Applying our 21st-century ideas to this sci-fi universe ignores one of the show’s founding visions: that sexuality could (and should) be fluid
Sure, it’s just a light, fantastical entertainment about ray guns and spaceships – characters die and come back to life, turn into lizard creatures, and have devious alter egos that sport intimidating goatees. But it’s also able to proudly wear the distinction of being the first TV series to feature an interracial kiss, to broadcast episodes about sexuality, gender roles, the cold war, race relations, and so many more issues that humanity struggles with every day. It’s a hopeful vision of a society that’s overcome prejudice and embraces knowledge and reason. That George Takei, the actor who first played Sulu, would be up in arms that the character could have a husband ignores the most progressive part of creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future: that sexuality could (and should) be fluid.
Progressive ideals and respect for diversity is built into the DNA of Star Trek. It was a part of the founding principle for the series. It’s why there was representation from numerous ethnic groups and nationalities on the USS Enterprise at a time when US television was starkly monochromatic.
What Star Trek has never had was a regular gay character. Esteemed science-fiction writer David Gerrold proposed an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that featured gay characters and an Aids allegory in the 1980s, but was rebuked at a late stage of development. Next Generation did eventually feature an episode entitled The Outcast, in which Commander Riker fell in love with a representative of an androgynous species. Of course, that role was played by a woman, so as not to freak out the average TV viewer of the 1990s. Later, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s episode Rejoined contained a same-sex kiss between Dax (an alien Symbiote that leaps from host to host, regardless of gender) and the alien’s ex-wife.
But Sulu having a husband is uncharted territory for Star Trek. In the original series and the subsequent feature films, Sulu never had a girlfriend. An alternate universe version of Sulu pined over Lieutenant Uhura in the episode Mirror, and in a deleted scene from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Sulu clumsily attempts to hide his interest in the Enterprise’s new navigator, Lieutenant Ilia – a member of the sexually voracious Deltan species. Mr Takei does a fine job of playing the horny guy presented with the 23rd century equivalent of a polyamorous co-worker. That said, I can see why it was cut.
I’m sure depictions such as this are what fueled Mr Takei’s outrage over the reveal that Sulu, as played by John Cho in Star Trek Beyond, could be gay. Mr Takei even stated that he asked Roddenberry to create a gay character on Star Trek, but made it clear that Sulu was intended to be straight. But can we call Sulu or any Star Trek character truly straight or gay? Should we? We’re applying our 21st-century ideas of sexuality to a story that Roddenberry meant to be about the destruction of the walls that separate us from each other.
In the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, written by Roddenberry himself, he includes a footnote that is meant to clarify the relationship between Kirk and Spock. Roddenberry, writing as Kirk, says: “I have always found my best gratification in that creature called woman. Also, I would not like to be thought of as being so foolish that I would select a love partner who came into sexual heat only once every seven years.”
The composition of this passage is ambiguous, likely for good reason – the implication being that while he prefers women, he’s been with men. He never says “I have no sexual interest in men”, nor does he even use the term “gay” or “bi” or “homosexual”. Based on the reading of this particular passage (and the entirety of the occasionally frank, prurient novel) Roddenberry had a rather unconventional idea of sexuality that would be at odds with the simplistic notion that Sulu was just “gay”. If one feels the obligation to make this detail fit with the history of the character, it’s best to keep that in mind.
This is not to say that the future will (or should) wash over labels and distinctions that human beings are rightly proud of. We choose to be in communities or to not be in communities. Who is Sulu? Well, he’s a fictional character in a sci-fi adventure series who has a minuscule, nearly non-existent backstory. He was created by a man with the explicit purpose of highlighting our infinite diversity in infinite combinations. That Sulu could love a man, or that any character from Star Trek could love someone of their same sex, should only be surprising because it’s still such a hot-button issue in our present day. In the future of humanity as imagined by Gene Roddenberry, it’s not surprising. It’s a natural part of existing. Love is the most natural emotion there is. The opposite is what takes real effort.Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock and is himself a member of the LGBT community, had this to say when asked about Mr Takei’s statements: “My hope is that eventually George can be strengthened by the enormously positive response from especially young people who are heartened by and inspired by this really tasteful and beautiful portrayal of something that I think is gaining acceptance and inclusion in our societies across the world, and should be.”
Seeing the character of Sulu in a relationship with someone he loves – who happens to be a man – and raising a child should be seen as just as powerful and necessary as it was 50 years ago to see a heroic Japanese man on TV only two decades removed from the scars of the internment camps. Star Trek is not about canon and arcane details. It’s not about strict adherence to some dogma anymore than the US constitution should be applied literally in 2016. Star Trek is a guiding light that always points forward.