Discovery Has Become the Queer Star Trek I Always Wanted

Sometimes I wonder about the alternate reality where Star Trek introduced its first openly LGBTQ+ characters in 1987.

This definitely could have happened. David Gerrold, who wrote “The Trouble With Tribbles” and other episodes of the original Trek, had pitched a story for Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first season featuring a gay couple. (Gerrold also wrote The Man Who Folded Himself, one of the most wonderfully queer science fiction novels of all time.) Gerrold’s episode would have been an allegory for AIDS, a subject that mainstream TV shied away from in the 80s. And the episode would have introduced two male characters who casually mentioned they were in a relationship. Alas, the higher-ups weren’t okay with crossing that particular final frontier, so the episode was scrapped—though Gerrold rewrote it as a standalone novel, and it was finally adapted as an episode of the fan-made Trek series New Frontier.

Which meant we had to wait another 30+ years to get decent queer representation in Trek, with Star Trek: Discovery.

And here’s a good moment to say this newsletter will feature some spoilers, mostly minor, for Discovery, including the third season. If you don’t want to be spoiled, quit reading now. To make it easier for you to avoid spoilitude, here’s a lovely picture of Blu del Barrio and Ian Alexander…

The first season of Discovery introduced Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp*) and his husband Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz), as they navigated life, death and fungal resurrection. These two have taken on a new lease on life in season three of Discovery, in large part because Culber started getting more storylines of his own. As soon as Culber became a major character in his own right, their relationship started to feel more vital. [Edited to add: I didn’t even mention Jett Reno, played by Tig Notaro, who spars entertainingly with Stamets in Engineering.] And meanwhile, season three also introduced the non-binary Adira (Blu del Barrio) and their trans boyfriend Gray (Ian Alexander), a supposedly dead Trill whom only Adira can see… at first, at least.

(It’s a long story. Basically, Trills are humanoids who can carry long-lived alien symbiotes, which possess the memories of their previous hosts. And previous Treks have established that sometimes those previous hosts can take on a life of their own—so Adira is able to interact with their boyfriend, who lives on in the symbiote that used to be Gray’s and is now inside Adira. In an interview, co-showrunner Alex Kurtzman said the Trill were always viewed by fans as a queer and trans metaphor, and the show is just choosing to make the metaphor literal.)

It’s a measure of how far we’ve come in just a few years that none of this is cause for running into the streets and lighting our hair on fire with pure unbridled joy. I can still remember when a happily married same-sex couple would have felt like a risky step on television. But to have a same-sex married couple, plus a non-binary character in a relationship with a trans character—and none of them has to be evil, or a caricature? And the storylines don’t revolve around their identities? That would have been nigh-unthinkable during Obama’s first term, with the possible exception of some explicitly LGBTQIA+-focused show with “queer” in the title. Not to mention, trans actors playing trans characters is still pretty new.

But what I’ve loved, in particular, about Discovery’s third season has been the explicit focus on found families. By the end of the third season, Culber and Stamets are talking about Adira as their adoptive child, and Gray also seems to be part of the family. Which is supremely excellent—and it feels like the most Star Trek thing in the world that Stamets and Adira bond over a love of science and engineering and jargony banter. Like, of course a queer chosen family on Star Trek would bond over being gigantic nerds and wanting to rebuild a starship’s propulsion system in half the time you said it would take.

But also, Tilly and the rest of the bridge crew are all family, as you see when they encourage her to take her (somewhat drastic) promotion. And Saru becomes a father figure to Tilly in a way we didn’t see in the first two seasons. And Tilly and Michael are sisters, kind of. And Owo and Detmer also seem to have a sisterly bond going on. The most delightfully weird makeshift family, though, is Emperor Georgiou and Michael, who are each mourning the loss of the other’s alternate-universe counterpart. (In the mirror universe, Emperor Georgiou was surrogate mom to mirror-Michael, while Michael had imprinted on “our” version of Philippa.) The Emperor and Michael have a bizarro mother-daughter thing that I could watch for ages.

But back to Paul and Hugh, and their quasi-adoptive kids, Adira and Gray. This hit me where I live, for a couple reasons.

First of all, when I was a baby trans, I had some gay male friends and mentors who saw me and supported me and rolled with it when I kept changing my mind about exactly who I was becoming. And finding that kind of validation from people whose experience of queerness was very different from my own felt super affirming and inspiring and beautiful. But meanwhile, I also knew some gay men who were kind of transphobic and seemed to think the LGBT community (as it was back then) would be better off without the “T” mucking things up. I heard from a handful of gay men who believed trans women were merely gay men, who were confused and wanted to become straight women in order to avoid homophobia—the kind of nonsense one hears from TERFs nowadays. So to see a loving happy gay couple be supportive of younger trans and non-binary people, instead of trying to gatekeep their right to exist? This reminded me of the magic of queer solidarity, and how brilliant it can be when we all look out for each other. (I particularly love when Adira reveals they use they/them pronouns, and everyone just goes with it.)

And then… there’s a moment in the season finale—and here’s where things get slightly more spoilery—that just got right up inside my heart valves.

In the finale, Culber and Adira are trapped in a holodeck that’s adhering to the proud tradition of malfunctioning and/or deadly holodecks everywhere. And to Adira’s surprise, their boyfriend Gray—who was invisible and intangible to everyone but Adira up to now—suddenly has form and substance, because the holodeck is advanced enough to recognize Gray as a life form and give him a bit of a Vulcan makeover. (This holodeck loves giving people makeovers. It was probably a Sephora in a previous life.) And Gray, who was pretty sad about being a ghost to everyone but Adira, is overjoyed—except that this situation won’t last long. And that’s when Culber makes a vow that he, Paul and Adira will find a way to help Gray “be seen. Truly seen. By everyone.”

It’s at about 02:00, in this video:

And man, that gave me all the feels.

Sometimes it feels like half the world is trying to erase trans people—to make us hide, to make sure nobody ever sees us again. Especially lately, with so many high-profile people insisting that our transitions are “irreversible damage” or that our mere existence is a danger to everyone else. Just venturing out into the world, just showing ourselves, can feel like a huge terrifying leap.

Like Elza, a trans character, says in the second novel of my young adult trilogy:

When someone tries to twist you into the wrong shape, that's when you have to stand up and show them who you are. It hurts, it feels like you're actually going to die—that's still the most scared I've ever been in my life—but when people recognize you, when they accept you and cherish your real self, it's the best feeling anyone can have.

So that moment where Culber promises a young trans person that he will do whatever it takes to make sure he’s “truly seen,” felt like it was speaking directly to the part of me that still feels scared to exist in the world. This is what Star Trek does best—what David Gerrold was trying to help it do, back in the 80s—and I’m so glad that Trek is going where far too few television shows have ever gone before.

* Full disclosure: Anthony Rapp gave a generous blurb to my novel The City in the Middle of the Night, and has been a supporter of my fiction in general.

My stuff:

You can listen to me reading a big excerpt from Victories Greater Than Death, my young-adult space fantasy which comes out April 13, over at the Storybound podcast. The folks at Storybound did such a fantastic job with sound design, and the music by Oginalii is wonderful. I was so thrilled that this worked out—it’s a fantastic way to start discovering this book.

And if you feel moved to pre-order Victories Greater Than Death, you would be doing me a huge favor and helping to save my life. You can also pre-order Never Say You Can’t Survive, my book of essays about the power of writing during hard times. And also, my first full-length short story collection, Even Greater Mistakes. SO MANY BOOKS.