Published Apr 30, 2020
Safe in Space
One fan shares his story of finding safety and hope among the stars.
By Jay Stobie
CW: Discussion of suicidal ideation
Star Trek and episodes frequently act as refuges for those of us who feel as if we have nowhere else to turn during difficult times. As the only openly gay student at his high school in the early 1990s, Christian Juel found solace in the franchise that assisted him as he withstood bullying from his classmates. Star Trek supplied this fan with hope for a brighter future in his younger days, and he continues to draw strength from the various series as an adult. With Trek’s help, Juel has persevered and gone from being a student who was unjustly harassed to a special education teacher who provides guidance to “the next generation.”
In high school, Juel’s family situation added to the strain of his daily life. “I came from a broken household,” says Juel. “My dad left the family when I was three, and we never had a relationship. I was the stereotypical boy who had no male influence on his life. Growing up in the deep south, it can be every bit as bigoted as what you see on TV.” This emptiness eventually carried over into his studies. “My freshman year I was lonely. I didn’t have many close friends, so I remember spending my time trying to fit in with other students and trying to make friends,” recalls Juel. “I was also a poor student in the first few years of high school, my grades were suffering because I was just so unhappy. I was a good kid though and never skipped class. I just kept my head low and tried to fade into the wall.”
Despite these troubles and the close-minded nature of his community, Juel bravely elected to make his sexuality public. “This was before Ellen, before Will & Grace, before there was mainstream LGBTQ culture in pop media,” he says. “I knew that I was gay, and I was tired of not being the me I wanted to be, the person I envisioned myself becoming.” Displaying a level of boldness that would make any starship captain proud, Juel saw this as an opportunity to show faith in himself. “In the back of my mind I thought, They all think they know already, why not just be honest about who I am?”
Unfortunately, Juel’s valiant stance wasn’t well-received by many of his peers. “There were students in each grade level that would tease me. I was an easy target: not very athletic or able to physically deter the bullying,” says Juel. “Walking through the hallways there were constant verbal shouts of insults hurled at me. I had guys pretend to want to be my friend and then they would turn on me, using any personal information they found out about me against me. Then there were the pranks, such as nasty worded notes left in my locker, anti-gay profanity scrawled in my books or on my locker, and prank calls made to my house.”
The unrelenting persecution took a significant toll on his mental state. “I never had great self-esteem thanks to a family that didn’t build me up or make me feel very worthy growing up. The bullying just intensified this feeling that I wasn’t good enough, that I was a lower life form than the popular kids.” Hopelessness led Juel to consider a dire option that he wisely chose not to pursue. “I wanted a way out, and I wanted it to end. I wanted to end my life. I never made the attempt, but I thought about it constantly. I didn’t feel like there was a way out.”
In a positive twist of fate, a friend from Juel’s past offered him an outlet that would help him mold a more uplifting future for himself. “My best friend from elementary school was a huge sci-fi junkie. What he liked I tended to pick up,” he says. “My family moved to another school district, so he and I were no longer in the same school. We would still see each other at least once a month up until high school, where we started drifting apart.”
Before the pair lost touch, the old friend introduced Juel to Star Trek: The Next Generation, a television series that presented him with a whole galaxy of new possibilities. “I remember the first episode I saw: ‘Time’s Arrow.’ Of course I had to find it at a season break,” Juel explains with a laugh. “So I had to wait for the summer to resume! Fortunately, I could watch reruns. At the time, I was only into The Next Generation, and then I jumped on Deep Space Nine as soon as it premiered.” Juel related to the ragtag group’s mission on the Cardassian space station. “I liked that the crew would work as a team, even when they had differences, to get the job done. Their differences weren’t something that made them stand apart, they made them special and helped them accomplish their duties.”
Star Trek soon became Juel’s refuge from the world, a safe space where he would not feel judged or encounter discrimination. One character in particular welcomed him with security and compassion. “Deanna Troi made me feel safe. Watching her as she counseled crewmates, I felt in a sense that I was getting a taste of the much needed counseling I wasn’t getting,” asserts Juel. “It’s not a fan-favorite episode, but the episode that drew me in to more of the emotional side of Trek was ‘Cost of Living.’ This episode helped me to see how life is full of problems and complications, and the importance of looking out for your own well-being, because no one else will.”
