The Uncanny Valley

Elizabeth Bridges - Writer, Professor, Reviewer

Star Trek Fandom and Queerness: A Voyage Home

star_trek_ivMy first date was with a boy – the kind of pseudo-date where your mom drops you off at the movies. I was 13, in the 7th grade, and we went to see Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. You know – the funny one, the one with the whales. That movie was both my gateway to Star Trek fandom and my gateway to attempted heterosexuality. I’m still a Trek fan. The other thing not so much.

By the time I was 13, I already knew I was “different.” Always a tomboy, I had never stopped loving Star Wars, sci-fi, model cars, and army fatigues. My mom had to basically force me to get a girlier hairstyle and clothes.

Being a tomboy is cute until you hit puberty, but after that it makes adults nervous.

I hated trying to be some conventional version of pretty, but the validation I got from my attempt to fit in was intoxicating. Thank God that Sonic Youth and Nirvana eventually came along – I spearheaded the grunge look at my school when it came in style, thus allowing me to revert back to my original flannels, denim jacket, oversize T-shirts, and Converses with impunity. But that was still a few years away in 1986.

Besides being a tomboy, I had several other strikes against being viewed as normal by my peers: a Southern Baptist preacher for a dad, my mom the 8th-grade English teacher, being a bookish, serious girl who never went through the “boy crazy” phase. Adults saw me as sensible, smart, mature. But really I was just afraid and alone. My 7th-grade boyfriend – we’ll call him Chet – was an easy refuge for me. We were already friends, had a lot of classes together, and we liked a lot of the same things. We held hands sometimes at the movies, went to school dances together, and we slipped notes into each other’s lockers. It was the most innocent pairing imaginable.

At some point he asked me to be his girlfriend. I think we called it “going together” back then. Naturally, I said yes. Grown-ups and peers alike seemed pleased that Chet and I were whatever kind of “item” you can be in 7th grade. That made me feel normal, the thing we all crave to feel at that age. I had already been bullied at school and church, called “lezzy” by some older kids. I had almost no idea what that meant other than what I’d heard in church (an abomination unto the Lord, punishable by death and an eternity in hell). Gay, queer, lezzy, dyke, homo. Those were the worst things to be called. Having a boyfriend – even a reserved, nerdy one who barely touched me – delivered me from suspicion.

Going to see Star Trek IV, holding hands with my date buddy Chet, felt like easing into a warm bath. He would always say, “Shall we?” when it was time to hold hands. What kind of little gentleman is that? My parents had expressly told me there could be no physical affection of any kind, including something as innocent as hand-holding. I guess they saw it as a one-way ticket to teen pregnancy? Jeez. But rules were made to be broken, and I did, without hesitation. My heart longed for the acceptance of a simple touch, if not from him exactly, at least from someone.

I had never had anything against Star Trek, just had never happened to see it before. Maybe I had caught flashes of the original show in re-runs while flipping channels. Spock, Kirk, Scotty, “beaming up,” the Starship Enterprise, and “phasers on stun,” had reached my very sheltered access to pop culture. Up to that point there had been room for only one obsession in my life: Star Wars. But the original SW trilogy had waned after Return of the Jedi, and there were no new adventures with Luke and Han on the horizon. We call those the Dark Times in SW fandom. Star Trek, meanwhile, captured my attention immediately.

"I was attempting the hell to communicate, sir."

“I was attempting the hell to communicate, sir.”

Okay honestly, Leonard Nimoy’s Spock captured my attention. Something deep inside me connected to him. Half Vulcan, half human, he didn’t fully fit into either realm, and the struggle between these two worlds seethed under his cool façade. He resisted the pressure to conform to human norms, instead pursuing his affinity for living the Vulcan way. He associated with and worked among humans but never got subsumed by their customs or drama. He had his own gifts: he could commune with animals via the mind meld, could defend himself as necessary with a simple neck pinch, had his own vocabulary and cultural symbolism. He was a vegetarian, cared about ecology and science, seemed awkward when trying to conform to human practices like swearing. Yet it didn’t bother him to be awkward and different. He was who he was, despite what others thought of him. He was my role model.

