Trill Gender and Sexuality Metaphors in ‘Star Trek’

Written by Amanda Rodriguez
In many ways, science fiction is the perfect medium for the exploration of social, cultural, political, gender, racial, class, etc. issues. Because it takes place in the distant future and/or because all the commentary is veiled in metaphor through the use of aliens or monsters, the often questioning and even progressive messages slip beneath the radar. I am sometimes critical of the use of aliens/monsters to represent racial Others, as it often magnifies racist stereotyping as demonstrated by the violent, war-like Black Klingons or the greedy, sniveling (read: Jewish) Ferengi. It’s an oft denied luxury, however, to say what we mean when we say it, and while metaphor and allegory may seem somewhat indirect and occasionally cowardly, it’s a much more artistically pleasing approach that allows a freedom of thematic inquiry often denied other genres.
In the case of the Trill race from the Star Trek universe, gender, gender identity, and sexuality are the primary tropes being examined. The Trill are a symbiotic alien race who bond with various host bodies, allowing the “symbiont” to live multiple lifetimes and accumulate a wealth of experiences. The first Trill appearance is in The Next Generation episode “The Host” wherein Dr. Beverly Crusher falls in love with Trill ambassador Odan.
Even Dr. Crushers honeymoon stage it up.
Odan’s host body dies as a result of an attack on his peace mission shuttle craft, and the symbiont is temporarily transferred to the ever ridiculous Lieutenant Commander William Riker. Dr. Crusher struggles with the transition for a time, feeling betrayed, deceived, and questioning what exactly she loved about Odan. Was it his physicality, which has changed so much, or something more? Eventually, she gets over it, embracing her transcendent love for Odan (she even does the nasty with Riker…gag). However, all bets are off when Odan’s permanent host body arrives.
Odan’s new host body is a woman.
Odan’s transition from male to female proves too much for Beverly. Despite Odan’s insistence that her love for the doctor hasn’t changed nor has her personality, Dr. Crusher rejects her, saying, “Perhaps it is a human failing; but we are not accustomed to these kinds of changes.” This is a very apparent exploration of transgender issues. Beverly accepts her lover’s physical changes until Odan’s gender transition. Though Dr. Crusher blames it on her humanity, it is her personal inability to see beyond the gender binary. Not only that, but Beverly’s discomfort with engaging in a bisexual or lesbian relationship robs her of a love that had made her so very happy before. 
Does TNG itself agree with Dr. Crusher’s choice? I think it does. It presupposes that the demands of loving someone while they go through gender transition are unaskable, unthinkable. Not only that, but the show appears to support her ultimate incapacity to stomach lesbianism. 
The Deep Space Nine take on Trill love, replete with its sexuality/gender fluidity, evolves beyond that of its predecessor. In the episode “Rejoined,” science officer Lieutenant Commander Jadzia Dax, a Trill, must work with Lenara Kahn, another Trill, on creating the first artificial wormhole. However, Dax and Kahn were a heterosexual married couple in previous host bodies. It is forbidden for Trill symbionts to reconnect with people from their former hosts’ lives. During the course of working closely on their project, Dax and Kahn rediscover their passionate love for one another.
“When you’re not around, it’s like a part of me is missing. I want to be with you more than anything.” – Lenara Kahn
They engage in a lesbian romance that remains unjudged by DS9 friends and crew members. We’ve evolved beyond the thinking of TNG in that the validity of the relationship is not in question. However, the episode focuses on the Trill “taboo” surrounding symbionts reforming bonds with people from past lives. Dr. Julian Bashir says, “The Trill feel very strongly that it’s unnatural.” Major Kira Nerys responds incredulously, “Unnatural? I don’t understand how two people who’ve fallen in love and made a life together can be forced to just walk away from each other because of a taboo.” This so-called taboo is a metaphor for the stigma surrounding homosexuality (and even gay marriage).
The punishment for transgression is banishment from the Trill homeworld. This is tantamount to a death sentence because the offending symbiont will not be given access to any other host bodies and will permanently die within its current host. Captain Benjamin Sisko is one of Dax’s oldest and best friends. He gives her the advice, “It didn’t matter whether [you] agreed with the taboo or not because the price for violating it was too high.” Though pretty much all the characters view this punishment as absurdly excessive, none of them attempt to appeal, ratify, or circumnavigate it.
One of the 1st ever on-screen lesbian kisses.
While DS9 goes a step or two further than TNG, it doesn’t go far enough. While Dax throws caution to the wind to be with the love of her lives (plural intended), Kahn is unwilling to sacrifice her career and her future lives. Their tragic parting is inevitable. On the one hand, this injustice highlights the cruelty of the stigma, laws, and mores surrounding homosexuality while showing no other, better model. On the other hand, this shit takes place in the future. The United Federation of Planets claims to be beyond consumerism, sexism, racism, and speciesism, where diplomatic missions of peace, science, and exploration have supplanted warlike agendas of aggression, fear, and resource appropriation. Then why the hell can’t two chicks get married?
Imagine instead an ending that featured the two women taking their case to the Trill ruling body. They would insist that it’s a crime to limit such long-lived symbiont beings to relationships and experiences that are as short as a human lifespan. The couple would demand that Trill culture re-evaluate the way in which it values multiple, short experiences over the unknown potential of a love that transcends many lifetimes. Being wise and humane, the Trill governing body would realize the error of its ways and undergo a paradigm shift. That’s the kind of enlightened future I’d like to watch on a show and dream might one day come to pass.


