Star Trek TNG: Remember that LGBT issues episode that’s actually about straight people?

Since one of the themes of this blog lately has inadvertently become “Well back in my day all we had was Willow and Tara and all that ‘magic is an allegory for orgasm’ nonsense,” I feel compelled to mention that I’ve somehow stumbled on to a marathon of Star Trek: The Next Generation (inexplicably on BBC America) and am currently watching “The Outcast.”

For anyone who may not remember this episode or never watched the show: The Enterprise encounters a species without gender; Kirk stand-in Commander Riker works closely with one of these individuals, who then reveals that she considers herself female and has to keep this a secret on her world lest she be subjected to ridicule, violence and reparative therapy. Riker and this person hook up, and then get busted. Sure enough, she’s subjected to said reparative therapy (which on her awful world actually works), but not before a few impassioned speeches that will sound almost too familiar to any queer person out there.

This episode is central in an annoyance that many people feel about Star Trek. The original series was so cutting edge regarding race, and yet the newer series (TNG, DS:9, Voyayer, and Enterprise) have never exactly included a gay character (despite one or two similarly murky moments as “The Outcast” and quotes from more than one actor on the shows regarding their own interpretations of characters they played to include queerness).

“The Outcast” was their attempt to address LGBT issues in a way that was arguably comfortable to mainstream audiences: It’s upside-down world, no actual gay people here! You can have compassion without being squicked!

I’ve often ridiculed the episode myself. As a gay person, it is annoying in that instead of representing gay people, it is an “issue moment” that made it all about straight people; after all, the structure of the episode allowed the people our society would view as queer to remain the bad guys. Really, in its own way, it’s clever, if a little nauseating.

But watching it tonight for the first time in years, I find myself struck by it as genderqueer person. From that standpoint, it feels far less like a sloppy (and cowardly and annoying) attempt to tell a gay story without a gay character and more like an almost deft look at the reality of those of us who experience gender as non-binary and/or divorced on some level from traditional external perceptions of our physical form.

Emphasis on almost, since I don’t actually remember feeling this way about the episode at the time, and I was definitely identifying as gender-variant by the time this aired.

Most amusing (to me anyway, long story, don’t ask), perhaps, in the end, is that Jonathan Frakes, the actor who plays Riker, apparently has been quoted as saying that the female character in the gender-neutral species should have seemed more male in order to make the message clearer. On one hand, I’m impressed, on the other, that sentiment just seems to muddy already murky waters further.

Then again, I’m the girl who often dresses/feels/identifies as a boy and who gets told that people don’t question my maleness, just my masculinity; since I tend to shop for dresses with masculine avatars in mind and go for pure camp in my feminine selections, I suppose this actually makes sense. Anyway, as such, I may be the worst person to evaluate this hot mess of an ancient Star Trek episode ever.

But if you haven’t seen it, and you’re interested in queerness on TV, this thing is almost required viewing.

13 thoughts on “Star Trek TNG: Remember that LGBT issues episode that’s actually about straight people?”

  1. I was reading up about this episode a few months ago (was digging through an article about LGBT and Star Trek), and I believe that Jonathan Frakes had actually pushed for the character in Outcast to be a male actor. From what I understand, many cast and crew of ST:NG and others iterations pushed to make the universe more inclusive in terms of orientation (and gender?), but each attempt was halted by production (or something, my memory of the article is fuzzy). It’s a shame they didn’t succeeded.

  2. I remember this episode well, although at the time being 9 or 10, cis, and straight, and probably not having a very good idea of what gay or queer gender/sexuality was, I understandably didn’t have the same response to it as you did–to me it was just another story, I guess. I do remember having a reaction of disappointment and confusion to the episode “The Host” though. Do you remember that episode? If so, I’m curious as to your reaction to it. (If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the first episode in which the Trill were introduced. Crusher falls for the ship’s guest, not knowing about his symbiotic nature, and when the host body dies and is replaced with a female host, she decides to call off the relationship, not just because of the gender swap, but that is the most tangible reason from an audience perspective.)

    1. They did do a same-sex relationship via Trill in DS9 with Dax, but it was thwarted because of a taboo about Trill having relationships with people whom they were involved with via previous hosts, IIRC. Given how conservative the major networks still were at that point, I was glad they got that far. The attraction between the two was played very openly.

  3. Oh yeah, that episode! I was … ok, Google, 1992, I was 16. Massive closet-trekkie (my brother even had the books; I read them all, but he didn’t) and had zero concept of my queerness at that point. (everyone is in love with their best friend, aren’t they? Boyfriends are just for show, right?)

    I was also really religious. And being taught all the right things to think as a religious person.

    And I credit this episode as one of the things in my pop-culture life that made a difference when there was nothing else in my life that was making me question anything.

    I could look at it the way you do — that it managed to make a bland, somewhat queer-offensive story seem like a good thing (because it makes sense, and I would think the same now, probably), except that in my life it was unequivocally a good thing. It meant when my best friend came out in uni, I was able to be supportive, and that when my ex came to me and told me that she couldn’t be a boy anymore I was able to just say “Yeah, ok, let’s sort that out.”

    It may seem like an awful lot to credit one episode of Star Trek for, but in Buttfuck, Nowhere, where I grew up, no other message like that was reaching me.

    I am now seriously considering a Star Trek marathon when I’m done my character studies today.

    1. I’m a straight cis gal, but I do have to agree with this: “in Buttfuck, Nowhere, where I grew up, no other message like that was reaching me.” I first saw this episode as a rerun somewhere in my early teens. TNG was one of the “acceptable” things to watch (TV was monitored fairly closely in my house), and this episode was one of the first things (possibly THE first) that made me question the rigid, religion-enforced gender binary I was raised to accept. My parents wrote it off as “some kind of weird alien thing” and “just a story,” but it made ME think and question, to myself and my friends if not to them. So I can’t speak to its long-term social impact, but I think it did some good back in its day.

