Star Wars’ Not-So-Brief History of Fleeting LGBTQ+ Representation

Star Wars’ Not-So-Brief History of Fleeting LGBTQ+ Representation

The long road to meaningful representation of For Star Wars, one of the biggest pieces of popular culture in living memory, that story has come in fits and starts ” and in many ways, it’s still a story that is only just beginning.

The bulk of Star Wars‘ attempts to create and highlight characters of various sexual identities has come in recent years, especially in the wake of Disney’s acquisition of the franchise. Disney’s ownership led to a complete overhauling of Star Wars‘ extended canon, creating new opportunities for the first “canonically queer” characters to be touted to fans and media. But it also led to, as we’ll get into, wider calls for the franchise to better its progress on LGBTQ representation as Star Wars renewed its prominence in the cultural sphere with the Sequel Trilogy.

But the story of Star Wars‘ textual representation of sexual identity beyond that truly begins in 2004, in the time of the old Expanded Universe. It was officially released material, yes, but even then, as far as George Lucas and Lucasfilm were concerned, the stories of the EU were textual material that could be overridden in “legitimacy” by any product directly from themselves. And that was even while the prequel movie saga, and seemingly Star Wars as a whole, was entering a period of cultural downtime.

There were potential characters before her but Juhani, a Cathar Jedi Knight, was the first explicitly queer character in the Star Wars franchise. (Note: It was never confirmed, but Sharn Shild, an Imperial Moff who appears in A.C. Crispin’s young Han Solo trilogy, kept a mistress to impress his Imperial colleagues and to hide the fact that he was not interested in women, leading to fandom speculation that the character was meant to be interpreted as gay.) A party member in Bioware’s seminal roleplaying game Knights of the Old Republic, Juhani wasn’t just created and written as a lesbian character, she was also one of several romance options for players who played KotOR as a female version of the game’s protagonist, Revan.

Star Wars‘ groundbreaking first step was not without some stumbles, however. Upon release of the game, a bug let both male and female player characters romance Juhani, leading to fans initially identifying her as bisexual, but Bioware updated the game to restrict her romance path to female player characters (something that can be undone with fan-made modifications). But even after it was made clear that Juhani was Star Wars‘ first lesbian, the fluidity of canon in the old Expanded Universe quickly erased her relationship with the female Revan.

The sequel to the game, The Sith Lords ” as well as future novels set in the “Old Republic” time period and the spinoff MMO simply titled The Old Republic “ made the assumption that “canon Revan” was a male, Light Side-aligned Jedi, who went on to marry and have children with another member of KotOR‘s party, Bastila Shan. But even if Juhani’s relationship with a female Revan was considered non-canon, her sexuality remained unchanged: part of Juhani’s arc in the first game implies that she previously had a relationship with a childhood friend and fellow Jedi initiate, Belaya, and briefly fell to the Dark Side in part due to her deep feelings for Belaya going against the Jedi Code of attachments.

It would take a few more years for Star Wars to receive its first gay character, but with it would come another important step in the franchise’s history: the first queer married couple. Introduced in the 2006 e-novel Boba Fett: A Practical Man by Karen Traviss, Goran Beviin was a Mandalorian commando in the time of the New Republic. Although the story mentions he has a partner named Medrit Vasur, it wasn’t until 2008 that Vasur actually appeared and was revealed to be male in Sacrifice, one of Traviss’ entries in the Legacy of the Force series. Although Beviin and Vasur were Star Wars‘ first gay couple, none of their appearances in the novels explicitly noted that they were married. It would take the 2008 release of The Complete Star Wars Encyclopaedia to confirm they were more than just partners.

Although Juhani, Beviin, and Vasur were important landmarks in Star Wars‘ queer representation, the franchise still struggled to tackle issues of non-heteronormative sexuality and romance. Queer characters continued to be few and far between and continued to only appear in ancillary material rather than “G-Canon” output like Star Wars: The Clone Wars. It would take a return to the realm of video games to deliver the next important step in queer Star Wars reputation with the launch of The Old Republic ” a narrative-driven MMORPG by Bioware set 300 years after the events of the Knights of the Old Republic games.

What made The Old Republic stand out among other MMOs of the time was the importance it placed on player choice. Beyond just picking gender, race, and a character class, players could shape the stories they went on in The Old Republic‘s world, choosing dialogue options akin to how they would in Bioware’s past work on KotOR, Jade Empire, and the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. They could form a party of characters that would join them on their quest and, in Bioware style, were able to pursue romance with some of them. Fans had hoped, just as they could in past Bioware games, that you could choose to engage in queer relationships.

However, The Old Republic found itself in repeated controversies when it came to LGBTQ romance. In 2009 ” years before TOR would release in 2011 ” forum community manager Sean Dahlberg was forced to apologise after defending the choice for the game’s fan forums to filter “gay” and “lesbian” as banned terms by arguing that they are terms “that do not exist in Star Wars.” And despite a desire from fans, The Old Republic only launched with straight romance options among its many character class stories.

