“Live Long and Prosper”: Spock as an Icon for Queer Hope

The Star Trek ideal of delight in diversity — of taking pleasure in each others’ differences — as symbolized by Mr. Spock’s Vulcan philosophy of the IDIC (infinite diversity in infinite combinations), is nowhere more in evidence than at a Star Trek convention.[1]

You’re 17, almost 18, and you’re lost in that period of transition between high school and college, where you’re supposed to be an adult already but you don’t really feel that way yet, and your friend tells you about this show she’s been watching and says, “You’ll like it. The main characters are in love.” You’ve been in fandom for awhile, bouncing from one to another — you enjoy how easy it is to explore those hard definitions and the blurry aspects of your own identity within the amorphous space of fandom, where nothing is solidly defined but everything is ever-shifting and as large as you want it to be, distant but far too close sometimes. You like that you find kinship there with others who are as confused as you are but find comfort in making the same characters fall in love over and over in a thousand different ways across time and space. You’ve been adjacent to the fandom your friend has just suggested to you, hearing others talk about it and seeing the screencaps and gifs, and so, doubtful because the show is as old as your father, you watch it.

You cannot define the exact moment you realize that she’s right, that these two men who are the main characters are absolutely and completely in love, one an alien and the other a man who is too large to be contained to Earth. It’s not quite in the first episode, where they’re both whispering to each other behind the rocks as they crawl along the sand, their enemy shooting at them as they shoot back. You don’t think you’ve made the solid decision in the second episode either, although the Human leaps in front of his alien — and there is no doubt the alien is his — to protect him from the young boy who is as angry and confused and demanding as you sometimes feel. But by the fourth episode you know with absolute certainty of their love for one another; and Spock walks past graffiti that reads “love mankind” in red, secludes himself, and cries, “I am in control of my emotions… I am sorry…”

I know he is crying because he feels, because he loves his captain, and to him, to his culture, that love is irreversibly and inexplicably queer in a way I cannot understand but can completely sympathize with. From that moment on, I am completely attached to him: Spock is now a vessel through which I can gauge my own interactions with the world, my own queerness. I am an alien as he is, and I find my alien culture in his fandom, and I find a peace that I have seldom known before. I am not in control of my emotions, and that is completely, perfectly accepted. My excitement is swept up in the fandom’s, made their own, and they spit it back at me with twice the enthusiasm. We are all crying, we are all queer. None of us are in control of our emotions and it is our duty to show that.

Fandom exists in a strange liminal space where it is both seen and unseen, where people know it exists and how to seek it out but don’t encounter it without looking for it. This is especially true of the Star Trek fandom, once considered to be quite dead by the mainstream while actually continuing to enthusiastically thrive, sending out echoes every few years in the form of new shows or movies. Queerness, until recently, also existed within that liminal space, there but not-there, haunting the mainstream. Neither fandom nor queerness are mainstream culture, but they aren’t counterculture either — they live in the space between, a ghostly presence. Queer communities desire to find comfort in the not-there space, attempting to create a microcosm of society where bonds cannot be solidified through traditional culture but are mutable and easily broken. This comfort in the liminal, the space between the lines, is what drives queer people to fandom in droves.

Fandom, and more specifically fan-creations such as fanfiction, is in constant communication with its own echoes across the boundaries of time and space. We communicate with those who wrote in the past and leave ourselves to those who will write in the future; we communicate with those in different timezones, with different cultures and different life experiences, and we all have one thing in common.

We all think Spock is queer.

Spock, first officer and chief science officer of the fictional USS Enterprise, made famous in Star Trek: The Original Series and then appearing in The Next Generation, the 2009 reboot movies dubbed the Kelvinverse, and most recently Discovery and Strange New Worlds, has always been interpreted as queer by a certain, not insignificant, subset of the fandom community. As the presentation of his queerness escaped the liminal spaces of fandom and made its way to mainstream, there has been a tendency by the heteronormative society to assume that the idea of Spock’s queerness is a recent development. Not only is this not the case, it is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Star Trek stood and stands for.

