Content warning: strong language; description of violence; death; abuse; spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 of Star Trek Discovery
I will start by briefly telling you what tragic gay representation is. I will make a case that Star Trek Discovery has provided nearly exclusively tragic gay representation in seasons 1 and 2. I will conclude by telling you why this is a problem.
What do I mean by “tragic gay representation?”
I have written previously about what I have described as different “levels” of queer representation in media. Here I will focus on tragic gay representation, also known as the “bury your gays” trope.
When I talk about “tragic” representation, I don’t necessarily mean cases in which a queer person dies (although that happens often enough). By “tragic gay representation,” I mean representation in which gay characters are denied a happy ending. While this happens to trans and bi queer people as well, I will mostly be talking about gay representation here, as the specific characters involved in Star Trek Discovery are gay and lesbian, and different (but related) dynamics are present for bi and trans representation.
Tragic gay representation has a very long history. Lesbian representation in media is particularly prone to ensuring that lesbians, when they are depicted at all, are either killed, or converted to being straight. Now that you’ve had it pointed out to you, you’ll start seeing it everywhere too.
Of course, no, not every gay character in every TV show and movie dies, and of course, not every character who dies is gay, but there are fewer gays and lesbians on-screen in general, and unless it’s a film about queer issues, the main character Has To Be Straight, so if someone is going to die to advance the plot, you can guess who it’s going to be.
There is tragic gay representation in Star Trek Discovery and it’s nearly exclusively tragic gay representation
In season 1, the first thing we learn about Stamets is that his research has been co-opted by Starfleet for the war effort. The second thing we learn is that he had a friend that he did research with, and in the same episode we also find out that this friend was tragically deformed and then died in terrible pain. In the time-loop episode, Stamets watches everyone he knows and loves die over and over again.
Stamets’ boyfriend Culber is tragically murdered by one of the straight people. His death serves no other purpose in season 1 other than to up the stakes for the straight-people drama. We find out that Stamets’ boyfriend likes something called Kasseelian opera, and the only thing we find out about this kind of opera is that Kasseelian prima donnas tragically kill themselves after a single performance.
In season 2, we find out that Culber is not dead, but rather he has been trapped in the mushroom dimension, but even after they save him, he and Stamets can’t be happy together. Tragic.
Culber’s change into an angry person does however serve as an object lesson for a pep-talk for the straight people partway through the season. And in case you think that I’m reading too much into that, they double down on it by panning over his face while Burnham is giving a voice-over about how she’s personally changed, so they were definitely intentional about him being an object lesson about personal transformation.
At the end of season 2, Culber gets a bunch of unsolicited relationship advice, and guess what, it comes from an even more powerfully tragic lesbian whose partner died. Culber decides to get back together with Stamets, but tragically, he is only able to tell him after Stamets is tragically, heroically and life-threateningly impaled.
There is almost nothing that happens in Stamets and Culber’s story-arc or that we’re told about their back-story that isn’t specifically calculated to just make us feel bad for them. The writers seem to be fine with burning up gay characters, and the people they love, so that by that light, we can better see the straight-people drama.
Why is tragic gay representation in Star Trek a problem?
So you might be thinking, “These aren’t real people. It’s just a story. No gays were harmed in the making of Star Trek Discovery.” Right?
I mean, sort of. No one’s saying it’s as bad as actually hurting gays in real life, but especially in the context of Star Trek, it’s in poor taste, a faux pas, and sends a homophobic message in real life, whether or not it was intended that way.
First off, the whole premise of Star Trek is: “What if, somehow, hundreds of years in the future, humanity finally got its shit together?” The whole project of Star Trek is to imagine an optimistic, near-utopian, positive conception of a humanity that finally grew up.
This is a future where, when you call the cops, it’s the good guys who show up, so to speak. In this fictional universe, Rule 1 of exploring the galaxy can be summed up as, “don’t be like, colonial about it.” There’s no poverty, no racism, no sexism, and for the “first time” (we can have the erasure talk another day), Star Trek Discovery was supposed to pose the question, “What would it look like for there to be a future in which there was also no hate for queer people?”
And this is part of why it’s so toxic to get these old, tired and low-key homophobic tropes tossed at us in Star Trek. The writers are saying, Even in a future utopia, the best-case-scenario for humanity’s future, the gays still don’t ever get to be happy.
Historically, the bury-your-gays trope hasn’t always come out of innocent sloppiness on the writers’ part. Certainly, sometimes when a writer makes a gay into a tragic one, it’s just because they only have so many characters in their story, and the straight one is the protagonist, so out of this sort of lazy necessity, there’s a lot of rainbow-coloured blood spilled. But that hasn’t always been the case. In a lot of literature, the gays come to a sad end in order to send the message that this is what they deserve. And whether or not the writers at Discovery realize this or if they meant to send that message, they are walking in step with that sad and homophobic tradition. You can only watch so many shows where the queer gets killed, after all, before you start to wonder if there’s a message there.
I don’t think this is being too rough on the show. In the lead-up to Discovery season 1, everyone associated with the show positively crowed about how they were going to do gay representation in Star Trek, and do it right. If you’re gonna preemptively claim moral kudos for representing us gays, you’re gonna be held to a higher standard. There are lots of other TV shows that include gay characters that are examples of good gay representation. (E.g. Felix from Orphan Black is fantastic.)
So if anyone from CBS is reading this, Don’t let your PR people write cheques that your writers aren’t going to honour. If you promise good gay representation, you better deliver. Also if you need a new writer, I’m a published author, I’m looking for a job, I have a PhD in medical ethics, encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek, and Opinions.