In 1966, my friend, who I’ll call “Dee,” was 26 years old, living in Oregon with two other young women, both in their early twenties. Dee’s family considered her a “spinster,” as she should have been married with kids by then, but Dee had no interest in finding a husband. She wanted a career in the medical field, to attend grad school and, more than anything, to write.
She belonged to a women’s science fiction writing group. Some of them had written professionally and others were hoping to get published (Dee among them), but as she said: “Science fiction in the 1960s was not considered the purview of women. So we would go to science fiction conventions and so on — it’s not fair to say we weren’t welcome — but there was very much a division, and the social attitudes at the time played a large role in just how participatory we thought we could be.”
But whether or not it was her purview, writing sci-fi was her passion, and it found an outlet in September of that year.
Not everyone remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) aired for the first time, but Dee does. She was sitting on the floor of her living room, eyes glued to the small black-and-white TV she hardly ever used.
While society tended to regard sci-fi as juvenile, Dee said it was obvious from the beginning that Star Trek was not intended solely for kids. “These were well-developed characters, real plots that you could get into... It was startling, and I was absolutely riveted from that very first day.”
All over the country, women gravitated toward Star Trek. True: The word “Trekkie” more evokes images of a pale, lanky teenage boy making models in his mom’s basement, rather than 1960s housewives and young professional women with bouffant hairdos sending their husbands out bowling so they could enjoy Star Trek in their bathrobes and hair curlers.
But those were the people who made up Dee’s sci-fi club, and they existed among masses of female fans. Dee said it was “tremendously exciting” for women to see characters like Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, a black woman in a prominent, vital and respected role; and Captain Kirk, played by William Shatner, frequently defending his female crewmates against the very kind of sexism these women faced daily in their real lives.
“We were just electrified,” Dee said, “because that was not the world we were living in, and that was the world we wanted to live in.” A world of equal treatment for all genders, where all the war and cultural upheaval that defined the ’60s was simply a part of humanity’s dark past. More than anything, Star Trek offered a glimpse of something neither Dee nor her friends had in their real lives: freedom.
As women, most of them married, Dee and her club-mates didn’t always have access to their own money, and often had to fish between couch cushions for change to pay babysitters so they could meet up, but Dee said it was always worth it to watch the show together.
Particularly enamored of Spock (the half human/half Vulcan first officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise, played by Leonard Nimoy), the group began speculating about Vulcan culture, and often called up Desilu Studios (which produced Star Trek) to ask Gene Roddenberry, the creator himself, to clarify details. Back then, fans had easy access to the show’s producers, actors and even its set. Star Trek didn’t have great critical acclaim, nor very much money, so the stars welcomed any fan interest. (Dee expressed horror at today’s sci-fi conventions, where fans often pay hundreds of dollars to get pictures with actors. When she lived in Los Angeles in the ’70s, she said she could just call up Jimmy Doohan, the actor who played Engineer Montgomery Scott, and invite him over for lasagna).
Dee and her friends, however, weren’t just fans. They were writers. So they did what came naturally to them and combined their passions. It began with a newsletter, largely academic, wherein members of the group would discuss Vulcan culture, climate and history, nearly a year before viewers would get their first glimpse of the planet Vulcan in the season two opener, “Amok Time.”
But while the background and the lore of the world were exciting, Dee wanted to be in the story. This, ultimately, inspired her to write fanfiction, a term for fan-written stories set in established universes.
Fanfiction, which amateur writers still produce widely today, takes many forms, and odds are if you can think of a movie, book, TV show or video game, you’ll find fanfiction for it. Many people write fanfiction in which two non-romantically involved characters get together. Some fanfiction tells new stories in episodic serials, like adding a mystery to the Sherlock Holmes universe. Other fanfiction (though not as much as people tend to assume) functions only as straight-up erotica. Some writers even pen fanfiction about real people (celebrities like actors and musicians). There are as many types of “fic” as there are writers of it.
“It would just pour out of me,” Dee said. “Adventures with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, generally Uhura. Because I was already under pressure to get married and so on, and I wanted nothing to do with that, and it was just women being badass.”
She’d stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning on her typewriter, no matter if she had to work the next day. “It was kind of a ‘choose your own adventure.’”
