Star Trek is, and has always been, queer.
Data, over the objections of his crewmates, letting his new child find their way to their own gender expression. Riker fumblingly figuring out what it means to be attracted to a member of a species that claims to be without gender – and then just as fumblingly helping that person escape cruel conversion therapies for daring to express one.
Beverly Crusher mournfully realizing she can’t love a woman, then Jadzia Dax (with her usual plucky enthusiasm) finding she absolutely can – to the outcry of a “million” moms and dozens of advertisers, and straight into history: October 30th, 1995 – in one of syndicated and network television’s first same-sex kisses.
Behind the scenes you’ll find out actors like George Takei, Zachary Quinto, and Tig Notaro, and principled stands from allies like Whoopi Goldberg, who insisted a line of Guinan’s be changed – not when a man and a woman, but when two people are in love.
And of course, there’s enough Kirk/Spock fanfic to fill the Enterprise cargo hold. (Not to mention whatever’s going on between Tom and Harry in “The Chute” – just me?)
But if you asked me to pick just one moment as my personal icon of queerness in Star Trek’s long history, I’d pick Dr Culber (Wilson Cruz) and Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) in their quarters, brushing their teeth before bed. Without sensationalism, without melodrama, without being a Very Special Episode, it depicted a life many of us couldn’t imagine for ourselves and never saw onscreen when we were little: happy, queer love.
And now, happy queer love has found Paul Stamets in real life – Anthony Rapp (star of Rent and Hedwig, a ferocious advocate for queer rights and against abuse, and a force in LGBT culture unto himself) is newly engaged to wed longtime partner, Ken Ithiphol!
The three of us sat down for coffee in Toronto (where Rapp is wrapping shooting season three of Star Trek: Discovery) to talk about the two things that always obsess Star Trek: the world we live in, and the world to come.
StarTrek.com: First of all, congrats! How did all this happen? How did you two meet?
“I’ve always been someone who responds to people on social media,” Rapp says. “Even since the days of Rent, back when it was, like, dial-up AOL and a message board.” Rapp recalls making lasting friendships with fans – including with Melissa Anelli, with whom he later founded BroadwayCon. No matter how many messages, he says he always tries to respond, because “it’s people saying hello.”
Rapp smiles at Ithiphol dreamily. “And Ken said hello.”
It was love at the stage door: in 2016, Rapp was touring If/Then with fellow Rent alum Idina Menzel. Ithiphol had already seen the show in New York – but Rapp had then been absent with a knee injury. “Luckily I’m a semi-musical theatre nerd,” Ithiphol says, who is a coach and consultant, and he caught the show again as it passed through LA, where he lived. There was a message from Ithiphol at intermission, and a frantic attempt from Rapp to make his schedule for the rest of his time in LA work. “We met on the street and it was just this…magnetizing moment,” Rapp says.
“If/Then is about these instants in your life – sometimes you just pass each other and sometimes you meet.” Across all those alternate realities, these two are thankful this is the one they happened to bump into each other.
So what is your home life like?
Luckily, given their long commutes from Rapp’s filming this season and Ithiphol’s own work, the two also share a love of travel, including trips to Cleveland, St. Louis, and Chicago (Rapp is an enormous Chicago Cubs fan), an early trip to Thailand together, and a trip to LA to meet Ithiphol’s family for Thanksgiving. “I was a little worried, but it wasn’t awkward at all; he was just… Anthony,” Ithiphol says, smiling.
The two share their intense love of theatre (among Ithiphol’s favourites: classics like Thoroughly Modern Millie, and new hits like What the Constitution Means To Me and The Humans), filling their time together with shows like Come From Away, Angels in America, and even dropping in on revivals of Rent. “I’m too old for it now, but I’d have loved to get a chance to do Dear Evan Hanson!” Rapp says. “And the King in Hamilton…that’d be really fun.”
They also bonded over an early love of yoga, in which Ithiphol is certified. “I had had knee surgery during If/Then, like I mentioned,” Rapp says, “So I had kind of been afraid to reengage. I was worried. One of the wonderful things was getting back into yoga and feeling safe and supported.”
Rounding out the household are their three cats: Spike, and siblings Ferdinand and Isabella, who this season have been keeping Ithiphol company in New York while Rapp is out of town.
But it can’t have always been quiet domestic bliss – what about the harder moments?
“After coming forward with the Kevin Spacey stuff,” says Rapp, Ithiphol’s support was vital: “Ken has always been an incredible sounding board. His sense of responsibility and ethics informs everything in his life, and when I told him what I was going to do, he was immediate in his support. I’ve spoken about it before, but I just wanted to thank him in as full-throated a way as I can for being willing to take that on with me.”
“It was scary,” says Ithiphol, “but I think one of the things that brought us together is standing up for the things that we believe in – our sense of shared values. Doing what it takes to do the right thing is kind of what unifies us.”
And now do you two just watch endless Star Trek reruns together?
Ithiphol laughs, “not exactly – though I have been watching Picard and I am slowly catching up on the older series.” And of course he catches all of Rapp’s work on Discovery, who’s been in Toronto for nine months shooting season three, flying back to New York and Ithiphol (and the cats) when there’s a gap in the schedule.
Rapp, for his part, watched The Original Series after school, and was fascinated by Spock – “I don’t think there’s anyone alive who doesn’t feel some kind of connection to Spock” – and has been in Star Trek boot-camp ever since he started on the show. When he got the role of Stamets, he turned to a dear old friend and “superfan,” Bill, who impressed upon him the “hunger in the fandom for this kind of queer representation,” and curated lists of its watershed moments.
