Quantum Leap’s Trans Girl Basketball Story Is Right on Time

This week’s Quantum Leap was a little bit of time traveling for me, personally. NBC’s original sci-fi series was one of my favorite shows growing up; I used to record it on VHS tapes, which is how we rewatched TV in the olden days. This week, the series reboot saw Dr. Ben Song leaping into the body of a high school basketball coach, which flooded me with my own memories of spending every second of my teenage years on a basketball court. But while the episode took me back, and of course happened in the past, it could not have been more timely — because the coach Ben leaps into has a trans daughter on the team, and it’s got the whole town in hysterics. Sound familiar?

In the original timeline Ben leaps into, the coach doesn’t put his daughter, Gia (played by trans actress Josielyn Aguilera), into the game where he lands. In fact, Gia finds out that he promised the school he’d never play her. She runs away and is never seen again, because she gets murdered, misgendered by the cops, and her parents never find her. It’s a tale as old as Law & Order, a violence that happens in real life and happens even more on TV created by cis people preoccupied with trans trauma. But in Ben’s new timeline, he subs in Gia in the final minutes and the team wins. That’s not enough to correct the timeline, though, because Gia’s dealing with more than just sitting on the bench. She’s being bullied, forced to change in the janitor’s closet instead of the locker room, and her dad is too scared of losing his job to publicly stand up for her. So Ben sets out to make all that right, starting with pushing back against the school’s administration and telling them he’s going to play his daughter, no matter what they say, because she loves the game of basketball more than anything.

Gia in her basketball uniform eyeing the goal on Quantum Leap

She’s also a star, and when Ben lets her shine, the whole team is better.

“I have to fight every day just to be who I know I am while everyone else around me tells me I’m someone else — even my own reflection,” Gia explains to Ben.

It’s something that really hits home with him because he’s constantly leaping into other people’s bodies and not seeing his own reflection in the mirror. In fact, Shakina Nayfack, who wrote/directed/starred in this episode said that understanding the trans experience is actually a universal way to understand Ben’s experience. Shakina herself is trans, and is no stranger to breaking barriers. In 2020, she became the first trans person to star in a network comedy, NBC’s Connecting. She was also a writer and producer on the Transparent musical season finale, in which she played Ava. And you’ll see her in Quantum Leap‘s “Let Them Play,” too. She’s Dottie.

One of the best things about the episode is that it doesn’t make the cis characters trans saviors. Gia is her own hero, and she’s helped along by trans friends and mentors, one of whom is Trace Lysette, the leader of her therapy group, and the only person who can properly shoot a basketball in the entire episode. (What? Natalie noticed too! It’s not our fault Trace Lysette is good at everything.) Therapist Trace helps the parents of trans kids navigate their fears while the kids themselves argue about whether or not Bella Swan could beat Katniss Everdeen in a fight. (Obviously not!) They dance in slow motion, goofing and laughing, while one dad says to the other parents:

“I just wish they’d stop talking about our son like there’s something wrong with him. You hear all these things, you know? And you look at your kid and you just want to keep them safe, and see them happy — and some of these people just want to make that impossible. I bet none of them have met an actual trans kid. They make up this boogeyman, like there’s some danger that has to be stopped, when the only real danger is us losing our children. If they would just pause for a second, and get to know some of these kids, maybe they would see what we see: our babies growing up and changing, telling us who they are and who they want to be in the world. Isn’t that what we all want for our kids? Doesn’t every single child deserve a chance to become their own person? To shine their own light? Because I don’t see the harm in that, but I do see the harm in trying to block it.”

On Quantum Leap, a group of fans hold a sign that says "hands for equality"

It one of many clear and unapologetic trans-affirming messages the show speaks out loud, on primetime network TV, at a time when trans kids are under legislative attack like never before in this country.

In the end, Gia does become the basketball star she’s always wanted to be, and her friends and fans unfurl a banner in the stands that says EQUALITY while she plays. Shakina says it’s the prop department’s exact replica of a banner she made in high school.

Is it cheesy? Yes, it’s cheesy. But all the best sports movies are cheesy, and it’s about time trans people had a sports story they could laugh at themselves for crying about. I know a lesbian former high school basketball player who was crying her eyes out when Gia hit the winning shot.

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Heather Hogan

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her wife, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Heather has written 1718 articles for us.


      • Of course they have been. It’s kind of like the folks from the Steam community hub for that new Harry Potter game invading the community hubs of other games, like Elden Ring, to try and spread their transphobia (thankfully, the Elden Ring hub is used to trolls and they don’t seem to be gaining a foothold there). Fun times, indeed…

  1. It was indeed great. I transitioned too late to play sports (and absolutely refused to play boys sports because I was not a boy), but I was actively transitioning in the time period this episode is set in.

    One thing I really liked was Ian (played by the beautiful and non-binary actor Mason Park, who is also Desire in Netflix’s Sandman) talking about needing an accomplice, not an ally, because an ally stands on the sideline and waves a flag, while an accomplice has skin in the game. That’s a useful distinction that straight media usually does not understand!

  2. I know I’m not the only trans person who was enthralled by the original show as a kid – those themes of inhabiting an unfamiliar body and fighting injustices that nobody else around you can see have earned the show a significant trans following.

    What delights me is that the writers know this. There’s a moment in an earlier episode where Ian is nonchalantly wearing cat ears and making cat puns. It seemed to confuse some viewers, but “trans programmer wearing cat ears” is a popular meme in the trans community. It’s my first time ever watching a big budget mainstream show and realizing “This joke was aimed at the trans audience!”

    And a few months later, here we are with one of the most all-out defenses of trans people I’ve ever seen on network TV. It’s remarkable, and necessary, and honoring the legacy of the original show, which was always at its best when inviting the audience to empathize with people from different walks of life. Just an incredible piece of television.

  3. This could have been a thought provoking and touching episode that got a discussion started if it wasn’t so hamfisted. “Trans kids really light up a room” and slipping “gorgeous trans kids” into regular conversation was so pathetic it hurt, and problematic to boot.

    Trans kids are kids and the struggle is to be accepted as such – normal kids. Kids can really light up a room, trans or not. Nothing about the fact that they are trans lessens that power, nor increases it. Insisting on cramming the writer’s viewpoint down our throats though serves to separate more than include, which I thought was the point here?

    The area of sports raises another controversial subject even for those of us that support trans rights. We try to balance inclusion and what’s right and unfortunately those two things just don’t always align. It’s not fair that a trans person can’t compete in a sport they love as the person they are, nor is it fair that women have to compete with someone who while now female still possesses the musculature of a male. While this show went with the happy ending the reality is that life is simply not fair as much as we want it to be.

    The best you can do is try to be fair to the greatest number of people possible and obviously that means that sadly trans athletes should not be allowed to compete with women. Logically what’s fairest in a situation that has no true concession is that the tens of thousands outweigh the dozens. For those dozens it sucks and only hateful idiots would be happy to see them excluded, but again if life were fair they wouldn’t have had the struggles they had just to be themselves in the first place. Life has never, isn’t, and will never be completely fair for anyone.

    Of course this episode being so utterly pumped with the writer’s bias they also presented those who were for as loving and correct and those opposed as hateful bigots. While unfortunately there are plenty of hatefilled bigots who protest on their negative views of trans people we’re not presented the reality of the spectrum of supporters and shown only black and white “for- good, against – bad”. There are plenty of supporters who want only the best for trans individuals despite still seeing the logic in whether they should compete with biological women or not, or even whether they should be able to change with the team. It sucks that a third category has to exist here when the goal is to them live as seamlessly as their professed gender as possible, but again life isn’t fair.

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