Spending "Queer Time" in Space

Spending "Queer Time" in Space

My family was a Star Trek family. Throughout most of my childhood, the four of us - my mom, dad, and younger sister - would set aside our competing interests, gather in the living room, turn the television to UPN, and watch Star Trek. My parents, like the good ‘90s hippies they were, frowned upon too much TV and definitely wouldn’t let us watch it with dinner, but on Star Trek night, they shamelessly scarfed down dinner with my sister and I so that we could all be on the couch to watch. Frankly, it didn’t matter which characters we were following - as long as we were boldly going where no one had gone before, we were content.

As an adult, Deep Space Nine is the series I return to again and again when I need my Star Trek fix. Premiering in 1993, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine upended many of the expectations put in place by The Original Series and The Next Generation. The series took place not on a roving spaceship, but on a stationary space station, and took on a serialized format in which story arcs covered multiple episodes, and it questioned the Federation’s techno-utopia in a way the preceding two series hadn’t dared. Yet DS9 still embraced Star Trek’s strong moral center and unerring sense of optimism - something that can’t quite be said for either the J.J. Abrams reboots or Star Trek: Discovery

But the real reason I return again and again to Deep Space Nine is Jadzia Dax.

Jadzia Dax is an alien--technically two aliens: Jadzia, a 28-year-old female-bodied humanoid species called a Trill, and Dax, a genderless 300-year-old sentient “symbiont” that lives inside her. Because symbionts can live almost indefinitely and Trills have more-or-less “normal” lifespans, symbionts live with multiple Trills over their lifetime. As they move from one Trill to the next, they retain the memories of their previous life. This means that Jadzia Dax retains the memories of Dax’s seven previous Trill hosts. Some of those hosts were men, and some of them were women, giving Jadzia Dax a slightly more fluid approach to gender and sexuality-- dare I say, a more queer approach--than most of the people around her.

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A whip-smart scientist who loves whimsy and danger, Dax is just a lot of fun to watch. She is both wise and playful; she cares about the deep questions of the universe and who is sleeping with whom on Deep Space 9. She flirts with everyone: her friend Kira, a proud former freedom fighter from the nearby planet Bajor, Julian Bashir, the space station’s doctor, visiting Klingons of both genders, and former lovers on the pleasure planet Risa. 

Her adventure on Risa is one of my favorites. She and Worf (yes, the serious-minded Klingon of The Next Generation) visit shortly after falling for one another. Worf is immediately uncomfortable in the hedonistic paradise; it gets worse when he and Dax run into a woman who was the lover of Dax’s previous host. Though Dax and her former lover are both now women, they chat, and flirt, and playfully reminisce. Their relationship makes Worf uncomfortable, and the couple find themselves needing to explicitly discuss what commitment and monogamy mean to them. Though Worf and Jadzia are in an opposite-sex relationship, they negotiate that relationship in a way that would look familiar to plenty of queer couples.

Then there’s Lenara Kahn. Dax and Kahn were married during their previous hosts’ lifetimes - at the time, Dax’s host was a man, and Kahn’s host was a woman. When they cross paths in the episode “Rejoined,” they are both women, but that is not what causes problems when they begin to rekindle their relationship. Instead, it’s Trill society’s strict taboo against revisiting the romantic relationships of past hosts that eventually pulls them apart. It’s a deeply imperfect and rather heavy-handed attempt to address and critique the anti-LGBT sentiments of the 1990s, but it does add another layer to Dax’s identity.  

There are times that Dax comes across as a sort of pansexual “cool girl.” She’s sexy! She’s flirtatious! She expresses attraction to women, but never in a way that threatens the straight men around her! Thankfully, through six seasons of DS9, Dax is given time to develop relationships with the show’s other fabulous female characters, and is provided with complex character arcs that push her beyond an unfortunate archetype. I still enjoy that Dax regularly expresses attraction to people she is not “supposed” to find attractive. But I’m drawn to Dax for reasons that have less to do with her romantic activities, and more to do with her inner struggle to understand herself. I can’t help but see something particularly queer in her grappling with unseen, contradictory identities. That queerness is frustratingly subtextual, even accidental. Nevertheless, it was powerful to me as a kid, and remains powerful to me today.  

Sara Jaffe recently wrote about “queer time” for JSTOR Daily: the idea that queer people often construct a sense of adulthood differently than their straight peers. Some of the reason for this has to do with legal and cultural restrictions that have historically kept queer people on the margins - out of the institution of marriage, out of parenthood, and out of many careers. But “queer time” can also be more existential than that. Quoting scholar Jack Halberstam, Jaffe notes that because “ ‘queer uses of time and space develop… in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction,’ queerness itself is ‘an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices.” 

What I relate to most now, and what I sensed as a child, was that Jadzia Dax existed in precisely this sort of queer time - both as a 300-year-old alien whose experiences transcend heteronormative “objective life events” like marriage, family, and career, and as a woman in her twenties who has to reimagine her identity within a tumult of new memories. Queer people (myself included) often must discover how to be authentic people in the world on a different timeline than those around them. It wasn’t until I was twenty years old that I began dating the people I wanted to date, that I began the process of imagining the sort of person I’d like to spend my life with, that I thought in earnest about life stages like marriage and family. I felt, I still feel, somehow behind my straight friends. Similarly, Jadzia has to define herself afresh once she is joined. She has to rethink her friendships, her romantic relationships, and her very sense of self.

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Star Trek’s most recent iterations finally have explicitly gay characters. In Star Trek: Beyond, the 2016 film, we catch glimpses of Sulu’s husband and daughter. Some of the best work of Star Trek: Discovery’s first season involved fleshing out the relationship between two crew members,  Paul Stamets and Hugh Culber, who are married to one another. This kind of casual representation of LGBT people in the Star Trek universe is necessary - and it should have happened long ago. But Sulu, Stamets, and Culber don’t occupy queer time the way that Jadzia Dax seems to. Don’t get me wrong, not all of them need to. Queer experiences vary, and they should vary in our fiction as well. And yet, as the Star Trek universe continues to grow, change, and reflect the societal issues of its time, I hope that we get characters who have an explicit queer identities and who inhabit that much more implicit queer sensibility of Jadzia Dax.

Dax’s queer sensibility is both self-assured and searching; it brands her as a person apart and provides her with a community that spans space and time. Like so many of the queer kids watching her, she must define herself outside usual boundaries - a process both terrifying and freeing. “I'm nothing like I expected,” she eventually confesses. “Life after life, with each new personality stampeding around in your head, you get desires that scare you, dreams that used to belong to someone else….Jadzia Dax is not Curzon Dax. But I am Dax. And I'm slowly coming to terms with what that means to me.”

I don’t actually remember my reaction to “Rejoined.” Did seeing two women kiss on my family’s favorite TV show have any kind of impact on ten-year-old me? None that has stayed with me. I think what I saw in Dax was less about representing someone who sometimes kissed the people that I grew up wanting to kiss but instead about something deeper, something queer in a more existential way. At that age, I didn’t think of myself as liking girls. I didn’t think of myself as liking anyone. But I felt a decided “otherness” and uncertainty with my sense of self that I saw reflected on the small screen.

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