Selecting Sides On Sulu’s Sexuality

Everyone was excited about the news that Sulu would be gay in STAR TREK BEYOND. Then George Takei weighed in.

Yesterday’s big news about the sexuality of Sulu in the rebooted Star Trek films was a bit of a rollercoaster ride. After the initial report broke that Star Trek Beyond screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung had written a scene depicting Lt. Hikaru Sulu’s home life to be one of same-sex domesticity, praise from the fan base went about as well as one could hope. Sulu is gay! Yes! Perfect! It felt as if Gene Roddenberry’s 50-year-old vision of unity, tolerance and inclusion was about to boldly go where no Enterprise crew member had gone before, and in the process it would pay a kind of meta homage to original Sulu, actor/gay rights icon George Takei. Refreshingly, and maybe unsurprisingly, the news met with little to no fan backlash.

Then someone asked George Takei what he thought.

“I’m delighted that there’s a gay character…Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of Gene’s creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate…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."

Well, shit, now what? If the gay rights activist who originated the role is telling you the character is straight, and was always straight, should his point of view be given more weight? Especially considering this new development was meant to honor him? Today, Pegg responded, and his logic is tough to debate.

“(George is) right, it is unfortunate, it’s unfortunate that the screen version of the most inclusive, tolerant universe in science fiction hasn’t featured an LGBT character until now. We could have introduced a new gay character, but he or she would have been primarily defined by their sexuality, seen as the ‘gay character’, rather than simply for who they are, and isn’t that tokenism?”

With his warmth, his humor, and his pure humanity, George Takei has done so much to further the mainstream acceptance of LGBT individuals, and I really can’t tell you just how happy it makes me that of all the Trek actors, his legacy might end up being the most vital. But as the resident Bond nerd on the site, Takei’s words sounded all-too-familiar to me. When Takei essentially says “Sulu was straight when I played him, so it’s wrong to make him gay now,” when he suggests a new character be created to fill the need for gay representation on the crew, I can't help but feel I'm hearing the same rigid literalism that suggested that Idris Elba could never play 007; why do you have to make Bond black? Can’t he just play a new character called “008”? It’s that same earnest, not really hateful, but fatally inflexible mindset that doesn’t want what’s come before - or what they love - to change, ever.

Certainly a 79 year-old man can be forgiven for a certain rigidity, and certainly Takei has a bigger stake in what's done with this role than an average Star Trek fan, but I hope he comes around on this. Because creating a new gay crew member and dropping them on the bridge of the Enterprise is a well-meaning but empty gesture at best, and a weird kind of exclusionary "othering" at worst. We can have a gay character on the Enterprise, as long as we don't mess up the original set. 

But taking a character who has existed across 50 years of fiction, and casually adding a “oh, by the way, he’s gay and always has been” to his narrative feels like a much more effective statement. And honestly, it’s fair play: as Pegg points out, no one ever canonically asserted that Sulu WASN’T gay. “At no point do we suggest that our Sulu was ever closeted, why would he need to be? It’ just hasn’t come up before.” He’s right of course – Sulu has never had a love scene, has never been shown to be in a relationship. (He has a daughter in 1994’s Generations, but guess what? He’s got one in Beyond as well.)

On top of that, Pegg and co-star Zachary Quinto both fall back on the idea that this is an “alternate universe,” and as such this Sulu can be gay while Takei's is straight, but I kind of hate using that as an excuse. NuTrek's alternative timeline hooey was always just there to placate fans, and I think it's being used the same way here. Takei’s Sulu can easily be retconned as gay without so much as a ripple to the original timeline.

But Pegg’s approach - that this character you know and love just happens to be gay - is more than just narratively sound; it feels authentic. Not everyone you meet in life will wear their sexuality on their sleeve. Decades ago I worked with a man for a year before finding out he was in a ten-year committed relationship with another man. That detail was revealed to me casually, without fanfare, long after I had gotten to know and respect him as a person. I didn’t define this person by his otherness, and by the time I learned he was gay, I had a familial affection for him that would have made “othering” him impossible. Maybe that’s why revealing Sulu to be gay after all this time feels so correct to me. Maybe that’s why it’s important that this happens with a character we already know. It's a shift we'll feel, but one that will provoke reflection instead of rejection. And shouldn't it do just that?