Final Frontiers

How MLK helped create Star Trek’s black female gay icon who inspired a generation

Call it the Butterfly Effect: Sometimes a single act of courage can change the world.

As the nation eulogizes the civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his murder, King’s contribution to future struggles for equality—including that of LGBTQ folks—deserves recognition. King may not have intended as much when he sat down with an actress-supporter back in 1967, but in doing so, he helped create an African-American gay icon who would inspire a generation.

Join us on this journey…

Spring 1967

Actress/activist Nichelle Nichols becomes one of the most visible women of color in the world thanks to her role as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek. Dissatisfied with her character’s lack of development, she intends to leave the series and return to theatre. Dr. King, an avowed Trek fan, makes a personal appeal to Nichols at an NAACP dinner to stay on the show, as her visibility will give her role model status to young people of color. King adds that he encourages his own daughters to watch the show for that very reason. Nichols agrees to stay on the series.

1969

Star Trek gets canceled and finds new life in syndication. Uhura remains a beloved role model for viewers, inspiring young fans to have greater life aspirations. A young girl named Whoopi Goldberg decides to pursue a career in film, while a fan named Barack Obama admires Uhura’s role as a leader. Uhura’s fashion sense, rippling abs, and strong personality make her popular with queer audiences as well.

1974

So-called fan “slash” fiction emerges, depicting Star Trek characters as explicitly gay. The popularity of the fan fiction helps cement Trek‘s gay and lesbian audiences and raises Uhura’s profile as an icon.

1976

NASA taps Nichols to become a recruiter for the space agency. She decides to focus on bringing women and people of color into the fold.

1978

A Trek fan named Sally Ride joins NASA on the basis of her love of Uhura. Ride also happens to be lesbian.

1979 

Star Trek: The Motion Picture arrives in cinemas, reigniting interest in the show.

1983

Ride becomes the first American woman and the first LGBT person in space, flying aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. She repeats the feat in 1984. She again cites her love of Uhura as her reason for joining NASA.

2005

Nichols’ co-star George Takei follows her example as an activist, coming out as a gay man. He becomes one of the leading advocates for marriage equality in the United States.

2008

Embracing her role as a gay icon, Nichols delivers an address commemorating the National Day of Silence and advocating equal rights. She cites Dr. King as a role model for all people striving for justice.

2016

Paramount trumpets the first gay character in Star Trek history by making Sulu ostensibly gay in Star Trek Beyond, courtesy of a hug he shares with a man. Fans roll their eyes, and the movie gets slammed for coping out on the issue.

2017

Star Trek finally gets its first real out-gay characters: Hugh and Paul on Star Trek: Discovery.

Today

Uhura & Nichols remain two of the most important figures in sci-fi history for their acting, leadership and role in inspiring women, people of color, and LGBT folks to reach for the stars.