When I first heard that Sulu, brought to life once again by John Cho, would be depicted as a gay man in Star Trek: Beyond, I was thrilled. To find out Sulu is gay is on par with having a friend or family member come out; you already know them, you are just learning another facet of who they are.
Sulu is the latest in a trend of previously assumed heterosexual characters to come out as gay over the years. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Willow to the X-Men's Iceman, our ever-changing social landscape is allowing for the creation of characters that can be role models and icons for the LGBT community. Though 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.
Sulu Coming Out Is A Sign Of The Times
Many were shocked to hear that Sulu was, in fact, a homosexual with a husband and daughter. How could this be? Why would the filmmakers do this? In a written statement to EW, Star Trek Beyond actor Simon Pegg expressed the logic behind this decision:
“I don’t believe [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry’s decision to make the prime timeline’s Enterprise crew straight was an artistic one, more a necessity of the time. Trek rightly gets a lot of love for featuring the first interracial kiss on US television but ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ was the lowest-rated episode ever. The viewing audience weren’t open minded enough at the time and it must have forced Roddenberry to modulate his innovation. His mantra was always ‘infinite diversity in infinite combinations’. If he could have explored Sulu’s sexuality with George, he no doubt would have"
Some, like George Takei, have argued that Sulu should not be represented in this way. Takei, the out and proud gay activist who portrayed Sulu in the originally Star Trek television series, said while attending the 50th anniversary Star Trek convention in Las Vegas:
"I'm delighted that the issue of LGBT equality is finally being raised, but Gene Roddenberry created all his characters as heterosexual because he had to. There is a lot of evidence of Sulu being heterosexual.”
To this, Pegg presented perhaps the most valid point behind making Sulu gay. In a statement to The Guardian, Pegg offered that Sulu was a viable character that would not be solely defined by his sexual orientation, just as most gay people hope not to be defined by their sexual orientation.
"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?
"['Beyond' director] Justin Lin, [screenwriter] 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. 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 need to out characters in television and movies began long ago. While some characters were created gay from the get-go (as in Will & Grace), others were originally designed or perceived to be straight. Such was the case with Buffy the Vampire Slayer's character Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan).
In "Hush," the 10th episode of Buffy's fourth season, Willow meets Tara (Amber Benson). When the two are trapped while trying to escape the Big Bad of the episode, they join hands to telekinetically move a vending machine. Following this display, series creator Joss Whedon was inspired to develop a romantic storyline between Willow and Tara. They became one of the first lesbian couples on US television and perhaps the most positive relationship in the series.
The show made an effort to focus on Willow and Tara's relationship, rather than their identities as lesbians. Many viewers felt Willow took the easy way out, when she told told Buffy about her feelings for Tara, noting that she had fallen in love with another woman, but not explicitly identifying as a lesbian. The significance behind this is that it takes into account that sexuality is fluid and not black and white, even when we want it to be. Willow did as much as anyone could ask for, coming out during her freshman year of college and accepting herself. Willow's widening of sexual preference (which remained geared towards other females for the remainder of the show), provided viewers with an accessible and relatable role model coming to terms with her own sexuality.
Check out some of the most sassy quips from Buffy in the Movie Pilot original video below:
The Iceman Cometh Outeth
In the All-New X-Men comic book, the original X-Men, consisting of Jean Grey, Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, and Angel, are brought to the present where most of them coexist with their older selves. With the help of Jean Grey, young Iceman realizes he is gay. He is understandably confused, just like many readers were, because he sees that his older self is seemingly not gay. Just like with Sulu, time travel allowed creative teams to take a character we love and make them even more relevant to the world we live in today.
Axel Alonso, Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics, discussed the move with MTV News, saying:
"We look at this as being one shading of who [Iceman/Bobby Drake] is. I think, personally that it is going to deepen the character, and humanize him even further, and make for fascinating stories. By that I am not saying you are not going to recognize Bobby Drake anymore. If you were a fan of Bobby Drake before, if you cared about him, I think this will draw you closer to the character, not push you away from him."
Iceman literally faces a struggle with himself as he brings the issue to the older Iceman. The trials he faces, while not easily understood by some, are all to familiar to others. The realization that you are different, that you are not who you and everyone else assumed you to be, is a terrifying one. To have a hero like Iceman on the same journey is helpful beyond measure.
The Witch, The Helmsman, And The Mutant Vs. Heteronormativity
TV and movies are increasingly featuring LGBT characters. These characters often suffered the same origins that we all do: They were assigned a sexual orientation by viewers and society based on their gender and initial sexual/romantic encounters as seen through the standard heteronormative lens. Members of the LGBT community frequently face more direct and personal backlash when they come out, and at the end of the day, characters like Willow, Sulu, and Iceman may be all they have to look to for hope and a sense of community and connection. By taking familiar characters and telling us that there is more to them than we realize, Hollywood is helping to usher in a new understanding of one of the wondrous and fluid differences that make up our population. Sulu may be the most recent example of this, but he will hardly be the last.