Or I’m in Star Trek, and I’m not played by an alien this time.
Okay, that title is a little bit of a cheat. I’m not actually in Trek. (But hey, CBS, you want a Trans Klingon in your series? I can be a Trans Klingon.). I can, however, see myself in Star Trek. Trans people in popular media aren’t new. We’ve been here a while now, sometimes exceptionally good, and sometimes, well, not good. But right now, we are currently living the high life in Star Trek. And the show star trek actually features a trans-masc actor and a non-binary actor, in a loving and happy relationship. Doing awesome Star Trek things.
I would have never thought it possible when Discovery first aired I was a baby trans person, still very much publically closeted. That was 2017, I had come out to my closest friends, I had been working slowly to build up the courage to come out at a not exactly queer-friendly workplace, and I had started dating again. Discovery was getting its hooks into me, and then I felt like it was time to bring back my full-on love for Star Trek. Of course, if I’m in for a show to binge, I’ll sit down with DS9, but if I’m wanting a show to just flick through a few episodes to enjoy at my leisure. It’s TNG.
So between Discovery episodes, I turn the gaze of Netflix towards TNG. Series five. It’s the best series, “Time’s Arrow”, “The Inner Light”, “The First Duty”, “Disaster”, “Silicon Avatar”. Look, series 5 is the best series… And then we have, “The Outcast“. I have a lot of mixed feelings about this episode, and honestly, after watching it once, I never went back to it.
I can be stubborn like that. Of course, it’s a romance of the week that never works out because guest actors are expensive, I mean, “It just can’t work out this way.” The Outcast gave us a story that didn’t just challenge the nature of the show, it challenged the show by giving us TNG’s first Queer Romance.
The Enterprise make contact with the J’Naii, an androgynous race, who are looking for one of their ships that fell into a subspace sinkhole. Riker works with a member of the race called Soren, and of course, they take a shine to each other. But Soren explains that their race has moved beyond gender, feeling that they as a people are more evolved and that having a gender is seen as a perversion. But as she falls for Riker, Soren realises that they do have a gender identity, and she can love someone, and by the end of the episode, they give a passionate but ultimately fruitless speech on how she is, and who she loves.
However, according to the J’Naii doctrine, Soren is taken away for what the episode gruesomely calls “psychotectic therapy”. Riker tries to mount a rescue mission, and while Picard is sympathetic it would be a breach of the prime directive. Riker and Worf however play the “Fuck that noise” card and beam down anyway because Riker is a decent human being and Worf isn’t in the area of fucking around for shit like this.
Riker finds Soren, but it’s too late. Soren no longer has feelings for Riker, and blames the last few days on being ill, calling it a “Sickness”. Heartbroken, Riker is forced to leave her behind.
So, let’s all be clear here. This is a story about conversion therapy, and about how conversion therapy wins. It’s hideous. Not the episode, but conversion therapy and its looming threat to Queer people, how it is a horrible soul-crushing weapon that is used again the LGBTQ community, and even right now in the UK, it is STILL being practised. Personally speaking, it’s a difficult episode for me to get into because of the subject matter. To have your identity as a queer person represented by aliens, and to the have agency of the alien, who is representing me, lose.
There is something so bitter about that. To be made the victim and it not even really be carried beyond the story, the consequences of this have no real impact beyond the 45 minutes the character is on screen. It’s queer pain to motivate a cis character. It’s a common enough trope, but it doesn’t make it any less difficult to watch.
So, Discovery comes back with series 3. Announcing that they have 2 more queer leads, a trans actor and a non-binary actor in predominant roles. I was over the moon. We had made it.
While Grey is an alien (a joined Trill to be precise), their trans identity isn’t. Their existence in the show isn’t an allegory, it isn’t written in a special way that makes the audience feel smart for understanding it or talks down to people. They are trans. Grey’s trans status isn’t directly touched upon in the show, but the presence of a trans actor playing a character is the primary focus.
Likewise, Adira comes out in this show, they make themselves known during the latter half of the series. Their decision to come out was a wonderful performance by Blu Del Bario, their acting perfectly captures the anxiety of someone who’s coming out in a situation that they don’t know how a person will respond.
Coming out is hard, it’s difficult because of the decisions you make to open up about something so intimate and personal about your life right there and then. It also changes everything. And even when you think you’re in a room of your peers, people who will support you like family and friends, there is always this nagging feeling in the back of your mind. The “What if?” that perpetually spins the idea of rejection, the thought that keeps so many of us closeted.
A lot of people argued, in both good and bad faith, that we didn’t need this scene, in the future, people with so-called “different” gender identities would be welcome, suggesting that no one is bigoted towards trans people in the future. But here’s the thing. Others argued that it’s SJW nonsense that has no place in Star Trek, and I argue that you should probably go and watch “Let this be your last battlefield”.
It is, however, important to remember the difference between allegory and representation. To have someone draw that shape of a thing and then let the audience fill in the blanks is smart enough, people generally tend to be able to see what you’re trying to say when you’re giving them enough pointers. But then, there are people who entirely miss the point or those who want to detract from the point but substitute their own ideas.
Some people watch “Let this be your last battlefield” and are like, “Yeah, it’s a story about how pointless racism lead society into a bloody war that let the people into an even worse genocide that wiped them all out. For a race so powerful that they could be borderline gods, they still ended up killing themselves because they were so childish with their naked racism and loathing for people who are different.”
And there are some other people who just sort of go “Yeah it’s the episode with Frank Gorshin.”
Does the message of an episode of Star Trek need to resonate with you for you to understand it? No. It really doesn’t. Adira and Grey don’t just exist within the show for trans people. They exist for everyone because it’s a representation, to do what Star Trek set out to do and show us, everyone. As the man himself says:
“-not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms-”
We all exist in some form or another, experiencing the world differently, some more different than others. It’s a fact of life. And it’s good to see that Star Trek is getting around to showing that. To include us. It feels good. Star Trek does tend to set a precedent for other big shows, while not copying their work exactly, I feel that other shows and movies and other big-name properties will probably start to take notice. Hopefully not simply for just the bragging rights to say “We put X minority in our show”, but to actually craft well-told and nuanced stories centred on their queer characters.
I have my issues with series 3 of Discovery, and I could write a whole different essay on the kind of story that series was trying to tell. But, I am excited by where we are and how far we’ve come. I’m glad to see that Star Trek is moving forwards regarding Trans and Non-Binary representation. I hope we see more of it in future shows. I hope we see more of it in other SF properties.
Hell, I just want more trans people to be seen. To tell their stories, for trans actors to show off their skills. For us to remind the world we are here, we’re powerful. And we aren’t going anywhere…