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Actor Ian Alexander blazes a cosmic trail as 1st transgender 'Star Trek' character

The young actor's history-making role in "Star Trek: Discovery" isn't the first time he has gone where no actor has gone before.
Image: Ian Alexander
Ian Alexander.NBC News; AP

[June is Pride Month, and this year we're celebrating by honoring 30 LGBTQ firsts. To see the full list, visit nbcnews.com/pride30.]

Ian Alexander isn't new to small-screen firsts. Five years ago, the ebullient Alexander, 20, broke ground as the first out trans Asian American actor on TV, in Netflix's "The OA." And last year he was cast as the first transgender character in "Star Trek" history, playing Gray in Season 3 of "Star Trek: Discovery" on Paramount+.

Alexander initially came out as a trans man but now identifies as transmasculine and uses the pronouns they/he. Alexander's character, Gray, is a trans man belonging to the Trill, an alien species in which some members are able to join with symbiotic companions, or "symbionts," who house the memories and skills of Trill, with whom they share a mutual bond.

In the absence of explicitly queer characters, the Trill storylines in the 1990's "Star Trek" iterations "The Next Generation" and "Deep Space Nine" remain some of the franchise's most convincing allusions to LGBTQ subject matter. In "Discovery," however, the Trill — and the show's queer representation — jump light-years ahead.

As Gray, Alexander imparts a new complexity to the species' allegory, giving audiences an ethereal character who truly does seem gifted with generations of wisdom. And newcomer Blu del Barrio, who plays alongside Alexander, pioneers in the role of Adira, the franchise's first nonbinary character.

Blu del Barrio as Adira and Ian Alexander as Gray of the Paramount+ series "Star Trek: Discovery."Michael Gibson / CBS

Gray and Adira are long-past-due realizations of creator Gene Roddenberry's original intentions for the franchise. Roddenberry has been described as a radical of his era, whose utopian vision of space travel was predicated on an absence of bigotry, in which race and gender weren't matters of contention. The original cast, which included cultural icons George Takei and Nichelle Nichols, established a standard for representation that is often credited as a chief factor in the show's breakout success and the ongoing — perhaps unrivaled — passion of its fan base.

Over the decades, however, the show's hallmark inclusivity hasn't been extended to the queer community. Roddenberry died in 1991, before he could fulfill a promise to add an explicitly LGBTQ character, and other than a brief scene in the movie "Star Trek Beyond," which was included as a tribute to Takei, later directors and producers never took up the mantle — until "Discovery."

Producers and co-showrunners Alex Kurtzman and Michelle Paradise were fans of Alexander from "The OA" and offered to shape the part of Gray specifically for the young actor. (Originally Alexander was auditioning for Adira.) And since their casting, both Alexander and del Barrio have been relied on to use their personal experiences to shape their characters' narratives. Alexander has been vocal in interviews about the necessity of trans and nonbinary voices' writing the stories of trans and nonbinary characters, but he has also praised the "Discovery" leadership for their reliance on the actors and a partnership with GLAAD's director of transgender media and representation, Nick Adams.

The new season of "Discovery" is scheduled for release in late 2021. Exactly how the Gray and Adira storyline will develop remains a mystery. But Kurtzman and Paradise have said publicly that there is much in the characters' stories to explore.

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