This Star Trek: Discovery article contains MAJOR spoilers for Season 3, Episode 4.
Note: I highly encourage you to read Riley Silverman’s “Star Trek: Discovery’s Trans Representation is Both Heartbreaking and Groundbreaking” over at SyfyWire. As a trans woman (not to mention a brilliant pop culture critic), Silverman has a perspective on this representation that I, as a cis woman, do not and has beautifully written about her complex reaction to Discovery‘s latest episodes.
If you pay attention to Star Trek news, then you probably saw and got got hyped about the pre-Season 3 announcement that Discovery would be introducing two trans characters: non-binary character Adira (played by Blu del Barrio) and trans character Gray (played by Ian Anderson). In “People of Earth,” we met Adira, the human host of a Trill symbiont who cannot remember anything of their past. In “Forget Me Not,” Adira traveled to the Trill homeworld and was able to unlock the memories of not only their past self, but the memories of every previous host of the Trill symbiont known as Tal. Those hosts included Gray, Adira’s boyfriend, who we quickly learn was killed when the generation ship both Adira and Gray grew up on was hit by what appeared to be asteroid. While the final act of the episode shows that Adira can still see and interact with Gray for some as-of-yet unexplained reason, we still had to watch Gray die in Adira’s arms. This was our introduction to his character, and is now the traumatic backstory that both Adira and Gray share.
Star Trek: Discovery is making some wonderful strides when it comes to inclusive storytelling. It is so very cool to have Adira and Gray as part of the Season 3 cast for this show, which has always intentionally worked to be an inclusive representation of our own world. Both Adira and Grey are introduced as complex characters whose gender identities are only part of their stories. Adira is an engineering (and art) genius who gets snarky with Michael and is incredibly brave. Gray, who we have spent less time with, is warm and loving; he plays the cello beautifully and knows how to make Adira laugh. Both characters are played by actors who share their gender identities, and whose input has been taken into account in shaping the characters’ journeys. This is why it is frustrating to see these two young trans characters strapped with such a traumatic origin story, one that leaves one of them dead and the other forced to face the loss of their loved one.
Pop culture loves a traumatic origin story. From Disney to Game of Thrones, it’s honestly difficult to find a mainstream narrative that doesn’t include some kind of gruesome past. If Jane Austen either couldn’t imagine or simply just didn’t care what a conversation between only dudes might look like, then much of our white male-driven mainstream pop culture seems unable to imagine or care about what a backstory without violence might look like. When the backstory in question is centering a white cishet man, a traumatic origin story may be trite but it’s not usually traumatizing. But when a traumatic origin story centers a trans character, for example, it hits different—not only because trans representation on TV is still so rare, but because so much of what does exist is told through a lens of violence and trauma that can be triggering for those who share the identity and a dangerously narrow representation of the diverse trans experience for those who don’t.
As popular culture strives for greater inclusivity (and positive change happens much faster in front of the camera than it does behind it), there is a representation lag time: an era of storytelling in which we have more diverse characters included in central aspects of our stories, but they are placed in narrative structures developed by, for, and around the white cishet male experience and perspective. While, to some, this might seem like perfect diversity—to represent queer characters, for example, in just the same as you would represent straight characters—it is not. To better understand this, let’s use the language of equality vs. equity.”Equality” is treating everyone the same, whereas “equity” is giving everyone what they need to be successful. If the goal here is more inclusivity (which I genuinely think it is for Star Trek: Discovery), then that means recognizing that characters with marginalized identities are starting out with a disadvantage in a storytelling culture that skews so heavily towards the white cishet perspective, and has for a very long time. That means thinking before placing trans and queer characters in the same narrative structures that were built for white cishet men, and brainstorming what interesting, respectful, and inclusive kinds of beginnings, middles, and ends could look like for diverse marginalized characters.
There’s presumably much more story to tell when it comes to Adira, Gray, and their relationship, and there is presumably narrative room to see these groundbreaking characters defined both separately and together by many other kinds of experiences. When these new characters were first announced, Star Trek: Discovery showrunner Michelle Paradise (a queer woman!) made it clear that the writing team (“Forget Me Not” was written by Alan McElroy, Chris Silvestri, and Anthony Maranville) would be working with Nick Adams at GLAAD, as well as actors del Barrio and Anderson “to create the extraordinary characters of Adira and Gray, and bring their stories to life with empathy, understanding, empowerment and joy.” It’s amazing to see not one, but two trans characters as central parts of the Star Trek story, even if there are going to be some stumbles along the way. There’s more story to come for Adira and Gray, and I am excited to see it.