Trans Antagonism in Star Trek: Discovery

Spoilers for Star Trek:Discovery S1E14 (release date 02/04/2018). Content notice for trans antagonism.

One of the most common euphemisms used for surgical procedures related to gender transition is “sexual reassignment surgery” or “SRS.” It is probably the most commonly known phrase for these surgical procedures after the even more obnoxious “sex change surgery.” Although I don’t personally find SRS to be a particularly useful term (I prefer to call each medical and surgical procedure by its technical name), I recognize that it is a commonly known one and many people, including many trans people and medical professionals who work with us, use it.

During the most recent episode of Star Trek: Discovery, “The War Without, The War Within,” we learn more about what has happened to Ash Tyler, a Starfleet Lieutenant, and Voq, a Klingon loyal to the martyred T’Kuvma. It seems that Tyler’s appearance, memories, and personality have been surgically implanted upon Voq, in an apparently incredibly painful procedure.

Tyler, in explaining this, translates the Klingon phrase for the experience “a species reassignment protocol.” Additionally, a Starfleet doctor explains to Commander Saru “The patient now presents as Ash Tyler.”

I am frankly furious that the writers of ST:DISCO decided to use this kind of language to describe the experience. Even beyond the fact that they threw away a valuable depiction of PTSD and replaced it with this mess, they chose to do it using language that seems to intentionally compare the experience Tyler/Voq has undergone to the experience of transgender people.

Voq didn’t undergo this process because he deeply identified as a human. He stole the appearance, memories, and personality of a non-consenting human prisoner in order to infiltrate a group of people he wanted to harm. His identity as a Klingon never changed, nor did his values. He only underwent this process in order to trick Starfleet into thinking of him as one of them.

Voq’s behavior is exactly what those who oppose transgender people believe we do. They believe that trans women are men pretending to be women in order to infiltrate women’s spaces and do them harm. They believe that trans men are faking our identities in order gain power. To use language for Voq’s experience that immediately calls to mind gender transition is to implicitly equate Voq’s violation of Tyler, his infiltration of Starfleet, and especially his attempt to kill Michael Burnham with the experience of transgender people.

If the writers of ST:DISCO really wanted to use this plot line they could have used any other description of this procedure. They could have skipped over attempting to directly translate the Klingon phrase for it at all, simply describing it without naming it. They could have called it a “species overlay process” or a “body and memory swap” or any one of many other options. They chose instead to use a phrase that calls to mind the medical procedures that make so many people in our current culture deeply uncomfortable, and to amplify rather than decrease that discomfort.

Many people, including me, had great hope that ST:DISCO would finally be a show in which we could see queerness represented. The inclusion of an out, loving, interracial gay couple brought so many of us hope and joy. The fact that Stamets and Culber are played by gay men known and beloved for their previous work by queer audiences was even better. When the show fell face first into the “Bury Your Gays” trope by brutally killing Dr. Culber I was deeply disappointed. Now, after episode 14, it is clear that the writers for ST:DISCO are not only willing to kill their gays, they are happy to throw trans folks under the bus too.

Trans Antagonism in Star Trek: Discovery

One thought on “Trans Antagonism in Star Trek: Discovery

  1. Mal

    I am agender nonbinary myself (sometimes I read femme to people and sort of feel it too), I don’t identify (as) trans*, however I do identify (with) TIN politics in general and I go to Hanlon’s Razor on stuff like you mentioned for Discovery: ‘assume stupidity rather than malice’. That doesn’t mean it’s not just as bad to unconsciously reproduce harmful mores/narratives through media tropes.

    It’s nice to see Hugh has been resurrected though!

    I am also hopeful about the future of gender nonconforming representations in Star Trek. Looking at reddit and other sources, I am concerned that such representations will take on forms which may deconstruct outsiders stereotypes and implicit biases, only to give them a set of new, albeit less harmful ones.

    I found a reddit from about a year ago where trans* issues are completely viewed through a medical lens (with sympathy) and the experience of dysphoria. Of course, defining identity through personal pathology is not the way forward for all of us, IMO (see: ).

    After reading through and speaking to many other Trek fans it’s hard for me to come to any other conclusion than that there are a great deal of cis people sympathetic to what Roddenbury was trying to do and want to see such representations done right, but have no fucking clue what they would look like. No concept of understanding individualised “hormone protocals” vs “hormone therapies” (the latter being an implicit pathologisation and thus stigmatisation for many people) or the individual choices people make about their bodies (the myth of ubiquitous bottom surgeries or the all-in-one SRS isn’t even addressed in the reddit though you can see it’s what many are probably assuming).

    In my perfect world, TIN characters difference would be commented on no more often or more matter-of-factly than Patrick Stewart’s baldness or in the way many women have been treated be patriarchies of other species in the series. Roddenbury was once asked in reference to Picard before TNG really picked up, ‘surely baldness would have been cured by the 24th century?’, his reply, ‘by the 24th century nobody will care’ as someone who is bald that was one of the most meaningful messages I could have heard. I would like to think that attitude can be applied to all these unecessary patholigisations. Left-handers have been persecuted in some parts of the world, but for many today they are mostly just left-handed, sans pathology, with custom scissors and such. I would also like to see TIN characters presented not as tokens or vast representations but actual individuals with their own quirks of presentation or self-representation and complicated relationships. It would be nice to see a future in which TIN-fetish or -taboo’s have been so dissolved that characters don’t consider their own journey of gender self-discovery differently from all others (except in those quirks that make all of us different). And on that point, lots of folks in the reddit and IRL say things like “it shouldn’t even need to be mentioned”, but then again we do talk about “men” and “women” all the time in the Star Trek universe and as at least one user pointed out not all gender nonconformers feel comfortable with that binary.

    Imagine a character that is written to read no differently than a man* would to many today, but identifies as a woman* and is universally engaged with as such in-show with zero comment except maybe for episodes where other more binary/essentialist oriented species’ societies are confused (leading to a discussion of dysphoria). Or a fluid or two-spirit person whose genitals are never the topic of conversation, for whom there is no implied question-mark about “what’s going on down there”. Or a character, who feels and identifies as trans-masc for the first time as an adult and is not sure about their future (a presentation of gender fluidity over the lifespan), but does not constantly come into contact with doubt, pathologisation, and dysphoria, but rather is given universal support no different from other characters (kind of the way Uhura’s character is treated on the bridge in TOS in light of the specific racism and prejudices of the era of production). Or a person that was raised in isolation from the federation and abused for being agender coming to terms with being gender-normal for the first time in their life amongst a federation crew that accepts them for who they are.

    Narratives like these could be so powerful, just looking at the effect that the almost 800 episodes of Trek (I am something of an amateur expert on the series) have had on our society, from technological to cultural I am not gonna give up on it yet :).

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts, I am gonna keep talking to as many fans as possible about these things until it happens!

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