So, Mr. Sulu is Gay.
I don’t mean George Takei is Gay. His very out personality has been enriching pop culture for — well, as long as I’ve been alive. Literally. Oh my!
No, I mean the character, Hikaru Sulu is Gay. According to actor John Cho in an interview with The Hearld Sun in Melbourne Australia, it will be revealed in Star Trek Beyond that Sulu is Gay, has a husband, and is raising a daughter. Mr. Cho says: “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.”
Those are nice sentiments, and most likely sincere. What he means, I assume, is that in the world of the movie — the Star Trek universe — it’s no big deal that Sulu is Gay. The other characters don’t have an issue with it. It’s taken for granted.
The problem, of course, is that’s not the Universe we live in. (Yet.) In our world, making a major character in a big movie franchise Gay IS A BIG DEAL. And to pretend that it’s not is disingenuous. Mr. Cho is straight — he’s married to a woman. So for him to say we shouldn’t “politicize one’s personal orientation” is an easy sentiment. LGBTQ people don’t get that choice. Their orientations are politicized for them whether they want it or not.
There’s an irony here that needs to be explicit. Sulu — the character in the movie series — is now being revealed as Gay but is played by a straight actor. Sulu — the character in the Original Series — was straight but was played by a Gay actor. The Herald Sun article also quotes a News Corp interview from last year in which Take explained, “If I wanted to work as an actor back then, I had to keep it a secret.” So the original Sulu was a straight man played by a Gay actor who had to pass for straight in order to have the opportunity to play character at all. With that kind of history involved, you don’t get to choose whether or not to politicize the question of orientation — it’s already as political a violation of the Neutral Zone.
But I have deeper concerns.
A lot of movie fans are familiar with The Bechdel Test. Named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel, it is a way of gauging the representation of women in a film (or other media). The idea is that a film has to have two female characters, they have to at some point talk to each other, and they have to talk about something other than a man. Obviously this is meant to be just the bare minimum necessary for decent representation. (An alternative version has been called the Mako Maori test — after the character in Pacific Rim. There must be at least one female character who gets her own narrative arc which does not involve supporting a male character.)
The deeper meaning behind these “tests” is that in a society where the representation of non-white, non-male, non-straight characters is still problematic, we can’t just take their presence at face value. To go back to the question of Sulu and Star Trek — when Gay characters are represented in film and television in anything like their actual proportion of the population and when their relationships and lives are presented as naturally as straight ones, then it will be NO BIG DEAL. Until then, making a major character in a big movie franchise Gay IS A BIG DEAL and to pretend that it’s not is silly and a little insulting.
Compare this for instance, to Captain Kirk. Kirk’s sexuality totally informs his character. His randiness, his constant courting of womanly aliens of various hues, is an indelible part of his character. His relationship with Carol Marcus (beautifully depicted in Wrath of Khan and horribly mangled in Into Darkness) is central to his long-term arc.
Now imagine if Captain Kirk was more like Captain Jack Harkness on Dr. Who/Torchwood? Captain Jack’s sexuality is also central to his character — he can flirt with Rose Tyler and The Doctor at the same time, with equal enthusiasm. What if Kirk were openly bi-sexual and courted aliens of various genders? Would that be a big deal?
You bet your tribble it would.
So what kind of representation are we really going to see? Do we get a passing mention that he’s Gay, maybe a glimpse of his family, and nothing else? Is that enough? Will his sexuality be as important to his character as Kirk’s is? (Or in this version of Star Trek, even Spock?) I’m all for honoring George Takei, but is there any other compelling reason for this character to be Gay? Will his being Gay inform his character in meaningful way, or is he basically just a sexless character with a GAY name tag stuck on him? Are we satisfied with simply sprinkling characters through stories who are identified as Gay, Lesbian, Transgender — or for that matter who are played by actors of color — and then have those identities play no further part in the story? Is that representation or tokenism?
There are a wealth of fascinating questions to be explored. Perhaps sexual and gender identity are “no big deal” in the relatively open and inclusive society of the Federation. But what about among highly repressed Vulcans with their ritualized mating? How about in the warlike culture of the Klingon Empire? And what kind of new relationships, forms of expression, ways of being in the world have LGBTQ people found in the future? Or were they just absorbed into the homogeneous culture? Is the little nuclear family, two parents and a child, still the norm in the 23rd Century? Really? Good science fiction — good fiction — would ask those questions. Star Trek over it’s long history has asked similar question about other hard topics.
Do we need something like the Bechdel Test for LGBTQ characters? Are they serving any other purpose than for the filmmakers and the audience to say, “Hey look how enlightened I am that this doesn’t even bother me?”
It’s no big deal.