Boldly having gone where no show had gone before, Star Trek has been a torchbearer for the exploration of progressive ideals, intellectualism, and tolerance – with one large and increasingly uncomfortable omission. While there have been alien characters across the series who played with ideas of gender, and to a lesser extent sexuality, the franchise has been careful to largely shielded itself away from any portrayals of queer issues and representative queer character.[i]
In general, media representations of individuals and relationships of those in the LGBTQI/Rainbow communities[ii] in TV, movies, and games, have gone through a multitude of changes. Not uncommonly characterised throughout the bulk of the 20th century “at best” as the stereotypical clownish side-act to be laughed at and ridiculed, at worse they were portrayed as hypersexualised deviants and/or villains, directly or indirectly corrupting the youth and praying on an unsuspecting wholesome society.[iii] The desire for positive expressions and rolling-modelling of LGBT characters remained largely unfulfilled until the millennium coinciding with increasing acceptance and understanding of queer peoples by the wider community – at least in some parts of the world.
Set inertial dampeners to maximum, this wormhole goes deep.
What we got: Y2Gay
Whilst only available within the microcosm of gay media, from the turn of the 21st Century dedicated niche shows such as Queer as Folk finally began emerging to cater for a newly empowered and suddenly decriminalised LGBT minority. Our sparkly disco-ball cup runneth over with (often quite depressing, if accurate) coming-of-age coming out stories, depicting life as it was for many queer people with all the trials and tribulations, and violence, religious intolerance, sexual assault, homelessness, and drugs and alcohol abuse that have become defining features of a fledgling outcast community trying to create a space for ourselves in the world. This, all while also attempting to constructing a sense of identity for through formative (or re-formative for some) years and all too often without the social support tools and wider disperse communities now taken for granted by maturation of social networks on the net.
Disappointingly, whenever LGBT characters did start to appear on ‘main-stream’ shows in a positive light they were still often confined to sterilized stereotypes where quirky supporting queer character were destined to provide sage life advice to the shows main protagonist’s real lives while they themselves were relegated to having no real relationships or romantic depth of their own. They were simply a mechanism by which the plot could be moved along; Agony Aunt (read: fun gay uncle) exposition inserted – “gay-eux ex machina, if you will. It became ok to see gay characters on TV, so long as they weren’t too real, too gay, or all about rub it your face in it. It’s fine, just as long as they weren’t genuine people.
Source: Entertainment Weekly
Alternatively, in shows such as Will & Grace where the main cast included gay characters, they were all too often neutered compared to their heterosexual counterparts with the early seasons going by shying away from any displays of non-straight affection. A seemingly simple kiss on the lips or holding of hands by a same-sex couple was considered too unpalatable for audiences to watch, irrespective of what this may be suggesting to young queer people about how society was going to view their relationships and identities. Portrayals of anything more was completely out of the question.
Source: Media Village
And then came along the “gay magician” archetype: the suave, infallible, gay ‘superhero’ of any social, political, or business situation.[iv] This was an attempted over-correction for all those years of casting queer people as unimportant stereotypes by instead creating a stereotype in the opposite direction. These characters were great at everything they did; authoritative, foolproof, and unobtainable, this unrealistic benevolent homophobia was not unfamiliar as we’ve seen in other contexts involving minorities. It may be well-meaning but still leaves us wanting for realistic and relatable queer characters.[v]
How might that old cheerleading chant go? “What do we want?”, responded by “everyday complex, well-rounded, queer characters we can relate to and whose sexuality or gender identity isn’t the defining feature of their personality or reason for being!”, “When do we want it?” … “Well, a while ago would’ve been nice” Trouble is we’ve run into a few new issues.
As that popularised YouTube LGBT saying goes, “it gets better”. But we’re not quite there yet.
Where we’re at now: No tea, no shade.
Don’t get me wrong; there has been some good stuff out there of late with a recent 2017 annual GLAAD[vi] study showing a generally positive trend for LGBT representation on TV.[vii] But unfortunately, like so many of your favourite characters on HBO’s Game of Thrones, you really shouldn’t get attached to these new everyday gays too quickly. Their expiry dates appear to have the sudden and cutting brevity of delay akin to your average club drag queen given the chance to throw some much-deserved shade – and similarly, it’s pointed, shocking, and goes right for the soft spots.
Source: Rupaul’s Drag Race, via Pintrest
It’s been called the “bury your gays” trope. Now that we’ve been permitted to have more well-rounded and complex queer characters on TV who, shock and horror, have also been permitted to have happy and healthy relationships, we’re also being told that these fairy tales simply can’t be allowed to have happy endings. Now, it feels like an inevitability that your new favourite queer cast member will be dead in the none to distance future. Sooner if one is of the member of a same-sex couple. These characters have a ticking timebombs on their heads and are destined to be killed off as soon as possible. You can have your gays, society says, but their lives must still illustrate the sadness and torment as they always have.
Set phasers to stun
Warp-in, stage left, Star Trek: Discovery – the newest series in a proud franchise celebrated for its challenging of social norms and exploration of different aspects of society – with one increasingly glaring omission. Trek has for the longest time been chastised for its lack of LGBT representation, only ever touching on the issues of sexuality and gender in very non-committal ways and nearly always involving unusual circumstances and alien races.[viii] Anything as far removed from the everyday experience of your average Earth-born queer person as possible.
