs security on the station, and he’s not sure what he is. He’s a shapeshifter who’s never met a shapeshifter of his same species, until he does. When that happens, things get exciting.
See, there are individuals within the Changelings, but they’re all just sort of facets of this great lake of shapeshifting goop, the Great Link. It’s all the Changelings together in a sort of hive mind. Really, unless one of the goops get separated, there aren’t really Changelings, plural, so much as the Great Link, singular, with multiple individual parts.
They, by the way, run the Dominion. They really hate the solids. The reason, in fact, they call themselves Changeling is to reappropriate the word “the solids” gave them (social justice!). Their intense territoriality may come out of their need to combat perceived persecution from the solids.
Here’s the thing about shapeshifters: if you’re a gelatinous ball of goop that can transform into anything…why not transform into anything? Odo himself was raised by humans, and took a human male shape. But this makes the idea of Changeling gender suspect. Like, really, the gender is just a matter of what shape you want to take and what identity you want to take on when you’re not part of a lake of a bunch of others of your kind. Really, it’s the ultimate in identity as a political act: gender presentation is up to you, the individual ball of goop.
Next up, the Ferengis, in summary: lots of occasionally-cross-dressing snappy aliens with huge ears who love money and business and aren’t weird creepy Space Jew stereotypes AT ALL. (Yes they are, but whatever.) Their society is intensely patriarchal. Women aren’t allowed clothes much less participation in business.
Of course, there are crude feminist allegory plotlines about the Ferengi women who want to be businesspeople. But Ferengi culture will never accept it! So one of them, the bartender’s mom, just says “forget that” and does it anyway. But another lady decides that the best thing to do is take on an identity of a man to play the business game. Later on the bartender himself goes into drag in an attempt to undermine and change these rules. There’s a man-on-man comedic smooch. It’s best not to get too deep into it here. The allegories are, again, a bit crude.
The only character I really CAN’T think of having some sexual or gender blur at some point is the captain, who’s still an upstanding civil rights dude at heart. No really! At one point he travels back in time and leads a socialist revolution on earth. Upstanding! And just for fun, here he is from the episode where his life intertwines with a black sci-fi writer from the 1950s who first envisions an interracial space ship in a post-scarcity future:
So anyway, there are lots of other points to make, but DS9 is the runaway winner for the gay Trek, because the other series may experiment at times, dipping their toes into rad-queer politic waters, but man, only DS9 takes the reins and drives it in. So watch it. Even if you don’t like the whole Trek thing. And I know I said I’d keep it short. I lied.
John Wenz is a writer and catlady living in Philadelphia. His work has appeared in The Awl, Popular Mechanics and Mental Floss. He tweets @johnwenz and Tumbls at johnwenz.tumblr.com.