In Star Trek Beyond, Mr Sulu is revealed to be gay. George Takei opposes this “change,” but Simon Pegg shares his very valid reasons why they chose to make an existing character LGBT as opposed to adding someone new.
Yesterday was a whirlwind of emotion for Star Trek fans (and fans of media inclusivity in general). With Star Trek Beyond having been screened in Australia, the news soon broke that the movie would introduce the long-running franchise’s first major LGBT character: John Cho’s Mr Sulu.
As we reported, Sulu is revealed in the film to be a “loving father” of a daughter, and to have a same-sex partner. This soft introduction of his non-straight sexuality was clearly meant to promote inclusivity in the Star Trek fandom, and his sexuality is deliberately not a big deal in the story.
“I liked the approach, which was not to make a big thing out it, which is where I hope we are going as a species, to not politicize one’s personal orientations,” John Cho told the Herald Sun.
While Sulu’s sexuality was never affirmed, he is obviously one of an almost universal group of ‘assumed straight’ fictional characters in entertainment canon.
An alleged attraction to Uhura and the fact that he has a daughter in established canon clearly serve as strong enough benchmarks to contest any possible non-straight sexuality in future Trek stories for some fans (despite the fact that he could very easily be bisexual). And, as it turns out, George Takei feels the same way.
Takei, who portrayed Sulu in the original series and who is gay himself, vehemently opposes the fact that Sulu might possibly be gay in the reboot when he’s “been straight all this time,” inferring that Sulu having a same-sex partner in the new movies would equate to him having been “closeted.”
He goes on to seemingly contest any diversion from Gene Roddenberry’s original vision of the character and Star Trek in general (we don’t know if this extends to all the other big changes the Star Trek reboot movies have made, like say, Spock/Uhura).
“Be imaginative and create a character who has a history of being gay,” Takei recalls telling the new Star Trek team.
While we might be very tempted here to argue that adding a new character defined by his or her sexuality while guarding the ‘original’ sexualities of a cast of characters invented during a time of LGBT erasure in the media would come with a whole new set of problems, we’ll turn the word over to writer and actor Simon Pegg, who tells The Guardian that he ‘respectfully disagrees’ with Takei.
Here’s his statement to The Guardian:
“I have huge love and respect for George Takei, his heart, courage and humour are an inspiration. However, with regards to his thoughts on our Sulu, I must respectfully disagree with him.
He’s 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?
Justin Lin, Doug Jung and I loved the idea of it being someone we already knew because the audience have a pre-existing opinion of that character as a human being, unaffected by any prejudice. Their sexual orientation is just one of many personal aspects, not the defining characteristic. Also, the audience would infer that there has been an LGBT presence in the Trek Universe from the beginning (at least in the Kelvin timeline), that a gay hero isn’t something new or strange. It’s also important to note that at no point do we suggest that our Sulu was ever closeted, why would he need to be? It’s just hasn’t come up before.”
Pegg goes on to contest Takei’s claim that Gene Roddenberry’s decision to make Sulu (or rather, the entire original Star Trek universe) straight is something that needs to be upheld. “I don’t believe Gene Roddenberry’s decision to make the prime timeline’s Enterprise crew straight was an artistic one, more a necessity of the time,” he writes.
“His mantra was always ‘infinite diversity in infinite combinations,'” Pegg continues. “If he could have explored Sulu’s sexuality with George, he no doubt would have. Roddenberry was a visionary and a pioneer but we choose our battles carefully.”
Pegg’s final words should not only be a comfort to LGBT fans once again worried they might not be welcome in this universe (as something other than tangential or ‘there to be gay’ characters):
“Our Trek is an alternate timeline with alternate details. Whatever magic ingredient determines our sexuality was different for Sulu in our timeline. I like this idea because it suggests that in a hypothetical multiverse, across an infinite matrix of alternate realities, we are all LGBT somewhere.
Whatever dimension we inhabit, we all just want to be loved by those we love (and I love George Takei). I can’t speak for every reality but that must surely true of this one. Live long and prosper.”
It’s regretful that what should be a strong moment of inclusivity — of using art to prove that no one, not even fictional characters, are bound by expectation or narrow convention — has to be reduced to a tug-of-war between the creatives involved.
It should be obvious that we support LGBT representation in all forms, whether it be new characters added to old stories, or old characters being viewed through a modern, inclusive lens. If everything else about a story and a character can be updated to reflect current society as Hollywood revisits the same franchises over and over again, why not this?