Since the show began, fans have used the idea of “the premise” to discuss the relationship between Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy, and his dashing, willful captain, James “Jim” Kirk, played by William Shatner. Older fans, particularly in the 1960s and ‘70s, used “the premise” as a code-word for the queer aspects of their relationship to avoid persecution for using queer terminology. It is a widespread concept within the Star Trek community and has been from the first episode, with even modern fans who are able to use queer terminology more comfortably holding a fondness for the term. The history of queerness in the Star Trek fandom is the history of queerness in America — they cannot be separated.

They called that feeling friendship — even Spock did. They called it being brothers. Kirk would have been willing to call it a very special kind of love.

But it was Spock who did, however silently, actually call it love. [2]

Spock is at the center of a cultural phenomenon that created modern fandom. He is part of the first “slash” relationship. Indeed, the writings about Kirk and Spock are where the term “slash” originated. Not to mention that Star Trek is considered the original fandom. It spurred on the fanfiction boom, conventions, spin offs, fan works and video continuations of The Original Series, along with countless academic works analyzing and discussing it. Truly, Star Trek is a force to be reckoned with, in a way that had not been foreseen, as it was frequently threatened with cancellation.

Interestingly, while Star Trek and Spock in particular have heavily influenced modern science fiction and fantasy as well as coined many new cultural memes and phenomena (“Beam me up, Scotty!” is famously popular, despite that exact line never being said), the physical footprint on society has faded, at least explicitly; implicitly it survives in our smartphones and iPads, dreamed up on screen in the ’60s. Original Series replica tricorders go for upwards of $100 on eBay. Replica communicators sell for $40 or more on Amazon. (I happen to own both of these items, after much agonizing over their prices.)

The low supply is artificial, of course, because the Trek fandom is alive and thriving, although the lack of physical footprint makes it feel ghostly. New Star Trek shows are still being made (excitingly, the most recent iteration, Star Trek: Discovery, features a black female lead, a prominent gay couple, a kick-ass lesbian, and a nonbinary character), but new Star Trek merchandise is far outstripped by Star Wars and similar franchises. Likely this is a result of the period between The Next Generation and the 2009 renaissance, where Deep Space 9, Voyager, and Enterprise each had declining viewership and unenthusiastic merchandising. Enterprise ran until 2005, so for four years there was little Star Trek to be found outside of reruns and The Big Bang Theory allusions. Even now, during what can only be classified as a Star Trek boom, with three new shows each successfully pulling a great viewership, Star Trek as a franchise has not recovered to the extent it could.

I might speculate this is directly due to its competition with franchises that operate within a similar sphere, such as Star Wars and the ever-successful Marvel Cinematic Universe; perhaps part of it also has to do with how the new Star Trek shows and movies, as Jeffery Morris puts it, don’t feel like the well-worn and well-loved Trek of old which still holds such a draw. Morris writes of the recent Trek movies and TV shows, “It just isn’t connected to the lineage I came to know, love, and follow for decades.” Regardless, the lack of material culture has led some to still believe Trek to be a thing of the past, simply a reference on another TV show or movie rather than a media in its own right, when really it is very much in the present, and, quite literally, the future as well. The perceived distance has led to a state of affairs where Trek fans are somewhat marginalized and silenced. We are asked: Why does it matter that a character from a nearly-60-year-old show is queer or not?

Because it proves that queerness is timeless, breaks the boundaries of temporality. Past, present, and future. Spock exists in all of these. Fifty-five years in the past he was queer, in the present with Discovery he is queer, and in the future, in the 2230s when he is voyaging with Kirk, he is queer. In his theoretical work on queer futurity, Cruising Utopia, José Muñoz writes:

The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalising rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there. Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.” [3]

That is, of course, Star Trek’s ultimate goal: “To explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Queerness shrivels and dies in the here and now when we do not speak with the past and the future, playing ouija with ghosts that are yet to be — like the ghosts of Kirk and Spock, and their love for each other, felt across time.

… the deepest conviction of the creators of Star Trek was, and is, that triumph is possible, that we can win.

