by Ilia Etoile
You’re fifteen years old, you’re queer, and you’re dragging yourself through the 21st century, one confusing, terrifying day at a time. You survive long enough to make it home, turn on your boxy little television – and there’s the future, far more colorful than you anticipated, as real as anything, reaching out to pull you into the 24th century: onto the bridge of a starship, or to a distant planet, or a remote space station guarding the only stable wormhole this side of the galaxy.
The people are kind to each other, they talk about how there’s no more prejudice, they all work together to help their neighbors; it’s a nice little story. Good aesops. Wild costumes. Melodrama. The spaceship is even carpeted, it’s a nice touch. Cozy. You like it, a lot! It’s very optimistic, comforting. You’d like to be an “astronaut on some kind of Star Trek,” too. Except…
Where are the people like you? Not allegorical, but flesh and blood – loving, being? What is an egalitarian space utopia without diversity? “It’s easy to be a saint in paradise,” observes Commander Sisko – well, it’s easy to have a paradise without differences. It’s not enough to hear it; you need to see it.
And then you see it. You see her. There’s a reason so many trans women of the ‘90s named themselves after Terry Farrell’s Jadzia Dax, and there’s a reason so many pieces just like this one keep being written. She sauntered onto Deep Space Nine as a beautiful, brilliant woman who, to her friends on the station, was last seen as a man – and they adapt to the change as natural, welcome, something worth celebrating. Her new pronouns are respected; the jokes about her past wear thin, fade quickly.
As a Trill, Jadzia is the bright new host of the symbiont Dax, embodying the memories and spirits of the worm inhabiting her and all its past hosts. She is an alien in every sense: an extraterrestrial, a unique being in her environment, someone new to her own body, her own mind, her own spirit, and very alien to much of the audience. But not to you. You understand her perfectly.
At one point her alien ex wife shows up and they share one of the first lesbian kisses on television – a forbidden romance, some alien taboo about past lives. You’re shocked. You’re spellbound. All of a sudden there’s very queer characters on Star Trek, and they’re not allegorical, and they’re incredible, and you may or may not be crying.
It’s been almost thirty years since Deep Space Nine dared to make Star Trek’s utopia truly inclusive and visible, in order to interrogate it, and prove the need for that optimism, that hope. In that time, several more Star Trek shows have come and gone. Sadly, the franchise got comfortable with its progressive reputation, and neglected to do the work to uphold it.
Rick Berman’s era as showrunner was rife with misogyny and queerphobia on and off the screen, among other issues, and the show suffered massively in its treatment of trans characters, concepts. Jadzia Dax was infamously killed off after disputes with Terry Farrell. Enterprise kicked off its run with an early episode revolving around Trip Tucker, a human man, getting pregnant by an alien, largely treated as a joke. A later episode explores an alien culture with a third gender, one whose members are mistreated as second class citizens; after Trip attempts to give one of them asylum and teach them to read and fight for their rights, the alien is returned home and ends its own life. The episode ends with Trip receiving a vicious reprimand from Captain Archer for interfering in another culture, framing his actions as wrong, the outcome inevitable. It’s a harrowing, bleak lesson. Yet another episode sees Trip teasing Reed for being attracted to an ambiguously gendered alien, with Reed quipping that he “should have brought his scanner.” It was embarrassing, insulting, disappointing. (Aside: why was Trip personally at the center of so many transphobic stories?) As trans experience started to enter the mainstream, it was being sorely mishandled.
Star Trek only means so much until it starts to make good on its own promises – caring about the real life viewers and actors that are impacted, about the power of representation. Every Trans Day of Visibility, we celebrate ourselves and those around us, everyone in and out of their respective closets, but we also remember the dangers of visibility. The answer, however, is not to step back as Star Trek had done.
If you want to raise your shields and fire back, you have to drop your cloak. (Don’t ask me why, something about the deflector grid? It makes for a great metaphor, though!)
Today, Star Trek is making good on its promise. Discovery features an unprecedented number of LGBTQ crew and characters, from the epically tragic human husbands Paul and Hugh, played by gay theatre legends Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz, to the fantastical couple of Adira Tal and Gray, the nonbinary human host of his late boyfriend’s Trill symbiont and spirit, played by the astonishing fresh talents of Blu del Barrio and Ian Alexander, nonbinary and trans actors themselves. The characters and their stories are powerful, creative, explicitly queer, and the crew behind the scenes defend them off the air. The show is loud and proud of what it’s doing in a world that is equally loud and cruel, and it shines for it.
That confused fifteen year old teen has dragged herself a little closer to Star Trek’s promised future, now a twenty-six year old trans woman. As a proud member of To Proudly Go, I get to support my community too, and celebrate the promise of inclusivity, joy, and love. I wouldn’t be here without believing in that promise.
I hope that on this sacred day my voice will reach an audience that is emboldened to stand up for what they believe in and interrogate the status quo – not just settle for visibility, but call out injustice and fight for respect and understanding, for rights and safety. For all the Jadzias out there: Live Proud and Prosper.