A Gay Sulu is a Good Thing—But it's Not Enough

Only two weeks before the release of Star Trek Beyond, actor John Cho dropped a bombshell: the new film would depict Cho’s character Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu—the swashbuckling helmsman of the U.S.S. Enterprise, and a mainstay of the Star Trek franchise since its 1966 debut—in a same-sex relationship, raising a daughter with a male partner.

The new, gay Sulu.

I was thrilled to hear it. LGBT representation has been sorely lacking in Trek, with a few ill-conceived exceptions:

Some of the exceptions: Star Trek: The Next Generation's’ "The Outcast," analyzed on Geeks OUT by Daniel here, focuses on a planet with an androgynous populace; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had an evil alternate-universe bisexual version of one of its main characters, and an episode playing the transgender experience for laughs.

The move also seemed like a fitting tribute to actor George Takei, who played Sulu on the original Star Trek series. Takei publicly came out as gay in 2005, and has been a tireless activist for LGBT issues. Back in 2012, we at Geeks OUT even paid tribute to him at an art show, Takei Back the Night!

( George Takei

However, Takei himself was less than thrilled with the decision:

"I'm delighted that there's a gay character," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Unfortunately, it's a twisting of Gene's creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it's really unfortunate…” Takei first learned of Sulu's recent same-sex leanings last year, when Cho called him to reveal the big news. Takei tried to convince him to make a new character gay instead. "I told him, 'Be imaginative and create a character who has a history of being gay, rather than Sulu, who had been straight all this time, suddenly being revealed as being closeted.'" (Takei had enough negative experiences inside the Hollywood closet, he says, and strongly feels a character who came of age in the 23rd century would never find his way inside one.)

I understand Takei's frustration at a tribute he didn't want, especially one that ties his real-life sexuality to his character's (as though he couldn't play a straight role). Still, this blogger respectfully disagrees with him on a number of points.

The original Star Trek’s straight (?) Sulu

First, contrary to Takei's insistence, the case for Sulu being straight in existing Trek canon is lacking. Over the course of three television seasons and seven movies (nine if we also include the new rebooted series), Sulu has had little in the way of romance or love interests of any sort, to the point of being borderline asexual. In 1994's Star Trek: Generations, we learn that he has a daughter, but learn nothing more about any partner he might have had. If heterosexuality was so fundamental to Sulu's character, why was his sexuality virtually ignored in the first place?

Sulu's daughter: did she have two dads all along?

Second, with all due respect to Roddenberry, he was a product of his time. By many accounts, he was a liberal-minded person who wanted more LGBT inclusion in the Star Trek universe; however, the gay rights movement was still nascent at the time of Trek's inception, and it's unlikely, to say the least, that he could have gotten a gay character on air in 1966. What a creator intended 50 years ago is not necessarily in line with modern attitudes and values, and should not be set in stone.

Roddenberry created an amazing universe—but he was still a man of a very different era.

Third, while I share Takei's desire for new queer characters, is there really room for a meaningful addition at this point? We're three films into the rebooted Trek franchise, which already has an ensemble cast to juggle between. An original gay character appended to the existing cast would smell of tokenism, not to mention that there's no guarantee said character would ever appear again past this film. It's a lot more relevant to me—and, I suspect, to many queer Trekkies—for an existing, iconic character to be depicted as gay.

(Responding to Takei, Beyond screenwriter Simon Pegg, who also plays Scotty in the current films, made many of the same points.)

All of that said, Sulu's "outing" is just a starting point for LGBT representation in Star Trek. It's great to hear that the new movie will treat Sulu's sexuality matter-of-factly; there's no need for a dramatic reveal or coming-out storyline when the setting is an era where homophobia no longer exists. At the same time, with his sexuality just a side detail on what's already a supporting role, it's unlikely that the film will actually have any meaningful development of Sulu's relationship, whereas straight male leads Kirk and Spock get onscreen romantic subplots.

Spock (played by the openly gay Zachary Quinto) romances Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and it looks like Beyond will pair Kirk (Chris Pine) with new female lead Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). Will Sulu's partner even have a speaking part?

Meanwhile, a new Star Trek TV series is set to premiere in January 2017, and all indications are that it will focus on an original cast of characters—a perfectly clean slate to explore themes and storylines the franchise hasn'’t touched in previous incarnations.

Needless to say, fandom's hopes are very high.

With openly gay producer Bryan Fuller at the helm, this is the perfect opportunity to feature queer heroes and villains, romance, and even (gasp!) sex in a way that's more than tokenism and more than just a background detail. To geeks like me, a gay Sulu is an inspiring beginning. But hopefully, not the final frontier of LGBT characters in Star Trek.

Aaron Tabak's picture
on July 12, 2016

Comics, video games, general geekdom. Living in Philly, formerly of Portland, OR and NYC.