And Star Trek said: Won’t it be fun? [4]

There have been discussions on whether or not the relationship between Spock and Kirk falls into queerbaiting, due to the truly amazing amount of queer-verging scenes between them onscreen, including the creation of a Vulcan word specifically to describe their relationship, t’hy’la, which can be roughly translated to “soulmate.” Personally, I do not believe Star Trek queerbaits their relationship simply because they never intended or foresaw the popularity of the relationship between the two men, and they couldn’t have foreseen it if they tried, because they never expected Spock to be as popular a character (some would even say the most popular character in Trek history) as he became in the first place. Even without it being explicitly homosexual, their relationship is explicitly queer in that it breaks the boundaries of traditional culture, at least of Spock’s culture, and he says as much on several occasions in the show. With such an explicit statement of the queerness in their relationship, I do not find it to be queerbaiting.

The popularity of Spock and Kirk’s fanon/canon queer relationship is so widespread that in the 2009 reboot movies, they shoehorned in a straight relationship between Nyota Uhura, bridge communications officer of the Enterprise, and Spock, including two rather unsatisfying kissing scenes and one scene of clear manipulation of Spock by Nyota, an abhorrent blow to her character when compared to the gentle, feisty, brilliant, and kind Lieutenant Uhura of the Original Series, with no actual discussion of their relationship. Many fans speculate the relationship is compulsory heterosexuality not only for Spock but for Nyota, who is at the center of the most popular lesbian ship of the fandom (between her and Nurse Christine Chapel, lovingly dubbed Chuhura after they exchanged cheek kisses in “What Are Little Girls Made Of”), and was only included to stop the shipping.

Famously, a Star Trek novel, Killing Time by Della Van Hise, was considered too homoerotic in some scenes between Spock and Kirk and was accidentally published originally in an unedited form and so was pulled off the shelves and edited before being reprinted. Having been lucky enough to find myself with a copy of the original, I find the editing to be an overreaction, but perhaps this is a product of the time period in which I live, where friendships between men can often blur the line between platonic and homoerotic. The explicit statements between Kirk and Spock of their care for each other is, regardless, exciting to see. In the culmination of the plot, Spock repeatedly turns down unimaginable power simply so that he can be with Kirk again, on the Enterprise, at his side. This part, in fact, was not cut from the edits, and yet it is the most explicitly queer scene in the novel.

Spock is possibly the best queer representation we could ask for, because we know, looking only at The Original Series with its three season run, approximately nothing about him. He’s an alien — does he have the same concept of gender and sexuality we do? Does he consider himself a “he” or is it simply a limitation of our language? He never shows interest in other beings unless he is drugged or otherwise influenced — does he experience any romantic or sexual attraction? Does he have a gender preference? We simply don’t know. Spock is a blank slate. We are able to project any identity we wish upon him, and certainly, some may wish to project onto him heterosexuality, and many do.

There is another aspect of the importance of his character: he is not outwardly and loudly queer. Many have never, and would never, consider the relationship between him and Kirk to be in any way homoerotic or queer. It is in his subtlety and his ability to simply be without defining himself that we find another comfort. Spock is queer for those who need him to be queer, and for those who don’t need him to be queer, he is simply Spock. His queerness is not an aspect of his perception which changes others’ judgement of him. In other words, the fact that he is or is not queer has no bearing on the interpretation of his character as a whole. This, to me at least, is comforting in a representative way. Even now queer representation is an aspect of character, of story, of integrity. Identities are politicized and included to draw in queer viewership, become part of the plot of a series. It was not long ago where the “bury your gays” trope was still common enough that I, personally, could not consume media with any explicitly queer representation in it for the promise of certain death to those which bore my description. Spock’s queerness feels like a warm secret, something which I and my many friends know of and find comfort in despite the many who do not see it. We see it, we know it through our own struggles played out in his story, those struggles which cannot be perceived by those who know him as straight, and that is enough.