That would change two years later with the addition of the MMO’s first major content expansion The Rise of the Hutt Cartels, but once again, it was not without errors in judgment. Bioware compromised on the lack of LGBTQ romance options in the base version of The Old Republic by adding two explicitly queer characters to the planet Makeb, the new world added in Rise of the Hutt Cartels. There was a Sith Lord named Cytharat, who could be romanced by male characters of either the Republic or Sith Empire factions, and Lemda Avesta, a human who could be romanced by female characters. But the nature of Makeb as a new piece of content added to the game created issues.

Unlike other romanceable characters in The Old Republic, Cytharat and Avesta could not join players on their journey as party members; once they had finished Rise of the Hutt Cartels‘ storyline, they remained on the planet. As Rise of the Hutt Cartels wasn’t a free update but a purchasable expansion, fans who wanted to experience any LGBTQ options in The Old Republic were being asked to pay to do so. But many felt Makeb was being treated as “the gay planet,” and that players interested in queer romances and characters were not being given equitable treatment.

For all its false starts, TOR would eventually improve. In 2015’s major content update Knights of the Fallen Empire, which radically overhauled the game’s ongoing storyline, three ongoing main characters were added to the player’s party, regardless of class or faction. Republic intelligence agent Theron Shan, smuggler Koth Vortena, and a Sith Lord named Lana Beniko worked together and with the player to combat a new threat that decimated both the Republic and Sith Empire alike. Not only were they major characters who played vital roles in the story, they could both be romanced by players regardless of their gender, and, unlike Cytharat and Lemda, actually went on the player’s journeys with them, still playing roles in TOR‘s storyline today.

But change was coming to Star Wars. In 2014, the world was shaken by the news that George Lucas sold both the rights to the franchise and his Lucasfilm studio to Walt Disney, with the intent of them creating a new trilogy of movies set after the events of Return of the Jedi. Disney didn’t just own Star Wars now, it planned to make a lot of it, and to do so, the need for a clean slate was required. In April 2014, it was made official: the old Star Wars expanded universe was being ended and confined to “Legends,” completely non-canonical to the events of the new movies.

Lucasfilm announced a bold new initiative: going forward, every book, comic, game, TV show, and movie created would be canonical to a new Star Wars expanded universe, with only Clone Wars, the prequel trilogy, and the original trilogy remaining from the pre-Disney era. But that clean slate led to a new round of firsts when it came to queer representation. It’s perhaps fitting that, as it was in the old EU, the “first canon” LGBTQ character in the post-Disney age of Star Wars was a lesbian: Moff Delian Mors, an Imperial introduced in Paul S. Kemp’s Lords of the Sith in 2015. She would become the first of multiple queer characters to be be introduced through Star Wars‘ novels.

Chuck Wendig’s trilogy of Aftermath novels, set in the early years after the events of Return of the Jedi, gave us a whole bevy of background characters of multiple sexualities and gender identities. That included Eleodie Maracavanya, the first Star Wars character to use gender-neutral pronouns (zhey would be joined by Taka Jamoreesa in 2018’s Last Shot, but controversially, non-English translations of the book did not carry over the gender-neutral pronouns) and a married lesbian couple in the form of protagonist Norra Wexley’s sister Estelle and her wife Shirene. Most notably, the trilogy added the “first canon” gay characters, in the form of ex-Imperial Sinjir Rath Velus ” who defected from the Empire after the battle of Endor and became a major point-of-view character in the first book in the series ” and his boyfriend, a New Republic Slicer named Conder Kyl.

It wasn’t just the new, post-Return of the Jedi timeline that the Disney age brought LGBTQ representation to. As the books continued to flesh out the timelines of the original and prequel trilogies (as well as the time between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens), so did queer representation in those eras of Star Wars.

Leia, Princess of Alderaan, by Claudia Grey, introduced a younger version of Laura Dern’s then-upcoming The Last Jedi character, Amilyn Holdo, who was heavily implied (but not explicitly so) to be queer when she tells Leia of her romantic interest beyond just human males. For A New Hope‘s 40th anniversary, the short story anthology From A Certain Point of View canonised Bea Arthur‘s cantina owner Ackmena from the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, and in the process, gave her a wife named Sorschi. In the prequel era, E.K. Johnston’s Padmé-centric YA novel Queen’s Shadow addressed sexuality in a nuanced fashion with the relationship between Padmé’s handmaidens and the Queen they lived to serve ” especially Sabé, the handmaiden played by Keira Knightley in The Phantom Menace.

But while Star Wars novels have become a place for authors to freely diversify the galaxy far, far away, arguably one of the most prominent and important LGBTQ+ characters added to the franchise is instead found in the pages of Marvel’s Star Wars comics. First introduced in Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larocca’s run on Darth Vader, the archaeologist-turned-smuggler Doctor Chelli Aphra became one of the most celebrated new additions to Star Wars canon, working with Vader and the Rebellion alike before cutting her own path between both sides in her own ongoing comic book series.

