A week ago as I write this, at age 46, I told my mom that I identified as non-binary.
A few nights before that, my parents had come with me to a play about a woman in small-town Texas whose daughter declares herself to be genderqueer, and the series of personal and community struggles that result from that declaration.
I don’t believe that my mom had ever heard of non-binary identities before that play. I don’t believe that she ever suspected that I identified as other than male. I didn’t know how to begin explaining it to her. If I had been gay, or trans female, I would have been scared to tell her, but she would have had context.
I needed art to provide a bridge of understanding between us.
By the way, my mom said she loved me and that I should let her know if there was anything she could do to support me in my identity. My mom is great. But this is not an essay about my mom. This is an essay about how Star Trek failed me.
It’s my considered and minority opinion that, episode for episode, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is easily the best Trek series. Most of Star Trek leaves me cold, but I have been a Deep Space Nine fan since before the show actually aired. The concept was exciting; instead of the perpetual return to the status quo that Enterprise-based stories demanded, the writers would be forced to explore repercussions in a way that they had never bothered to do on TNG, because things that impacted the setting would still be there the next week, and the week after that. At least, if they were done well, that would be the case.
Sometimes it even worked. One of the things that was supposed to ground the series and to give it more of a this-is-happening-in-space! flavor was Quark’s Bar, a little watering hole/all-purpose setting run by a Ferengi named Quark. The Ferengi, at least in the beginning, were not one of Trek’s proudest moments. Introduced on Star Trek: The Next Generation, they were presented as a race with two universal characteristics, neither of them good: Ferengi were greedy, and they were misogynist—qualities played both for laughs and for chills. There’s also, at times, a feeling that the Ferengi are meant to be a parody of one or more human races—it’s been suggested that they are exaggerated Jewish stereotypes, and once you hear that it’s hard to dismiss it entirely. (The fact that every actor who played a regular role as a Ferengi was himself Jewish complicates/underscore/subverts/confuses this, but the discomfort remains.)
Over the course of the series the Ferengi become more complex and nuanced, and some of their unpleasantness is mitigated. But the Starfleet characters, as a whole, maintain a sort of bemused contempt for the Ferengi’s profit motives. And there are still artifacts of that broad-strokes beginning, such as the game of Tongo, a sort of simulated stock-market game, played with a deck of cards and a roulette wheel. More than a few scenes in DS9 take place at the Tongo table, almost always with Quark, and often with Jadzia Dax at the table with him and the other Ferengi.
Leveraging the Buy-In
Jadzia Dax was, on paper, one of the most interesting characters on DS9. The eighth host of a long-lived Trill symbiont, Dax is sort of an accumulated personality, carrying the memories of all their previous hosts and their blended personalities and experiences. Dax’s previous host was a man named Curzon, who happened to have been the hard-partying mentor of Deep Space Nine’s commander, Benjamin Sisko, when he was a young officer.
Sisko consistently refers to Jadzia Dax, played by then-thirty-something actress Terry Farrell, as “Old Man.” It’s both a nod to the cognitive dissonance of having a friend change their physicality and an endearing character note—at first. Over time, though, a viewer who had given some thought to gender and identity might begin to despair that this was as far as the show was going to go with Dax’s complexity. At one point a woman hosting a Trill once hosted by the widow of one of Dax’s hosts (take a second to go back and read that again—I’ll wait) shows up on the station, and there’s a bit of pre-Ellen sexual tension, but it never goes deeper than that. For Trills, falling in love again with different hosts is forbidden, and all four of those involved—hosts and symbionts—ultimately accept this and let go. Star Trek, after all, is not really about upending the status quo; it’s about making the status quo a little better, sure, but only in small steps, and this was the mid-90s, which seems like a Dark Age today—just as today will seem like a Dark Age to someone in the not-very-distant future.