Original-timeline Spock never had a thing with Uhura. He appeared unswayed by the grip of romantic entanglements. Turns out, he did wrestle with sexuality, but only briefly every seven years, as Vulcan biology dictates. For all practical purposes, he was what we might call asexual nowadays. And so was I, as far as I knew. My life wasn’t governed by the passions I saw in my peers. I experienced a kind of amorphous longing for connection, perhaps of a romantic nature, but not from boys. And no alternative was available. The only depiction of homosexuality I had seen in the media associated gay men with AIDS. Bisexuals were crazy or promiscuous or greedy. I had never heard the word “transgender.” Lesbians basically didn’t exist at all.

The concept of queerness as an everyday reality, as a type of relationship, as a life orientation, didn’t exist for me. It was like in 1984 where Syme, an expert in Newspeak, explains its linguistic principles to protagonist Winston Smith:

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” as Wittgenstein famously said. The thoughtcrime of queerness wasn’t possible for me either. I had no way to conceptualize something for which the words barely existed. “Lesbian” was an abstract concept of which I was only dimly aware. I had never met, or known, or seen, or heard of an actual person who claimed that label, either in real life or in the media. It had no reality to me.

The feelings I began to experience for certain female friends felt normal, kinda like a really really intense wish for extra-close friendship. It was tender, sweet, not anything remotely like an abomination unto the Lord. I thought that’s what everybody felt for certain, special friends. As I got a little older, I began to feel the compulsion to express my affections, sometimes physically, but something in me kept me from acting on them. Most likely some kind of unconscious denial based in self-preservation, plus a rabid case of internalized homophobia. Imagine the confusion of a bone-deep internal conflict for which you have no words. It manifested itself in an inexpressible black hole of sadness and an aimless but ravenous longing.

"Who's your friend?"

“Who’s your friend?”

Spock struggled with two worlds battling inside him. And so did I. His two worlds were planets with names and locations. Mine were an unnameable void.

***

Star Trek IV introduced me to a reality entirely unlike my all-white, racist, homophobic, fundamentalist Christian life in a tiny Arkansas town. The Baptist church of my childhood didn’t allow women to take any leadership roles, much less to be pastors. My mother and her peers were all stay-at-home moms, secretaries, retail employees, nurses, teachers, factory workers, farmers’ wives – traditional domains of women.

uhurasttmp

Uhura in ST:TMP (1979), aka my favorite Uhura look

Meanwhile, the Enterprise had Uhura – not just any woman but a beautiful, authoritative Black woman – as its communications officer. Sulu the chief helmsman was Japanese at a time when World War II was still a living memory for the older men from our church, and I had heard countless deplorable comments and jokes about “the Japs” throughout my childhood. No one at the time saw any end to the Cold War, though that would happen only three years later, but here was this Russian guy Chekov as a trusted member of the crew. And Spock – well, he wasn’t just another race or ethnicity. He was a whole other species with non-human features and biology. Yet, even as weird as he was, he still got along with everyone just fine. This commonplace acceptance of difference, this effortless diversity on display on the bridge of the Enterprise, made a deep impression on me as a young person. I had never known an alternative to the discriminatory, misogynist, racist world around me, but I took to the notion of inclusiveness like a duck to water. Something seemed right about the crew of the Enterprise, in a way that made my own environment suddenly seem inexcusably wrong.

Naturally, I later became aware of the critiques of Star Trek. I’m the first to acknowledge the colonialism, paternalism, and militarism of the Federation; the fact that we saw no women captains that I recall before Janeway; the frequent “redshirting” of minority crew members; and more recently, the “too little, too late” ret-con of Sulu as gay if you squint at the screen for 10 seconds during Star Trek Beyond.

But as a seventh grader in 1986, none of that would’ve mattered to me. The notion of men and women working together as leaders of a crew, of people of different races and ethnicities and species respecting each other as friends and coworkers – those were radical concepts for me already. And from the looks of things in American culture even today, those very basic notions of inclusion espoused by Star Trek still haven’t taken hold by any stretch.

This experience constituted, for me anyway, a deeply radical vision of the future. It set a paradigm for my developing value system. Its message was powerful enough to shine through the blinders that the bigoted world of my childhood had done its best to put on me. For that, I am deeply grateful. No exaggeration: I honestly don’t know if I would be the person I am now if I hadn’t encountered Star Trek IV in precisely that context, at precisely that time in my life.