She and others who wrote fanfiction in those early days were engaging with media on a level that was generally unprecedented. While fanfiction has existed in different forms for centuries, if not millennia — all the King Arthur legends building off of earlier versions, classics like Milton’s Paradise Lost taking inspiration from the Bible — fanfiction as we know it today began evolving with Star Trek, because people like Dee asked the question from which all transformative fiction starts: What if?
What if I were on the crew of the Enterprise? What if Luke Skywalker grew up knowing his legacy? What if Harry Potter had a long-lost sister? What if Lord of the Rings was set in modern times?
And, most revolutionary and controversial at the time of Dee’s work, what if Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and Mister Spock were in love?
This is where Dee’s fanfiction eventually led her, and where countless people have followed since.
“It’s so hard to look back through the veil of all of these years,” Dee said, “and remember really what our thoughts and our attitudes were. Society has changed so much, and assumptions have changed so much, and I raised a gay son, and in my conscience it’s just very different.”
But, she said, fanfiction began to change shortly after “Amok Time” aired. Written by novelist Theodore Sturgeon, “Amok Time” in summary is just as ridiculous and wonderful as it is to watch. Spock begins to suffer mating urges, common in his species, and must return to the planet Vulcan to take a wife. A series of circumstances force him to fight Captain Kirk as part of an ancient ritual, and Spock kills Kirk in a feverish rage. At the end of that episode, after his mating urges mysteriously disappear, Spock expresses the first non-induced emotion he has ever experienced on-screen when he realizes the captain is alive. He smiles, grabs Kirk by the shoulders and shouts “Jim!” in obvious relief.
Dee can’t quite tell me how she and her friends felt after that episode, but she can tell me that the speculation began there, followed swiftly by the writing...
Trek fans’ desire to explore the possibilities of Kirk and Spock’s relationship (a practice called “shipping” today, used when a fan wants to see two characters in a romantic relationship) took off after “Amok Time,” though it may have originated earlier in other circles. Most called the Kirk/Spock relationship theory “the premise,” and kept it quiet.
This was the late ’60s after all, when gay relationships of any variety, even fictional, were considered deviant, overtly sexual and perverted. Discussing the premise became a matter of learning a “secret handshake,” testing the waters. “And you sort of got to know around you who was OK with that idea and who wasn’t,” Dee said. “And then someone would say ‘well, I wrote this story.’ It was almost literally passing it under the table.”
Though fan zines, independently published Trek-centric magazines like Dee’s early newsletters, began to come out early on in the show’s run (allegedly starting with Spockanalia in 1967, which Roddenberry and cast read religiously), Dee said fans never published zines featuring the premise until the ’70s, due to this culture of fear. While fanfiction could be painstakingly replicated by re-typing entire stories, practically the only way to copy fan art was with a mimeograph machine — not exactly common to households, though thankfully inexpensive.
Considering these zines could include full-fledged erotica, fans had trouble finding copy stores that would, say, print copies of artwork detailing William Shatner’s bare butt, no matter how well-rendered. Then, once these fans managed to print their work, somehow they had to share it without drawing attention from the authorities for distributing pornography.
That’s where letter societies came in, officially called Amateur Press Associations or APAs. “Everybody in it, you knew and you trusted,” Dee said. “... If you were in it, then you had to contribute. So you took turns month-by-month, turning in a story, which the moderator would then duplicate and send out to all the club members, and that’s how, to my knowledge, how slash was being distributed.”
“Slash” was a shorthand term derived from “Kirk/Spock,” which referred to pairing Kirk and Spock as a romantic couple. Nowadays, the term can refer to any fictional male/male (M/M) couple. “Femslash” refers to female/female (F/F) couples; “het,” short for “heterosexual,” refers to male/female (M/F); and “gen” short for “general” refers to fics that don’t have a romantic focus.
Fans produced and explored slash, especially explicit slash, underground for nearly a decade, until a well-known fan named Gerry Downes put out Alternative: The Epilog to Orion (1976), the first published K/S zine, weighing in at 50 pages. Downes and some other well-known fans like Pat Stall were open about what they did, according to Dee. They inspired other slash writers and artists to print their own zines, though in very limited runs.
Then the “Save Our Children” movement came about in the late ’70s, when the public became radically concerned about the affairs of gay people, claiming that homosexuals wanted to recruit children, along with other damaging lies. Many slash writers became even more careful then, choosing to remain underground, or leaving fandom completely.