Dax was not the only character on DS9 with the potential to fuck with gender. The station’s security chief, Odo, was an honest-to-the-Prophets shapeshifter, yet one who, conveniently for the employment prospects of the prosthetics department, had problems simulating humanoid form. For all the opportunity this would create for that heavy-handed proselytization about gender, race, appearance, age, etc., Odo always took the same cranky, colorless, masculine form—played by the supremely talented René Auberjonois, yes, but the lost opportunities are numberless. Later in the series, when Odo discovers his mysterious lost species, they appear to embrace the gender binary, at least when they’re not mingled in a sexy silver puddle. The villainous female changeling (that’s actually the only name they ever gave the character: Female Changeling) clearly has romantic designs on Odo—in fact all of Odo’s romantic subplots are rigidly heterosexual, despite the fact that just a little thought would suggest that Changeling gender and sexuality should be quite literally fluid.
If Trill and Changeling sexuality were in the Dark Ages, though, relations between male and female Ferengi were a throwback to the Stone Age of the 1950s, or even earlier. It’s as if, confronted with the myriad implications and possibilities of Dax and Odo’s characters, the writers panicked and decided to point backwards. It’s a weirdly regressive move. The state of Ferengi women is shown through the character of Quark’s mother; women are expected to stay in their homes, never wearing clothes, forbidden to engage in commerce. In the episodes when Quark visits home Ferenginar feels like Bizarro world; everything is so deliberately ridiculous and exaggerated that even the rhetorical value of it is questionable. It’s just silly, and if you really pick it apart, it raises questions about how Ferengi society could actually function if it weren’t just played for laughs. It raises the question of what the point of showing this is, unless it is to congratulate the viewer on living in a society that is, at least, not quite that bad.
The truth is, though, that the Ferengi are the most individualist, the most American, aspect of DS9. They are transgressive and regressive at the same time, outrageous and conservative, abhorrent and oddly relatable. Their follies provide some of the show’s funniest moments and episodes, yet as a people and a civilization they are ill-conceived and fall apart under the least scrutiny.
Armin Shimmerman, who played Quark, has said something analogous about the rules of Tongo: that since the rules of the game were never established, sometimes the actors weren’t sure how to simulate that play. There would be disagreements about how many cards should be in a hand, for instance. It wasn’t a real game—it was all performance, but the guidelines for that performance were too nebulous, so everyone had to fake it, spinning a ball on a wheel, setting down cards, and saying “Acquire! Evade! Retreat! Confront!”
Indexing the Exchange
When I say that Deep Space Nine is the best Trek, you must understand that my standards for Trek are low, and that DS9 has more than its fair share of real clunkers. What DS9 does right, usually, is that it takes its stories one last, dark twist farther than TNG would have or did; but sometimes that’s the only grace note in an episode, and sometimes you don’t even get that.
Late in its sixth season, in the episode “Profit and Lace,” DS9 makes one of its most regressive moves by taking the man-in-a-dress plot and giving it a Trek twist. We’ve all seen the man-in-a-dress story: a male character, usually a hyper-macho or slovenly one, is forced by a tortured series of plot twists to disguise himself as a woman. This story gets recycled because for so many people, seeing a man in a dress provokes an anxiety that can only be dissipated by laughter. We could talk about Shakespeare or “Some Like It Hot,” sure, but when TV shows put a character in drag for 22 or 42 minutes, they’re not pretending to pull back the veil, not really. It doesn’t even matter what the episode is about, because in the end it’s about the same thing that every man-in-a-dress story is about: it’s about the theatre of womanhood as perceived by the man, and how overwhelming he finds it; he comes back from his experience valuing his maleness all the more for having, briefly, abdicated his privilege.
That DS9 makes this move is all the more disappointing when for six seasons they have had a character who transgresses gender constantly—again, mostly on paper, but Dax has had four male hosts, and Jadzia is her fourth female host; presumably her/their perspective on gender is complex and stretches across years and cultures, but we are given no insight into it. Indeed, over the course of Jadzia’s time on the show, she becomes more or less straight and cis by default: from a potential state of confronting numberless assumptions about gender and sexuality, she becomes a woman who dates men. She is a woman with masculine characteristics, sure—a fierce fighter, a bold gambler, sexually assertive—but she begins to feel like the male fantasy of a badass woman, a girl who has your back in a fight and is always down for a fuck, a girl who is “one of the guys.” This is not to say that a woman who is all of those things is not a woman, only that this is one depiction of womanhood that male writers have shown us again and again. The rules of play for gender, like the rules of play for Tongo, are vague, arbitrary, and subject to change. Science fiction would seem to be the perfect vehicle to explore that field of play, but time and again it has shown itself too timid to do so.
