Queer as Spock



It is an axiom of geek culture that Star Trek was a beacon of progressive thought on prime-time television, presenting an aggressively optimistic vision of the future in which humans of all races worked alongside even stranger beings to explore the universe and protect life in all its diversity, with phasers set to “stun” unless absolutely necessary. It is equally widely admitted that a glaring gap in the rainbow coalition aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise was human sexual diversity: in six television series and 12 feature films, the franchise has never identified an onscreen character as unambiguously gay, lesbian, or transgender.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was, apparently, farther behind the curve on gay rights than he was on racial equality, and never quite made queer inclusion a priority in his time guiding the franchise. Nevertheless Trek has tiptoed up to the line from a number of angles, presenting mind-swaps between bodies of different sexes going back to the “Original Series” of the late 1960s, alien species with sexual and gender roles that defy the male-female binary, sexually ambiguous alter-egos in parallel universes, and even gender reassignment surgery. Legend among fans also has it that an officer on the bridge in the movie Star Trek: First Contact, Lieutenant Hawke (Neal McDonough), was conceived with a gay backstory, but this personalizing detail was cut for time, and Hawke was assimilated by the Borg — maybe making things a little more fabulous in the depths of the Collective, if not the onscreen canon. Gay men also made central, if officially closeted, contributions to Trek: most notably George Takei, who played Lieutenant Sulu, and screenwriter David Gerrold, who wrote episodes including “The Trouble With Tribbles,” the one that buries William Shatner’s Captain Kirk in a pile of multicolored fur-balls. Gerrold wrote an episode for Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Blood and Fire,” which included a gay couple in pivotal roles, but the screenplay never got anywhere near production. (It has since been adapted in a fan-made continuation of the Original Series, with no small success.)

But while fans looking for overt queerness in Star Trek are forced to rummage through the lower decks of the franchise, there’s been a covert gay icon stationed up on the bridge since before the first episode was broadcast. That icon is none other than the First Officer of the Enterprise, Mr. Spock.

Let me emphasize from the start that this I am not arguing that Spock, the character, is homosexual. I will not delve into the subgenre of Star Trek fan-fiction that posits a sexual relationship between Kirk and Spock, though what I discuss here may illuminate its origins. Nor am I arguing that the originator of the role, Leonard Nimoy (may he rest in beloved memory) is gay. And, of course, there is no need to argue that Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock in the rebooted Trek films, is gay — Quinto himself has told us that. Rather, I propose that the very nature of Spock — and, to a lesser degree, characters who fill similar roles in the casts of the other Trek television series — makes him emblematic of attitudes, ideas, and behaviors that are integral to the gay experience. That is, Spock is gay not in the sexual sense, but in the cultural one described by writers like David M. Halperin and J. Bryan Lowder.

Spock_orlyFirst there are surface-level signifiers: many of the cues of Spock’s alien, half-Vulcan nature are, if not explicitly feminine, then definitely not masculine. Particularly in the early episodes, Spock wore as much eye shadow as many of his mini-skirted female crewmates aboard the Enterprise. How many drag queens beat their faces for hours to create eyebrows that can lift with the same arch aplomb Spock summons every time his human colleagues do something silly? Then, of course, there are his pointy ears, which hint at the supernatural. Humans aboard the Enterprise, especially Spock’s verbal sparring partner Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), often compare his appearance to the Devil, with particular reference to those ears. (Evidently network executives were initially concerned that Spock’s appearance would frighten children.) Decades later, though, the strongest cultural association with pointy ears isn’t Lucifer’s malevolence but Spock’s aloofness. Case in point: There is no clear statement in any of J.R.R. Tolkien’s voluminous works that the elves of Middle Earth have pointy ears. Yet in the film adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (and in many a work derived from and building on Tolkien’s) elves have pointy ears — a visual signal of their detachment from the affairs of mortals, courtesy Mr. Spock?

Like the rest of his father’s people, Spock is a vegetarian and, to the extent that it is possible in the quasi-military service of Starfleet, a pacifist. When forced to fight, his signature move is the Vulcan “nerve pinch,” which renders the victim instantly unconscious without inflicting permanent harm, and without requiring Spock to break a sweat. Meanwhile Captain Kirk employs a sort of double-fisted karate chop, generally in the midst of extended brawls that destroy his uniform tunic. Spock can brawl with the best of them when the nerve pinch is insufficient, but there is a sense that he disdains violence as much out of distaste as because of broader philosophical objections. This sense of fussy superiority is not far removed from stereotypes about effeminate gay men — certainly it is a point against Spock’s masculinity.