Other fans, like Dee, joined the counter-movement, advocating for gay rights as they continued to pursue their fanworks. Many of these people — mostly women — knew and believed that gay relationships were valid. After all, they’d been writing about one for years.
In spite of the fear and pressure, Dee said the ’70s were a time of great fulfillment for her and other fans, at least as far as Star Trek was concerned. At that time, Dee was married, rather unhappily, to her first husband, and Star Trek gave her a community to escape to, as well as an example of what she considered a great love story in the Kirk/Spock relationship. Plus, after moving to L.A., she became familiar with the cast of the show on a level that most fans only dream about. (Of the TOS cast, I’ve only met William Shatner — and he was, you know. Fine. Dee, too, could take or leave The Shat.)
But things began to change for the fandom as they moved into the ’80s. Star Trek: The Motion Picture debuted in 1979, and a pivotal scene involving Kirk and Spock (made even more controversial by Roddenberry’s novelization of the film) drove a wedge between factions of the fandom that had been butting heads for a long time — the shippers and the purists.
Whenever a massive group of people begin interacting, ideas, values and philosophies tend to clash. We see it most obviously in modern fandoms, which exist largely in the nebulous, anonymous, toxic breeding ground of the internet, where it’s easy as the click of a button to send hate mail to someone in another country for shipping characters you don’t personally ship.
Back in the ’80s, big-name Trek fans like Bjo Trimble (who, with her husband, is largely credited for saving Star Trek’s third season with a letter-writing campaign in ’69) were very concerned with the public image of Trekkies. Many discouraged slash fans from participating in conventions, at least openly, because in their eyes Star Trek was meant to be family-friendly. Even non-explicit Kirk/Spock zines were often barred from display in convention dealer rooms. This tense environment, along with other personal factors, made Dee reconsider her involvement in the community.
“By the ’80s I’d been in it since ’66,” Dee said. “So you have certain go-to people who will be the workhorses, and I’d done that for a long time, and there wasn’t anything new. I wasn’t learning anything. I didn’t need to go to a convention to see the stars. ... So it just kind of faded away.”
She went on with her life, and Star Trek became a part of her identity, but not the focus. She watched one of the franchise’s many spinoffs, Star Trek: Voyager, with her grandkids when it came out in 1995. She went to see the J.J. Abrams-directed reboot movie in 2009 (only because Leonard Nimoy agreed to be part of it). But gradually Star Trek, fanfiction, and even Kirk and Spock became a part of her past.
Then, three whole decades after leaving fandom behind, Dee donated $3 to my PayPal account.
In 2017, I was 27 years old, and living my best life. I had a career reporting for the Indy; I was happily married to my wife; and I had just finished a massive writing project — a novel-length fanfiction about Kirk and Spock falling in love that took me nearly a year to write.
Yes, reader, you now know my deep, dark secret, though it’s hardly a secret and not nearly as deep and dark as it once was. I am (wisely or not) shameless about my hobbies, and even proud of this one. Because the people who read this fanfiction seemed to enjoy it, which is all a writer can really ask for. Some readers, like Dee, even gave me money for my effort.
Fanfiction writers can’t legally accept payment for their work due to copyright restrictions, so many accept donations — gifts given out of appreciation rather than obligation. By the time Dee dropped those few dollars in my PayPal account, I had received some donations already from this story’s readers, so it didn’t strike me as strange that I had never met her. I didn’t know her name, her age, where she lived or what she did for a living — nothing but her username on Tumblr, a popular blogging platform where we had never even messaged each other. I certainly didn’t know any of the history I’ve shared above. But she gave me the donation as a “tiny thank you” for the work that had gone into my fic.
While, yes, it did take a great deal of work to write, it’s funny to look back on it through the lens of knowing Dee and hearing her history. Because nowadays fanfiction takes zero effort to share. I simply upload it to Archive of Our Own (AO3, a fanfiction publishing website), promote it on Tumblr, and wait for feedback, which can be instantaneous. I have never had to go through the painstaking process of hand-addressing envelopes, building an in-person network of readers, or sitting at tables in conventions to promote my work. It’s a freedom I think a lot of us writing fanfiction these days take for granted.
