This month marks the release of Star Trek Beyond and, as the title actually suggests, it will take a fan favourite where no character (at least in Hollywood Star Trek cannon) has gone before – the first openly gay man, in the form of helmsman Hikaru Sulu played by actor John Cho.
Sexuality has been significant across the various mediums in which Star Trek is involved: multiple TV series and films, animation, books, and more. While the majority of relationships have been depicted as heterosexual (albeit many interspecies!), there have been some with twists on the traditional. A prime example of this is in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where Jazdia Dax, a female inhabited by a symbiont of the Trill species, shares a kiss with Lenara Kahn, a female who is ex-wife of one of the symbiont’s former (male) hosts. Their relationship is a struggle, due to there being a taboo in the Trill species against reuniting with loved ones of former hosts… or that the franchise had typically avoided LGBT representation overall. At that point in time, a small-screen kiss would have to do. We’re beyond that now.
In previous incarnations, the character of Hikaru Sulu never had a romantic partner. In fact, much of his personal life was not touched on at all. Star Trek: Generations revealed that Hikaru Sulu did have a daughter – Demora Sulu – but her birth and origins were not discussed. Does this mean that they have taken a once-straight character and “made him gay” for the sake of this movie? Not necessarily. The events of Star Trek Beyond will take place in the year 2260 – approximately 30 years before the events of Star Trek Generations. It’s possible for Hikaru Sulu to be a gay man and have a child without sleeping with a woman (and even in 2016 queer couples have plenty of options). It IS the future, after all.
Let us also not forget that this reboot series has showcased an alternate timeline, which allows the screenwriter (and star) Simon Pegg and director Justin Lin to take some liberties with character history. Small changes to Trek lore are to be expected. It is no different than Spock and Uhura having the hots for each other, as they do in this reboot franchise. That element was not part of the characters’ original timelines or Trek cannon, but is just as welcome as this new one.
Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, had a vision. He created storylines that pushed cultural barriers and were socially advanced in terms of diversity. Roddenberry’s progressive attitude towards race and gender could be seen through the characters he created, and how they interacted with each other. He unfortunately died shortly after he gave interviews stating that there would be gay characters in the Star Trek: The Next Generation series – something that was never manifested after his death.
But Roddenberry led by example through his work: depict worlds operating harmoniously, and the public will believe in that potential. Images show us possibilities, and Star Trek gave people hope.
I think it will continue to give people that same hope, especially now that we’ll finally have a badass gay male character in an action film.