Coming Out of the Vulcan Closet: The Queer Appeal of Star Trek

By: Will Cohn ’22, a Communication and Media Studies major.

The following work was created for FYS 101: Queer Pop Culture.

Brief description: This essay explores the uniquely conducive tropes of science fiction that create indirect representations of queer experiences and characters. It demonstrates this through a closed reading of the episode “Amok Time” from Star Trek: The Original Series, and specifically, the reading of Spock as a closeted gay man.

The iconic title phrase of the Star Trek franchises, “To boldly go where no man has gone before” describes not just the objective of the Starship Enterprise, but also the objective of the show creators themselves. From its very conception, the science fiction television show was meant to break down the boundaries of American television. Set in a distant utopian future in which the human species has freed itself from prejudice, Star Trek set out to make television history with its disregard for the racism and sexism that dominated 1960s broadcasting. Over time, the show has gained recognition for its use of (what I have coined) “critical displacement” onto alien species to tackle sensitive topics usually blocked by censors. This essay will demonstrate the ability of critical displacement to create indirect representations of queer experiences and characters, through a closed reading of the episode “Amok Time from Star Trek: The Original Series, and specifically, the reading of Spock as a closeted gay man.

Within Star Trek, alternate readings of the text are not only possible but encouraged by the show creators. Gene Roddenberry, the creator and director of the series wanted Star Trek to show a utopian future without human prejudice. In many ways the show was successful at this, showing women and people of color as high-ranking officers, and airing the very first interracial kiss on television. However, there were many subjects the show was not able to get past the censors quite as directly.

Star Trek used what I have decided to call “critical displacement” to take on topics that producers deemed too sensitive to discuss, let alone critique. Critical displacement is when, instead of directly addressing a conflict, writers use a scapegoat, in this case aliens, to parallel the conflict and instead address that. It is meant to allow the perpetrators of social injustice to look at the situation as an outsider and better understand it, without feeling the need to defend themselves. Star Trek used this method to write episodes critiquing topics like racism (“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”), social stratification (“The Cloud Minders”), and the Vietnam war (“A Private Little War”) in the context of aliens and starships rather than directly calling out society. As Roddenberry said, “Perhaps I could use this [sci-fi] as an excuse. To go off to those far-off planets, with little polka dotted people if necessary, and be able to talk about love, war, nature, god, sex. All those things that go to make up the excitement of the human condition, and maybe the TV censors would let it pass because it all seemed so make-believe” (“The Cage/Pilot”).

Therefore, it is entirely expected for Star Trek audiences to read into the episodes to see reflections of real-world identities and conflicts. In identifying with Spock as a closeted gay person, a queer viewer engaging in a negotiated reading is fulfilling a natural urge to project their identity onto those most fitting to embody it (Lipton 164). Queer reading is the practice of searching for queer subtext and context that is not explicitly stated in the source material. As Mark Lipton shows in his article, “Queer Readings of Popular Culture,” in response to not having explicit representations of queerness in the media, subtler and more disputable connections are drawn to themes of queer gender and sexuality. Queer youth identify with the characters they feel exhibit queer tendencies or could have queer tendencies in the right contexts, and Spock was specifically well suited to this projection (Lipton 172).

Similarly to Mark Lipton’s identification with Jughead from the Archie Comics, Spock is portrayed as somewhat asexual, immune to and unwelcoming of advances from women (165). This is seen in “Amok Time” with his rejections of Nurse Chapel and T’Pring, and throughout the series, most notably ignoring the advances of an Orian woman, a species who is famed for being literally irresistible to men. The connection is especially relevant when paired with his close relationship with Captain Kirk. The dynamic of the two characters can best be described by Roddenberry, who modeled their connection on the relationship between Alexander the Great (whom Kirk was written to parallel) and his male lover Hephaestion. “I designed Kirk and Spock to complete each other,” he said in an interview. “There is the feeling that they would die for each other, or in fact, die without each other” (Shatner et al. 147–48). The characters’ relationship would undeniably be read as romantic by the general public if either one of them was played by a woman. What a straight audience might read as a profound friendship, queer audiences read as romantic.