Adherence to the Vulcan doctrine of emotionless logic separates Spock from his human crewmates, and makes him queer in the oldest sense of the word. Among Vulcans, his behavior wouldn’t stand out — but his half-human ancestry draws him toward service among humans in Starfleet. Or it forces him that way. Spock’s mixed background means that he is never fully accepted on his father’s world, as we learn from hints in Nimoy’s original portrayal and see firsthand in the first reboot movie, in which young Spock faces off with carefully logical Vulcan bullies. His decision to turn down an appointment to the Vulcan Science Academy and join Starfleet creates a familiar family dynamic, too: a strained relationship with his Vulcan father, his human mother left trying to help them reconcile. On the Enterprise, Spock shares much of the biology of the humans around him, but his appearance, culture, and reasoning make him an alien. That, right there, is the experience of every queer child raised among straight folk, as demographics and biology dictate that most of us are.

(Can it be a coincidence that President Barack Obama, who commentators have repeatedly compared to Spock — and who whole-heartedly embraces that comparison — has also been dubbed the first “gay” President?)

Every iteration of Trek since the Original Series has had at least one character who is queer in this sense of failing to fit in with the rest of the crew, and examining and puzzling over the behaviors of humankind. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, it’s the android Lieutenant Data, played by Brent Spiner. On Deep Space Nine, it’s the shape-shifter Odo (Rene Auberjonois). On Voyager, it’s Robert Picardo’s holographic Doctor and the ex-Borg Seven of Nine, played by Jeri Ryan. These characters practice something like cruising as J. Bryan Lowder describes it his essay identifying the pillars of gay culture — attending closely and deliberately to the details of a social world in which we are a minority of outsiders. They sometimes also engage in at least two of Lowder’s other gay hallmarks: doing drag, or experimenting with alternative presentations of personality, gender, and appearance; and building family, a circle of close relationships that have nothing to do with biological descent. Whole episodes of TNG and Voyager are devoted to Data’s, the Doctor’s, or Seven’s experimentation with human behaviors and practices; Odo spends almost the entire run of Deep Space Nine in humanoid drag. His father disappointed and distant and his mother left behind on Vulcan, Spock finds family in his bond with Kirk and McCoy, and Data, Odo, the Doctor, and Seven all do similarly — the familial dynamics of a starship crew is a foundation of Star Trek storytelling.

Then, also: for Spock, and for most of these Spock-like characters, sex is complicated, dangerous, and often shameful. Like a full-blooded Vulcan, Spock only feels the urge to mate once every seven years, in an uncontrollable hormonal surge called pon farr. During pon farr, Vulcans lose their emotional control and become violent in their need to return home and mate — all deeply embarrassing. Spock feels the onset of pon farr in the episode “Amok Time,” and he requests leave to return to Vulcan, but refuses to explain his increasingly erratic behavior until Kirk drags it out of him. When the Enterprise arrives at Vulcan, Spock’s betrothed names Kirk as her champion in a challenge against their arranged marriage, and Spock must engage his closest friend in ritual combat to the death. Consensual sex doesn’t get much more fraught than that.

For his part, Data is revealed as a sexual being in the second episode of TNG, “The Naked Now,” when a poorly defined outer-space phenomenon intoxicates the crew of the Enterprise-D. As order breaks down all over the ship, security chief Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) invites Data into her bedroom. Data, who is as drunk as everyone else, grinningly complies, noting that he is “fully functional” and “programmed in … a broad variety of pleasurings.” When sobriety is restored, Yar tells Data to forget the whole thing, but in later episodes Data recalls their encounter with fondness. Fans have generally regarded this entire interaction as unbearably gross, preferring to view the android as asexual, even after seven seasons of episodes repeating the theme of Data’s full, if different, humanity. Shape-shifting Odo experiences sex both as a melding with others of his species in their amorphous mode, and in a relationship with a humanoid love interest. He must then choose between these two forms of love, and between loyalty to his own species and the family of humanoid friends he has adopted on Deep Space Nine. Voyager’s Seven of Nine attempts romantic involvement with multiple partners, but is limited first by inexperience with human culture, then by life-threatening restrictions against strong emotion imposed by her cybernetic implants.