  4. Oh, “The Host” is terrible – Beverly Crusher is happy to leap into bed when it’s only interspecies sex, and bed Riker when he’s acting as host to the Trill, but the moment it becomes interspecies gay sex, she goes SQUICK!

    Rather better is the DS9 episode “Rejoined”, where Kira and Bashir are given dialogue that subtly implies that sex between people of the same gender isn’t an issue in the 24th century. But the relationship depicted remains one which began as hetero, and isn’t allowed to continue after the episode ends. This remains not that impressive, especially considering the unsensational portrayal of the Ivanova/Winters relationship in Babylon 5 – and even that is terminated, and the relationship of Ivanova’s in that series shown as most important is the hetero one with Marcus.

  5. Oh, I remember this one! “The Outcast”:gender/orientation::classic Trek ep “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”:race, which is to say about as subtle as a shovel to the head.

    I do remember liking the conversation between Riker and Soren, though: “Who leads when you dance?” “Whoever is taller.”

  6. I never read the ep as clearcut gay, it seemed more alien genderqueer, not exactly 1:1 symbolic to our world. So I gave some of the aspects of the aliens a pass.

    The one part of the ep I remember that struck me was when the alien came out to Will when they were fixing the shuttlecraft, and Will said *everything right*. He asked the right questions, said the right supportive things. Which means someone was paying attention. It was sort of an “it gets better” moment for me, that in the Trekverse, a guy like Will (cis, Kinsey 1, kinda a jerk) apparently has the sensitivity to handle a coming out moment decently. I think that’s social progress.

    1. That scene is _exactly_ what wound up moving me about the episode last night. That and that Riker never once worries about what his peers on the Enterprise will think about his being involved with this person. I mean, he worries re: Troi, but that’s because of their car crash of a backstory.

  7. Haven’t seen the episode and don’t know Star Trek: TNG well enough to comment on their lack of queer characters, but based on what you wrote, to me it would have been far more interesting episode for the non-gendered character and Riker to be sexually attracted to each other without said non-gendered character identifying as female. It could still have been taboo for that character to be sexually attracted to a male, so it still could have retained its coming out aspects. They even could have kept the same female actress for the part which would have sufficiently appeased the heteronormative component (though, granted, I’m hardly the best judge of that).

    I agree with your assessment that it was as you said, “upside-down world, no actual gay people here! You can have compassion without being squicked!” So there’s really no way they would have done what I described above. But… from a sci-fi/fantasy perspective, I think that would be something really interesting to examine. How does sexuality manifest in a non-gendered society? What prejudices would emerge? How do people who identify as “other” cope? Etc.

  8. I’ve been a life-long Trekkie, and as a queer women, it breaks my heart that there weren’t more explicit lgbt characters on Star Trek. I do think that had Roddenberry lived longer, there would’ve been.

    In the past few years, Brannon Braga has made a lot of excuses. Saying silly things like “how do you know those two guys in the background at the bar weren’t on a date?” However, while not widely on the internet, it’s pretty well known that his co-producer (and the other person entrusted with the franchise) Rick Berman is/was a homophobe and the reason why there were no queer characters on Star Trek.

  9. I’ve always loathed this episode but it wasn’t until very recently that I came across the best explanation why it’s so awful. So…everyone knew back at the time that it was supposed to be “the gay episode”, right? Supposedly this was the Trek writers’ attempt at dealing with something that they didn’t really want to touch. And that’s bad enough right there–that the people behind Next-Gen Trek basically thought that they had to throw some sort of bone to the queer audience and then *never ever deal with it again*.

    So that’s bad enough, but it gets worse. Every single actor who’s called in to play a member of this supposedly androgynous race is a woman in a butch haircut. So, while we’re supposedly being shown an alien species without an (official) concept of sex, we’re _actually_ being shown what look like a pack of stereotypical lesbians with huge chips on their shoulders, oppressing the poor woman who’s apparently entranced by the power of William Riker’s mighty wand. (Bear in mind also that TNG Trek did something like this before, in the first season episode “Angel One”, which is almost as insulting as this one.)

    And it’s even worse than that! Because there are conversations throughout the episode in which Riker tries to explain the concept of sexuality to Soren and _not once_ does he ever mention that sometimes persons of the same sex are attracted to one another. Riker’s picture of human sexuality is 100% straight. Men are men and women are women, is Riker’s message. Good for him, since he’s basically a third-string version of Kirk anyway.

  10. (I was digging around in your archive today when Tumblr was down for so long and found this. I hope you don’t mind necrocommenting?)

    I came to Star Trek a lot later than most people of my generation and first saw this episode earlier this year. I totally read it as a story about a femme in a community of androgynous lesbians who both realizes that she actually likes being “the girl” and that she is attracted to very butch women and/or transguys. That alien society seemed very similar to the group of feminist lesbians I hung out with when I first came out (everyone was very much against gendered extremes even though many butches seemed to be quite acceptable in that world – but femmes were not, not at all). It was a strange and distorted way of looking at my own past (especially since Riker really, really *doesn’t* embody the type of masculinity I’m into), but it still worked for me. I recognized the shame attached to femininity, the taboo of enjoying gender differences in erotic/romantic contexts, and the relief of finding someone who finally sees/recognizes/acknowledges/desires “the real me” (as if there was only one!) no matter how hidden and minuscule its expressions are.

    (Of course that reading isn’t meant to negate any other. It’s just my addition to what’s already on the table.)

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