It’s fair to say that my frustration with DS9’s failure to be bold in this respect is in part a frustration with myself. I see around me examples of grand gender play, of non-binary-identified folks who call themselves gender terrorists, who confront with beards and lipstick, hairy legs and hose. I admire this in others, yet I struggle with it for myself.
When we talk about gender we talk a lot about gender expression; but for those of us who are introverted, who wilt under scrutiny, self-expression is a fraught thing. I have, at times, wished to be braver; but I think that I am not as cowardly as I have sometimes accused myself of being. I am very shy, and I have always struggled with anxiety over drawing attention to myself. Introversion complicates my expression of my gender identity immensely, and in ways that I cannot always overcome. I am Star Trek on the outside, and something more Muppetish, more anime, more outré, on the inside.
When I was first talking myself through my gender identity, I found it useful to think of my ideal self as a shapeshifter, and of my actual self as a mind and spirit limited by an impermanent, imperfect body. Something like a Trill, in fact. I used to be in the body of a cis male; now I exist in the somewhat older body of a genderqueer or non-binary individual. Perhaps I will change bodies again in time. This messy, confusing, imprecise idea of myself is what led me to take on the nickname Dax—after messy, confusing, imprecise Jadzia and Ezri.
Indexing the Margins
DS9 deals with Dax’s own identity conflicts on numerous occasions, but these are presented as problems of many faces, of perceptions, or of suppressed memories. Never once are we shown that Dax experiences dysphoria or agonizes over a disconnect between body and mind. I wonder whether there might have been a writer on the show’s staff who had grappled with these issues, whether they pitched story ideas that touched on this, whether there was anyone there who saw the potential of the character, and what the forces might have been which made that potential impossible to realize. In an alternate 1990s, perhaps there is a tentative, imperfect exploration of a non-binary, gender non-conforming character on syndicated television, and the impact of that is something we can only imagine here in this reality.
I think it would have helped me immensely to have that. It might have cut a decade off the time it took me to understand myself, to understand that my attraction to Dax was not just because of Terry Farrell’s model good looks, but because there was something about the character’s experience of being that I yearned to have for myself, that I wanted not to be forced to choose between the arbitrary goal posts of Male and Female, but that I wanted that liminal space for myself. It might have given me something to point to so that I could explain who I was to my mother, twenty years before I actually managed to do so. And I don’t think I’m the only one who would have benefited from seeing a light shone into that massive canyon that our culture has carved out between “male” and “female.”
But maybe this is too optimistic a view of science fiction. Science fiction’s roots are in colonialist literature, a literature that is concerned with the Other, yes; but it is concerned with confronting the Other, not with being the Other. Star Trek’s approach to the alien has always been to assimilate where possible, or to destroy. In their 2001 article “Popular Imagination and Identity Politics: Reading the Future in Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Brian L. Ott and Eric Aoki argue that by framing TNG as a utopian vision, the creators and marketers managed to idealize the social norms of the present—white, male, heterosexual—as the ideal of the future.¹ The Other is welcome in this utopia, so long as they recognize and accept that their place is at the margins, and that the center has not moved.
In DS9’s final season, the producers dealt with the stagnation of Jadzia by killing her off.
Probably this was always in the cards; given the fact that the conceptual complexity of Trill identity had been reduced to functional immortality, body-swapping, and accumulation of experience, it seems likely that Farrell was only contracted for six seasons in the hopes that the show could dramatically replace her with another actor playing the same character, or nearly so.
It’s worth saying that Ezri Dax is in many ways a massive improvement over Jadzia. She’s a Trill who was never supposed to carry a symbiont, a ship’s counselor who finds herself dealing with a massive identity crisis. Nicole de Boer brings a sense of isolation, self-doubt, and low-key panic to her portrayal of Dax—although to be fair Farrell was rarely given a chance to exhibit more than wry humor and ageless wisdom. De Boer has the advantage of playing a character in flux, even in crisis. It’s the closest DS9 comes to confronting something like a trans identity, though of course without actually taking the bolder step of putting the Dax symbiont into a body that read as male. Ezri has to re-navigate all of her relationships, in particular that of her husband Worf, who Jadzia married shortly before her death. It’s a weird, uneven character arc: at times, it feels like the writers forget that Ezri has all of Jadzia’s memories—it’s as if the show has gone meta and is doing commentary more on the recasting of someone entirely different, rather than a transitioned version of the same character. But it works, more often than not, because of how it acknowledges that transition changes relationships: it complicates some, deepens others, and sometimes it brings them to an end. In spite of all the missteps and missed opportunities, in its final season the show approaches, almost assuredly by accident, a depiction of the trans experience.
What does not seem accidental is Ezri’s identity as a counselor; the physician-heal-thyself move is a typical move in Trek, where a person’s role is so often the larger part of their identity. The personalities of the archetypal trio of Spock, Bones, and Kirk, for instance are interchangeable with their jobs—science officer/logician, doctor/protector, captain/decisive actor. While Trek has since stepped away from the brink of allegory, for a franchise that has been so progressive in terms of representation—whether in the character of Uhura in the original series, Geordi’s disability in TNG, or the captaincies of Sisko or Janeway—it has sidestepped identity politics entirely. This is understandable within the same framework that the tendency towards status quo in Trek is understandable: in a utopia such as the Federation, everyone is equal and prejudice is illustrated through alien-world allegories. In a utopia, the only change that needs to be met is the threat of change from outside.
This utopian mindset is a microaggression that trans and non-binary identified people encounter all the time in feminist and science fiction settings. “Will gender exist in the future?” is a question that cis people like to play with, often seeming unaware that—or unwilling to acknowledge that—one of the questions that inevitably follows from that one is: “Will trans people exist in the future?” The answer, by the way, is unequivocally yes. There is no question that dysphoria exists in the Federation. How it is dealt with is unclear. In the worst case scenario perhaps it is “cured” or “erased” in the same way that intersexed newborns are “corrected” through invasive surgery. A best case scenario might be that the Federation’s genetic technology is advanced enough that a person’s DNA and body can simply be rewritten. Yet these are both solutions that position every citizen of this utopia at either side of a massive gulf between two acknowledged genders. What about those who exist between those two poles? What is the recourse for them?
It is also common for some feminists to speak of abolishing gender, as if this were possible, and as if doing so would erase difference and bring about equity. This is often, though not always, accompanied by a discomfort with or even open antipathy towards trans people, and particularly trans women. Trans folks have a term for these feminists: Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, or TERFs. The TERF position, in short, is that no one not born into a cis female body can identify as or call themselves a woman, because they have not taken the full brunt of societal misogyny in since birth, and that it is this experience, even more than one’s genitalia or presentation, that makes a woman. It’s an argument that completely ignores the existence of gender dysphoria. In fact it implicitly rejects the idea that we are anything other than our experiences: it says we are nurture and not nature, that we are programmed by society, that we cannot progress, we can only dismantle existing systems and go back to some imagined basic. It’s a Star Trek idea of humanity, an idea that if we rid ourselves of hate and want, that we will no longer have social problems. It is, in other words, a lie.
But it’s not just TERFs. Some older feminists tend to be dismissive of identity politics altogether, and particularly of non-binary identities. “Why are there so many terms? It’s too confusing! We need to be coming together, not dividing ourselves into categories.” It can be confusing. But so is the arbitrariness of gender. Like Tongo, it’s a game where no one can really agree on the rules. Except this burgeoning questioning and deconstruction/reconstruction of gender is not a game. People are not identifying as bigender or agender to be trendy. They are latching on to words and concepts that are helping to describe themselves to themselves. These ideas are saving people’s lives, and to ridicule or dismiss them is not acceptable. If things are confusing, ask questions. That’s what it means to be progressive: you learn. You progress.
The failure to progress is why so many trans- and non-binary people have decided that feminism is not a safe space for them. Because this failure to confront its own contradictions and bigotries begins to make the discourse feel like a morality play, an allegory about worlds where most of us do not live. It’s the same reason why DS9’s constant search for external tension takes them to Bajor or Cardassia or through a literal wormhole: because the people in charge of the narrative consider internal tension too disruptive to the status quo. Interrogating the binary overcomplicates the narrative. Some people find it so complicated they want to declare bankruptcy on the entire concept and throw gender overboard.
