What I Learned From The Only Latina In Space by Tristan Sober Blodgett
I have become a big Star Trek fan. Not hardcore, I’m not emotionally invested in a particular canonical timeline and I don’t care how a Klingon forehead is styled. I didn’t even start watching the show until the original series became available on Netflix. It was entertaining enough, despite the hokey Cold War era cultural empiricism driving every episode.
I never understood why it was so heavily praised as a radical show. I know that coming out of an era when Asian American actors could only get cast as chauffeurs it was a big deal to see George Takei play a lieutenant; even if Sulu’s job was to fly the Enterprise. Of course I understand that putting Nichelle Nichols, on the bridge in the middle of the Civil rights struggle was seen as progressive—but Lt. Uhura’s primary responsibility was answering phones. In terms of radical representation, the show always felt like a C+ at best. Yeah, they did it, but they didn’t do it quite right. Still, I watched it.
To understand how I came to love this show we have to skip back to my late teens and early adulthood. I was certain I would not live past the age of 30. I wasn’t ill or suicidal. I just could not see beyond my twenties. I wasn’t nihilistic about it. I went on doing what middle class assimilated kids do; I went to community collage and transferred to a University. Didn’t put much thought into what I would do after. I didn’t put much effort into dating; life partner was not even a term in my vocabulary.
Despite my lack of effort, I met my partner in university. We graduated, got jobs and began to build our lives together. The idea I wouldn’t live past thirty was still present, but as I approached my late twenties it began to feel irrational. I knew it was, in Vulcan terms, illogical, but knowing that about a feeling doesn’t preclude you from feeling it.
Around that time I started watching The Next Generation, only a few decades behind its release. I couldn’t tell you the plot of a single episode. I watched most of the series while playing on my iPhone. What I do recall is Ensign Gomez. If you are not a Trekkie I’m sure that name means nothing to you. If you are a Trekkie, chances are that name means nothing to you. When I heard it I put my phone down and gave Star Trek my undivided attention. Despite only appearing in two episodes Sonya Guadalupe Gomez stood out to me, she was the only Latina in space.
I read and watch a fair amount of science fiction, and this was the first time I had seen a Latino character in the genre. This was the first time I encountered someone who looks like she could be a member of my family on a spaceship. The more I thought about it the more I recognized the lack of characters on screen that I related to; certainly not enough to dress up like one and go to a convention. There is a dearth of Latinos in space, but also of queer people of color in all genres. More to the point, I had never seen a gay leading character in a role I really respected.
That is not to say I didn’t see gay characters in media, just none whose shoes I could put myself in. I’m no one’s sassy gay friend. I was never interested in a drug-fueled night at the clubs, and I am not one of those sympathetic “lets get your life together” queers.
Through my adolescence in the 90’s the gay characters I saw were normally comic relief, supporting characters and too often the butt of the joke. If they were the center of the story, it usually ended in predictable tragedy. Maybe you loved My So Called Life, The Bird Cage, or Queer As Folk, and I don’t want to disparage them, but I never related to them. It is no wonder that I couldn’t see myself as a full adult in the world; I had never seen anyone like me. No one put the quiet gays on television. Having never seen someone like me in the world, I assumed there was no place for me in the world, and at some point I would just stop being in it.
Needless to say I continued on, and I’ve done fairly well. The U.S. recognized my right to marry my partner. We got married, we moved to Canada, established careers, and I turned 30.
In the years since my thirtieth birthday we’ve seen a wider variety of out public figures. Television and movies have a wider variety of queer characters, though still too often they are comic relief. This year Star Trek started a new series, and I saw something I had never seen before. There on my TV were two thirty something professional gay men in a mixed race marriage. For the first time I saw something that looked like my life. Granted my life is much less exciting and more terrestrial, but here were characters that I could see myself in. Moreover, with Wilson Cruz as Dr. Culber we now had two Latino in space.
It was a strange combination of excitement and pride I could literally feel in my chest the first time we see Lt. Stamets and Dr. Culber together, brushing their teeth before bed. It was weird giddiness like a vicarious crush on this fictional relationship. I wondered how different my outlook on the world would have been if I had seen that eighteen years ago. I had never imagined I could go to space, or even be a doctor, or even marry a man.
All fiction is an abstraction of reality, but science fiction is special because it considers what our reality could be. Imagining the world we want is the first step to creating it. I want to see women of color commanding space ships, on TV and in real life. I want to see Trans and Gender Queer people in positions of authority without having their bodies or pronouns questioned. Recently there has been a lot of talk about how representation is important, and even to those of us who know this, it can still feel like an abstract concept. I want to see these things because it doesn’t take a psychologist to know it isn’t healthy for a nineteen year old to look at the future and not be able to see a place for them in it.
The writers of Star Trek: Discovery had done something so great. Then they messed it up. They killed Dr. Culber. I was angry, and fan blogs show I wasn’t the only one mad that they turned this into another gay tragedy. As angry as I was, I was still so grateful to have seen a couple I could relate to, and it changed the way I think of Star Trek as a whole. I better understand the context of Uhura and Sulu in light of Culber and Stamets.
Yeah, they didn’t do it quite right, but they did it.
Now 36, I live in Vancouver’s West End where I see men in theirs seventies hold hands down the street. I squeeze my husbands hand and think “that’ll be us in 40 years.”