In the episode “Amok Time” from the second season of The Original Series, it can be argued that, in order to dodge the anxiety of the mass viewership surrounding queer sexuality, the topic is displaced onto Spock within the context of alien physiology. Therefore, the episode can be viewed as a clear allegory of a closeted gay person struggling with their identity and their place in society. As the episode begins, Spock, the ship’s half-Vulcan first officer, is beginning to exhibit signs of Pon Farr, a frenzy Vulcans are driven into every eleven years that requires them to return to their home world to mate—lest they suffer deadly biological consequences. The adrenaline-like substance Pon Farr released in his system causes him to act irritable and violent, which is wildly out of character for Spock, who prides himself on always being logical and emotionless, as Vulcans are taught to be. Although his situation is literally life or death, Spock feels so deeply ashamed of his body’s reactions that he refuses to tell even his closest friends what is happening to him. In his culture, Pon Farr is something deeply embarrassing and private. Vulcans created elaborate rituals and customs, “shrouded in antiquity,” to have a semblance of control over their biology, arranging marriages to ensure they had partners when the time came. It reflects the internalized shame and secrecy that society instills in gay people. They are taught that their sexuality should be treated as though it does not exist, and like Spock, who was engaged from the age of seven to ensure society had control over his sexuality, gay people are also expected to have a future heterosexual marriage from a very young age. He is forced to come to terms with his own sexuality late in life and very much against his will. The setup of the episode places the passive viewer in the position to empathize with Spock. They see, as a third party, a society that treats sexuality as though it is shameful and a man who is struggling with the pressures of an arranged marriage. Removed from the context of American culture and queerness, the audience is sympathetic to a character they might villainize in their real lives.

While Spock is struggling with his situation, he is repeatedly approached by Nurse Chapel, a woman he knows to have romantic feelings for him. Fueled by the hormones and anxiety he is overcome with, he lashes out at her, angered by her free expression of attraction when he is so confined by his. After somewhat coming to his senses, he attempts to explain his rejection of her, telling her, “It would be illogical to protest against our natures, don’t you think?” Spock’s rejection of her solely based on his personal nature—something he has no choice in—is an experience shared by many gay people.

When Spock finally reveals to Kirk the nature of his condition, Kirk dismisses his discretion and embarrassment over the subject, remarking that “It’s nothing to be embarrassed about Mr. Spock, the birds and the bees do it,” assuming that it’s the topic of reproduction by which he is distressed. The awkwardness of the scene parallels the emotions of coming out, with Spock having to carefully explain how his sexuality is different from the people around him and how it is something entirely outside of his control. For Spock, sex is something that is dangerous and complicated. He asks Kirk the question, “How do you think Vulcans choose their mates? Haven’t you wondered, Captain?” “Well, I assumed it was done rather logically.” “No. No, it is not.” Spock laments his forced betrothal, dissatisfied with both his inability to choose his mate and his inability to love her.

“I am driven by urges I can’t control, to return home and take a wife, or die.” Because of the dominant mindset of the society that Spock was raised in, he doesn’t question the pressure he is put under to conform to the demands of the Pon Farr ritual. The pervasive and entrapping Vulcan tradition affects Spock the way that compulsory heterosexuality affects closeted queer people living in America. Compulsory Heterosexuality is when the de-facto rules that govern how gender and sexuality should be felt and expressed are promoted so strongly that they are internalized by everyone within the society, no matter if it aligns with their personal identity (Ingraham 1–12).

Throughout the episode, Spock never shows anything but frustration and bitter resignation towards his inevitable coupling with T’Pring. He does not want to be married to her, nor does she want to be married to him. Spock is forced to choose between two terrible options, where he loses himself either way. It parallels the choice gay people face, of attempting to live like a heterosexual person for the rest of their lives, being accepted by their family and culture but living a lie, or to resist assimilation and be ostracized, losing the people and culture that are important to other aspects of their identity. Spock feels that he has absolutely no choice in the matter and that the only way to resolve the situation is to submit himself to the ritual that Vulcan culture has always paired with Pon Farr.

            As Spock returns home, he encounters the woman he was engaged to at the age of seven. As a part of the ancient ritual surrounding Pon Farr, they both recite the same vow to each other. “Parted from me, and never parted, never and always touching.” The words are spoken stiffly, as a formality, and both Spock and T’Pring look rather upset while saying them, as if they both are unhappy with their situation. T’Pring has fallen in love with another Vulcan and does not wish to be mated with Spock, who, as a half-human that is always far away exploring the universe, is strange to her.

            When Kirk and Dr. McCoy arrive on Vulcan, they find that Spock’s family is incredibly conservative. The religious and cultural leader of Vulcan, T’Pao, proudly tells Kirk and McCoy, “What thee are about to see comes down from the time of the beginning, without change.” The rules of the ritual are valued even higher than Spock’s life. Like the intolerant families of many closeted queer people, it is made clear that their values take priority, even above Spock’s own wellbeing.

