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Star Trek | Seven of Nine was Starfleet's First Lesbian

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Star Trek as a franchise has always had characters and relationships that the eager-eyed public has read as LGBTQ+. The most notable – the ur-reading of all fandom queer readings – would be James Kirk and Spock, or “Spirk,” as the internet lovingly calls them. They took the entire world by storm and are without a doubt two of the most iconic TV characters of all time.

But there are other, just as sexually ambiguous characters that flew slightly more under the radar, such as Star Trek Voyager’s own Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) – the ex-Borg who lived to be the foil for Captain Janeway (Katherine Mulgrew) herself, and whose character arc left LGBTQ+ folks wondering if she was one of them.

A few things come to mind when speaking of Seven of Nine. Firstly, there is the obvious – her tight-fitting silver catsuit, which in the thin context of the show is there to help her skin regenerate. In reality, it was designed to entice viewers back to Voyager when it was suffering from anemic ratings. Looking back, that is undoubtedly something that leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouths of 21st-century audiences, especially given that she was such a compelling character. Nonetheless, ratings shot up 67 percent.

Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan)’s iffy initial costume following her rescue from the Borg Collective. | CBS, 1997.

Her character arc is the second thing that comes to mind – Seven has arguably the most interesting character arc out of the entire Voyager crew. Her introduction at the beginning of Season 4 (‘Scorpion, Part II’ – S4, Ep1) is nothing short of iconic. There’s a reason why she is one of the most beloved Star Trek characters of all time – her journey from emotionless Borg drone through the tumultuous valley of trauma and self in search of her humanity is captivating. 

But also… a little bit gay? Let me explain.

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Gorn with the Wind

“Finding one’s heart is the surest way to individuality”

The Doctor, ‘Human Error’ – S7, Ep17.

While The Original Series began in the mid-60s, the first official gay romance didn’t hit the Star Trek universe until as late on as 2017, on Star Trek: Discovery, with married male crewmates – Lt. Cmdr. Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) and Lt. Cmdr. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp).

The show did eventually go for the notorious “bury your gays” trope (‘Despite Yourself’ – S1, Ep10), but you could also say they went for that in The Wrath of Khan (1982) with Spock’s death (yes you could, shut up), or when, in the final episode of Voyager (‘Endgame’ – S7, Ep25), Seven dies in older Admiral Janeway’s reality, so she comes back from the future to save her life. Totally platonically.

Lots of that going about isn’t there?

In the 50 years between the show starting in 1966 and the fans getting representation, there were multiple cries from fans to make an LGBTQ+ character canon.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the universe, said in 1990 that: “[his] attitude toward homosexuality has changed… I came to the conclusion that I was wrong […] I gave the impression of being thoughtless in these areas. I have, over many years, changed my attitude about gay men and women.”

There were hopes, following that statement, that Star Trek would finally see some gay characters, but Roddenberry died before it could come into fruition. 

The partially disconnected Seven in ”Scorpion, Part II’ – S4, Ep1. | CBS, 1997.

Enter Seven of Nine, the ex-Borg that stole the hearts of men and women alike after her debut in 1997. Jeri Ryan’s captivating performance is one of the best things to come out of the second half of Voyager and deserves a lot of praise. Her journey to finding her humanity was arduous and required a lot of soul-searching – set against the backdrop of a society that sometimes viewed her with suspicion.

Seven is finding her true self and the parts of her that had been suppressed by conditioning. She struggles for years to come to terms with herself, to cast off the previous indoctrination she had, and to discover and embrace who she really is. Those first steps are some of the hardest as she moves further and further from life as a drone. She frequently becomes frustrated and impatient, and pines for the sense of belonging she felt in her old life – one where she wasn’t an object of fear, fascination, or fetish.

Sound familiar?

But it isn’t just about her journey after being Borg. Prior to this, she was a human child who was kidnapped and converted, growing up a cog in the larger Borg collective. Her forced conversion could easily be likened to LGBTQ+ people being forced to hold down their truth and feeling pressured to fit into the heteronormative mold of wider society.

[See also: Star Trek | Prodigy Boldly Goes for the Clone Wars Crown by Clint Worthington]

It is worth noting that, based solely on her attire, Seven was set up as a “gay icon” without really trying. The showrunners were so desperate to adhere to the male gaze that they gave her a flashy, silvery catsuit and pinned-up platinum blonde hair. It’s a camp dream – and it’s been cosplayed to infinity by all genders alike.

Seven herself didn’t seem too pleased with the getup, but it most certainly awakened things in closeted women – me included. And it’s possible that thanks to her costume, she was considered an LGBTQ+ icon long before the show itself gave us a hint that she might actually be queer. Speaking in 2012, Ryan chalked her gay following down to her problematic early look.

“…it was probably the outfit! Let’s face it, Seven was just a little bit fabulous!”

