Home > My Fiction, Star Trek > On Sulu, diversity, and change (minor STAR TREK BEYOND spoilers)

On Sulu, diversity, and change (minor STAR TREK BEYOND spoilers)

Well, just days after I made a post assessing my own work for its gender/sexual inclusiveness, we get a noteworthy piece of news from the makers of the upcoming Star Trek Beyond: The movie will establish in passing that Sulu has a husband and a daughter. The daughter is most likely Demora, a character established in Star Trek Generations, but the news everyone’s reacting to is that Sulu is married to a man. This is not being treated as a big deal in the movie, but it’s made quite the ripple in popular culture. The makers of Star Trek have been making noises about LGBT inclusion for decades, but they’ve never followed through until now. We got a few indirect attempts, the boldest being DS9’s “Rejoined” and its then-controversial same-sex kiss between Jadzia Dax and her former husband who was now in a female host — and the weakest being TNG’s “The Outcast,” whose attempt at anti-discrimination allegory was undermined by its heteronormative casting and its tedious preachiness at the expense of entertainment value. But the producers claimed they couldn’t figure out an appropriate way to include or reveal a gay, lesbian, or bisexual main character without it being overly preachy or self-conscious or whatever.

Which always seemed disingenuous to me, because a lot of other contemporaneous storytellers had already found the right way to do it, which was just to do it and not make an issue of it — to simply acknowledge the fact that LGBTQ people are already part of everyday life and that their relationships are no different than anyone else’s. Just write characters having relationships the same way you always do, but occasionally make their partners their own sex. This is how I and other Star Trek novelists have been approaching it for nearly two decades, ever since two of the lead female cadets in Susan Wright’s 1998 novel The Best and the Brightest (nominally a Next Generation book, but focusing on an original group of Academy cadets) were subtly established as being in a relationship, and ever since Andy Mangels & Mike Martin’s Section 31: Rogue in 2001 showed the Star Trek: First Contact character Lt. Hawk (who had been rumored as being gay but wasn’t shown to be onscreen) in a relationship with a Trill man named Ranul Keru (now a regular in the Star Trek: Titan series). I’ve done the same thing myself in a number of my books — indeed, in the past couple of Rise of the Federation novels, I’ve mentioned in passing that Travis Mayweather experimented with sexual partners of both sexes in his teens, and I’ve confirmed that Dr. Phlox is bisexual (as John Billingsley always believed him to be). So I technically beat the filmmakers to the punch with “outing” a canonical series-lead character, but only in the books, so it wasn’t definitive and hardly anybody noticed.

Anyway, the point is that including LGBTQ characters is something you can easily do just by treating sexual diversity as a routine part of life, which is what it actually is. That’s worked fine for me, and for my Trek Lit colleagues who’ve done the same. And we’ve seen similar casual inclusion in plenty of other media franchises by this point (e.g. Doctor Who, the DC “Arrowverse,” and Person of Interest), so it’s been frustrating that Star Trek, which made its name by being on the cutting edge of diversity and inclusive casting, persistently fell so far behind the curve on this count. So I’m very pleased to see that that’s no longer the case.

Some have questioned whether it was appropriate to make Sulu gay rather than some other character. George Takei himself has notably objected to this, saying it twists Gene Roddenberry’s original intentions for the character. But a lot of other notable gay voices associated with Star Trek have lauded the change, including Zachary Quinto, David Gerrold, and Andy Mangels. I think Adam-Troy Castro’s take on Takei’s reaction is cogent — that it’s more about an actor’s attachment to his long-established mental model of the character he plays than anything else. (We’ve seen other actors, like Dirk Benedict and Adam West, react poorly to reimaginings of their iconic characters.) After all, Gene Roddenberry was not reluctant to change his intentions. He was the guy who altered the Klingons’ appearance for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and asked fans to assume they’d always looked that way. Creators change their minds after the fact all the time.

And I agree with Simon Pegg’s explanation that it was a better choice to establish this as one attribute of a known character, one we already had an investment in and an image of, than to introduce some new person who would just be there to be “the gay character” and would probably never be seen again after the one movie. It’s not really inclusion if you continue to keep the core cast uniform and just “include” token characters on the fringes. That’s why the Supergirl TV series making Jimmy Olsen black was a better choice than introducing some new minor character to be “the black guy.” The Superman comics tried that with Ron Troupe, and, well, if you’re asking “Ron who?”, then that makes my point for me.

