Of all the challenges that have rocked the crew in season 4 of the Paramount+ streaming series Star Trek: Discovery -- from fighting cataclysmic forces to forging alien alliances -- one new development resonates with actor Blu del Barrio as well as their LGBTQ+ fans and allies above all others.
"I think chosen family is the big one," says del Barrio in a recent joint Zoom interview with their costar Ian Alexander. Although the 55-year-old science-fiction franchise has never before featured recurring characters who are trans, del Barrio believes Discovery is taking that concept to a queerer version of the final frontier.
"I think in terms of the LGBTQ+ community and this franchise as a whole," says del Barrio, "even if there weren't 'canon' queer or trans characters everywhere and spread throughout, the idea of 'chosen family' was still there."
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Del Barrio (they/them) and Alexander (he/they) now both identify as trans and nonbinary; they do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth or an exclusive gender. They know this is important representation for both fans and Hollywood.
"Trans voices and stories are finally being told," Alexander says. "People who aren't trans can relate to, you know, coming into your identity and finding chosen family. But especially for people who are trans, they are so happy to finally see our stories being reflected in mainstream media."
For del Barrio, the decision by Star Trek: Discovery's gay co-showrunner, Michelle Paradise, and the writers to make their characters' identity a part of Star Trek canon and not just a throwaway plotline of the week is something that makes them "really happy," they say. "There's a lot of queerness within these shows, and we're accepting that and going with it, which makes me really happy to be a part of it, that we can talk about it like this and have these conversations about it."
And for Alexander, it's not just their conversations with the media but the ones closeted fans and their families are having, all because of what they see on the screen. "It really has a strong material impact, which is that these trans youth can sit down with their families and watch this show and bond together watching something [where] they see themselves reflected and represented," he says. "They've had conversations with their parents about their gender identity because of our characters. And I think that's really beautiful. And so, so, so important."
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Important enough that the creator of the trans Pride flag, Monica Helms, personally shipped two pink, white, and blue banners to del Barrio and Alexander to acknowledge their impact.
This season, Paul Stamets and Dr. Hugh Culber, a gay couple played, respectively, by gay actors Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz, have embraced their responsibility as parental guardians of the teenage lovers Adira Tal and Gray. Del Barrio is a newcomer who made their television debut in the role of Adira, a human who came out last season as nonbinary, shortly before del Barrio did. Alexander plays Gray, a member of the alien species Trill and a young trans man. Previously, Alexander made history as the first out trans Asian-American actor on TV, in Netflix's The OA. He's become the representation that he's always longed to see.
"When I was really little, I didn't have many very visible transmasculine people to look up to," Alexander says. "And it wasn't until I got into high school that I started seeing trans people on YouTube posting about their transition. So it makes me really happy that on such a mainstream franchise like Star Trek, there are two happy, successful trans people, and there's more than two queer people on the show too."
In fact, there are seven in the current cast of Star Trek: Discovery: In addition to Alexander, del Barrio, Cruz, and Rapp, there are Tig Notaro, Mary Wiseman, and Emily Coutts, all featured in this issue. As far as is known, all of them except for Wiseman and Coutts play queer characters. There's also their costar from seasons 1 and 2, Mary Chieffo, who came out as queer in September 2021.
"It is a really queer show," stresses del Barrio, "and it has a really big viewership. The world did not crash and burn, and we did not get stoned. I think it's a really good example of a show that is very, very openly gay and is doing really well because of it, which is great."
But is Star Trek: Discovery deliberately advancing some kind of "LGBTQ agenda," as some straight cisgender fans who criticize the series have complained? Paradise responds.
"Our agenda is to tell great stories and be diverse and reflect the world as it is, which is what the original series was built on," says Paradise. "I think there will always be people who like a show or don't like a show. But we feel really good about what we do. We feel good about the way we're doing it. We feel like it's important. We feel like it not only honors the foundation of Star Trek, but it's incredibly important just in television storytelling, period, given the reach of these shows, to have them be diverse and have them reflect a diversity of experiences and characters and actors."
When asked about the show pushing an "LGBTQ agenda," del Barrio confesses that they typically would prefer to "not interact" with fans making that kind of criticism, namely because of their habit to not sugarcoat their responses. "I do have a really big tendency to just talk very transparently and honestly in response to that," they say. "But in an interview like this, I would really say, 'We don't. This is for everyone. It's not just for us. This is something that's very special and everyone's worked really hard for. Really, it's not that big a deal, and if it's too hard for you to deal with, you don't have to deal with it. You don't have to engage.'"
"If it's not for you, then you don't have to watch," adds Alexander, finishing their costar's sentence. "For every person that hates the show and says, 'Oh, they're just pushing their queer agenda,' or whatever, there's going to be 10 more people who really, really want to see that representation and who want more representation in front of and behind the camera."