And when it comes to your own part of that representation – how do you understand Stamets as a character?
Says Rapp, “He’s a passionate scientist who cares deeply about his work and his integrity, not just research for research’s sake but research to make the world a better place, to access the mysteries of the universe and help advance noble causes. Then [he] is conscripted into a war effort, so he chafes at that, and has really high standards, which makes him short with people. And among the things he discovers about himself is how much courage, and moral courage he has, to do the right thing for the greater good.”
Is there much of your relationship reflected in Stamets’s relationship with Culber? Are they ever the same? Different? Ken, do you see any of your relationship onscreen?
Ithiphol laughs, “No, not at all.” Rapp agrees: “It’s a very different thing. I mean, I work hard, but I’m very much about time away from work also, and Paul is not. I mean, my schedule can be crazy when it’s crazy, but I’m able to leave it behind. Paul isn’t able to do that.”
What about playing opposite Wilson Cruz – since you have so much history yourselves, both as friends and as such public queer icons?
“I think our shared history just makes it comfortable,” Rapp says. “I’ve known him so long and I also have so much respect for him as an activist. It was the right kind of energy, and we’re both very aware of what this relationship means to the Trek fandom in particular but also to TV and film in general. And I was so glad it was Wilson, who’s been so public and so active – I mean, even before I knew him, My So-Called Life was so meaningful to me.”
What does Star Trek have to say about queerness?
“Well,” says Rapp, “so much of what it's always said is that any surface differences between people should not ever interfere with - and in the world of the Federation and Starfleet they do not interfere with – people having a chance to succeed, to be excellent, to be known, to be loved.” On Culber and Stamets and depicting queer relationships on Trek, he notes, “It was about time.”
What’s next for Stamets and Culber?
“The thing I’m allowed to say is that, thankfully, things are pretty much settled with Hugh – that that is no longer so much of a friction point. I think people were glad the PTSD of what he experienced was explored in a meaningful way and not just neat in a bow, and I think then they were glad that we came through it.”
“Let them have a peaceful household!” Ithiphol insists, laughing.
Rapp also hints that, “there is a new character that becomes a kind of new mentee for Stamets as Tilly comes into her own, and that development has been one of the most satisfying things I’ve done on the show. And I can’t say much more.”
Is there anything you’d like to do on Discovery that you haven’t had a chance to do yet?
Ithiphol laughs, “Sing.”
Rapp joins in and follows up with, “I got to sing a little bit when I was drilling into Tilly’s head! But yeah, I’d like to sing more. I mean, Wilson sings and Mary sings and Doug sings – why not a musical episode? We can go to a planet where everybody communicates by singing!”
“I’m also shadowing directing, which is a nice tradition on Trek – Jonathan Frakes, Levar Burton, Roxann Dawson [all participated, and] it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and it’s such a safe environment, creatively and collaboratively, with my friends in the cast and crew.”
What about in your own lives? What are you two passionate about? Any interests you don’t share?
“He cooks a lot,” Rapp notes. “I play poker pretty avidly, I play video games – mostly story-based, like Bloodborne – I love Bloodborne – but –“
“I get motion-sick and have to look the other way,” Ithiphol laughs.
“You liked Ray Man though!” Rapp says. “I was very proud.”
“I like dance clubs,” Ithiphol says, “But he doesn’t like to dance much.”
“At the wedding we’ll definitely have good dance music that I will dance to,” Rapp vows. “I just don’t like, like…beats.”
What about drag? Do you guys like drag clubs?
“Yeah!” Ithiphol exclaims. “We watch all of Rupaul together,” Rapp adds. “Jujubee is one of my favourites, and Trinity the Tuck,” says Ithiphol.
“We watched season nine together, and I love Sasha Velour. We met her and her husband backstage at her show, and she was wonderful,” Rapp says. “And Monét X Change! I did her talk show, and it was the most fun I’ve ever had on a talk show.”
And as for appearing on the show, Rapp confesses that he, and all of us, missed out on one great episode. “Me and Wilson were almost on together [as judges], but the scheduling with our Disco shoots didn’t work out. But I’m so ready.”
What about the rest of the Discovery cast? Do you guys ever get to hang out?
“The Disco vibe in general is just that, like, everyone becomes friends and family and becomes close,” Ithiphol says. “I haven’t gotten to see them as much this season, but we’re all good friends.”
“We have game nights!” Rapp exclaims. “Sonequa [Martin-Green] wanted to perpetuate the closeness she learned on Walking Dead, because she saw how meaningful that was. From a theater background that feels very normal to me, especially when you're on tour: you take care of each other, you become family, but I think in TV it's not always the case.”
As for what the Discovery cast plays when they get together, Ithiphol shares with a laugh that, “Mafia is their one and only game.”
“And Sonequa is an expert,” Rapp adds. “And her husband. They are so good at it.”
Any plans for the wedding yet?
“Yeah, we already have a venue picked out in Brooklyn!” says Ithiphol. “It's like a renovated open raw space, kind of warehousing type of feel! Exposed brick. There's aspects of weddings that are too traditional for us, so we're trying to find ways to make it truly an expression of who we are and transcend the more institutional aspects of what a wedding is.”
“I can’t wait,” says Rapp with a smile.
Anthony Oliveira (he/him) is a PhD, culture critic, and writer. He can be found on twitter at @meakoopa.
Star Trek: Discovery streams exclusively on CBS All Access in the United States and is distributed concurrently by CBS Studios International on Netflix in 188 countries and in Canada on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and OTT service Crave.