Content warning: Transphobia and anti-trans violence
“The Outcast” is one of the most debated The Next Generation episodes. An alien society where everyone has no gender takes the title character, Soren, who identifies as a woman, and using some form of conversion therapy returns her to the “norm” even after she expresses her desire to have her gender identity validated. This eerily echoes events today where lawmakers are now banning parents from helping their children access gender reassignment or gender-confirming medical care or medicine. As more restrictions, including rejecting an entire AP class due to a brief unit that mentions sexuality and unclear rules about transgender athletes, and transphobia threaten our world’s transgender community, the finale of the episode—Soren rebuffing Riker’s concern and denouncing any previous gender exploration following a “treatment” that removes Soren’s desire to be seen as a woman—highlights what many transphobic individuals think happens with conversion therapy (even though conversion therapy is not considered safe my many mental health professionals), but the reality is many individuals like Soren may pretend to be “cured” while really hiding or suppressing their identities then suffering mentally and physically from repressing themselves.
Fans and the cast have spoken repeatedly about the issues the episode raises, about gender identity and how society treats those who fight for change, and some of the episode’s shortcomings, but by examining subtle dialogue the story reveals that Soren may be part of a more common group than expected, setting the stage for a gender revolution of the J’naii in the future. If Starfleet or the Federation meet the J’naii again, what will the future hold for Soren and others who want to have gender identities? Acceptance? Exile? Something far worse?
Soren is not the only one to identify with one specific gender –
Occasionally, among my people, there are a few who are born different, who are throwbacks from the era when we all had gender. Some have strong inclinations to maleness, and some have urges to be female. I am one of the latter.
While the official line from the tribunal that decides her fate is that they had overcome societal problems by rejecting gender, Soren and her past partners prove that the genderless society may not have as much support as believed. Did the strict adherence to genderless society for all just mask the problems it was thought to “solve”? While working together Riker and Soren discuss how the J’naii “evolved” past the “primitive” binary, but Soren’s assertion she has wanted to be a woman from childhood opens the door to others having the same experience of wanting a gender, but suppressing it to fit in. This is confirmed by Soren’s past partners identifying as men, but the finale of the episode itself cements that this quest for gender identity is not a new phenomenon.
Soren is forced to undergo psychotectic treatment to remove any mental desires to be a woman. At no point do the other J’naii express that this is a new treatment or unexpected. The treatment is established as being in existence well before Soren stands up for herself and others, meaning she may just be a particularly vocal opponent of the gender suppression of J’naii society. Before Soren is taken away to wait for “treatment”, the tribunal reassure Soren that since Soren has admitted to everything, the outcome of psychotectic treatment will be positive—according to J’naii standards, i.e. Soren will no longer express desires to have a gender identity. This comment opens up a Pandora’s box of unexpected horror: if the tribunal can predict the outcome based on Soren’s behavior, that indicates others who were not as outspoken as Soren suffered more during their psychotectic treatments. This not only reaffirms that more J’naii have sought gender identity, but that Soren is one of the “lucky” ones. How many J’naii have died during psychotectic treatment? Is there an equivalent to long term institutions for those who can’t “reform”? Do those that undergo psychotectic treatment yet refuse to confirm to genderless society end up on a prison planet? Are they marooned on an inhospitable planet left to die?
While the J’naii physically appear androgynous, that is a product of evolution, as Soren explains to Riker after asking him about his “sexual organs” and the differences between humans of different genders. The J’naii have no discernible tertiary sexual characteristics or sexual dimorphism that is present in most humanoid species. J’naii are only differentiated among themselves by subtle outfit differences, with headwear or wraps for officials versus Soren and regular citizens, who only have similar outfits in different colors. Yet, like humans, would the J’naii who do not fit societal “standards” choose to adopt certain colors of clothing or plants to identify with certain genders or refer to each other with similes or metaphors, e.g. violet clothing or violet flowers for lesbians or the phrase “Friend of Dorothy” for gay men, creating a subtle code to find community while maintaining a low profile to avoid abuse or public censure?
Throughout the episode “The Outcast,” the dialogue reveals a very unexpected parallel to contemporary society. As the trans community—and the broader LGBTQIAP+ community—faces more legal obstacles and oppression, Soren’s quest to define herself as a woman in a society where individual gender identity is taboo showcases many of the struggles and horrors trans and queer face today.
Before being forced to undergo her forced “conversion,” Soren describes that, for all the claims that J’naii society has “evolved” to be free from gender, there are many others like Soren who identify with a specific gender. The admission by the tribunal that the treatment Soren is forced to endure has been in use before Soren and that they can now predict which members will have “successful” versus “failed” psychotectic treatment points to a crack in the J’naii society : if these measures have been in place for so long and been used more than once, Soren and many others exist and may demand their rights to be identified with the gender they chose. Is genderless society more of an idea than reality for the J’naii? Would most J’naii express a desire for gender identity if they did not fear repercussions? If the J’naii return to canon, what changes will there be, and can we learn from what happens to Soren and others?