Shakina Nayfack and “Quantum Leap” Put the Audience Inside a Trans Experience

Feature image of Wilder Yari as Dean in the latest Quantum Leap trans episode, The Family Treasure (Jordin Althaus/NBC)

Midway through its fourth season, the original Quantum Leap sends its time traveler, Dr. Sam Beckett, to Prescott Naval Academy in 1964. He leaps into the body of Tommy York, a celebrated cadet and track star. His task? To save the life of his former roommate, Phillip Ashcroft, who’d been expelled from the academy for being gay. Throughout the episode, Sam/Tommy is subjected to threats and speculation about his sexuality but he persists, saving Ashcroft and offering a powerful affirmation for queer people.

“I don’t believe that a person’s sexual preference has anything to do with their ability to lead, or anything else for that matter,” Sam insists. It sounds anodyne now, perhaps, but in early 1992, it was unprecedented.

At home in Southern California, a young Shakina Nayfack watched the episode with her family and tried to take it all in. She recognized part of herself in the story. She watched as Sam defended a community she hadn’t yet fully claimed as her own. She learned the power of representation, both for allowing people to see themselves and for expanding the perspective of those exposed to worlds they never knew. “Running With Honor” planted a seed with Nayfack and it’s grown over their career, from New York’s Musical Theatre Factory to their one-woman show, Manifest Pussy, to Difficult People to Transparent to Connecting. But in 2022, that seed came into full bloom when — in a kind of serendipity that’s usually reserved for storybooks — Nayfack joined the writers’ room for the revival of Quantum Leap.

Over two seasons, the new iteration of Quantum Leap has built on the legacy of original. This time, though, with Nayfack in the room, queer people are allowed to be their own heroes. On a weekly basis, those heroic efforts are led by Ian Wright (Mason Alexander Park), the nonbinary programmer who leads Project Quantum Leap. But every now and then, queer people are at the heart of the time traveler’s leaps.

“This is Quantum Leap, putting the audience right in the shoes of a protagonist that they didn’t know that they could have empathy with to walk through their life,” Nayfack told me in an interview last week. “We do that week to week, and occasionally we get a real queer one in there.”

In the show’s first season, the queer episode was about a trans girl who just wanted to play basketball with her friends. This season, Nayfack pens “The Family Treasure,” a love letter to transmasculine and nonbinary people.

Quantum Leap trans episode The Family Treasure: The Malek siblings search for their family treasure, only to realize the real treasure has been with them this whole time.

In “The Family Treasure,” the show’s time traveler, Ben Song, leaps to 1950s California where three estranged siblings reunite to hear their father’s last will and testament. The siblings are each left with, seemingly, worthless mementos, but within them, the siblings find pieces to a map leading to the Treasure of San Patricio. This had been their father’s life mission — to hunt for treasures across the Americas — and his final wish is to share that legacy with his children. It’s a legacy that the eldest, Sarah, isn’t too keen to embrace. Their father’s dogged searches kept him away from home weeks at a time, even after their mother died. Sarah is reluctant to repeat her father’s missteps, particularly now that she has her own family.

Ben steps into the shoes of the youngest sibling, Nadia, who just completed finishing school and is on her way to university. Each episode of Quantum Leap feels like a slice of trans allegory: Ben leaps into a body that is unfamiliar and isn’t seen by the world for whom he truly is.

Ben’s job on this leap? To save Dean (Wilder Yari) — a name their family refuses to call them — who, in the original timeline, goes missing after seeking out the treasure on their own. Ben has to intercede before Dean’s disappearance ruins what’s left of the family. Because Dean is inexorable, Ben pushes to make the treasure hunt into a family adventure. Sarah, however, is not persuaded. What is persuasive though? The possibility of finding the jewels of Saint Patrick that, according to their father’s lawyer, are very real and valued at $40 million.

“I wanted to write a story where a young trans person just got to be the hero and see themselves in a role that I didn’t get to see trans young people in growing up,” Nayfack said. “I love the Indiana Jones, Adventures in Babysitting, Romancing the Stone…I love that journey, that archetype of story…so I was really thrilled by the opportunity to kind of do the Quantum Leap version and put a young trans person right in the center.”

The episode’s setting isn’t coincidental either: the journey back to 1953 is a reclamation of queer history. Far too much of today’s narrative suggests that transness is a new thing but trans people have always been here. For Nayfack, “Family Treasure” is an opportunity to name and claim ourselves in that history.

“We’re reminding the world that in the 1950s, transmasc and nonbinary folks were out here surviving, thriving, expressing themselves, and being bold,” Nayfack said. “And that is a gift because our history has been obfuscated and really hidden from us and so…in this particular episode, I’m really trying to reclaim a little piece of history for our queer audiences.”

Upon arriving in Dos Estrellas, Ben and Dean review the details of the bequeathed map.

During the episode, amid their adventure, Sarah notices the bandages beneath Dean’s torn shirt. The elder sister questions why Dean’s wearing bandages and if they’re hurt but Dean insists they’re fine. Dean takes off their shirt — I swooned, #sorrynotsorry — to expose the bandages binding their chest. In fact, Dean acknowledges, the bandages make them feel more like themselves.

It’s the relationship between Sarah, Dean, and Nadia that grounds the episode. The way their interactions vacillate between fondness and frustration feels familiar to anyone who grew up with siblings. It’s messy, Nayfack acknowledged — names get messed up and Dean’s siblings don’t do everything right — but ultimately, the love and support persists.

“I have siblings and they’re not trans, and I’ve had to explain myself to them and they’ve had to grow to understand me, and I’ve had to grow to forgive them for when they didn’t,” she said. “I’ve had to get over myself and realize that they’re also complicated people living their own lives and trying to figure themselves out and — shocker — it’s not always about me.”‘

Quantum Leap trans episode The Family Treasure: Dean reveals the truth about themselves to their sister, Sarah.

More so than Ben’s presence and the siblings’ shared adventure, it’s Dean’s conversation with Sarah and Nadia about their identity that ultimately saves Dean’s life. The words don’t come easily for Dean — the feeling is real, their existence is real, but the language around it still eludes them — but Ben interjects and shares the knowledge he’s gained from his friendship with Ian. In the same way that Sam Beckett’s words broke new ground in 1992, the conversation is an unprecedented discussion for network television.

What Quantum Leap is doing, with Ben’s leaps, with Ian, and with its guest queer characters, is groundbreaking. The show continues to push the envelope and redefine expectations for queer storytelling. Moments like these — rife with so much anti-trans bigotry — beg us to engage with the world with more stories of otherness and more opportunities to build empathy.

“The call to duty in terms of being an interventionist storyteller is blaring. The call is blaring. It’s so loud,” they said. “The need to be vocal, persistent, present, visible, because we have to throw out lifelines — literal lifelines — to save these young people.”

The call is blaring and I, for one, am grateful that Nayfack and Quantum Leap continue to answer it.

Both seasons of Quantum Leap are now available to stream on Peacock.

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A black biracial, bisexual girl raised in the South, working hard to restore North Carolina's good name. Lover of sports, politics, good TV and Sonia Sotomayor. You can follow her latest rants on Twitter.

Natalie has written 396 articles for us.

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