Jeri Ryan

A glib remark, perhaps, but one rooted in some reality. Severe and statuesque in glittering silver, with improbable Barbie doll breasts, high heels, and a ribbed corset, Seven of Nine as she first appeared represented the sort of aggressive – and transgressive – depiction of feminity that was typically found in the gay icons from Madonna to Lady Gaga.

We Need to Talk About Seven

Janeway: “I couldn’t help but notice you were a little different in Unimatrix Zero and I don’t mean your lack of Borg implants. You seemed more… “
Seven of Nine: “Human.”
Janeway: “If you don’t mind my saying so, it suited you.”

‘Unimatrix Zero’ – S7, Ep1.

In the show, the crew of Voyager is unable to entirely remove Seven’s Borg implants or – initially – her tight catsuit (!?), and her trauma persists. The crew does their best to give her a life where she can live freely, now emotionally distanced from what she once was, and living as her true self. She even gets lessons in humanity from The Doctor and Janeway. 

In the 1999 episode ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ (S5, Ep22), The Doctor teaches Seven about human dating, and it almost feels like a slap in the face for him not to explore queer relationships more at this moment. You’d think that by the 22nd Century they would have evolved beyond that – clearly, the ’90s writing shining through.

The Doctor (Robert Picardo) teaches Seven about dating in ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ – S5, EP22. | CBS, 1999.

It’s Janeway’s question of: “Have you ever considered trying it yourself? Romance, I mean,” that really steals the show. It’s moments like this that explain why the romantic pairing of Janeway and Seven has such a strong following in fanfiction circles, echoing the classic slash fiction dynamic between Kirk and Spock. With Janeway’s interest in Seven’s love life, and Seven’s reluctance to find a man, all unfolding onscreen, the romance really writes itself.

Alas, Seven and Janeway did not become canon. Nor did Seven and B’Elanna Torres, or Seven and any female crewmember. This lack of romance could be partially explained by the fact that she spends many years dealing with the trauma that the Borg inflicted on her. When asked about romance, she brushes it off at first, then states that Voyager has no “mates” onboard, specifically after she is told by The Doctor (as heteronormative as he is curmudgeonly) that men and women couple up. 

It was only at the end of the final season that she was given a conventional on-screen “romance,” one that many fans see as rushed or unlikely – her romance with Cmdr. Chakotay (Robert Beltran). Their coupling is not one that is totally well-received by fans. There are those out there who would have preferred Seven to be with Captain Janeway. It is important to note that Janeway took on a familial, tutor role – perhaps even maternal – but the promise of their pairing is more well-received in fandom than the reality of Seven and Chakotay

The pairing of Janeway and Seven does beg the question of: would these two women getting together have felt wrong? It would have been gay representation, sure, but that pairing always felt like it was maternal. On more than one occasion, the two went above and beyond for each other – one example being when Janeway enters Borg territory to try and find the Borg technology to save Seven’s life as her node is failing. It was a big risk – a risk she was willing to take. 

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Seven had a deep, personal relationship with Captain Janeway, often questioning her motives and striving Janeway to look inside herself more. The two learned from each other and made each other better. It was entirely platonic, as far as canon goes. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s great to see a powerful female duo on TV. 

That said, “J/7” is massively popular in the fanfiction community. And it’s not like the foundations are weak – the Seven and Janeway dynamic is much-loved and a great back and forth. The deep friendship Kathryn gains with Seven led to thousands online ‘shipping the pair, claiming that Seven and Janeway were destined to be together. 

So, now we have the fandom covered, why didn’t Seven’s sexuality become canon during Voyager’s run? What was going on behind the scenes?

Canon Ball

It’s no secret that, behind the scenes, Jeri Ryan and Kate Mulgrew had a feud of sorts. It has since been resolved but it’s been recorded that filming scenes between them were tense at best. This escalated, and Ryan expressed that she used to be stressed to go to work when she had scenes alongside Mulgrew. Garret Wang, who played Ens. Harry Kim, stated that: “Kate’s anger was not directed toward Jeri Ryan, it was directed toward the character of Seven of Nine.”

They have since buried the hatchet. Mulgrew made it clear that it was “her fault,” and that she had wished at the time that the show could have survived with just Janeway as a powerful female, instead of having to bring in a sex symbol for ratings. While it is over now, the feud may explain in part why a romance between the two was never an option.

Had the show been made under different circumstances, or in the more open-minded world of today, maybe Seven and Janeway would have been endgame. Or perhaps B’Elanna Torres would have been the better fit, what with her and Seven’s contrasting personalities and fiery debates that the audience love to watch blossom into something more. 

It might seem like a reach, but it really wasn’t. The Voyager Visibility Project, which was lobbying the network to act on Gene Roddenbery’s 1991 promise that gay and lesbian characters would be included, was cautious but hopeful that Seven would be the character they were looking for. A press release from the organization on September 4, 1997 – the day after Seven’s onscreen debut in the Season 4 premiere, ‘Scorpion, Part II’ – opened:

Sources at the offices of Star Trek: Voyager producers Jeri Taylor, Richard Berman and Michael Pillar have revealed the the new Borg character played by actress Jeri Ryan (Dark Skies) will eventually be revealed as a lesbian, making her the first gay character to appear on the series.

