The alien ambassadors of Babylon 5

Why ‘Babylon 5’ Was Significant For Trans Representation On Television

J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of some of the most beloved science-fiction properties on television and in comics, has always been a voice for inclusion in his work. When he revealed the character of Susan Ivanova as bisexual on Babylon 5, it was in the mid-1990s, two years before Ellen Degeneres’ famous sitcom episode. It was a bold move for a small series in a TV climate that simply wasn’t discussing that yet. 

When he co-created the Netflix sci-fi series Sense8 with the Wachowski sisters in 2015, it was he who suggested one of the leads be a trans woman whose story did not simply revolve around her transition. Nomi (Jamie Clayton) was a fully developed, compelling character in a loving relationship, something that was rare even that recently in the television landscape. 

But did you know that Straczynski had already created a trans character for television nearly 25 years earlier?

When Straczynski created the original pilot movie for Babylon 5, he cast Mira Furlan as Delenn, the ambassador to Babylon 5 from the Minbari homeworld. While there were many small changes made to character costumes and designs, Delenn’s make-up was the most drastically different from pilot movie to regular series. The reason for that? She was originally playing Delenn as a man. 

Delenn’s original pilot make-up side by side with the new design for the series

The make-up was designed for her to begin the series as a male character, only to go into a cocoon at the end of season one and transform from a Minbari man into a Minbari-human hybrid woman. That’s why the bone structure of Delenn’s face make-up in the pilot was more angular and severe.

However, when they tried to use audio alteration to pitch her voice down, it sounded terrible. Because she was such a pivotal character with a huge amount of lines in each episode, dubbing her wasn’t a reasonable option. So the decision was made to leave her voice alone and change her to female for subsequent episodes.

They came so close to having a trans character on a popular television series, one who was the heart and the moral center of the series, a religious and political leader who had a passionate and devoted relationship.

Here’s the important truth, though: while Delenn did not ultimately end up transitioning from male to female in the series, the character did still undergo the transition from Minbari to humanoid. The transition in the series is treated compassionately, showing her adjustment to her new reality and the unfortunate abuse directed towards her from both Minbari and humans. Though it is disguised in science fiction allegory, the story of Delenn is the story of a woman bravely and proudly transitioning, embracing her true self, and finding happiness in that truth.

Delenn after her transition from fully Minbari to Minbari/human hybrid

And that’s why I now understand the importance of representation in media.

I am not a trans person myself. In fact, I was raised in a household of conservative fundamentalist Christians, and their teachings held that trans people were sinners. However, my mother was a science fiction fan, and Babylon 5 was appointment television for her (and me).

Little did my ultra-conservative mother know that she was exposing me to a series that would give me all the emotional tools necessary to have compassion and respect for someone in Delenn’s difficult position. And years later, when I would finally understand what the allegory represented, when I would meet trans people in real life, their situation wasn’t entirely foreign to me.

Now, we should be making space for trans creators to tell their own stories in whatever capacity they wish, and more and better representation is sorely needed. But for its time and place, the character of Delenn and the moving journey J. Michael Straczynski created for her were vital to giving mainstream America some sense of understanding and connection to a marginalized and misunderstood group.

Now that the series is available on HBO Max, I hope new generations of young fans watch the series, see Delenn’s story, and find themselves relating to her bravery. Or, in my case, gaining some understanding of how to accept others for who they truly are because of the example she put forth. 

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