Source: Niner’s Paradise
Finally though, in this newest iteration of the franchise we were promised this would finally be addressed and we’d get a little more than a re-imagined Sulu holding hands with his male partner in the new lens-flare-filled alternative cinematic universe.[ix] We obviously don’t expect queer characters in everything and it’s never about special treatment – rather the opposite. But looking at a rich universe of comprising 741 episodes[x] and 13 movies (not to mention books and games), it’s not hard to notice the absence of any representative population of queer characters, relationships, and situations. In this complete absence one can’t help but conclude, or at least speculate, some sort of special omission of LGBT characters, conscious or otherwise.
But here it was. New Star Trek (yay), new queer identities (double yay). But nek minute, and seemingly at warp speed, that uneasy feeling. Why, why why, can’t we have nice things, I ask myself?! At least just once in a while. We’re introduced on the show to the otherwise happy everyday gay couple of Chief Medical officer Dr. Hugh Culber and his partner the brilliant scientist Paul Stamets whose sexuality is otherwise incidental to the plot or theme of the show, and where inevitably one of them gets killed before the end of the first series.
Source: Queerty (left) Gay Times UK (right)
“Bury your gays” (in this instance in a photon torpedo casing as is customary for Starfleet in deep space). Is this now the best we can hope for?: queer relationships with a phaser pointed at their heads. We’ve moved from caricatures and villains to ‘Red Shirts’.[xi] Our survival and relationships still doom us unless it’s otherwise necessary in the context of the plot. And as we’ve been told from the show itself, “context is for kings” (or perhaps queens in this case). What is this to say to us other than that queer relationships still cannot exist in the context of the normal world without due suffering.
One might argue that this is just a one off and it may be necessary to the plot (can’t yet see how) or is even, as yet, unresolved. This all remains unclear (as of S01E10). But when the trope becomes a constant feature across so many TV shows as opposed to just a one off, it becomes the umpteenth category 5 storm in your hurricane season – each instance not definitive or indicative on its own of something sinister but rather another piece of the puzzle that supports an underlying trend.
Source: Digital Spy
I was so disheartened when someone alluded to me in the vaguest terms that “oh, they’ve done it again”. No mention of characters or even that there was a death or anything coming up, but my mind immediately jumped to “oh god, they’ve already killed the gays, haven’t they”. And lo and behold I was disappointingly right.
Where to from here? Boldly going where no gay has gone before.
Even if we can accept that there was no malice on the part of the writers/creators and that it was necessary to the story (and there’s no reason to believe otherwise), it still feels like we’re just pushing the blame elsewhere – “It had to push the story forward”, they suggest.[xii] Quite possibly in this case (maybe) – but that’s just evidence that we can’t trust the stories that are always coming out.
It still feels like the rule as opposed to the exception, and while in the same vein you wouldn’t want them to purposely avoid any particular character in a given instance for special treatment, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to still feel purposeful when they do kill them off. It may be a double-edge sword for this particular scene/show, but it’s also the trope that’s come about for the wider media over a long history.
Source: Lit Reactor
I suppose we can’t really accept that the scene exists in isolation, living in the wider context of what has come before it in Trek and in TV in general. It may have very well been doomed to illicit the response it has, but then not every cloud will have their silver lining and it still may very well rain on your parade whether it seems fair or not.
It has been hinted that this may not be the last we see of the murdered character or this relationship, but that’s not really the point.[xiii] We’re still in an environment where the expectation is that queer relationships must encounter death and heartbreak in nearly all instances. We need more examples of happy, boring, long term queer relationships – the analogues we see in their straight counterparts. And, yes, now it might seem like special treatment to be purposely going for specific portrayals of queer relationships, but really we’re just asking not to be killed ALL of the time. There might not be a quick fix, there may be instances where writers feel a tendency bend towards perhaps not killing that one character just once in a while just for the greater good of their media. But in not doing so, if we keep “burying our gays”, we ignore the reality that writers, as artist, do exist in a wider cultural narrative and perhaps only until they’ve diluted a century of misgivings towards rainbow relationships where they are no more likely to come to an unfortunate end than their gray-scale counterparts, that we can see all relationships as being equal.
“Why does it matter?” some might ask. Surely we’re matured and now sufficiently confident (albeit battle-scared in many cases) adults with a strong sense of self and belonging. We know that this art won’t imitate our lives. But it’s no longer about us. We had to fight through the eras of demonization and active homophobia/transphobia as individuals before our relationships were even addressed. Yes, it would be very nice to have more positive examples of happy but incidental queer relationships to finally provide a long deserved sense of normality, but now it’s less about us and more about the new generation of queerlings. What’s being portrayed is going to be impacting a new generation trying to develop their own sense of self vis-à-vis their sexuality and gender identity. Media, especially in the forms of TV and movies, have a huge impact how we view ourselves and other groups in society. For a young person the messages that they’re seeing are that you’re still not the same as everyone else, your life and existence is somehow inherently different, and that your relationships are destined to come to calamity – that there is no happy ending for your fairy tale. It’s death by a thousand plot-point-shaped pins and does detriment to their personal sense of self-worth and self-affirmation. Give us characters and relationships we can be proud of (or even just bored of) – at least just a little more often. Make it so.