And Dee still took the time to recognize it. The fact that I met her through this act of generosity said a great deal about her, but I didn’t realize that then. In fact, it wasn’t until a little while later that I understood how monumental her attention really was.
Dee’s Tumblr blog was a quiet page with a minimal following and few posts when, shortly after I became aware of her, she wrote and shared “An open Tumblr letter from a 77-year-old TOS fangirl.”
I did a double-take when I saw it. Seventy-seven years old. And she was on Tumblr.
In part, the letter read: “YOU are the ones shaping the traditions of fandom. You have inherited the kingdom. Bless you for keeping it vibrant, growing, alive. In fifty years, you will be the ones who are remembered for molding it and handing it down to the future. It probably doesn’t feel like [it] now, but you are making history.”
I realized in that moment that I had received not only a stamp of approval, but also three whole dollars from a “Fandom Grandma,” one of the pioneers of modern fandom, one of the reasons we are able to write and publish fanfiction today. A trailblazer.
This open letter immediately took the Star Trek Tumblr community — my community — by storm, and spread to fandoms outside our own. As of this writing, it has nearly 14,000 notifications; for a personal post on an unknown blog, that’s basically going viral on Tumblr.
“I never expected that [response],” she said. “I seriously expected five people whom I had tagged to read it. I didn’t know how Tumblr worked, really. So it took off... I remember someone who I’m friends with now on Tumblr helping me, and I kept messaging them and saying, ‘Why are all these people following me? I don’t understand what’s going on.’”
She didn’t know that “history had coalesced,” in her words, around her generation, or that anyone knew about the old Star Trek fan clubs — let alone this online community largely populated by young adults, and even teenagers.
In order to explain to you why this mattered to us, most of whom weren’t even alive when Star Trek first aired, you have to understand the mythos surrounding people like Dee.
Younger fans like myself tend to think that Dees only exist in whispered tales of “the old days,” passed down through largely abandoned message boards. While we all know original fans of TOS are still alive, of course, society feeds us a common lie that at some point you just “grow out” of the things you love. This belief causes many of us my age and older (and there are more of us than you might imagine) to feel ashamed of our favorite hobbies.
Why haven’t we “grown out” of this yet? Why do we have to?
But then came Dee, proof that we are never too old to love something; a living, kind, generous and enthusiastic example of the stories we’ve shared for decades, as excited about Star Trek now as she was in 1966. She represented a community we thought had faded away.
You see, Dee and women like her changed the way we as a society interact with media, and not just those of us who write fanfiction or create fan art. Trek conventions laid groundwork for fannish get-togethers of all kinds (from San Diego Comic Con to our own Denver Comic Con and GalaxyFest), and the letter-writing campaigns and protests that kept it on the air provided an example for modern movements like #renewB99, a hashtag that circulated on Twitter when Brooklyn 99 was canceled in May (and subsequently rescued by NBC). They formalized cosplay (costumes based on characters from various media), and even used their influence to raise money for charitable causes, as many fandoms do today.
And when it comes to transformative fandom — fanfiction and the like — Dee’s generation (particularly female fans of Star Trek and, believe it or not, Starsky and Hutch) didn’t just change everything. They created it.
Their pure passion lived on through the independent press and grassroots organizations they established, and gave fandoms of all media the power to migrate to the internet when the time came. Their hard work transformed websites like LiveJournal and Dreamwidth into archives of fanworks for movies and TV shows that had no home before. I mean, these folks are the ones who created AO3 in 2007, the very website where many of my fellow fanfiction writers and I publish our work.
So, hell yeah we were interested in what Dee had to say.
Recognizing our excitement, Dee began to share some amazing stories. She talked about feeding Leonard Nimoy cake and coffee at a club meeting in the ’60s; getting banned from cosplay for painting herself green like an Orion slave girl and being carried “just a little naked” through the halls of a hotel; and even sending her erotic slash fanfiction to Gene Roddenberry to read. (It turns out he didn’t care which of his characters were having sex, but he was adamant that there would be no zippers in the future, so undressing them became a special challenge for fan-writers).
To borrow Dee’s word, we were “electrified” by the history she had to share.
And while we all felt a little jealous of her experiences, the easy access she had to the stars — many of whom are now dead — and the vibrant in-person community she helped build, it also took Dee’s excitement to remind a lot of us how lucky we are.