The Voyager Visibility Project

The project’s director, Tim Perkins, was cautiously hopeful, adding:

“The producers of Trek have delayed so long that the addition of this character may be anti-climatic. However, the fact that she exists in a future where there is total acceptance of her orientation allows the character to develop and act in ways that a gay or lesbian character in a comedy or drama set in today’s society could not. This character could still make history for Trek, although at this point I personally think a male character would have more impact.

“At first I was leery about the idea of the ‘evolving’ realization of sexuality, but Seven of Nine literally has no sexual experience. The fact that she realizes she is a lesbian means that she has to interact with at least one female crewmember who identifies herself as a lesbian – and that’s good news. I can’t wait to meet the gay couple in security who become their best friends.”

Tim Perkins, The Voyager Visibility Project

Voyager co-creator and executive producer Jeri Taylor lamented to TV Guide that her push for a gay character had eventually been rejected, lending credence to the rumor:

“It is something I am absolutely sympathetic with, and I have tried several times to do it. But for various reasons, there has been opposition, and it gradually became clear that this is a fight I could not win.”

Jeri Taylor

Throughout her time on the show, Kate Mulgrew also had thoughts on this lack of representation. She acknowledged in 2002, once the show had finished, that gay characters should have been introduced into the franchise, and still should be.

“Rick Berman, who is a very sagacious man has been very firm about certain things, I’ve approached him many, many times over the years about getting a gay character on the show – one whom we could really love, not just a guest star.” 

Kate Mulgrew

She then apologized for the representation not occurring during her own show, but it was out of her hands. The people running things just weren’t allowing an LGBTQ+ character.

While there is little representation throughout the entire franchise, it is still incredibly popular among the LGBTQ+ community. As it is a show that routinely makes the impossible possible, it’s no surprise that many flock to Star Trek for comfort.

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Outside of Seven of Nine, some have likened the character of Jadzia and then Ezri Dax (Terry Farrell and then Nicole de Boer) in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to the life of a transgender person, and many storylines spanning the various shows have had queer readings. An example of this is Star Trek: The Next Generation’s ‘The Outcast’ (S5, Ep17), where Riker meets and falls in love with a member of the J’naii, a race that has no gender. The choice of a female actor in that role was something Jonathan Frakes supposedly disproved of, as references to LGBTQ+ were few and far between.

Uncertain Picard

It was incredibly exciting for Star Trek fans in 2019, queer or otherwise, to learn that Seven of Nine would be returning to our screens in Star Trek: Picard. While the show itself got mixed reviews, and many were unhappy to see Seven transformed into such a bloodthirsty character, fans were surprised to see hints of a lesbian relationship blossoming between Seven and a new character, Raffi Musiker (Michelle Hurd). 

Don’t get your hopes up here. The actual queer “representation” we see in Picard doesn’t arrive with much fanfare. It’s undeniable that Seven had chemistry with Bjayzl (Necar Zadegan) in ‘Stardust City Rag’ (S1, Ep5) until she killed her. But what got people talking was at the end of the season, when Seven and Raffi (who had barely interacted) held hands – not exactly the best representation, and definitely fitting with how Star Trek portrayed queer characters in the past. 

While their interaction does not confirm the relationship, following on from the episode, Jeri Ryan tweeted: “Oh, Seven is canonically bi, don’t you worry.”

So. is that enough? Whether we will see this representation further is another matter, and while it overjoyed many fans online, it left others wondering why they didn’t go to more extreme lengths to portray Seven’s sexuality better. It’s a classic move by mainstream media to only portray the queerness in the closing moments of the show – Korra and Asami in animated series The Legend of Korra to name one infamous example, but the difference here is that we have another season coming, a season that could canonize Seven’s queerness. Whether they will or not is another story, and a waiting game.

It’s certain that we were left longing for more, but this is still a step in the right direction, albeit a small one. Many queer people, myself included, had a fascination with Seven’s journey to becoming herself, her true self, and her captivating onscreen presence was always a comfort. Her looks aside, her journey to the truth is one that undeniably has queer parallels.

Legendary LGBTQ+ newspaper The Bay Area Reporter had it right in 1998 when they stated: “All permutations of Star Trek are so queer-encoded it amazes me that straight people haven’t caught on.”

If Star Trek: Picard is prepared to catch on and let Seven be gay, it will be a long time coming.

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Alice Walker is a filmmaker/writer from Liverpool, England. She has written and produced short films for the past three years, focusing mainly on LGBTQ+ issues or social issues. She is an avid lover of all things science fiction, specifically Star Trek and Star Wars. 

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