  • Posted February 7, 2013 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Amanda, I cannot tell you how much I love this post. As a Trekkie, as a feminist, as everything! That TNG episode “The Host” broke my heart. It forever struck a chord with me. I kept yelling at the screen, “But you can still be together, Dr. Crusher!!!” It’s unfortunate that TNG was so transphobic and reinforced the gender binary. I have always loved DS9 (better plotlines, character development, dialogue, etc, etc) and I loved the deeper exploration of the Trill and gender. I just wish they had been more supportive of queer relationships. Oh and Kira is a badass. Good for her for calling that shit out.

  • Posted February 8, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    I know im an idiot to coment but i hate all gays and lesbians and all those strange ppl!!!!

  • Posted February 8, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    So glad you enjoyed it, Megan! When Dax & Lenara parted, that broke my heart, too! I have a thing or two to say about Voyager and Captain Janeway, but I need to finish the series first.

  • Posted February 8, 2013 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Seems like you should troll a different site then.

  • Posted February 24, 2013 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    I think I read somewhere that the taboo was in place because Trill society feared that if joined Trill were able to carry on relationships from past lives an elite subculture of joined Trill that hardly interacted with the unjoined population would form, which is still very unfair obviously. I would loved to have seen more episodes that explored the concept further.

  • Posted March 14, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    First, let me say that this episode appears to be a handled badly and that I fully support and accept transgendered people. I’m just slightly confused as to why Crusher is in the bad here. If she is heterosexual, is it really wrong for her to have no interest in a romantic (and most likely physical) relationship with what she sees as a woman? I’m not saying heterosexuals need agree with her, but I feel her preference should be respected. If there is something I’m missing, please explain. I’m not trying to criticize here, I’m just trying to understand what she did wrong.

  • Geneva150
    Posted February 26, 2014 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful article! I remember when I was a child I was fascinated by Dax and the alien’s multiple lives and genders. As I grew into adulthood and then became a mother and realized the gender binary does a disservice to little boys and girls I strove to make sure my boys didn’t fall into the ‘real man’ trap. I just recently started re-watching DS9 and was struck by how many questions it brought up about gender and gender identity. I think the time in which it came out prevented too much exploration into it, it would be nice, now that the Star Trek reboots are happening, if we saw a Trill and with more freedom a movie provides they could explore it a little bit more.

    • Sammi Luester
      Posted August 26, 2014 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      Very interesting article, and there are certain things I didn’t know about Star Trek so I find this interesting. BUT if Dr. Crusher is a straight woman, then why is it so hard to understand why she wouldn’t be interested in having a relationship with a female gendered person? Since she’s straight, it’s completely understandable. As I’ve said before, some people are open to being fluid, but MANY people are not. For many people it’s just not who they are. Would this article be the same if the genders were switched and people were upset that a straight man was not more open to having a relationship with a male gendered Trill?

      • :NotaMOSfanboy
        Posted June 30, 2015 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        You’re right. Beverly does not find the idea of lesbianism disgusting. She finds the idea of having sex with a woman when she does not want sex from a woman to be disgusting. It’s about forcing same sex on her.

        • Posted September 25, 2015 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

          I disagree. She calls it a “human failing” and never once identifies it as her own personal sexuality, despite the fact that we’re in the 24th century.

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