Coming out of the closet is never easy for a Trekkie.
"People want to provoke you; get a rise out of you," says Matthew Henry, 37, who on this day is dressed in head-to-toe Klingon: protruding forehead, spiky leather boots and all. "You have to remain pleasant, even if you're a Klingon."
Henry, a Falls Church, Va., resident, is the portrait of intergalactic comportment on this recent Saturday. He is assisting the staff of the Maryland Science Center in selecting volunteers willing to dress in "Star Trek" gear and show visitors around the "Star Trek, Federation Science" exhibit, which opened this weekend.
Such an opportunity is perfect for spreading the gospel of "Star Trek" and bringing its ideals to the uninitiated.
" 'Star Trek' is about the expansion of the minds of men; to go as far as he can; to explore," says Glory Houck, a 57-year-old member of the U.S.S. Chesapeake fan club. "Trek represents a world with no war -- even though they're all fighting with each other in every episode."
But those lofty ideals don't guarantee wider social acceptance for Trek devotees.
As any Trekkie can tell you, dressing like Mr. Sulu or Captain Picard and displaying your undying admiration for Gene Roddenberry are one thing at a "Star Trek" convention or movie premiere, where you're proudly in your own element.
But these prospective volunteers have come to vie instead for an opportunity to come out in public, which can be risky business.
"I remember my first time," says Timothy Hata, 21. "I felt completely ridiculous because I was dressed up in a uniform."
Hata, a Parkville resident, says he's gotten more in touch with his inner Trekkie since then. Still, he's one of just a few among more than 30 would-be guides not dressed up for the tryout. The rest wear a rainbow of Federation-approved outfits as they are briefed on their expected duties and examined about their knowledge of "Star Trek" and general science, their comfort level in front of an audience and availability.
"These people do 'Star Trek' fans good," says Bob Finton, supervisor of public programs for the Science Center. "They're good advocates for a respectable fandom."
Before the briefing and interviews, the applicants had gathered in a waiting room, discussing conventions and the latest episodes of their favorite sci-fi series.
In one corner, Trekkie Jan Jones, who gives her age as "239," adjusted the pips on her friend's uniform. The pips, pins applied to a uniform's collar, indicate rank. Today, Jones is a captain. "I was an admiral, but they demoted me," says Jones, pin sticking out of her mouth. "With good reason."
Jones and two co-workers from the Social Security headquarters in Woodlawn, Laura Tilghman and Theresa Liles, have come to the tryout together. After attending a "Star Trek" convention in Los Angeles a month ago, they decided to give it a shot, Liles, 40, says.
" 'Star Trek' is good, clean, harmless fun," says Tilghman, 48. "You hurt no one, you deprive no one of anything."
Yet some would deprive Trekkies (many of whom prefer the term Trekkers) of the opportunity to display their commitment in public by labeling them as hopeless nerds.
Jeff Salaman, an officer in the U.S.S. Triton, a local fan club, has advice for those harassed by anti-Trekkies. The 44-year-old Pikesville resident simply says: "I'm wearing a 'Star Trek' uniform, you're wearing a costume."
The sentiment is clear. The fans seem very comfortable in their attire as they sit, listening attentively to Finton in a room decorated with life-sized, cardboard representations of characters from "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
"Wear it proudly. It's something recognized worldwide," says Houck, a Greenbelt resident. "I become a Star Fleet officer when I'm in uniform."
If Houck indeed transforms into a Star Fleet officer, that's fine -- as long as she's in uniform. She just needs to be sure the identity comes off with the outfit. Finton wants his volunteers to be first and foremost citizens of planet Earth, and not delusional freaks.
"Some fans aren't making the connection that it's not real. We need people who can feel comfortable and play the part, but can also turn it off and step back," Finton says. "I hate to say it, but the stereotypes are true."
While none of the hopefuls at the Science Center seem to be mentally lost in space, there are some who admit they'll be upset if they don't make the cut.
Houck says she'd be "crushed" if she isn't chosen. Allison Goldberg, a 17-year-old Baltimore resident, says she "wants this extremely badly," but won't be destroyed if she's not chosen.
The uniform-less Hata also claims a healthy perspective on the selection process.
"Some of these people would be completely crushed," Hata says. "I'm not that bad yet I think."
Epilogue: Luckily, Hata avoids that possible crisis. All but one of the applicants are accepted for the Science Center mission, and they don't care if you laugh at them. As Hata says: "I'm going to be the one dressed up, having a good time."
What: "Star Trek: Federation Science"
Where: Maryland Science Center
When: Through Jan. 4. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Admission is $9.50 for adults and $7 for children.
Pub Date: 9/29/97