There is a valid argument against Spock as the ideal queer representation, a glaring objection written into his very identity: Spock is an alien. Historically, portraying marginalized groups as fictional beings has been incredibly damaging, and there has been a rightful push-back against a portrayal of queer people as non-human entities as it only serves to Other us further. And yet, Spock is half-human. He was raised on Vulcan, follows Vulcan mannerisms and culture, and yet he admits that he understands humans, that he loves his human mother, that he finds humans fascinating. He never denies he’s half-human. He accepts he is different from his peers. His alienness doesn’t seem so Othering, when we see him struggle with the same acceptance of his emotions as queer people, and indeed many marginalized communities. The fact that he is comfortable with being different from his peers is what makes him so inspiring to the queer individual. It is precisely because he is alien that we can identify with him; we feel alien too.

The most phenomenal phenomenon of all is: Spock.

The devastating, unprecedented response to the character of Spock went beyond all bounds, beyond anything anyone could have expected, almost beyond anything anyone could be expected to explain.

It is, in fact, a hazardous procedure to attempt to explain the impact of Spock. [5]

I asked the online Star Trek community to tell me about why Spock speaks to them as a queer figure, and they responded enthusiastically. I got responses from asexuals, homosexuals, lesbians, genderqueers, nonbinaries, bisexuals, aromantics, and those who only identified themselves to me as queer. I got essays, lists, and rants. Throughout all these responses to my inquiry, there was one defining theme, summed up best by Dan Deevy during an interview for The Advocate: “He’s the original outsider.” In a truly beautiful response, tumblr user lacefuneral told me, “I feel like Spock really captures the concept of internalized homophobia, and being ashamed of the way you feel – wanting to keep those emotions hidden and buried because you’re scared of what they mean.”

The idea that the most relatable aspect of Spock as a queer icon is that he cannot truly identify himself as queer — or anything with any certainty, being Vulcan and human and consistently denied both heritages — is what makes him both the perfect representation of the queer experience and the most difficult representation to prove. (As if proof is what is necessary to make a character a queer icon.) User emotionalspock tells me,

I would say Spock is a queer icon for lots of reasons. He’s constantly pulled into two halves, which I think a lot of queer people can relate to in their own feelings of duty to trueness of self and felt obligation to straight family and cultural norms. Spock is the embodiment of choosing to walk a path less followed by his culture and family. When he walks away from kolinahr [a ritual in which Vulcans purge all emotion in order to achieve true logic, which Spock decides to undertake after the end of The Original Series] in [Star Trek: The Motion Picture] he cements that he will never be a fully logical Vulcan because his love for Kirk is too strong. Eventually I think most queer people have that sort of tipping point too.

I wish I could include every beautiful response I received, but as a whole they are each represented in a personal essay Jeremy Yoder, a queer biologist at California State University, Northridge, wrote on his blog. He points out four themes that paint Spock into a relatable queer icon. Spock troubles gender through his mannerisms despite being physically masculine, such as an abhorrence for violence and the use of makeup; he is “queer in the oldest sense of the word” because he is surrounded by humans who do not fully understand his culture; sex, for him, is complicated and often associated with shame, notably seen in the episode Amok Time where the Vulcan pon farr strips him of his logic and requires him to mate or die; and Spock often must “pass” as human during missions by using disguises to hide his “queerness,” literally his alien features.

Yoder also notes that there is a character with queer distance akin to Spock’s social isolation in each subsequent Star Trek series, most notably Data in The Next Generation, but that Spock is the only one who fully and actively embraces his differences rather than seeking to fit in with his human counterparts. He writes, “It is this confidence in the value of his queer view on human life that makes Spock a worthy and powerful icon for the gay experience. But, at the risk of being un-Vulcan, the power of a gay icon lies in more than a logical proof of parallels to the queer experience. It lies in the emotional resonance, support, and solace that those parallels can provide.” And provide emotional resonance he does indeed, according to thousands of people throughout the past fifty-five years since The Original Series aired.

