Star Trek has a long and tangled relationship with #LGBT representation. After tons of homoerotic subtext between Kirk and Spock in The Original Series, in 1991 Gene Roddenberry promised to introduce a canon gay character to The Next Generation. Unfortunately, he died before he could implement this. Now, 26 years later, Roddenberry's promise has finally been fulfilled in the form of Lt Stamets and Doctor Culber, Trek's first gay couple. And their inclusion in Discovery is revolutionary for one simple reason — because it is not presented as revolutionary.
A Normal Relationship
Lt Stamets was introduced in the third episode, when Michael Burnham was transferred to the USS Discovery. Portrayed by RENT alum Anthony Rapp, Stamets became a quick fan fave thanks to his sardonic wit, dedication to science, and opposition to Captain Lorca's militarism. Culber was similarly introduced slowly, appearing in Episode 4 to fix Stamets' broken nose. Episode 5, "Choose Your Pain", gave Culber a much larger role as he, Michael, Stamets, and Cadet Tilly worked together to try and liberate the tardigrade from its use within the spore drive.
From their first scene together, Culber and Stamets have had an endearing chemistry, bickering like an old married couple, and subtly behaving as though they care deeply about each other. But it wasn't until the very end of the latest episode that their relationship status was revealed, in a quietly intimate scene which made very clear that these two people are in love.
The understatement sent a clear message: This relationship is not a statement. Stamets and Culber brushing their teeth and discussing their day at work is not revolutionary. No song and dance was needed, no politics were attached to this soft romantic moment. These two men are in love. So what?
The lack of a political statement surrounding Stamets and Culber's relationship wasn't just refreshing, it also made an interesting point about the Federation, and humanity's future — one that fills a plot hole that has been present right from The Original Series. Although Star Trek loves to showcase the Federation as an evolution of our culture, with Earth having moved beyond everything from civil conflict, to economy, to eating animals (yes, they're all vegan), what we actually see of Starfleet often contradicts their progression in terms of sexuality.
Humanity Has Progressed Beyond Boundaries
Every single romantic relationship between humans on Star Trek has so far been heterosexual. Sure, there are occasional deviations — Riker's relationship with Soren in "The Outcast" springs to mind — but even Trek's very few canon queer characters are aliens. (Excluding Sulu, who is only gay in the alternate Kelvin Timeline.)
This heteronormativity directly contrasts the principles that the Federation is supposed to uphold: That humanity will progress, evolving beyond our prejudices to be more open minded. With all the hundreds of humans we've come across in Star Trek's history, several of them should have been queer, and yet weren't portrayed as such.
Of course, this was thanks to real-life network restrictions and censorship caused by the prejudices still endemic in our society. Though even the 1960s Original Series made a point to include racial diversity, so far queer people have been largely excluded from this depiction of humanity's bright future. It's depressing that it has taken so long for the TV culture to become accepting enough to portray two men in love on Star Trek, but finally, here we are. And it has been worth the wait.
Before their relationship was made clear, we got to know Stamets and Culber as characters, which served to endear them to viewers and did not reduce them to their sexuality in order to make a social statement. Their romantic relationship was portrayed as normal, even mundane, and the lack of politicization sends a clear message that Starfleet really doesn't give a shit whether you're straight, or gay, or anything in between.
We're left wondering if there even are sexual identifiers any more, or if humans have evolved to become broadly pansexual beings, embracing the the infinite diversity of their own kind as well as the infinite diversity of the cosmos. Here's hoping that Discovery won't stop with Stamets and Culber, but will show other Starfleet officers in queer couples — or even poly relationships.
But until then, Episode 5 has made one thing certain: Humanity's shining future very much includes queer people, and the route to this future lies in seeing humans as normal humans, regardless of their sexuality or race. And isn't that really what Star Trek has always been about?
Tell us in the comments: What did you think of Discovery Episode 5?