I love Star Trek. I don’t think there’s any franchise more central to my geek life. There’s a lot of unreal universes out there that I enjoy learning about, but I’m sure there’s none that I would more like to actually live in than the optimistic idea of our future that is Star Trek.
The ’60s-produced original series included a woman of color bridge officer who was cited as an inspiration by Mae Jemison (who became the first black woman in space) and Whoopi Goldberg (who ended up a Star Trek star herself). The more recent series’ increased speculative-science focus led Stephen Hawking, on a visit to the Next Generation set, to say “I’m working on that” when passing the warp core prop.
There’s so much to feel positive about in Star Trek, and over the decades it’s generally done a fine job of showing us how we could, and should, be. But there’s one particular area of social justice that the franchise has failed to live up to its standards on, and it remains a blight on the series in my estimation. I’m talking about the fact that there has never, despite years of promises and false starts, been an openly gay or lesbian character in the canon Star Trek universe.
But I have a proposal to change that. J.J. Abrams, if you’re listening, I think you should make Sulu gay.
Before I explain why and how I think making Sulu gay in the new film series makes sense, it’s worth examining Star Trek‘s complicated but ultimately disappointing history with this topic. There have been a few attempts to allegorically address LGBT issues that have been mostly muddled and at times completely counterproductive.
There’s the Deep Space Nine episode “Rejoined,” which is understandably remembered most as a stereotypical “lesbian kiss episode.” But in fact it’s probably the best LGBT-themed Star Trek episode ever. It features the possibility of two female alien characters (both of whom used to be in different host bodies, were formerly married, and who are prohibited by their society from re-associating for reasons unrelated to gender) getting back together. There’s no mention of gender anywhere in the episode.
There’s Lieutenant Hawk in Star Trek: First Contact, who was rumored to be shown as gay but ended up as a standard, heterosexual (as stated by producer Rick Berman), dead, redshirt. There’s the Enterprise episode “Stigma,” which draws a bizarre parallel between homosexuality and mind melding that is both too simplistic and a dramatic departure from how mind melds are defined elsewhere in Star Trek.
And then there’s the Next Generation episode “The Outcast,” which was meant to be that series’ biggest statement on LGBT rights. But the story, about an alien from a genderless society that wants to be female (and is in love with Commander Riker) always struck me as a horribly chosen allegory. Equating gay men or lesbians with a people who want to adhere to traditional gender roles in relationships seems highly misguided to me.
What has not appeared onscreen is a single character who is clearly not heterosexual, as we 21st Century humans understand it, in what’s presented as “our” universe. The last qualifier is necessary because there is, in fact, one example of characters (and main characters at that) being depicted as homosexual or bisexual. But it’s part of what I consider to be the most shameful LGBT-related arc in the franchise, Deep Space Nine’s version of the Mirror Universe.
Yes, the Mirror Universe: the alternate reality that gave us evil bearded Spock in the original series and was revived in Deep Space Nine as a dystopian counterpart to our plane of existence. Everyone in the Mirror Universe is shown to be more or less the opposite of how they are in our universe, and Star Trek tends to make its main characters pretty fundamentally good. So you can imagine what their Mirror versions are like. Which is all good fun – except where sexuality is concerned. Multiple female characters (Kira, Ezri and Leeta) are shown engaging in same-sex romantic/sexual activity in their alternate, evil forms whereas no such inclinations are ever hinted at in the real universe. The unfortunateness of this, I think, speaks for itself.
The lack of any real LGBT characters after 28 TV seasons and 11 feature films is a problem. With no apparent plans for Star Trek to return to TV, the opportunities to remedy this are dwindling. But I don’t think it’s too late. There’s a way to still do this in a way that involves a major character, honors the real-world activism of an original cast member, and on top of that, doesn’t contradict canon. I’ll say it again: Make Sulu gay.
You probably know that George Takei, who played Sulu on the original series, is gay. Success for an Asian-American actor was difficult enough in the ’60s (and things aren’t a lot better today); had his orientation been known at the time it’s hard to imagine him having an acting career at all. I think making Sulu, as played by John Cho, gay in the new movie series would be as fine a tribute to Takei’s life of courage and activism as it would be an erasure of Star Trek‘s longtime no-gay characters blight.
Star Trek Into Darkness is coming out in two short months, so I don’t think we’ll see it there, unless J.J. Abrams is secretly ahead of me. It should be said that that isn’t totally out of the question; he did say in a 2011 interview that he would put the idea of a gay character “in the hopper.” His comments in the same interview about how such a thing would be far more suited to a TV series than a two-hour film, however, don’t give me much hope.
So Sulu probably won’t be shown as gay in Into Darkness, but for the third movie, why not? I don’t advocate a plot point centered around it or almost any overt acknowledgment at all. All it would take would be Sulu holding hands with a man while on shore leave at the film’s beginning or end. Or a shot of him waking up in his quarters with a man next to him. Or even a throwaway single line about an ex-boyfriend, like McCoy had in the first film about his ex-wife.
I’ve written before that fealty to source material from an older time can be detrimental when it comes to issues like the lack of female protagonists in films. So I wouldn’t personally be opposed to making a previously straight character gay in the new movie universe. But if you do happen to be a continuity stickler, there would be little for you to be mad about anyway. All six other main characters had heterosexual love interests at some point in the original series, but Sulu did not.
He did conjure a vision of a beautiful woman in the animated series episode “The Magicks of Megas-Tu,” but A. she disappears before we have any idea what his purpose in doing so was, B. the animated series’ canonicity is dubious, and C. I prefer to imagine that painful example of ’70s shlock never existed anyway.
He does have a daughter, Demora, who appears in Star Trek Generations, but that definitely shouldn’t be seen as an indication of his heterosexuality. Especially in a future which presumably includes increased respect for adoption by gay parents and, for all we know, possibly the technological means to allow gay parents to reproduce.
There’s one thing that makes me tentative about this idea. George Takei does not play Sulu in the new movies, but if such a decision were made the idea of his version being gay as well might become a popular assumption. I think making Sulu gay as a tribute to Takei would be fitting and fun, but I’m also sensitive about the fact that we should not suggest gay actors should play gay characters, and vice-versa. But there’s a perfect reconciliation of this possible issue already present in the series. A gay actor, Zachary Quinto, already plays Spock – who was part of the most significant heterosexual relationship in the first film.
Establishing Sulu as gay in the new movie series in a subtle this-is-just-a-normal-part-of-life way is Star Trek‘s best, and possibly last, chance to eliminate an enduring blot on an otherwise excellent franchise when it comes to social issues. So make it happen, J.J.
Dan Wohl blogs about baseball for a living, and he also owns Star Trek books, Star Trek T-shirts, Star Trek figurines, Star Trek pins, Star Trek video games, Star Trek Pez dispensers, and Star Trek christmas ornaments. He would love for you to follow him on Twitter: @Dan_Wohl.