Written by Amanda Rodriguez
In many ways, science fiction is the perfect medium for the exploration of social, cultural, political, gender, racial, class, etc. issues. Because it takes place in the distant future and/or because all the commentary is veiled in metaphor through the use of aliens or monsters, the often questioning and even progressive messages slip beneath the radar. I am sometimes critical of the use of aliens/monsters to represent racial Others, as it often magnifies racist stereotyping as demonstrated by the violent, war-like black Klingons or the greedy, sniveling (read: Jewish) Ferengi. It's an oft denied luxury, however, to say what we mean when we say it, and while metaphor and allegory may seem somewhat indirect and occasionally cowardly, it's a much more artistically pleasing approach that allows a freedom of thematic inquiry often denied other genres.
In the case of the Trill race from the Star Trek universe, gender, gender identity, and sexuality are the primary tropes being examined. The Trill are a symbiotic alien race who bond with various host bodies, allowing the "symbiont" to live multiple lifetimes and accumulate a wealth of experiences. The first Trill appearance is in The Next Generation episode "The Host" wherein Dr. Beverly Crusher falls in love with Trill ambassador Odan.
|Even Dr. Crushers honeymoon stage it up.|
Odan's host body dies as a result of an attack on his peace mission shuttle craft, and the symbiont is temporarily transferred to the ever ridiculous Lieutenant Commander William Riker. Dr. Crusher struggles with the transition for a time, feeling betrayed, deceived, and questioning what exactly she loved about Odan. Was it his physicality, which has changed so much, or something more? Eventually, she gets over it, embracing her transcendent love for Odan (she even does the nasty with Riker...gag). However, all bets are off when Odan's permanent host body arrives.
|Odan's new host body is a woman.|
Odan's transition from male to female proves too much for Beverly. Despite Odan's insistence that her love for the doctor hasn't changed nor has her personality, Dr. Crusher rejects her, saying, "Perhaps it is a human failing; but we are not accustomed to these kinds of changes." This is a very apparent exploration of transgender issues. Beverly accepts her lover's physical changes until Odan's gender transition. Though Dr. Crusher blames it on her humanity, it is her personal inability to see beyond the gender binary. Not only that, but Beverly's discomfort with engaging in a bisexual or lesbian relationship robs her of a love that had made her so very happy before.
Does TNG itself agree with Dr. Crusher's choice? I think it does. It presupposes that the demands of loving someone while they go through gender transition are unaskable, unthinkable. Not only that, but the show appears to support her ultimate incapacity to stomach lesbianism.
The Deep Space Nine take on Trill love, replete with its sexuality/gender fluidity, evolves beyond that of its predecessor. In the episode "Rejoined," science officer Lieutenant Commander Jadzia Dax, a Trill, must work with Lenara Kahn, another Trill, on creating the first artificial wormhole. However, Dax and Kahn were a heterosexual married couple in previous host bodies. It is forbidden for Trill symbionts to reconnect with people from their former hosts' lives. During the course of working closely on their project, Dax and Kahn rediscover their passionate love for one another.
"When you're not around, it's like a part of me is missing. I want to be with you more than anything." - Lenara Kahn
They engage in a lesbian romance that remains unjudged by DS9 friends and crew members. We've evolved beyond the thinking of TNG in that the validity of the relationship is not in question. However, the episode focuses on the Trill "taboo" surrounding symbionts reforming bonds with people from past lives. Dr. Julian Bashir says, "The Trill feel very strongly that it's unnatural." Major Kira Nerys responds incredulously, "Unnatural? I don't understand how two people who've fallen in love and made a life together can be forced to just walk away from each other because of a taboo." This so-called taboo is a metaphor for the stigma surrounding homosexuality (and even gay marriage).
The punishment for transgression is banishment from the Trill homeworld. This is tantamount to a death sentence because the offending symbiont will not be given access to any other host bodies and will permanently die within its current host. Captain Benjamin Sisko is one of Dax's oldest and best friends. He gives her the advice, "It didn't matter whether [you] agreed with the taboo or not because the price for violating it was too high." Though pretty much all the characters view this punishment as absurdly excessive, none of them attempt to appeal, ratify, or circumnavigate it.
|One of the 1st ever on-screen lesbian kisses.|
While DS9 goes a step or two further than TNG, it doesn't go far enough. While Dax throws caution to the wind to be with the love of her lives (plural intended), Kahn is unwilling to sacrifice her career and her future lives. Their tragic parting is inevitable. On the one hand, this injustice highlights the cruelty of the stigma, laws, and mores surrounding homosexuality while showing no other, better model. On the other hand, this shit takes place in the future. The United Federation of Planets claims to be beyond consumerism, sexism, racism, and speciesism, where diplomatic missions of peace, science, and exploration have supplanted warlike agendas of aggression, fear, and resource appropriation. Then why the hell can't two chicks get married?
Imagine instead an ending that featured the two women taking their case to the Trill ruling body. They would insist that it's a crime to limit such long-lived symbiont beings to relationships and experiences that are as short as a human lifespan. The couple would demand that Trill culture re-evaluate the way in which it values multiple, short experiences over the unknown potential of a love that transcends many lifetimes. Being wise and humane, the Trill governing body would realize the error of its ways and undergo a paradigm shift. That's the kind of enlightened future I'd like to watch on a show and dream might one day come to pass.