After co-executive producing, directing and writing an episode of NBC’s revival of Quantum Leap for the first season, Shakina is back for the series’ sophomore season as the writer the February 6 episode titled “The Family Treasure” which features actor Wilder Yari as Dean, who comes out to their siblings as non-binary during the episode.
In the episode, Ben (Raymond Lee) leaps to Mexico in 1953. While there, he becomes part of a cursed treasure hunt where two estranged siblings struggling with their late father’s legacy — one of them being Dean. What started off as a treasure hunt for Ben quickly turns into a challenging mission of repairing this family’s broken bonds.
Shakina is no stranger to sculpting trans narratives for TV. She made TV history as the first trans person to be cast as a series regular on a network sitcom with her starring role in Connecting, which was also on NBC. Quantum Leap has been moving the needle with diversity — specifically with queer representation.
Mason Alexander Park, who is part of the core cast, is a non-binary actor playing computer scientist Ian Wright — who is also non-binary.
GLAAD spoke with Shakina about “The Family Treasure” and how queer coming out stories in media have evolved.
How familiar were you with Quantum Leap (the new and original series) before you signed on?
I grew up watching the original Quantum Leap on TV every week with my family. I was eight when it came out, and eleven by the time “Running for Honor” came on, the 1992 episode where Sam leapt to the defense of a presumably gay naval cadet in 1964. I remember sitting there with my parents thinking, I wonder if they know I’m gay.
When I found out Quantum Leap was coming back, the first thing I thought about was watching that episode with my family, and what a powerful opportunity we had to walk audiences through life in other queer people’s shoes. I reached out to Martin Gero the day it was announced he was Executive Producing the new series. Martin co-created Connecting… the NBC sitcom we shot from home in 2020, and I was developing another comedy with him at the time. I told him that I had to be a part of the new Quantum Leap, and that we had to tell trans stories that would be accessible to families across America and around the world.
When you were approached to write an LGBTQ storyline for a network TV series, what was your initial reaction?
I was pumped, honestly. I feel like this is what I’ve trained for as a storyteller, the chance to make a contribution to pop culture that shines a light back into queer history and forward into new possibilities for queer liberation. Then, of course, I was terrified, because it’s such a tall order, and you know you’re not just preaching to the choir, so to speak, but that there will be people on all sides who don’t want to accept the invitation into trans experience that you’re offering them. But I never let that fear stop me. It’s usually a pretty good indicator that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
What did it mean to you to write Tuesday night’s episode titled “The Family Treasure”?
What’s so special to me about this episode is that I know my older brother and his wife will be watching it on the couch with my 15 year old nephew, and my niece who turns 12 next week. She’s the same age I was when “Running for Honor” came on. I know it will lead to them having a conversation about a trans or nonbinary kid at one of their schools, and that maybe it will help my niece or nephew or the trans or nonbinary kids at their school feel more accepted in their body, in their gender, and in themselves. And I know there will be millions of other families watching the episode on their living room couches as well, and statistically that means like a hundred thousand young people who might be contemplating coming out to their families as LGBTQ or nonbinary, so the possibilities for conversation and empowerment are kinda endless. And that makes me feel like I’m paying it forward, leaving some breadcrumbs on the trail like the ones that were left for me.
How do you think “coming out” stories in TV and film — specifically Dean’s story — have evolved in the past decade?
The biggest change I can sense in “coming out” stories on TV and film is that we’ve moved away from the tropes of victimization, shame, trauma, and secrecy that seemed to define 20th-century queerness, and now collectively we’re starting to see “coming out” as an act of agency, empowerment, and a celebratory invitation into our experience. With Dean’s story specifically, I was intentionally revisiting canonical scenes of trans masc disclosure that were formative to my queer consciousness, Just One of the Guys, Boys Don’t Cry, She’s the Man…all of these stories have a forced exposure of a supposed “lie” connected to the character’s body and how they choose to express themselves in terms of gender. I wanted to flip that script, and give Dean the heroic, nonbinary trans masc matinee idol dreamboat treatment our stories deserve.
You made history as the first transgender person to be cast as series regular on a network sitcom with Connecting and now you are writing and co-executive producing a series with a legacy. When writing and acting in queer-specific storylines, how do you navigate the “burden” or “responsibility” of LGTBQ representation?
I take great comfort in the fact that I’m not the only one doing this work. Admittedly, the opportunities can seem scarce at times, but the truth is that there’s a whole community of LGBTQ artists who are out in the world working together (and on their own) to tell our stories–and that’s not even counting the cis-het accomplices who genuinely want to contribute to our liberation, and the allied execs who realize our stories have cultural and commercial value. I’m only one person with my perspective, ideas, and lived experience. I do what I can with the opportunities I have, not just to move the needle forward for queer representation, but to create new opportunities for other queer creatives to keep the movement going alongside and after me.
How do you think your life would have been impacted if you saw queer characters like Dean or Ian on a major TV series?
I love a world where gender queerness is commonplace. When I was growing up we had these “very special episodes” of TV where you’d get that one gay or lesbian storyline, but if I saw someone remotely like me they were probably dying of AIDS, getting bashed, kicked out of their home, or coming out in tears. Now on Quantum Leap we have this sassy and brilliant nonbinary character working in our headquarters week to week, and we get special episodes where trans young people are the heroes. I hope the young, queer folks who are growing up watching our show spend a lot less time wrestling with fear and shame and step into their full, beautiful, handsome selves as soon and as righteously as they damn well please!
Quantum Leap airs on NBC Tuesdays at 10 PM/9 PM Central.