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
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