Published Jun 23, 2023
When Sexuality is Literally Fluid
An exploration of the gender and sexual identity of Changelings
By Zoe Malik
Author's Note: For the purposes of this article, we will refer to Odo with the 'he' pronoun as designated in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine while acknowledging the unspecified nature of the Changeling's gender identity.
The character of Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is perhaps the most otherworldly alien species on a show full of eccentric aliens. The inhabitants of his homeworld are referred to as “Changelings,” and are shapeshifters who exist as liquid beings in their natural state. These intelligent and sentient fluids have little use for concepts such as gender identity, romance, and sexuality. Odo, however, is isolated from his world and heavily influenced by his foreign surroundings, often struggling to find his place in society while trying to conform to humanoid standards of normality.
The Changeling concepts of gender and sexuality are extremely unique due to their communal consciousness and shapeshifting abilities. Analyzing the ideas they present may go a long way towards informing our own perceptions of sex and gender fluidity today. Would Changelings be considered pansexual? Asexual? Gender fluid? Or something else entirely?
Given the viewpoints of today’s current perceptions of gender and sexuality, if we had to classify Odo specifically, he would most probably be considered non-binary due to the communal and non-specific gender classification of the species. 'Non-binary' refers to people who do not identify as exclusively male or female; they might feel like a mix of genders or like they have no gender at all. Odo would also appear to fit the description of someone who is demisexual, meaning they only feel sexually attracted to someone when they have an emotional bond with the person, and can be considered halfway between sexual and asexual. Even though we only saw Odo sleep with women, we also witnessed his aversion to finding a mate, remaining asexual until meeting someone he deeply connected with. Similarly, his sexual encounter with the Female Changeling left him disheartened due to that lack of emotional bond.
Although Odo presents as a humanoid male, this is not necessarily indicative of his personal gender identity — if he even has one. As we ascertained in Season 2's “The Alternate,” Odo was taken in by a Bajoran scientist named Dr. Mora during his initial gelatinous state and formative years. The episode illustrates that Odo emulated his own exterior appearance based on Mora’s humanoid aesthetic, right down to the slicked back hair. If Mora had been a woman instead of a man, it’s entirely possible that Odo would have used that as a physical model instead, and taken the form of a woman.
It’s also important to remember that gender expression and presentation as well as pronoun use do not always represent someone’s gender identity. You cannot tell if a person is non-binary or transgender just by looking at them. In fact, when it comes down to it, Odo’s true form is a viscous blob. Therefore, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that he may not conform to any humanoid preconceptions of gender at all.
Odo also uses his outward appearance as a means to try and integrate among those around him. Essentially, he is walking around all day in a “humanoid suit” concealing his true form underneath for fear of retaliation and ostracization. This also makes him wary of any emotional connections, fearing that no one will be able to truly love his authentic self.
Initially uninterested in romantic relationships of any kind, he states in Season 1's “A Man Alone” that he’ll “never understand the humanoid need to ‘couple’.” However, by Season 5, he experiences his first sexual encounter with a female humanoid named Arissa. This brief romance shows Odo that he can be a sexual entity; though, he is still unable to expose his true form, choosing to remain in his humanoid mask during their liaison.
His second act of sexual exploit is during the Dominion's control of the Deep Space 9 space station. In Season 6's “Favor the Bold,” Odo has sex with the Female Changeling while they are both in their solid forms in order to help her better understand humanoids. Although she refers to the encounter as “only a shadow of what we experience in the Great Link,” Odo’s reaction makes it clear that he simply didn't connect with her the way he had with Arissa, making the act itself meaningless and unfulfilling.
Although sex may not be the same thing as participating in the Great Link, it is still the closest form of intimacy that many humanoids found within the Star Trek universe are capable of. Changelings on the whole do express that linking is much more fulfilling for their species than sexual intercourse, but both serve as a means to form a deeper emotional and physical connection with a single or multiple partners.
When Odo finally gets together with Kira Nerys, who he has been pining after for most of the series, it’s important to recognize that even though they are very much in love, their relationship has limits due to being such vastly different species.
In Season 7's “Chimera,” when Odo comes across another Changeling named Laars, he links with him and is instantly able to bond with a stranger, in that moment, more easily than with the woman he loves. Some may consider his actions here as potentially bisexual, but given the genderless nature of their species, it would be difficult to justify this line of reasoning. Although, it is still undeniably an intimate act. Odo’s linkage with Laars eventually becomes a point of contention for Kira, who will never be able to connect with her boyfriend the way another shapeshifter can — sharing form, sensation, thought, and feeling.
The vast ocean of the Changeling existence known as the Great Link does not appear to be a grouping of individuals, but instead a massive single organism that can split off into sentient pieces. Thus, any idea of individual identity or gender classification is not a concept they can grasp, nor do they believe it is possible to truly connect with someone who is not part of their liquid expanse.
Eventually, after Kira fears she will be unable to fulfill Odo’s needs for connection, she gives him permission to leave with Laars. He ultimately refuses to abandon her though, believing that their love for each other will carry them past any obstacle. Finally realizing that Kira truly accepts him for what he is, Odo transforms his physical being around her into a stunning display of lights and colors — a manifestation of their own personal version of the Great Link.
This article was originally published on June 4, 2021.