We’re past the days of authors like Anne Rice (The Vampire Chronicles) sending cease-and-desist orders to fanfiction writers, and the days of the censorship of queer love stories. We live in an era in which we can share our creations and enjoy the creations of others without leaving our homes.
Dee called AO3 a “candy store,” and said the fan art she has seen, in particular, has been overwhelming. “I cannot get over the art,” she said. “We would have jumped at this. I would’ve given my right tit for all this art when I was in my twenties. Because you couldn’t reproduce it, you couldn’t send it out, but [now] there’s this fabulous art coming out every single day.”
While not the only (or, possibly, oldest) blogger on Tumblr sharing fandom history, Dee became special to so many of us because she showed up and told us that she was here. That we weren’t alone. That we can love the things we love as long as they continue to bring us joy.
Her influence extended beyond Star Trek; she took the time to speak to young queer kids who have been rejected by their families (proud to be their honorary “Fandom Grandma”), and offered a listening ear to folks who were simply lonely.
Dee’s son Zachary, age 30, said she was always like this. “When I was in high school and college,” he said, “all the gay and questioning kids hung out at my house because of her. One trans boy lived at our house for over a year when his parents threw him out. She showered us with love and pride.”
So she did for us, her “fandom family.”
As society continues to denigrate the interests of women (see “The wrong kind of fan”), and continues to view fandom as juvenile, Dee’s presence reminded all of us that whether we love anything from Star Trek to Shakespeare, we don’t have to justify that love to anyone, nor justify the stories we write or the art we create.
“All diehard fans,” Dee said, “we’ve all got some kind of Star Trek-shaped puzzle piece missing out of the inside of us, and the shape of that piece is different for all of us. Whether it’s past trauma or loneliness or no acceptance in society — whatever it is, I think we all come to it and it fills a certain need. Maybe several.”
This is what transformative fandom does. It offers a sense of community, an outlet for creativity, a way to explore traumas and personal issues through admirable and familiar characters. At least, that’s certainly part of my puzzle piece.
As for Dee? She needed Star Trek because she was a “science nerd misfit,” who wanted to go into research and couldn’t because of her gender, who wanted to build a future that was equal for everyone, who wanted the kind of love she felt she saw between Kirk and Spock. As the ’70s and ’80s came and went, she went to grad school, got a job in the sciences, became radically and actively involved in the gay rights movement and women’s liberation, and married a man she loved. So she didn’t really need Star Trek to fill those holes for her anymore.
And when she did return to fandom, when her grandkids directed her toward Tumblr and she found us — our own online community of science nerd misfits — it was simply because she wanted to. For the love of the thing. Which is what unites us all, in the end.
In February of 2018, Dee lost her final battle with cancer. Her family — whose request we honored by referring to her only by her nickname, and not publishing her photo — announced her passing on her blog a few days later, and shared a note of goodbye she had written for us. The news hit a lot of us hard, even those few who knew about her illness. Some even created fanart and fanfiction in tribute to her. Personally, I went offline for a while.
I never had the chance to meet Dee in person, to sit down with her to tea, or ask her half the questions I had about her experiences. But when I read her final letter to us, her fandom family, and allowed myself to cry — when I watched “Amok Time” in her honor and remembered how delighted she always was to discuss it — I said goodbye to a very dear friend.
You might think it’s silly to make connections like this with people worlds away, based on one point of commonality. Star Trek is just a show, after all, and fanfiction is just a hobby. But if that’s true, then Dee and I were the same kind of silly. And I do miss her.
“What fun it has been to be a fan among fans again!” Dee wrote in her final open letter. “I feel so lucky to have discovered modern fandom and this community when I did. You have taught me so much. You’ve impressed me, moved me, made me laugh, and brought a whole lot of happiness to my days.
“I hope you know how honored I feel to have been embraced by you as your Fandom Grandma and your friend. ... Please, please keep fandom a place where we are welcoming to newcomers. Where we value each other, even if we don’t agree on specific ideas.
“And please go on enjoying fandom, as long as it is meaningful and positive for you. I hope many of you will be fandom grandparents to the generations that will follow! Please keep writing and creating art. Keep our traditions alive. I’m passing the torch of this historic fandom on to you now.”