Being an LGBT individual can be a very lonely experience. Coming out in 2000 as a high school freshmen in upstate New York, I often felt lost and alone. There was a distinct lack of community that I felt both in my day-to-day life and in movies and television. Where were the people like me? Flash forward 16 years, and #LGBT representation in film and television is not only common, it is finally being normalized. This was more evident to me than ever when I saw Hikaru Sulu embrace his husband in Star Trek Beyond. The scene inspired many, and served to highlight how far we have come. It also stirred up debate about the use of tokenism and the sincere representation of LGBT characters to further social acceptance and understanding. So while it was a politically frustrating year for the LGBT community, it's relieving to know that the entertainment world is providing positive role-models for the next generation of LGBT youth.
This past summer saw much controversy surrounding the newest gay character on the block, Hikaru Sulu. First portrayed by George Takei in 1966, the labeling of Sulu's sexual orientation shook many fans after fifty years of seeing him through the assumed heteronormative lens. As I discussed in a previous article, I believe that while making famous characters gay is not always well-received by fans, it is imperative for the LGBT community — and youth in particular — to have these icons representing and normalizing an aspect of life that can be difficult for so many. This, of course, should never be done simply for the sake of ticking the 'token gay character' box. Rather, it should be to the benefit of the character and their universe.
Early in the introduction of gay characters into mainstream entertainment, tokenism was seemingly overlooked out of necessity. Gay people like myself were just happy to be recognized and see someone from our community brought to life on a screen of any size. Shows like Will & Grace and Queer As Folk helped transition us away from the one-dimensional gay character whose only contribution to the plot was their sexuality. Though Will & Grace appeared only to trade in tokenism for stereotypes, it was still progress. This groundbreaking sitcom made homosexuality more accessible and approachable to many. Yet, its characters were almost all pigeonholed by their sexuality or their relationship to another's sexuality. The only character that I recall who broke this trend was Will's boyfriend and future husband, Vince D'Angelo (Bobby Cannavale).
How do you take a show like Will & Grace, which ran for eight seasons and created conversations about LGBT culture across America, and compare it to Sulu's five-second coming out scene? What was it about the short scene indicating Sulu was gay that made it so pivotal? Simply put, it was normalization. Without Sulu being expressly gay or straight in the rebooted film trilogy until now, he was an assumed heterosexual and was evaluated on his merits as a great character. Star Trek Beyond writer Simon Pegg said it best in a statement to The Guardian:
"[Director] Justin Lin, [writer] 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."
Like anyone else, Sulu had a fleshed out personality and a history that defined him. What difference does his sexuality make? For some, it makes no difference at all. For others, it is an example of how "militant Hollywood Gay Agenda Pushers" are seeking to destroy traditional masculinity. For many of us, it is was something great.
In the world of Star Trek, we now know that homosexuality is considered normal. Considering that Star Trek is based on a world that is completely at peace, this seems like it should have been a given. Despite that, it took fifty years to see a gay person on the USS Enterprise. While many were surprised by George Takei's displeasure with Sulu's "new" sexuality, the out-and-proud actor took to Facebook to emphasize the importance of embracing LGBT characters:
I wish John Cho well in the role I once played, and congratulate Simon Pegg on his daring and groundbreaking storytelling. While I would have gone with the development of a new character in this instance, I do fully understand and appreciate what they are doing — as ever, boldly going where no one has gone before.
Though we have a long way to go before the LGBT community is as accepted in the real world as it is in the Star Trek universe, 2016 was still a good year for us on this end of the galaxy. If you turn on almost any major television show or movie, chances are they will address the LGBT community in some way. According to GLAAD's 2016 Where Are We in TV report:
Of the 895 series regular characters expected to appear on broadcast scripted primetime programming in the coming year, 43 (4.8%) were identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer. This is the highest percentage of LGBTQ series regulars GLAAD has ever found. There were an additional 28 recurring LGBTQ characters.
For those of us who grew up grasping at straws for characters to identify with, this is a wonderful achievement. More importantly, this milestone has the power to be a life changing one for LGBT youth. Despite harsh rhetoric against the gay community and lingering homophobia, progress is still being made. During a year as rough as 2016, this is a victory well worth celebrating as a symbol of hope for our future.
This article was created as part of the Creators.co fanzine, We Will Make It Better: Stories Of Hope For The Future Of LGBT