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How 'Star Trek: Discovery' breached the gender binary

Adira (Blu del Barrio) and Gray (Ian Alexander) in "Star Trek: Discovery" on CBS All Access.
Adira (Blu del Barrio) and Gray (Ian Alexander) in "Star Trek: Discovery" on CBS All Access. (Image credit: CBS All Access)

This article contains spoilers for the current season of Star Trek: Discovery.

It was not that long ago that, if you were a queer or trans person, there wasn’t a whole lot of reflection of yourself in popular culture, at least not in any positive or affirming sense. The refuge that many writers and viewers adopted (and still adopt) is by trying to relate a marginalized experience is through allegory, and Star Trek has always been a bastion for progressive ideals for their time smuggled into high-concept science fiction adventures. However, there needs to be an acknowledgment that just because something can be read to have particular symbolic or metatextual meaning, it does not mean that it was intended as a one-to-one allegory to real-world issues or that it functionally serves as one without caveats.

Take, for instance, the Trill and the symbionts, a pair of symbiotic races introduced in Deep Space Nine and most prominently portrayed by regular cast member Terry Farrell as Jadzia Dax. Symbionts are long-lived parasitic creatures who maintain their identity over the span of their Trill hosts’ lifetimes, and the Trill gain the memories and experiences of the symbiont’s previous hosts. A Trill host may encounter people from the symbiont’s past life in a different host and be able to continue their relationships with minimal interruption, even though the Trill host still maintains a measure of their own personality.

In practice, this means that when characters interacted with Jadzia, the Trill host, for the first time since the symbiont Dax's previous male host had died, they would often have to recalibrate to Dax's new gender presentation, as the symbiont doesn't have its own sense of gender. Other characters’ casual self-correction of Dax’s pronouns and use of Jadzia’s name, as well as Jadzia’s memories of living as another gender, made the character something of a communal touchstone of transgender relatability for trans and progressive cis viewers, particularly considering how the show aired in the 1990s and the go-to reference of transgender representation in media was the serial killer from Silence of the Lambs.

That said, it absolutely would be going too far to suggest that Star Trek was acting as a real representation of trans identity. Transgender people do not live literal multiple lives, nor do trans people exist as a merging of multiple personae into a cohesive whole. The predominantly cisgender and heterosexual writers of Deep Space Nine used the conceit of the Trill species as an avenue to philosophize about gender identity and sexuality, but the parallels to reality were not a true representation of the realities a starved audience of queer and trans Trekkies related to. The only true way to represent a demographic in film and television is to actually bring that demographic into the creative process.

That’s why it’s so interesting to see Star Trek: Discovery attempt to bridge that gap between allegory and reality in its new season with the introduction of the non-binary human Adira (played by non-binary actor Blu del Barrio) and the trans Trill man Gray (played by trans actor Ian Alexander). To summarize the events of the latest episode, “Forget Me Not,” Adira reveals that they have merged with the symbiont Tal, an unprecedented occurrence for a human, but are unable to access memories the Discovery needs to continue its search for the remnants of Starfleet. The ship returns to the Trill homeworld, where the majority of the Trill leadership decries the human Adira as an abomination and refuse to help them. A dissenter surreptitiously helps them access a meditation pool where Adira is able to better commune with the symbiont’s past lives, forcing them to revisit traumatic memories of their boyfriend Gray’s death and the transfer of Tal into Adira.

It’s worth noting here that the introduction of Gray through their traumatic demise plays into an uncomfortable trend in queer storytelling where LGBTQ+ characters are examined through their suffering, rather than their dimensionality beyond that suffering. It’s a trope that reinforces the idea that non-heterosexual, non-cisgender people are inherently unhappy, not because of external forces, but because that’s simply a fact of queer and trans existence. Trans writer Riley Silverman already wrote a great piece about why this is an issue, so I won’t belabor the point, but it complicates a more positive and radical message interwoven into the story that focuses more on Adira’s role as Tal’s host.

When looking at transgender representation, it’s notable that non-binary representation is particularly scarce, largely because non-binary identity has been systematically erased from history and is only just now starting to regain a foothold as a recognized reality in American culture. (The how and why of non-binary erasure has everything to do with 2000 years of Christian hegemony and European colonialism, but that’s a whole other article.) There is the illusion of non-binary identity being a new invention, a manufactured label from younger generations that holds too esoteric a meaning and is therefore ultimately meaningless. And this, in turn, causes many binary men and women, even within the transgender and queer communities, to reject the existence of non-binary identity outright, rationalizing it away as confusion in much the same way homosexuality, bisexuality, and binary trans identity have been historically derided in a similar fashion. As a non-binary person myself, I’ve had my fair share of people denying me my existence, or being patiently patronizing as if waiting for me to grow out of a post-pubescent phase, both from within and without the LGBTQ+ community.

Adira’s introduction in Star Trek: Discovery’s third episode is quietly revolutionary in how it’s patently unremarkable. Considering the setting over 1,000 years in our future, it’s perfectly in keeping that the progressive ideals of Federation society would accept and normalize non-binary identity, but for the modern audience to which this story is being told, very seldom has a non-binary actor played a non-binary character and had it presented as not even worth commenting upon. Admittedly, Adira’s non-binary identity could be made more explicit for those unfamiliar with Blu del Barrio or the show’s promotion of its progressive casting, but to make this dimension of trans experience explicit within Star Trek canon where only allegory was previously present is a massive step in the right direction.

Which brings us back to the Trill, the previous generation of this franchise’s allegorical embodiment of queer experience, stripped of its specificity and amorphized into a non-human alien race. Adira’s status as a human who has merged with a symbiont is a threat to Trill self-identity, their holy and exclusive connection with the symbiont that has resulted in a united culture of self-love and shared memory. If we take the Trill as the show’s previous personification of queerness, then it isn’t that much of a leap then to see Adira’s non-binary identity as a threat to established understanding of queer identity, a refutation against the sufficiency of allegory, and a statement of non-binary existence to those in the queer community that still reject it.

And the resolution of the episode would seem to uphold that reading as intentional. Adira is able to work through their repressed traumatic memories — again, a troubling way to introduce Gray, but here beside the point — and is able to reconnect with Tal’s past lives and the memories they contain. Adira connects with the history of the Trill, breaking down the illusion that they are different from one another simply because of species and gaining the acceptance and embrace of the Trill leadership. In essence, the queer analog of a franchise previously restricted to allegory not only embraces a representative of real transgender experience, but also signals that this very human character marks a turning point to be celebrated.

It remains to be seen how Star Trek: Discovery will build upon this foundation. Both Blu del Barrio and Ian Alexander are cast regulars this season, and the revelation that Gray lives on in some spiritually personified capacity within Adira offers opportunity to address the character’s problematic introduction. But with respect to Adira, “Forget Me Not” is a pretty stunning reflection on Star Trek’s previous faults and inadequacies, with an apparently genuine desire to do better by leaving certain allegorical tendencies in the past. It feels good to be acknowledged as more than just a thought experiment, and to not be rejected for not fitting in with a previous predominant understanding of the world. Blu del Barrio and Star Trek made me feel seen for who I am.