Things are changing in the television and film industry, but slowly, says Alexander, who's been acting professionally since 14, a year after coming out as trans. The Salt Lake City native, who originally auditioned for the part of Adira, is now 20. "I have big plans for Hollywood," he says. "I really want Hollywood to transform into such a safe space for trans people and for everyone. I want every minority group to feel represented, and so I want to see more and more trans people behind the camera, in the writers' room, in the production office. I want to see -- at every single level of production -- trans people, trans people of color, trans women of color, especially because right now, like we are a minority in Hollywood, but I don't want it to stay that way forever."
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Their costar del Barrio says that's something they've discussed, and not just among themselves. "We've had so many conversations within our crew and with our producers about ways that we can change the environment that we're in to be a more comfortable place for people to feel free, to express themselves, to be open, to share their pronouns," del Barrio says. "That's kind of happening, slowly, more and more, like conversations about nametags, about where we can put pronouns on call sheets and stuff like that. It could always be happening faster, there can always be more of it. But it is happening, and every time I hear about it from another set or anywhere else, it's a really nice thing."
They add that they feel "very lucky to do the job that I have," that allows them to discuss their identity openly in interviews, and to see other nonbinary actors find success too. "There's not many of us yet in the industry, but I'm so grateful to have a few role models like them."
Del Barrio eventually came to grips with understanding their nonbinary identity through the very medium that is now their career. "I realized I might be nonbinary the first time I saw a nonbinary actor on television," they told GLAAD in a previous interview. That actor was Lachlan Watson. The work of Indya Moore, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Theo Germaine, Asia Kate Dillon, and Brigette Lundy-Paine also inspires del Barrio. "I'm a huge fan of all of theirs.
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While Star Trek: Discovery is del Barrio's first television role, they're no stranger to stage lights or working far from home. Although they grew up in Topanga, Calif., about 25 miles from Hollywood, they film their episodes 2,500 miles from home in Toronto. After studying theater and ballet in California, they moved to the U.K. to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and graduated in 2019. They played Duke in the Royal College of Music's production of Otis & Eunice prior to coming out.
"I knew I was different at 8 years old," del Barrio told GLAAD in 2020. They lamented there wasn't even one person who knew what they needed. "I was struggling with terrible dysphoria, and every single day I wished someone would understand and help me. No one ever did. That led me to change everything about myself so I could survive, but it would have been so much better if my gender had been affirmed by those around me."
They said they chose the name "Blu" as blue has always been their favorite color and first came out to some of their friends in London, who they described as very supportive. "But I was absolutely terrified to tell dozens of total strangers when I started filming Star Trek in Canada," they said in the GLAAD interview; they agreed to play the nonbinary character of Adira before they were ready to make that leap in real life.
Fortunately, del Barrio's fears were immediately quelled, even to the point that the costumers made them a binder to wear under their uniform. "I was stunned to find that this massive group of strangers wholeheartedly accepted and validated me," they told GLAAD. "They welcomed me in with open arms."
Del Barrio, 24, credited both the team in front of the camera and behind the scenes. "The producers, directors, writers, cast, and crew were equally committed to writing these wonderful characters in Adira and Gray, and creating a safe and healthy work environment for me and Ian," they said in the 2020 interview. "Hopefully, in the future, every film and television set will be like this."
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Both actors spent their holidays lying low, with del Barrio visiting friends in London and treating themselves to a cameo from their costar Rapp. Meanwhile, Alexander spent time with his grandparents in Utah, taking a break from Twitch and playing Dungeons & Dragons with other members of the cast. "It feels weird because I've never been off the grid like that," he says.
Their characters, like the actors who play them, are finally living their truth for all to witness. But they're experiencing big changes: After dying at the start of season 3 and spending almost every episode since then being visible only to Adira -- his consciousness lived on in Adira's mind -- Gray now has a body. When season 4 resumes in February, del Barrio says, Adira is "terrified" at the prospect that Gray could die again: "And if he goes this time, he's gone." Forever.
Adira was last seen planning to accompany Gray to the Trill home world. He's leaving the U.S.S. Discovery for a new life as the ship prepares for a trip beyond this galaxy. With the couple beginning what is sure to be the most distant of long-distance relationships, the question is, Will Adira and Gray finally "hook up"?
"I'm not sure!" says Alexander. "They are still children, but who knows what'll happen once they're legal adults?"
"Yeah, it's a very...it's a weird thing, especially with Adira," del Barrio says. "There have been moments where I felt like, Maybe they're on the spectrum of asexuality? I think their intimate relationship with each other is, maybe not super-explored for a reason?"
"I guess like also, we've already been super intimate, like emotionally, because mentally, we shared a brain," Alexander adds.
Co-showrunner Paradise has the last word on that: "After getting a new body and settling into it over the course of the season, Gray is finally ready to restart his training so he can fulfill his dream of becoming a Guardian. Even though he's going off to do that at the end of episode 407, he's still part of our Discovery universe -- and part of Adira's life -- so we'll have to see where the stories take us moving forward. Stay tuned!"
Star Trek: Discovery returns to Paramount+ on February 10.
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Blu del Barrio and Ian Alexander are among the cover stars of Out's March/April 2022 issue, a special LGBTQ+ Star Trek edition appearing on newsstands February 22. Support queer media and subscribe -- or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.