How STAR TREK: DISCOVERY Grew Into Its Trans Representation

Growing up as a queer fan of Star Trek, I often imagined myself being able to serve openly as who I am on the same starships that welcomed Klingons, Androids, and Tom Parises. I was aware of the mixed results attempts to tell metaphorically queer stories as a younger fan. But I was less aware of the bitter letter-writing campaigns against rumors of more overt representation. My earliest days of staring at the stars made it clear to me that there was a lot further we needed to boldly go. So, when Star Trek: Discovery announced they were amping up their trans representation by adding non-binary and transgender characters to their regular cast in its third season, I was thrilled.

At that point, the plucky little starship Discovery was getting chock full of gays. Anthony Rapp, Wilson Cruz, and Tig Notaro were all playing major roles on the show as out queer folks as well as Michelle Paradise, who had moved up to become a co-showrunner. Adding in Blu del Barrio and Ian Alexander as Adira and Gray, respectively, was something I’d never even imagine Trek doing any time soon. 

up close photo of Blu del Barrio as Adira in a ship's hallway
“Bury Your Gays” Makes Its Way to Discovery

My excitement quickly turned to major disappointment, gut-sinking heartbreak. We finally met the two new characters in a pair of episodes early in season three. It became increasingly clear through a series of flashbacks that Gray, the first out transgender character in Star Trek, was already dead when we were meeting him. The USS Discovery had time-traveled to the 32nd Century and crashed right into the “Bury Your Gays” trope.

It was a particularly harsh pill to swallow. Star Trek: Discovery had already gotten caught in this same trope in its first season.  The show killed off Dr. Culber, played by the aforementioned Wilson Cruz. (He later recovered from his case of death.) It felt like more of the same issues from this franchise. Once again queer stories were marinated in trauma, even in the distant future. I’m not someone who needs stories to serve me constantly; however, this particular case hurt deeply.

Hugh Culber in the mycelial plane in Star Trek: Discovery

If the story ended here, I’m not sure what my own future would’ve been as a general fan of the Trek franchise. Several friends in my community took a break from the show or quit watching altogether following Gray’s post-mortem introduction. I will always maintain my position that Trek fumbled on the introduction; however, I had enough goodwill towards the world, its crew, and the team of writers, that I was willing to give them a chance to adjust.

Star Trek: Discovery’s Changes to Improve Trans Representation

Blu’s character Adira came out and declared they/them pronouns soon after. And Gray, despite his death, remained a presence on the show, a vocal but sentient memory living within Adira. The show’s collaboration with GLAAD on developing storylines made me want to see the ultimate payoff. 

And season three of Star Trek: Discovery did do a lot to earn back my goodwill with those trans representation changes. It began airing in late 2020, at a time when connection and distance was such a part of our world. The show made empathy and connection part of its mission statement. It is the core thesis of what the United Federation of Planets meant in a modern TV program. I even spoke with Cruz about how Dr. Culber’s journey back into life led him through post-traumatic growth. These effects resonate from his presence as a force for healing throughout the season.

As the season progressed, Culber and his partner, Anthony Rapps’ Lt. Commander Stamets, came to view Adira and, by extension, Gray as their surrogate children. Found family narratives are particularly important to me with regards to the queer experience. And with the exception of a few shows like Pose, it rarely presents in a way that incorporates the nurturing and developmental aspects of familial relationships. Seeing these four characters grow into a strong family unit was absolutely beautiful for me. 

a group of Star Trek characters sit at a ship deck
The Importance of Gray Being a Trill

There’s also the aspect of Gray’s alien culture, the Trill. Some Trills serve as hosts to symbiotic organisms which hold on to all of the previous hosts’ memories. They also allow the host to maintain their independent identities. Trill characters, like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) have long been lauded as examples of language mapping for real-life gender identity understanding. A Trill may have memories of living as another gender. So people often have to learn to use new names and pronouns. It’s always been a bit of a double-edged sword for me when sci-fi uses alien beings to serve as representation for humans who actually exist. The depiction is never a one-to-one ratio of real experiences, it is literal alienation or othering of identities. 

What makes the choice of Gray being a Trill, a host to a symbiont who is distinctly identifies as trans, different is how it marries two distinct things. There are the alien aspects of fictional culture along with the real-life experiences a person with dysphoria or a different gender assignment at birth goes through. Gray would be trans whether he qualified to be a host or not, and that matters. The Trill are defacto claimed by trans Trekkies as a sliver of representation. So Gray felt like the show’s way of truly acknowledging us and saying, “yes this is yours now.” 

close up photo of Star Trek Discovery character Gray
Gray’s Ultimate Fate and the Power of Found Family

Finally, there’s Gray’s ultimate fate. In the climax of season three, the Discovery crew find themselves inside a virulent nebula. It has advanced holographic technology that weaves thoughts into simulated matter. And, standing next to Adira in this place is Gray. He is visible not inside their head, but by Culber and the rest of the present crew.

Many trans people can relate to the feeling of being seen for the very first time, to have people look at you and know you for who you are. And in a time when so many anti-trans discrimination bills were beginning to fly through American statehouses with almost no awareness from the general population, this story about being visible hit very close to home. 

The storyline ends with Gray starting to vanish back into Adira’s mind. However, the pair’s father figure, Dr. Culber, promises to do what he can to make Gray return. That he would be seen by everyone around him, permanently. Dr. Culber previously going through a similar trauma and vocally committing to helping him recover from it, as well as giving him the tools to heal and thrive from it is why showing found family narratives are so vital. This mirrors the way that older generations can, should, and often have guided younger ones. They protect them from dealing with the same traumas they did, or at least don’t leave them to deal with it alone. 

Adira hugs someone with eyes closed

Now, in the fourth season, the show allowed all of these characters to continue to exist as their authentic selves. They struggle with stresses and dangers in the world the same as any Star Trek character would. But they are not burdened with the weight of their gender identities in a future that is past such things. 


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