Also, it can be argued that the Sulu of the Kelvin Timeline (I’m so pleased to have an official name for the new movies’ universe now) doesn’t need to have the same orientation as the Sulu of the Prime universe. The Star Trek Chronology conjecturally puts Sulu’s birth in 2237, four years after the timelines split. So even if he’s genetically the same individual (which he doesn’t necessarily have to be, since he could’ve been conceived at a different time, like how Chekov is four years older in this reality), the hormonal and epigenetic factors shaping his pre-natal development could’ve been different, giving him a different orientation — like several of the Leda clones on Orphan Black (Alison is hetero, Cosima is lesbian, Sarah is at least situationally bisexual, Tony is transgender, etc.).

Honestly, we don’t even know for sure that Prime Sulu was heterosexual. By happenstance (or more likely because of racial prejudices that still linger today), Sulu was the one member of the main cast who was never given a romantic subplot. Leila Kalomi in “This Side of Paradise” was going to be Sulu’s love interest (hence her “exotic” name), but was then rewritten to be Spock’s and cast as a blonde woman. He was shown to be affected by the allure of “Mudd’s Women” and “The Lorelei Signal” along with all the other men in the crew, and in the extended cut and novelization of ST:TMP, he’s flustered and aroused by Ilia’s Deltan sex appeal — but it’s worth noting that those were all superhumanly arousing women, so it doesn’t prove that ordinary women would get a rise out of him. A lot of people strongly prefer one sex but are capable of occasional interest in the other.

I don’t count Sulu’s “fair maiden” reaction to Uhura in “The Naked Time,” because he was role-playing as D’Artagnan. Nor do I count “Mirror, Mirror” Sulu’s harassment of Uhura, both because that was another alternate version and because sexual harassment is more about power than attraction. (For all we know, Mirror Sulu harassed Chekov the same way when the camera wasn’t looking.) So that just leaves the somewhat creepy moment in “The Magicks of Megas-tu” where Sulu used the alternate dimension’s “magical” physics to conjure up an illusory woman that he tried to kiss. On the bridge. In front of everybody. Honestly, that’s just wrong on so many levels that I’m happy to ignore it. (I disregard the whole episode anyway. It’s steeped in the Hoylean continuous-creation cosmology that had already been discredited in favor of the Big Bang even at the time, and is now as archaic as a story about canals on Mars or dinosaur-filled jungles on Venus.)

Honestly, when George Takei first came out publicly years ago and I heard people say “So should Sulu be gay now?” I thought he shouldn’t be, because the actor and the character are two different people, and gay actors shouldn’t be typecast as only playing gay characters. But of course, Sulu is now played by a different, heterosexual actor, so that ameliorates it somewhat. And I can see the logic that, since Sulu is the only character who never explicitly had a heterosexual relationship onscreen, he’s the most likely candidate, even aside from who played him. Indeed, David Gerrold commented recently that he always read Sulu as gay.

Things get trickier when you bring the tie-ins into it, because a number of books and comics have shown Sulu in heterosexual relationships, including with Mandala Flynn in Vonda McIntyre’s The Entropy Effect (the book that coined his first name Hikaru), Demora’s mother Susan Ling in Peter David’s The Captain’s Daughter, M’Ress and Kathy Li in Peter David’s DC comics, and a Tokugawa-era concubine in the time-travel novel Home is the Hunter by Dana Kramer-Rolls. True, the books and comics have never had a single, uniform continuity, and the only one of those stories that’s really compatible with the modern novel continuity is The Captain’s Daughter (which I referenced in Ex Machina and Watching the Clock, and which established the characterization of Enterprise-B captain John Harriman that David R. George III has expanded on in several later works). That one’s kind of tricky to get around, given its importance. Still, I expect Sulu’s newly established characterization in Beyond will be reflected in how future novelists write him. As has happened in the past, any inconsistencies will either be glossed over or explained away. After all, anything else would feel like moving backward.

  1. July 9, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    Great post! There was also Corazon Kohwangko (a phonetic spelling of Cojuango, former Philippines President Corazon Aquino’s unmarried surname) in a Star Trek annual co-written by George Takei and Peter David, “So Near the Touch,” In Star Trek Annual 1 (the second DC Trek series, published about 1989)

    • July 9, 2016 at 4:26 pm

      Right, I remember that one — though I’d had no idea about the origin of the character’s name.

      There’s also issue 20 of DC’s first series, “Giri” by Laurie Sutton (as Wenonah Woods), which gave Sulu an old flame named Keiko, coincidentally enough. Although I’m not crazy about that one in retrospect, because it was a mass of Japanese stereotypes — duty, honor, arranged marriages, feuding clans, swordfights, even giant robots. The best thing TOS did with Sulu was avoiding the stock “Oriental” characterizations and writing Sulu as an individual with diverse interests like botany and antiques and The Three Musketeers. The one exception was the samurai his imagination conjured up in “Shore Leave.” He wasn’t even meant to be specifically Japanese, having been named for the Sulu Sea in the Philippines (which Roddenberry saw as somehow “pan-Asian” because it abutted on three or four different countries). And of course we learned in the fourth movie that he was born in San Francisco. But a lot of the tie-ins interpreted him as Japanese because of who played him, and sometimes they defined him a bit too much by that ethnicity, even to the point of stereotype. (The animated series is guilty of this too, particularly “The Infinite Vulcan,” which made Sulu a martial-arts expert and had him joking with Kirk about being “inscrutable.”)

