The Outcast is one of Star Trek’s most controversial episodes. While it certainly isn’t the only one to address gender and sexuality, it is one that attempted to directly address the issue of homosexuality, something long promised since Star Trek: The Next Generation’s inception.
The episode follows Riker and his collaboration with Soren, member of an androgynous race, to rescue missing scientists. Soren’s curiosity about humanity leads to her discreet revelation that she, unlike most of her kind, has a sense of gender, female, and is attracted to males, to Riker.
The romance is treated tenderly, unlike space player Riker’s other cosmic hook ups. He even consults ex-girlfriend Troi about this and receives her blessing. Ultimately, Soren is discovered by her people, and after a brief trial is sentenced to a high tech lobotomy to remove her “unnatural” sense of gender so she can be “cured”.
Tragically, Riker’s attempt to rescue her is too late and we see what happens to a society that is free to enforce its oppression.
It doesn’t sound very gay, does it?
But hold on… Star Trek has always worked best as allegory. While it has been mentioned that the producers of the show evaded homosexuality with this story, giving it a veiled showcase, the episode’s more allegorical nature has actually allowed it to transcend the “gay issue” into a much more inclusive one.
Before Soren’s “deviance” is revealed, she spends time inquiring the Enterprise crew about gender roles. While the obvious physical differences are mentioned, Soren learns that treatment of gender in other ways is fair and equal. To her, the Enterprise’s happy coexistence of gender and equality is foreign but hopeful. Many in our world may feel just as shocked as Soren is, considering still lingering inequalities between the genders in even our most progressive societies.
Soren tells Riker her secret in the privacy of a shuttle, where she is met with his understanding. Her description of a life of fear, and secrets, and hiding from persecution is all too familiar to anyone who is gay, or a racial minority, or even transgender as Soren most certainly is. When I watched Soren divulge her attraction to “maleness”, instantly I identified with her and I saw the terror and strength in her admission.
Soren’s true strength comes through when she speaks in her own defense on her home world. She proclaims her sense of gender is natural, and that all she wants is access to the same things as the rest of her kind, freedom to live with a compatible partner to share in life’s joys and support each other during its troubles.
Her rhetoric is common nowadays, with marriage equality being such a hot topic in our world. Think about twenty years ago, though. Gay people were merely struggling to be recognized as something more than the punchline of a joke, the victim of a “gay disease” that is actually a threat to us all, or as some secret to be swept out of sight and out of mind.
Marriage equality in the 90’s was as foreign to us as gender equality (or recognition, even) was for Soren.
With gender and sexuality being so intertwined, and able to be included in the entire spectrum of LGBT rights, the issues covered by this episode are now more relevant than ever.
Certainly, I was not the only child affected by this episode, who shared in Soren’s terror of the rest of her kind because of a secret truth that we couldn’t safely share. Being able to see a story that put a face to our fear gave us hope that there would be other Rikers out there to understand and love us.
The ending is tragic, yes, but it provides a staunch warning to the rest of our world.
Photo from the wonderful online Star Trek resource: memory-alpha.org
From YouTube, Soren’s speech from the channel JasonOnEarth: