The “Star Trek” Episode That Helped Me Understand My Transition
What is gender, anyway? This episode of Star Trek doesn’t explain, exactly, but it still helped me figure it out
It’s a pleasant afternoon on the holodeck. Data, fake bearded, piled in rags, totally hams up Prospero’s “break my staff” monologue. Picard, whose captain duties apparently include being the ship’s acting coach, remains his tactful, patient, graceful self, as Data shakes the room with a few rolled Rs. It’s an absurd game of pretend, but hey, they’re going with it. Suddenly, in the distance, headlamps flare. There’s a deep rumble, approaching fast: the imminent chuff and urgent wail of a steam engine. Picard, unfazed, orders the computer to “end program.” It doesn’t. By the time they realize what’s coming there’s only a split second to dive out of the way. The Orient Express comes crashing through the Shakespearean darkness, taillights disappearing off down the track.
Throughout the ship, the crew is mystified. The Enterprise Herself is going, for lack of a better term, absolutely bonkers. Systems fail at random. Weird multi-hued circuit nodes appear throughout the ship’s plumbing. The ship seems to be spontaneously rewiring herself. And there on the holodeck, where it all intersects, the bonkers is literalized.
A confession: I’m a trans woman, years into my transition, with a lifetime of experience mulling and parsing my place in the world, what makes me me, how that me fits among those billions of other mes, and yet I still have no clue what the fuck “gender” even is.
On the Orient Express, a knight cuts a line of paper dolls from a wad of folded text. A vintage G-man, a chippie, and a mobster assemble a jigsaw puzzle resembling those same mysterious writings. An Okie plays cards with Wyatt Earp. The conductor comes through, rousting anyone without a ticket.
The engineer runs out, frantic, warning that the whole mob of caricatures is trying to hijack the train. He’s promptly shot by the mobster, who roots through the dead engineer’s clothes and pulls out a very, very important brick. Just then, down in engineering, the navigational relays overload. The crew loses helm control, and the ship inexplicably jumps to warp.
Everyone’s eagerly awaiting their arrival at Vertiform City (whatever that is). It’s overdue. They can’t get there fast enough.
As to the crew, they’re at a loss. This isn’t the old familiar Enterprise they thought they knew. She’s gotten pretty wiggy, seemingly erratic, failing to be what they expect. How peculiar, they think — how queer it all is.
Over years and years, that question — what even is gender? — was the logic that always held me back. There was a big, very urgent question, but big questions and big decisions demand clarity, clean answers, right? As in, there needed to be an arithmetic to it. Rationally, it had to exist in a defined plane, one with rules, like Newtonian physics. Surely, gender had gravity. Surely it had articulable force, actions and reactions. Surely these could also be charted, measured. Just take one half of your quantitative identity, multiply it by time squared, add in your identity-zero value multiplied by time, and hey presto there’s your gender. Running that trigonometry, it was always so hard to dodge the fact that nothing I was experiencing definitively meant I wasn’t a boy.
Boys cry too.
Boys wear eyeliner, too.
Boys can be sensitive, too.
Boys need to look pretty sometimes, too.
Of course it is Data with his impeccable android logic who starts to put it all together. “Unlikely as it may sound,” he says, “I believe that the Enterprise may be forming an intelligence.”
He gathers everyone for the standard briefing in the observation lounge, and rolls out his theory.
“I believe it is an emergent property,” Data says.
“Explain,” says Picard.
“Complex systems can sometimes behave in ways that are entirely unpredictable,” Data says. “The human brain for example might be described in terms of cellular functions and neuro-chemical interactions. But that description does not explain human consciousness, a capacity that far exceeds the simple neural functions. Consciousness is an emergent property.”
“In other words, something that is more than a sum of its parts,” Geordi adds, helpfully.
Boys call their mom every week, too.
Boys think they’re “too fat” no matter their shape, and hate that they think it, hate themselves for so stereotypically hating themselves, too.
Boys kiss boys, too.
Boys have long conversations with their cats, too.
On the holodeck, the Orient Express makes a stop in Keystone City. Troi watches the Mobster slide the brick into the lone empty slot in a brick wall, and it melts in seamlessly. “Laying the foundation,” he says.
Meanwhile, the crew finds some answers. Geordi discovers that a dangerous theta flux distortion had built around the ship, without their notice, just before the ship inexplicably jumped to warp. The leap to warp was reactive, instinctual; rather than an act of defiance, that leap that nobody else expected or understood, that leap that had them all hurtling now on an express train to Vertiform City (whatever that is), was instead a clear act of self defense. She had to. If She hadn’t jumped just when she did, she would have been destroyed.
Boys are caretakers, too.
Boys go a little crazy over other peoples’ babies, too.
Boys have zero self-confidence no matter their manifest talent, too.
Boys try not to think about how they want desperately to carry a child, too.
The thing is, there’s no shortage of people handing over easy logics, simple maths to explain gender. Instagram ties womanhood to your makeup game. Radical feminism posits an entire scaffold of social interactions, rules, dictates, and impositions, and rolling off the conveyor belt of that oppression machine is this thing called “gender.” Certain religions insist on a rigid inherency, with gender as a blessed immutable gift, very much part of His Image, to accept without question (questions tend to make Him very cross, they say).
And you admit that there is sense in some of these logics (in degrees, until they get too inflexibly biblical or exclusionary). The notion of surrender to inherency — of openly accepting the easy, surface definitions — has appeal, if only in the right light. The social construct aspect of gender is obvious. Inescapable too is the cynical result of that construct, i.e. gender is a tool to enforce patriarchy. And yet. That’s just not enough. This thing you’re looking at, it’s just clearly bigger than these simple machines. There’s a truth there both undeniable and unprovable. It’s like dark matter, all this mass we think is there, that must be there for the galactic scales to balance, but that’s impossible to see straight out, impossible to draw in shape and quality.
The easy logics might be enough when their answers feel approximately true. But every once in a while, no matter how many times over you hit the equals sign, no matter how many times you check your math, the equation just won’t balance.
Boys can’t write a comprehensible email around all those obligatory “sorrys,” too.
Boys always sign off those emails with a thank you so much, exclamation point, too.
Boys spend endless hours at ten years old locked in the bathroom, sitting on the sink, face to face with the mirror, just poring over their face, tracing fingers over still-smooth skin, over a hairline still full and round, horrified by the promised loss, terrified of those inevitable changes that will hit soon like a hailstorm across a field of tulips, hoping, hoping to save and stretch those moments for as long as they can, to save it all if only in memory, too.
Boys feel a little sick when strangers call them “he,” too.
The Enterprise Herself arrives at Vertiform City, except it’s not. The emergence requires heaps of Vertion particles, which only occur in rare white dwarf stars, and the white dwarf they found isn’t cutting it. The well is dry, and there’s no time to find another. The whole emergence is in deep trouble.
So the crew, now on board with this transition, committed to help the Enterprise Herself through her transformation, comes up with a plan. They seed a nearby nebula and create an explosion of artificial Vertions. The holodeck scene is ebullient. The Conductor, the Okie, the Chippie, the Mobster — they all hail their arrival at New Vertiform City, a place that may not have been the intended destination, but nonetheless the precise place they need to be.
Meanwhile, in the cargo bay, the emergence takes final shape. Sated on Vertion replacement therapy, healthy, happy, and whole, the nest of new circuits goes flying off to forge its own life, on its own terms, out in the wilds of space.
Boys fill their living space with fresh flowers, too.
Boys tell their friends they love them, too.
Boys feel like they don’t have a right to exist in space, too.
Boys love their boobs, too.
It’s a nervous tic, every time you try to explain this thing you suspect, this thing you think must be there — you try to relate some trait, some habit, some tendency, some aspect that feels gendered in a meaningful way, but out comes that inevitable “oh, but of course boys can totally do that, too.”
And really, that’s correct. The logic is impeccable. The last thing you would want to do is essentialize any specific trait, or imbue a stereotype with inherency.
Until one day, you resolve to gather them up. You’ve been eyeballing that very, very important brick and you suddenly have a bead on where it fits. You look at all those jumbled pieces, all those assorted parts, the lego kit dumped on your living room rug that is supposed, eventually, to congeal into “gender.” Some of these gendered parts are affirmational. Some of these parts are eccentric. A great many are toxic habits, or pernicious stereotypes, things folks naturally pick up when they grow up female, things you wish you could set down.
And then, looking in the mirror, you finally say the words. “I’m a girl.”
Girls wear Carhartts, too.
Girls sink back into their partner’s arms as she comes up behind them, feeling so small and so soft and so safe, too.
Girls shove their partner back when a car veers too quick into their crosswalk, too.
Girls take the pitch from their scrum half and dive into the try-zone and get five points and a face full of mud for their trouble, too.
Girls run in the park, listening to Lorde, when ‘Green Light’ comes on, the chorus hits, and suddenly they’re flying, pulled forward by a body they now truly live in, always before ‘I wish I could get my things and just let go / I’m waiting for it, that green light, I want it’ and now it’s here, unity of body spirit and mind, sublime congruity, alarming and terrifying how right and complete, as the chorus fades, legs slow and pull up, laughing while wiping away tears, before anyone else sees them, too.
Girls read way too much into Star Trek, too.
Suddenly, all these boys can toos snap from a discordant mess into a sensible whole. A true and wholly consonant thing has emerged from the pile. And you’re astonished, at the end, after all that doubt, how simple it all was. Sure, it’s ineffable, partially but never fully definable, sprung from its parts but no sum of them. It’s mood, overtone, neither logical nor concrete. And it’s so easy, really. It’s consciousness. It’s an emergence.