  2. Destructor
    July 9, 2016 at 7:52 pm

    Great summary Christopher and I completely agree with your assessment.

  3. July 9, 2016 at 8:38 pm

    I’ve long agreed — Trek series missed the boat on this one. They waited until having an LGBTQ character became conspicuous in its absence, when they were writing episodes at a time when to “just do it” as you say needn’t have drawn any attention to itself, it didn’t need an episode ABOUT that character.

    Thanks to you writers! Every time I watch the film First Contact, now, I see Hawke and think about his Ranul Keru waiting for him. . .then missing him.

  4. July 9, 2016 at 10:58 pm

    It is worth noting that, in The Captain’s Daughter, Suki’s fling with Demora’s mother is literally a one-night fling with a woman he finds exceptional. I see no necessary contradiction here.

  5. July 11, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    Do we need to have a timeline split? Isn’t it easier too set this as a Kelvin “universe” rather than “timeline”? The suspension of disbelief doesn’t quite work with these movies unless it is another parallel universe (in the same way that the various novels are set in a parallel universe). So, this not the same character at all. Forgive the small digression from you very reflective post.

    • July 11, 2016 at 2:43 pm

      The stated intention of the creators is that, yes, it is an alternate timeline created by time travel. That was made clear at the start and it hasn’t changed in the seven years since. Yes, there are inconsistencies between the old and new that can’t quite be explained that way, but they’re no worse than the inconsistencies that already exist between prior incarnations of Trek like TOS, the movies, TNG, and the like. Every time a new incarnation of Trek has come along, there have been people who insisted that it had to be an “alternate universe” because they couldn’t distinguish differences in artistic interpretation from differences in in-story “reality.” But they were always meant to be a continuous whole even when tweaks were made to the details. These are stories, not documentaries, and any two storytellers are going to present their subject differently. Gene Roddenberry himself pretended in his ST:TMP novelization that the original series had been an “inaccurately larger-than-life” dramatization of the “real” thing, and that TMP was a more authentic dramatization. That was how he explained away the changes in the depictions of the Klingons, the technology, and the like — not as alternate realities, but as the same hypothetical reality filtered through different artistic interpretations.

      Besides, if Paramount and Bad Robot had created a wholly new version of the universe, then they probably would’ve taken the opportunity to make far bigger changes, like maybe gender-swapping a couple of male characters or casting a black actor as McCoy or something. Or giving the characters a more plausibly futuristic form of communication than TOS-style audio-only communicators. Honestly I wish they had done it that way. But they didn’t.

  6. twebb2
    July 13, 2016 at 4:23 pm

    Christopher, you neglected another option: Sulu in the new universe could choose to have a male husband, regardless of genetics and such. I know that goes against orthodoxy (recall the firestorm when Cynthia Nixon stated she chose to be with a woman), but the exact biological nature of preference has yet to be established, beyond that the human genome project proved that there is not a ‘gay gene’. Besides, it doesn’t matter any more – the argument that it was biological was necessary as a rationale for broader cultural acceptance, which has been achieved in the secular west.

    I totally agree with you about how late popular on-screen ‘Trek’ is to the game as far as homosexuality. IMO, they’ve barely / rarely pushed the envelope morally since the original series; nowadays every show/film is expected to have a gay character (like having a box you check). More forward-thinking would be to have a group of three or more in a relationship, since certainly polyamory will soon be legal in the west, there is simply no argument against it… actually, where nothing is really wrong, everything – everything – everything is right (at least per my university philosophy courses).

    • July 13, 2016 at 4:33 pm

      There is much more that influences human development besides genes. As I already alluded to, there are epigenetic factors that determine how and whether genes are expressed, and there’s the hormonal environment of the womb, which can influence a developing fetus’s brain structure and biology in ways beyond genetics. If genes are the script, then epigenetics are the director, performers, editors, and artists who turn the script into a film, interpreting and modifying it along the way.

      I’ve already referenced Orphan Black, which illustrates the power of epigenetic influences by showing multiple clones with wildly differing personalities and sexualities. Sexual preference is more than just a choice; yes, many people are flexible enough that they can choose to go either way, but others are born with a strong preference that they know is natural for them.

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