***

Lt. Tasha Yar

Lt. Tasha Yar, ::sigh::

After seeing the movie with Chet, I delved head-first into my first real fandom, discovering the previous three films, re-runs of the original series, comics, and only a year or two later, a whole new Enterprise crew on Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Let’s just say I had some very strong feelings about Lt. Tasha Yar and cried my eyes out when… well, you know.) I occasionally found used copies of a magazine called Trek that was a kind of quasi-academic journal about the series. Access to fan fiction was extremely limited before the internet, but there were dozens of published novels set in the ST universe. I had the folks at Waldenbooks in the Jonesboro mall order the ones they didn’t carry. I started reading them in order of publication date until I caught up with the release schedule.

Articles in Trek mentioned fan conventions, and I began picking up Starlog magazine, the only nationally accessible source of sci-fi fandom info back then. Chet and I broke up in uncharacteristically dramatic fashion during lunch one day in the latter half of 8th grade. My love for Star Trek continued undimmed.

***

Every year, our one real family trip was the one the church paid for: the Southern Baptist Convention. In the summer between 9th and 10th grade, the meeting took place in San Antonio. I conned my mom into taking me to used bookstores, comic shops, and record dealers while my dad attended the boring seminars.  Oddly enough, despite my strict upbringing, my parents never said much about what I read or listened to.

starlogjuly88

Starlog, July 1988

On one of those shopping trips I must’ve picked up a current issue of Starlog. I distinctly remember seeing an advertisement for a Star Trek convention set for the following weekend in Houston, just after the SBC would end. I grabbed the atlas we carried in the car. Houston wasn’t too far out of our way. I begged my dad to take us. Miraculously, he said yes and immediately called to book us a room for two nights at the convention hotel. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect, but I spent the rest of the week in excited anticipation. My mom would attend the convention with me. I still have no idea what my dad did during that time, but it probably involved Church’s Chicken, a delicacy we didn’t have in our town at home.

Nichelle Nichols

Nichelle Nichols

The convention was by far the most momentous event to occur in my young life – and it’s easily still in the top 10 – but I have little memory of what actually transpired. I’m mostly left with snapshots. Nichelle Nichols was as beautiful and stately as you imagine her to be, and her mere presence was inspiring before she even uttered a word. Marina Sirtis was also lovely, and shockingly tiny in stature. It turns out, they often stood her on blocks in scenes and filmed few if any full-body shots with other actors. Beyond that, I recall her speech being funny, but that’s about it. Somewhere in there, we got an exclusive preview of the next season of ST:TNG, and we viewed an old blooper reel from the original series. I only remember the bit where McCoy accidentally grabs Christine Chapel’s boobs in a scene where they both fall during an attack on the Enterprise. God love my dear mother for sitting through all this on my behalf.

What will forever remain with me from this event are not the brushes with stars or the secret insider info, but rather the experience of being among other fans. Most were in their 20s or older, but in them, I caught sight of a world where I might fit. I saw adults in full Klingon gear, moms with Vulcan ears, couples who looked like my parents wearing full Starfleet uniforms, folks of various body types, ages, and races. Hell, I saw a grown lady wearing a neon green wig. By “normal” standards, these people would’ve been called nerds, weirdos. Together, they were a tribe.

As silly as it may sound, this was a revelation for me.

What I saw in these odd adults was the possibility of a future for the likes of me, a nerdy 15-year-old who didn’t like boys or conventional femininity or cheerleading or Sweet Valley High romances. Up to that point, I had never considered the remotest glimmer of a life full of people who thought like me, liked the things I liked, who reveled in the fact that they didn’t fit into what society tried to make them. I only had books and my own thoughts, no one to talk to about things that really mattered. These folks were nonconformists and seemed to enjoy that fact, not resist it. I suddenly had hope, maybe for the first time ever, for a life beyond the suffocating strictures of my hometown.

gay spock

http://denimandtweed.jbyoder.org/

Star Trek fandom was my first queer community – maybe not queer in the LGBTQ sense, but queer as in different, defying norms, as in not accepting the narrative they were fed by a conformist society. When I use the word queer to describe myself now in terms of sexual orientation, that’s all still a part of what I mean.

