Expanding its already out-of-this-world storyline and casting, the Star Trek franchise's latest installment, the series Star Trek: Discovery, announced the addition of a transgender and nonbinary character.
The CBS All Access show plans to introduce the characters for its upcoming third season. Blu del Barrio will play Adira, a nonbinary member of the U.S.S. Discovery space ship who exudes “confidence and self-assurance well beyond their years,” according to the Star Trek website. Gray, played by Ian Alexander, is a transgender member of the Discovery who is warm and empathetic despite unexpected setbacks for the character.
Dr. Dustin Harp, Director of Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington, believes that this representation of diverse identities is a trend that is attributed to a young and open-minded generation.
"The change of representation has been fairly rapid and I think we will continue to see more and more diversity of all kinds in media content of all types as we move forward," Harp says. "We’ve passed the tipping point, finally."
When characters like these new additions are present in media, LGBTQ+ youth can see themselves as powerful beings, a representation that was not always available.
"Young people in the LGBTQ+ community can be really isolated and the numbers of these young people who attempt suicide [are] much higher than their counterparts in the cis, binary, and heterosexual community," Harp says. "Seeing themselves represented in media — including as superheroes and characters on popular franchises like Star Trek — is important in terms of helping them feel less isolated and less alone. It’s a signal of acceptance."
Star Trek has a long history of breaking social barriers in the entertainment industry. It aired an interracial kiss between William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols 1968, one of the first interracial kisses on American TV.
George Takei, an LGBTQ activist who openly came out as gay in 2006, portrayed the fan-favorite character Sulu. Takei has been vocal about gay rights particularly in the last decade, and the 2016 portrayal of his famous character in Star Trek Beyond is identified as a gay man.
Though the series has made progressive strides, Hollywood as a whole still has a long way to go.
Earlier this year, Disclosure, a documentary from Netflix, circled in on the topic of trans representation in media. Trans and nonbinary visibility was minimal, to say the least.
Even when portrayed with empathetic storylines, many trans characters are often played by cis-gendered actors. Jared Leto won Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards for his role as a transgender sex worker in Dallas Buyers Club. Though the actor’s intent may have been pure, his role may have taken away opportunities for other hardworking transgender actors.
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This was the same argument made against actress Scarlett Johansson when she was announced in 2018 as the lead in Rub & Tug, a film about a transgender man. An onslaught of criticism resulted from Johansson's casting, and of her initial response to the backlash, which many deemed as dismissive. "Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment," her reps said at the time, citing other cis-gendered actors who had taken on roles as transgender characters. Eventually, Johansson dropped out of the project.
Gender nonconformists and trans characters, whether they're from Texas or outer space, should have their stories be told from the people who actually understand what it means to be them.
According to a media study from LGBTQ organization GLAAD, of over 400 queer characters on television, only 38 of them identified as transgender and five identify as nonbinary.
Hollywood is seen as a glamorous place, a liberal bubble that promotes diversity and inclusivity. Now, one of its oldest shows will promote the characters who break not just gender barriers but systemic barriers in the entertainment industry.