Steven Universe has always been invested in queer representation. Rebecca Sugar and her team have worked to present the lives and loves of LGBTQ+ people in ways comprehensible to kids and palatable to censors, building a story about found family and the freedom to love who you want out of a space opera about sentient gemstones and a gregarious magical child.
But in the latest arc, the show has told a more specific story, one that speaks to me very personally. It’s not just a metaphorically queer story. Instead, it re-positions all of Steven Universe as a metaphorically trans one.
Steven Universe has always been preoccupied with identity. Who is Steven, and what relationship does he really have to his mother, Rose Quartz, who gave her existence (and her gem) to allow him to be born? How does he live up to his mother’s legacy, and what does that even mean? The recent revelation that Rose is actually Pink Diamond, heir to an interstellar empire, makes those questions even more intense, and much of the show’s runtime has been spent with Steven learning to come to terms with who his mother was and wasn’t.
White Diamond don’t even know what a descendant is. Gem society has no children, no parenting, not even any boys. Instead, by their understanding, Steven literally is Pink Diamond, either faking it in a strange disguise or suffering from some sort of amnesia. According to them, the human boy Steven Universe doesn’t exist. He’s just a persona. A mask.
For transgender viewers, that framing of the relationship between Steven and Pink might strike a nerve. It certainly did with me. For a lot of us, being trans looks like a complete change in persona—a new name, a new appearance, even a new personality. A gender transition (for those of us who do transition) can, over time, render you unrecognizable, an entirely different person in the same spot where the old one stood. And even those of us who don’t transition can take on significant changes—a new name, new pronouns. One of the quintessential struggles of trans-ness, then, is getting other people, especially people from our past, to understand and accept these new changes. And, in some cases, to even believe they’re legitimate—that you are, in fact, who and what you say you are.
The interactions and experiences Steven goes through during his time on Homeworld are strikingly similar to the struggles of a trans person facing an unaccepting or misunderstanding family. He constantly struggles to get the people around him to use his name—they insist on calling him Pink Diamond. Blue and Yellow regularly express bewilderment when Steven indicates that he’s not Pink in any way, or when he behaves in any way differently from their preconceptions about her. What’s worse, Yellow and White Diamond both express a belief that Steven isn’t, well, real. That Pink is still Pink, somewhere in there, just playing one of her “little games.”
The trans subtext comes to a head in “Change Your Mind,” a special that’s as much about the Diamonds learning to accept Steven as himself as it is about the Diamonds learning how to heal their broken family. As Blue, Yellow, and eventually even White come around to Steven’s side, they also come around to respecting his identity—in one fantastic moment, Blue tells Yellow, “I believe she prefers to be called Steven.” (OK, she got his pronouns wrong, but we can maybe overlook that due to Homeworld literally not having any men. She’ll get there.) Both Blue and Yellow begin addressing Steven as himself, and when Steven confronts White Diamond, this is the issue raised to the surface.
White insists that Steven isn’t a real person and—in a rhetorical gesture that’s bound to be sadly familiar to a lot of trans viewers—suggests, instead, that he’s just an expression of Pink’s own psychological issues. This culminates in her straight-up removing his gem in an effort to prove her point. Soon after, the gem reforms, not as Pink Diamond or Rose Quartz, but as Steven. And when White asks where Pink is, this reformed Steven Gem roars, with a justified fury: “She’s gone!”
They’re gone. In that one scene, Sugar and co. manage to illustrate the struggle of a trans person trying to demonstrate to their family that, yes, I am who I say I am. I really am a girl. Or a boy. Or non-binary. In reality, we can’t tear our insides out and present them to the people questioning us. But I know I’ve certainly wished I could, just to end the doubt. And there are some people who, like White Diamond, are unlikely to listen to anything less.
“Change Your Mind” ends with one of the simplest, but most important songs in the whole series. In it, Steven sings a message that seems aimed at every queer or trans kid who can’t find the acceptance they want. He sings:
I don’t need you to respect me, I respect me
I don’t need you to love me, I love me
But I want you to know you could know me
If you change your mind
When I was a kid, there weren’t any shows on television with such vivid, and moving, trans subtext. I’m glad kids growing up today have this one.