           T’Pring, who is also confined by the strict laws of the ritual, resists in the only way she is allowed, by challenging Spock’s claim to her. By the ancient laws of the ritual, Spock must fight a champion of T’Pring’s choosing to the death for the right to her hand. She surprises everyone by choosing Kirk to be her champion, knowing that if Kirk were to win, he would free her to be with her lover, and if Spock were to win, he would be too distraught to have her. Kirk, unaware that the fight was to the death, accepted T’Pring’s challenge as a favor to his Spock, planning on forfeiting. Spock, though at this point is shown as too deep in his frenzy to speak, breaks through to make a final plea to T’Pao, begging her to stop Kirk and save his life, but she again refuses to break tradition.

           They begin their battle with bladed staves, which Spock immediately uses to cut what can only be described as a boob-window in Kirk’s uniform. It adds an intimate air to the battle, having Kirk in such an oddly stylish state of undress. Spock, overtaken by the blood-fever of Pon Farr, is unable to stop himself from attacking Kirk, and soon, as their weapons are destroyed, they devolve into simply grappling on the ground. The sight of Spock wrestling on the floor with his partially exposed captain is not explicitly sexual, but it is the most physical display of emotions between two men the show has aired. The knowledge that the two characters deeply care about each other as they roll around on the sand in their torn clothes, locked together in a violent embrace, makes their situation all the more tragic and passionate. Eventually, in a rather Romeo-and-Juliet-esqe turn of events, Kirk appears to die, choked to death as Spock straddles him, hands around his neck. All at once, Spock’s frenzy is over.

            As Spock realizes what he is done, he comes back to his senses, having channeled all of his sexual urges into his fight with Kirk. Free from the Pon Farr madness, he no longer needs to have sex with a woman to survive and readily gives her to the man she loves. As he turns to leave, T’Pao recites the parting mantra of the Vulcan, “Live long and prosper.” Spock, under the impression that he had killed Kirk, responds, “I shall do neither.” This directly calls back to Roddenberry’s modeling of the two off of Alexander the Great and Hephaestion, so intertwined that if one dies, so will the other.

When Spock arrives back on board the Enterprise he is wracked with guilt and commands McCoy to lock him up, when Kirk, alive and well through McCoy’s clever use of sedatives, surprises him from behind. In one of the most iconic scenes of the series, Spock grabs Kirk by his arms, spinning him around with a look of joy on his face that he, a self-proclaimed cold and emotionless Vulcan, has never let himself show before. In a moment of elation and tenderness, Spock lets every wall he has had up throughout the entire series down as he holds his captain. It is over in a moment as Spock remembers himself and his audience, but the warmth remains as the episode comes to a close.

In reading “Amok Time” as a story of a closeted gay man, the themes of internalized shame and repressed sexuality, being constrained by a conservative family, and being forced into a loveless marriage become much more meaningful to the audience, especially a queer one. When faced with the two impossible choices, to lose himself or to lose his identity, Spock discovers a third option. His connection with Kirk is what breaks him from the rigid tradition and repression he is trapped in and he returns to the Enterprise free of his obligation to T’Pring and the threat of imminent death, to be with the man he loves. His struggle with his sexuality ends on a decidedly optimistic note as he walks back into the Enterprise, side by side with Kirk. The formatting of Star Trek as a series built on the audience’s ability to read subtext and allegory through critical displacement onto aliens allows for impactful queer narratives to be interpreted within the source material.

Works Cited

“A Private Little War.” Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 2, Episode 19, 1968.

“Amok Time.” Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 2, Episode 1, NBC, 16 Sept. 1963.

“The Cage (Pilot).” Star Trek: The Original Series, 01, ABC, 1965.

“The Cloudminders.” Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 3, Episode 21, 1969.

Falzone, P. J. “The Final Frontier Is Queer.” Western Folklore, vol. 64, no. 3/4, Summer/Fall 2005, pp. 243–61.

Ingraham, Chrys. Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. SAGE, 2002.

Lipton, Mark. “Queer Readings of Popular Culture: Searching [to] Out the Subtext.” Queer Youth Cultures, 2008, pp. 163–79.

“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield .” Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 3, Episode 15, 1969.

Madsen, Julie. “Kirk, Honey. It’s Me, Spock!” Utne Magazine, no. 113, Feb. 2001, p. 32.

The Simple Feeling and Beyond: Kirk and Spock’s Place in Queer History. Accessed 19 Oct. 2018

Shatner, William, et al. Shatner: Where No Man ; the Authorized Biography of William Shatner. Grosset & Dunlap : Distributed by Ace Books, 1979.

Will Cohn is a first-year hailing from Boulder, Colorado. She spends her time singing and songwriting and has a passion for entomology and film criticism. Her favorite beverage is iced coffee and she knows how to cook an egg in a waffle iron.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Ivy says:

    This is an amazing analysis of Star Trek! I completely agree that Star Trek has a lot of queer subtext. Excellent work! Live long and prosper.


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