Takei Disagrees That Sulu’s Gay

 Star Trek Beyond took the character of Sulu to explore new horizons. Specifically, the character was written explicitly as a gay man for the first time in franchise history.

            Star Trek has long been known for boldly going where no one has gone before, and Gene Rodenberry’s vision of the future was a decidedly utopic one where people had largely put aside their differences and were even fostering interspecies peace by visiting peoples in different parts of the universe. As a means of showcasing this progressive thinking, the original series showed television’s first interracial kiss.
            So including a gay character isn’t a radical step for this series; in fact, it’s almost a step that should have been taken before. After all, the series showed Kirk boning his way through multiple alien ladies, so interspecies sex is clearly not off the table for the Star Trek Universe. Why would characters with identities other than cis, heterosexuality be excluded? In 2016, we’re becoming more and more accepting of these multiple identities (although they are not universally accepted, certainly), so why would the Star Trek vision of a future that is multi-species, multi-racial, and multicultural exclude these identities? It doesn’t make sense.
            George Takei, the actor who originated the Sulu role in the 1960s, disagrees that Sulu should be gay though. In fact, Takei even tried to dissuade producers from writing the character that way.
            That might come as a bit of a surprise, given that Takei himself is openly gay—you’d think he’d be thrilled to see a gay character in Star Trek. And there’s little doubt that making Sulu gay is meant as a tribute to Takei.

            But Takei’s argument is that it does a disservice to the character as Gene Rodenberry imagined him. Rodenberry’s Sulu was not gay. While Takei thinks it’s a great idea to include a gay character (or more) in the Star Trek universe, he argues that an established character such as Sulu should have been left alone. If the producers of Star Trek Beyond wanted to leave a mark on the franchise, they ought to have introduced their own gay character who could become iconic in his own right.


Pictured: Gene Rodenberry’s not-gay version of Sulu.

            This gets into a messy debate about authorial intent and respect for a creator’s vision, versus reinterpretation. The J.J. Abrams version of Star Trek, while starring the same characters, is a very different universe than Gene Rodenberry’s 1960s TV series. It’s a reboot; it’s a reinterpretation. The characters and situations have been retooled for a 2016 audience. In 1960, it was scandalous to show a black woman and a white man sharing a kiss. Today, an Enterprise crew that includes an openly gay Asian man is not shocking or scandalous. In fact, having that gay character is a sign of the times; our culture has changed. TV audiences in the 1960s were shocked and even scandalized by Uhura and Kirk kissing. Today, we’d be more shocked it they didn’t kiss, because Uhura is an awesome character and Kirk should definitely be attracted to her at some point. It doesn’t matter that one of them is black and one of them is white; that’s perfectly acceptable to most of the members of a movie-going audience in 2016. That’s the same with a gay Sulu. It’s more shocking to us that it took so damn long for the Star Trek franchise to include an openly gay character.
            But that comes back to Takei’s point: Why take an established character and rewrite him like this? Would we consider rewriting Spock as transgender? One could make an argument for Kirk as a pansexual in 2016. Or what about Uhura as a lesbian? The Star Trek universe is inclusive, so there’s no argument not to, really.
            Except, of course, for the argument that those characters are not written with those identities, and they haven’t been for the last 50 years or so. Rodenberry didn’t envision his characters that way, so why would we erase authorial intent? Kirk, in Rodenberry’s universe, is straight as straight can be—so why would we envision him another way?
            It’s not uncommon, however, for a new writer to reinterpret a character. This happens all the time in the comics world; Batman by Alan Moore is very different from Batman by Frank Miller. Why would the same logic not apply to Star Trek? And, in fact, it already does: There are a multitude of Star Trek novels and graphic novels, additional products, that explore the series’ famous characters. Every writer interprets these characters a little bit differently.
            So why does sexual identity and sexual attraction become the sticking point? Why can’t a writer make Sulu gay if he or she believes that about the character? Star Trek’s original cast is particularly rife for “gritty” reboot, since the 1960s version was so damn campy; Sulu’s sexuality was likely ill-addressed since he was a supporting character, and it was the 1960s: Gay rights were just beginning to come to the fore following the Stonewall Riots at the tail end of the decade. Putting an openly gay character on TV would have been a very bold move. Given the fact that it was still considered scandalous as late as 1998, when Ellen DeGeneres’s character on Ellen came out as a lesbian, an openly gay Sulu in the original series wouldn’t have flown.
            But that doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done. These kind of characters, who keep coming back in series that span multiple media and series that get rebooted on a regular basis, are open for (re)interpretation at virtually any moment. Perhaps making Sulu gay was a “safe” move—making Kirk gay would have been far more controversial. I would certainly argue that; fans will be more willing to accept Sulu as the franchise’s LGBT representative than Kirk or another character. And in a series with sparse female leads, making Uhura a lesbian could be risky.
            As for Takei’s objections? He has a point, but this isn’t an easy debate to resolve. Takei had the opportunity to work with Rodenberry, so he likely has some amount of insight into what Rodenberry might have thought of this move. And we can’t say that if any of us were in a similar position that we wouldn’t have similar objections—if a character that was established in a work we’d written as being explicitly straight or gay was then flipped, well, we might have objections. Even audiences have objections to this sort of thing; look at the commentary on Marvel’s move to make Thor female.
            But hey, if we live in a world where the Norse god of thunder can be a woman, why can’t we live in a world where Sulu is gay?

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