For all these similarities, Spock’s successors don’t quite recapitulate his relationship to his human crewmates. Where Spock chooses and cultivates the Vulcan philosophy that sets him apart from Kirk, McCoy and the rest, subsequent Spock-like characters are much more likely to seek closer identification with humanity. (If and when Spock practices human drag, he uses it as a disguise, and often under threat — really, he passes.) When Spock meets Data in a guest appearance on TNG, the contrast is obvious, and Spock brings it up immediately: “You have an efficient intellect, superior physical skills, no emotional impediments. There are Vulcans who aspire all their lives to achieve what you’ve been given by design.”

Data responds by asking, “As you examine your life, do you find you have missed your humanity?”

“I have no regrets,” says Spock.

“No regrets. That is a human expression.”

“Yes. Fascinating.”

That exchange could almost be an echo of the debate, which was heating up around the time that episode aired in 1991, between the old, countercultural gay rights movement and the more assimilationist second wave that lobbied for inclusion in social institutions like marriage and military service. Perhaps not coincidentally, where the Original Series often imagined societies more advanced and enlightened than even the brilliant and inclusive crew of the Enterprise, the later iterations of Star Trek were less likely to conceive of aliens that were superior to 24th-century humanity in any sense but the technological. As a result, out of all Trek’s outsiders, Spock is the one who most actively embraces his differences, achieving the fourth element of Lowder’s framework for gay culture, the easy self-assurance of queenliness.

It is this confidence in the value of his queer view on human life that makes Spock a worthy and powerful icon for the gay experience. But, at the risk of being un-Vulcan, the power of a gay icon lies in more than a logical proof of parallels to the queer experience. It lies in the emotional resonance, support, and solace that those parallels can provide. Does Spock provide that? I think I can safely say that he does.

Imagine, if you will, a bookish and un-athletic boy brought up in a devout household in a rural school district, watching as his classmates began to bubble with hormones and to do things that are as incomprehensible as they are objectively silly. A knot of girls corner him on the playground to spring sixth-grade verbal traps: “Hey! Are you gay? No? Why aren’t you happy?” Boys who ignore or antagonize him in gym class show up on his doorstep of a Saturday morning, wondering if he’d like to come for a bike ride, and, oh, maybe he could ask that nice girl from the next house over to join them? (Why he agrees to this, on multiple occasions, the boy isn’t quite sure.)

Returning from one of these perplexing bike rides, he turns on the local-access channel and finds a rebroadcast show about a wonderful future, in which one of the principal characters embraces logic — calm, precise, and utterly above and beyond the strange and confusing world of pubescent emotion. Spock is sufficiently human that this practice is a choice, and an example. “I am a Vulcan,” the boy tells himself the next time those girls round the corner of the schoolhouse. “There is no pain.”

In truth, Spock was of a piece with characters I’d embraced in every cultural product I encountered as I grew up. Mary Poppins, Merlin, Sherlock Holmes — all stayed in control of themselves even as the world went mad around them, and saw through the chaos to a reality most people missed. I was an order-oriented child with aspirations to puzzle-solving and a head for trivia, working my way through the Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown books as close to the order of publication as I could manage, alphabetizing my bedroom bookshelf as I finished each one. Spock was the epitome of the orderliness and attention to multiple-decimal-point detail I hoped to achieve. As I progressed into high school, his example promised that even if I could never quite understand why my male friends were starting to make all this fuss about girls, this was evidence of my superior, disinterested perspective on the whole sordid business. And when my own body began to do inexplicable and embarrassing things of its own, Spock also gave me some sense, long before I was ready to understand what was up, that I wasn’t alone in this, either.

Looking back now, I can see Spock in the fullness of the character Roddenberry and Nimoy created, the Spock whose emotional control slips when he learns that Kirk has survived the duel in “Amok Time” after all, who has enough perspective on his own limitations to know when “human intuition” can provide important insight for a critical decision. If anything, that nuance makes Spock’s confidence in the value of his differences more powerful. Spock has been at his post in the back of my mind as I’ve built my own career in science, and come to understand and appreciate my own queer view of the world — he has been, and always will be, a model of the life I hope to live. ❧