Indeed, there’s an interesting parallel between queerness and fandom. Hear me out. In a fandom context, there are two kinds of people: fans and non-fans. There are those who have the aptitude for complete obsession with a character or media property, a nearly innate compulsion to know and experience everything they can about that text. And there are folks who just casually enjoy.

To take part in a fandom is to be among people who instantaneously “get it,” without you having to explain yourself. For everyone else, you have to translate your experience. And it’s very difficult for you to comprehend what life would be like as a non-fan. You can’t wrap your mind around it.

Maybe you’ve even been picked on, ridiculed for loving the thing you love. Perhaps you felt you had to hide it, or at least the extent of it. You may have even tried to not like it. But you couldn’t not. You’re a fan.

And sure, fandom has become a lot more accepted in recent years, but being a true fan is still like being another species. Plenty of people just don’t get it and never will. They poke fun, make cruel comments. And it hurts. Now imagine that pain, only exponentially worse, about a thing as inherent to you as your eye color or handedness. But as a fan, maybe it’s not that hard to imagine at all.

***

Even before I came out, the words “hetero” and “straight” never felt like they entirely pertained to me, and by the fall of 1992, I had begun recognizing the truth. At a protest I attended with some college friends, we had occasion to chant Queer Nation’s rallying cry, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” I never considered not shouting those words. I felt at home with them. Immediately. Those who would call people “queer” as a term of hate had no power over me and my friends. That power dissolved in the boldness of our chanting. Even though it took a while longer for me to fully come out, I already knew what it meant to be part of a queer tribe, united in the fact of our opposition to an arbitrary set of norms. I felt at home with my new queer tribe too.

That’s what I am, after all: queer. I’m not the token gay friend who will fills out your diversity roster at cocktail parties. I’m not the suburban golf lesbian whose life comfortingly resembles yours in every respect except one. I don’t look like most women you know. So what if my easy relationship with oddness, my unconventional appearance, and my unfamiliar ideas poke holes in your comfortable notions of gender or sexuality, religious or academic norms? To that I say, “good.” I like being a danger to your assumptions. We should all examine our relationship to the accepted metanarratives of our culture. I’m your Spock. I’m your alien with pointy ears and green blood.

Sure, I’m like you in the ways that matter, but we’re not the same. I finally gave up that struggle. But in the bargain, I had to learn to walk in your world and mine simultaneously. I learned to translate your language of romance and gender norms and social mores into something comprehensible to me. Yours is not my native tongue. I do the work of translation politely and (usually) with grace, but it takes energy. Sometimes it’s exhausting.

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination, Spock's core belief

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination, http://bristrek.deviantart.com/

For some folks in some groups who are “different” from the arbitrary norm, it’s even more exhausting than it is for me, or at the very least exhausting in very different ways. Some folks are multiple kinds of “different” all at once, so their translation work compounds exponentially. When you see us and know us, I hope you understand the effort we make to simply take part in a world that wasn’t built for our kind. For now, we have to stake out our own niches of safety and comfort in order to just be.

I’ll never give up the hope that someday that we will live in a world built for everybody, a place as effortlessly inclusive as the one we’ve seen glimpses of onscreen.

Uncle George Takei, aka Sulu

Uncle George Takei, aka Sulu

***

At this 50th anniversary of the release of Star Trek, and not long past the 30th anniversary of my fateful viewing of The Voyage Home, I’d like to express my  gratitude: to Mr. Roddenberry for his vision (RIP), to Leonard Nimoy for the sensitive portrayal of Spock and for the love he spread in his own right (RIP), to Uncle George for standing up for the LGBTQ community, and to the other actors in all the series and movies. Most especially, though, I wish to express my gratitude to my fellow Trek fans. Thanks to all you all for letting me see a wider world of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination, but beyond that, for giving me my first glimpse of hope for finding a home in this one.

idic-truth-beauty

http://surak.nu/idic.php

2 Comments

  1. From an oddball among oddballs- thank you for writing this.

    • EB

      September 8, 2016 at 6:02 am

      You’re so welcome, Jeremy. Enjoy your ST 50th! Hope you get to watch some of your favorite episodes today 🙂

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