3 Points Sulu’s Sexuality Raises for “Star Trek” & Mainstream LGBT Representation

Star Trek Beyond is in theaters now, so the fervor of the movie might have made some people forget this bit of news that came out just before the film came out, but even though writer Simon Pegg (who also plays Scotty in the Star Trek reboot series) and director Justin Lin decided to make Sulu gay, married, and a father in this newest film, the original Sulu—George Takei—is against it.

Takei told The Hollywood Reporter that he felt making Sulu gay went against what Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, wanted for Sulu. “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.” As Takei states, Roddenberry had always imagined Sulu as straight. When Takei was told of Sulu’s homosexuality by John Cho (who plays Sulu in the films), Takei said he hoped the cast and crew would create an entirely new character instead of meddle with the original characters.

“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 closeted,” he said.

However, Takei did tell The Hollywood Reporter that he had a conversation with Roddenberry during the show’s run, stating that he asked if gay equality could become a part of the show’s storyline. But Roddenberry felt like he was skirting the line as it was. “He was a strong supporter of LGBT equality…But he said he has been pushing the envelope and walking a very tight rope–and if he pushed too hard, the show would not be on the air,” Takei said. What Takei didn’t ask for, though, was for his character to be the one the show focus on in case the show did tackle gay equality.

Pegg and Lin’s decision to make Sulu gay was supposed to be in honor of Takei, who has been a staunch LGBT activist. Pegg released a statement to The Guardian defending his decision to reveal (or change) Sulu’s sexuality, stating:

“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 [Star Trek Beyond co-screenwriter who also plays Sulu’s husband in the film] 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.”

The last part of that statement is a direct response to Takei’s feeling that revealing Sulu as gay would mean that Sulu was closeted the whole time. As Takei told The Hollywood Reporter, someone living in the 23rd century would have never had to be in the closet.

Cho also had reservations about the idea of Sulu’s homosexuality, but for different reasons than Takei. As he told Vulture, Cho was worried that Sulu’s homosexuality would assert that sexuality was something that could be controlled or changed, specifically since the current Star Trek series is in an alternate timeline from the original.

“…[W]we’re in an alternate universe but I’m assuming that Sulu is the same genetic Sulu in both timelines, and I thought we might be implying that sexual orientation was a choice,” he said. He also worried about how Takei would feel about their Sulu borrowing from his life. “My primary concern was that I was wondering how George [Takei] would feel, because he’s a gay actor that played a straight part ad crafted a straight character. I didn’t want him to feel that we had reduced him to his sexuality by sort of borrowing this bit, if you will, from his life.”

Ultimately, Cho came around to the idea of Sulu being gay and felt that the decision humanized Sulu beyond just being a bridge crew member. Cho even fought to have his on-screen husband be of Asian heritage (hence Jung’s role in the film), as a nod to some of his childhood friends who were gay. “…I always felt the Asian gay men that I knew had much heavier cultural-shame issues…I felt like those guys didn’t date Asian men because of that cultural shame,” he said. “So I wanted it to seem really normal in the future…that there was zero shame in the future.”

But what makes the whole “Sulu’s sexuality” issue the most convoluted for me is that, despite the insistence on creating an inclusive world in Star Trek Beyond, the film still has an important, defining scene on the cutting room floor; a kissing scene between Sulu and his husband.

“It wasn’t like a make-out session,” Cho told Vulture. “We’re at the airport with our daughter. It was a welcome-home kiss,” he said.

The decision to cut the scene is a strange and antithetical to the desire to make Sulu gay in the first place. In fact, this decision raises several issues at the same time:

1. Having a gay character in Star Trek makes sense. I think everyone involved agrees that a Star Trek that doesn’t acknowledge LGBT characters is a Star Trek that isn’t complete. With the franchise’s promise of inclusivity, it makes sense as to why the screenwriters felt this would be a prime moment to right a wrong.

2. Sulu as gay actually breaks sci-fi ground; Sulu is, at least for me, the first gay character in a mainstream blockbuster movie franchise. Whether all involved like it or not, Sulu and Paramount have set a precedent for other studios to live up to. There has now been a gay character in a blockbuster film and the world didn’t end and international movie markets didn’t collapse; it’s now time for other studios to step their game up and represent an unrepresented part of their demographic.

3. The editing room’s decision to cut Sulu’s kissing scene flies in the face of the progress Sulu represents. By cutting Sulu’s kiss, it once again gives shadows of other portrayals of gay men as being asexual. Even though Sulu has a family, by not allowing audiences to see Sulu as a sexual creature, the same way we see Spock and Uhura, true humanization is being robbed from the character. It leaves audiences, particularly those starved to see positive images of themselves on the big screen, between a rock and a hard place; there’s representation of a gay man of color, but the full scope of his relationship is still closeted to the world. In that aspect, Takei’s fears of a closeted gay man in the 23rd century have come true after all.

What do you feel about Sulu in Star Trek Beyond? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

  • lkeke35

    I feel like the decision to leave his homecoming kiss on the cutting room floor was a mistake. What it is it about Uhura and Spock kissing that advances the plot? But we dont get to see Sulu give his HUSBAND a peck on the cheek? That’s kind of weird. I dont need to see them making out to understand they’re gay but Hollywood has a long history of declaring people to be gay and then making them non-sexually gay ,and that just hypocritical.

    • CParis

      I wonder if anti-LGTBQ sensibilities in some global markets might be the reason they didn’t show the kiss?
      Crappy treatment in any case.