He speaks to things in us which even his closest associates do not share, helps us to wrestle with problems which his contemporaries have at least partly solved and gives us hope of solutions where we have seen none. [6]

Regardless of proof, and I have yet to see definitive proof he isn’t queer in some manner, Star Trek fans have taken the idea of Spock’s queerness and run with it, because to us the proof is in his actions and character; and that is enough. User artemismohr18 tells me,

He is successful. He is doing something he genuinely loves, all without a canon sexual or romantic partner. People don’t question him about when he’s going to settle down and start a family, or who is the special someone back home. They don’t say he isn’t fulfilling his duty by not having children and continuing his family line. His life is full of his own decisions, regardless of the opinions of others… I love how by the end of his life, he knows who he is and is confident in himself. I hope to get to the same point. I hope I can still relate to him as much then as I do now. It can never be understated how important it is for baby, young, and old queer people to have someone they can relate to. And Spock is one of mine. Live long and prosper.

The Vulcan salutation, live long and prosper, ended many messages I received. It is perhaps the queer person’s greatest wish — to live to see the future, a future where we can be accepted like Spock is without having to sacrifice our deepest selves, and to prosper while doing so. Speculating on the future of queerness and queer studies, José Muñoz tells us, “Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain.”[7] Spock exists inside that future domain, breaking the boundaries of time to reach towards us here and share a bit of that warmth with us, when we are still fighting for our future, voices loud but hoarse from shouting.

Spock is an inspiration to queers, and has been for half a century. Often we are told that he is not canonically gay, so we shouldn’t try to force a narrative, but so many fan interpretations do not simply paint Spock as homosexual, but as queer. Spock is not only queer as in strange, literally alien to his peers, but he’s also queer as in ‘fuck you,’ because he never apologizes or diminishes who or what he is simply to make his human crewmates comfortable. It is a reality which queer activism strives for, the reality where someone can be queer without attempting to normalize themselves and be accepted enthusiastically for that; and Spock is enthusiastically accepted by his crewmates. In “Balance of Terror,” after several discriminatory remarks towards Spock by a crewmate, Kirk says firmly, “Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There’s no room for it on the bridge.” Spock, who had nervously been biting his lip, regards his captain, and turns back to his work. There’s no need for him to worry or fear against discrimination when his friends are willing to stick their necks out for him, literally, in some episodes.

How is this not inspiring to a young queer, or old queer, who desires the same kind of acceptance and openness with their own identity? Yoder puts it perfectly when he writes, “I propose that the very nature of Spock… makes him emblematic of attitudes, ideas, and behaviors that are integral to the gay experience. That is, Spock is gay not in the sexual sense, but in the cultural one.” Spock, regardless of “canon,” is queer because we have made him so. We don’t require some amorphous proof of his queerness, some statement of a label that means very little — indeed, assigning Spock a label would only close off his accessibility to many people — but if we did, the proof is right there, staring us in the face.

The simple fact is, Spock inspires us. His queerness is our own and we delight in his, find comfort in it. Spock lives in a world where he can exist queerly and find love and contentment. His struggles are ours, his triumph is ours, his love is ours. One day his reality will be ours, too, if we dream hard enough.

How much more proof do we need?

But if this be madness, let us by all means continue to make the most of it. We’re certainly having too much fun to quit!
Most of all, perhaps, we hope you will find that you are not alone! [8]

Taryn MacKay is a student, poet, and aspiring teacher who can most commonly be found reading or writing in her bedroom. Recently graduated from William & Mary with a double BA in English and Classical Civilization, she is currently attending Old Dominion University for an MSEd in Secondary Education with the hopes to teach literature to adolescents. Her undergraduate studies focused on queer literature, Shakespeare, Star Trek, and medicine in Ancient Mesopotamia.

She currently lives with her mother, father, cat, two hermit crabs, and three guinea pigs, Toby, Tacitus, and Tribble. She has a self-published poetry book, a date with expiration, and is currently running out of space on her bookshelves. Her greatest wish is to inspire young and aspiring academics to boldly go wherever they desire.


  1. Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Sondra Marshak, and Joan Winston. Star Trek Lives! Bantam Books, 1975, 5.
  2. Lichtenberg et al, Star Trek Lives!, 97
  3. José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2019, 1.
  4. Lichtenberg et al, Star Trek Lives!, 7.
  5. Lichtenberg et al, Star Trek Lives!, 71.
  6. José Esteban Muñoz. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2019, 1-2. 73.
  7. Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, 1-2.
  8. Lichtenberg et al, Star Trek Lives!, 274, 8.