Am I still talking about Star Trek? Yes. Sort of.
Set New Rates
The Federation, that Hanseatic League of planets, represents for many the utopian endpoint of liberal—as opposed to progressive—politics. It’s a world where difference is incidental, which is good when it means you won’t get harassed for your prosthetics, but bad when your differences are part of what makes you who you are. It’s also a lie, because under the surface there’s that contempt for the Ferengi, that embarrassment at Worf’s Klingon ways, that condescension towards Bajoran religious beliefs. The liberality of the Federation, and of Deep Space Nine, is white and male, heterosexual and rationalistic, in which difference is tolerated as long as it doesn’t take over the narrative, or make it too complex to be explored in a 45-minute episode. Because the overall objection to identity politics and to an intersectional point of view, both in politics and in science fiction, seems to be that it makes everything too complicated. That those who haven’t heard the message, or haven’t watched the show, don’t want to be overwhelmed with ideas. That the message must wrap up neatly into a package that will not leave them with too many questions. That it will educate them just a little bit, without ever confronting them with their ignorance.
The ultimate message of this perspective, to people in the margins and interstices of gender, and to everyone who doesn’t slot neatly into categories, is: you are inconvenient. You complicate things too much. Our time is too precious to talk to or about you. If we fight for trans rights right now, it might hurt our cause of marriage equality. We can’t talk about bathroom laws without alienating potential donors. If we want to fight Trump, we can’t confuse people with lots of words like cis or transmisogyny. This is more important, and also this other thing is more important, and you are on the list, but you are at the bottom, and we will get to you eventually, probably, maybe, if we win everything else first. Like maybe by the 25th Century.
At this point you may wonder how it can be that I claim to be a fan of DS9. I would direct you to the seminal “How to be a fan of problematic things,” which you may peruse at your leisure.
Still, why pick on Star Trek? Or feminists? Or science fiction? Or liberals? Aren’t these all forward-looking groups of people, seeking to improve the status quo, or pointing towards said improvements?
You would think. And yet as we have seen time and again in recent years, science fiction has strong regressive tendencies as well. And there is a current in liberalism that sees an endpoint to progress, goals which can quickly become anchors, as younger and more progressive forces try to move beyond those goalposts and to improve upon the problems that become clear only as we solve other ones. Yet too many of us cling to the narrative that these are cultural forces that will lead us into the future, and too often the truth is they are lagging far behind.
But the real point is this: art should be a mirror. It should show us a reflection of ourselves. And there is a place for aspirational art, for art that shows us as we hope to be; but a utopian vision that asserts the primacy of the status quo is neither visionary nor progressive. It is the worst sort of consolatory fiction. There is little value in a reflection that tells us that we are good. There is value in a reflection that tells us that we are flawed and we need to do better; there is value in a reflection that reveals evil where we had not perceived it; there is value in a reflection that shows us something about ourselves that we did not know. But for art to cast that reflection, it must confront. For politics to cast that reflection, it must confront. They must push science fictional and societal developments to their extremes, and grapple with the questions that arise. As artists and political creatures—for any attempt to pretend that art can be separated from politics is disingenuous at best—we must not shy away from things that make us uncomfortable and become mired in self-congratulations. We must interrogate our lazy complacencies, our smug certainties, and our pet this-will-fix-everythings. And above all, we must not unthinkingly trust that good liberal intentions will lead us to a science fiction utopia, not without recognizing the science fiction utopia we are pining for has at least as many flaws as our present.
That may be your utopia, but it isn’t mine. A utopia where I don’t exist is something else entirely. And this is why identity politics matter; this is why representation matters; this is why intersectionality matters. Because if you can’t imagine a future with us, if we can’t see ourselves in your future, then we are headed in different directions. We are working at cross purposes, and odds are neither of us will get where we want to go without the other.
¹ Ott, Brian L. and Eric Aoki, Western Journal of Communication, 65(4) (Fall 2011, 392-415)
© 2017 by David J. Schwartz