Aphra and Tolvan lock lips. (Image: Emilio Laiso and Rachelle Rosenberg, Marvel Comics)
Aphra and Tolvan lock lips. (Image: Emilio Laiso and Rachelle Rosenberg, Marvel Comics)

It was there that Aphra would not only be confirmed to be queer, but get to engage in what would be the first actually-visible LGBTQ+ kiss in the Disney Star Wars canon. In issue 16 of her self-titled series, she locked lips with her on-again-off-again paramour Magna Tolvan, an Imperial Agent just as likely to be chasing Aphra for crimes against the Empire as she was dating her.

But you’ll note that so far under Disney’s purview, these characters have been seen in the pages of books and comics, not on screen. Because for all the advances Star Wars‘ ancillary material has made, whether in the old Expanded Universe or the re-interpreted canon, on-screen LGBTQ representation has been, diplomatically speaking, disappointingly minimal.

After the release of The Force Awakens in 2015, J.J. Abrams declared that a queer character in a Star Wars movie would be an inevitability, but it would take another four years of controversy before we’d actually get there. The Force Awakens‘ release saw an outpouring of fandom love for the idea of John Boyega and Oscar Isaac’s characters ” ex-Stormtrooper turned hero Finn and Resistance Starfighter ace Poe Dameron ” to become a couple thanks to the duo’s lip-biting chemistry onscreen, spawning the “FinnPoe” shipping fandom. Despite the actors’ continued support of fans’ desire to see the characters become a couple, or at least be identified as queer in the sequel trilogy, The Last Jedi passed by without either happening.

Things reached a head in the months just before the release of the final entry in the sequel trilogy ” and the “Skywalker Saga” at large ” The Rise of Skywalker. Returning director Abrams confirmed that, while there would be on-screen LGBTQ+ representation in the film, the first for a Star Wars movie, it would not be Finn or Poe, leading to disappointment from both the actors and fans alike that Star Wars continued to shy away from its potential when it came to queer representation.

Ultimately, the release of the film stoked even more controversy. Not only was the moment Abrams referred to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kiss between background characters Larma D’Acy and Lieutenant Wrobie Tyce, it was so brief and inconsequential it was actually edited out of several international cuts of the film. In addition, The Rise of Skywalker actively went out of the way to give Poe a heteronormative subplot with Zorii Bliss (played by Keri Russell), a former associate of Poe who he flirts with repeatedly throughout the film. The whole thing felt especially disappointing in the wake of the Isaacs’ repeated statements in support of Poe as a queer character.

Finn and Poe were not the only examples of Star Wars‘ on-screen projects teasing potential for queer rep only to struggle in actually making that rep textually explicit. The animated series Star Wars Resistance revealed in its second season that two supporting alien characters, Orka and Flix (voiced by Bobby Moynihan and Jim Rash), were a couple. But it wasn’t definitively stated in the show until several episodes after the announcement, despite producers commenting that they had been an item since the show’s beginning. It came across as if they wanted praise for the addition without ever actually having made it clear in the show itself.

But at least Orka and Flix were eventually acknowledged as queer. Back on the big screen, Solo: A Star Wars Story screenwriter Jon Kasdan faced controversy when he stated ahead of release that Donald Glover’s portrayal of a younger Lando Calrissian in the prequel spinoff was pansexual, despite the fact that neither the movie or his script never explicitly acknowledged Lando as such, once again leaving queer representation down to interpretation anywhere but in the text itself.

That Star Wars has come both so far and not nearly far enough in just 16 years since its first explicitly queer character speaks to the work left to be done by the franchise when it comes to representing a universe more reflective of its fandom and our wider world at large (not to mention its enormous fictional galaxy filled with potential). Queer characters need to be the heroes, instead of blink-and-you’ll miss background roles easily edited out. When they do appear, their queerness has to be explicit, one aspect of their character but one made definitive, instead of danced around with vague nods and allusions that only serve to help people who don’t want to see more diverse characters in their media deny that queerness.

Even as Disney and Lucasfilm continue to push that all aspects of Star Wars being made now, from the books and comics to the video games, from the TV shows to the mainline movies, all share the weight of Star Wars canon and all “matter,” these characters cannot just exist in ancillary material. To many, Star Wars will always be just the movies (and not even all of them), so to make the impact of queer representation felt most, those movies need to include queer characters.

It’s not just a push that needs to happen on screens, in games, in audio, or on the pages of books or comics. It is a change that can be benefitted by the amplification of queer creatives in every facet of bringing the future of Star Wars to life. They’re needed in front of and behind cameras, as actors, directors, editors, artists, writers ” putting LGBTQ people in the spotlight and behind the scenes, especially queer people of colour, and allowing them the freedom to be who they are and bring characters like them to life is more vital than ever.

Star Wars took its first steps into a larger world back in 2004. It’s been more than enough time that it needs to be taking plenty more.

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