The fan immersed himself in the Star Trek universe and experienced a sense of home and familiarity whenever he saw the starship on his screen. “The Enterprise-D was my safe space. Even with all the beige on the carpet and the walls, it felt like a real place to me. When I was watching the show, I was there,” remarks Juel. “I also began reading the novels. Each month, as the TNG novels would hit Waldenbooks, I was there to grab the next one. A book is a great way to escape, many times more so than watching a show: you are forced to use your imagination to picture the scene in your head. During my high school years, I had a book with me no matter where I was, even on road trips or visits to the store.”
Of course, Juel continued to be amazed by televised Star Trek, as well. “I tend to like dramatic episodes, ones that make me feel. With TNG, I enjoy ‘Cost of Living, ‘Half a Life,’ and ‘Dark Page.’ I’m obviously a Lwaxana fan! There’s also ‘The Offspring,’ 'Face of the Enemy,' 'The Inner Light,' and 'All Good Things…' I love Deanna, and Picard is the father figure I feel like I never had,” opines Juel. “Kira is my favorite DS9 character. Her growth was something we hadn’t seen before from a Trek character. I tend to call DS9 my series, because it’s the first one I watched from start to finish [as it aired].”
Although Juel always adored Voyager, Seven of Nine’s arrival in season four heightened his appreciation for the series. “She brought so much life to the show. I loved to see her struggle with her humanity, I could honestly relate to her in many ways,” asserts the fan. As for Enterprise, the fan cites Charles “Trip” Tucker III as his favorite character. “Connor is an actor I’ve met a couple of times now and just have so much respect for.”
From live-action to novels and back again, Star Trek imbued Juel with hope for a better and more accepting society. “Star Trek showed me a future where our differences were not something to be ashamed of or shunned, they were what made us relevant and imperative to getting the job done,” he argues. “There was always a curiosity about new cultures. While the crew did see things through their own lenses, they were willing to learn and accept what they found in their journey.”
Star Trek solidified Juel’s resolve during his formative years, and the franchise still provides him with much-needed stress relief. The fan is especially drawn to the episode “Half a Life” and the film Star Trek: Generations. “As an adult, I can relate to Lwaxana’s discussion of growing older, about the difference and importance we can make at any age,” says Juel. “It's not a popular option, but for me Generations is just as Guinan says: I can wrap myself in it like a warm blanket. This came out the year I graduated, and it was the first Trek film I saw in the theater. It brings me joy.”
Juel’s role as a special education teacher is rewarding, but each year brings intervals when tensions are high and the work is taxing. “As the stressful periods approach, I begin to binge watch,” describes the fan. “I typically will revisit TNG, because I know that I can feel the warmth and needed escapism. I also have a Star Trek corner in my classroom. I have my “away team,” several of my favorite characters in action figure form, who are with me in class. I also have calendars, some posters, mugs to hold my writing utensils, a selection of extra books, a picture of myself with Connor Trinneer from STLV, and some ship models.”
Just as adulthood has altered his own understanding of the world, Juel’s perception of inclusion in Star Trek has developed since his first contact with the franchise. “In the early 1990s, I was so impressed because here they were, talking about many of the issues I felt myself going through! As I grew, I could see more of the allegory,” says Juel. “Given the time in which it aired I think that’s about all we could have asked for.” The relationship between Paul Stamets and Dr. Culber in Star Trek: Discovery gifted Juel with well-deserved validation. “The evolution of inclusion has been mind-blowing. To see a fully fleshed out LGBTQ couple as main characters makes me feel seen, it makes me feel that my future in Starfleet could be a possibility.”
Having endured unfathomable trials with Star Trek as his ally, Juel believes that Discovery and Picard have fulfilled Star Trek’s vision and represent endless potential for the franchise. “On Picard, I fell in absolute love with Raffi. I like the fact that we see each of these characters who are flawed in some way, broken in some way, and they are finding their ways back together,” states Juel. “Discovery has been this ultimate thrill ride, and Michael Burnham just has to look at the camera and I lose it. Culber’s death was heartbreaking. His return makes me tear up, just thinking about it. I love the depth and change we’ve seen in Saru these two seasons.” Of course, the fan saves his highest praise for Discovery lead Sonequa Martin-Green. “She is the person that we need to lead us into the future of Trek,” beams Juel.
Jay Stobie (he/him) is a freelance writer who contributes articles to the official Star Trek website and Star Trek Magazine, as well as to Star Wars Insider and the official Star Wars website. Jay also serves as a part-time assistant and consultant advising many actors and creatives who work on his favorite sci-fi shows and films. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @StobiesGalaxy.