I’m pretty sure there are dozens of think pieces out there already, but I’ve been thinking about it all day, and I have to write something down to stop it buzzing around my head.
Mostly, it’s about George Takei’s reaction to it. When the news crossed my Twitter feed yesterday, I was delighted. It’s never made sense to me that Star Trek, of all the SF shows out there, didn’t have a main character who was gay. I understood TOS not having one–that interracial kiss and the presence of two non-white characters on the bridge were ground-breaking enough–but the later shows having no LGBT representation was disappointing.
DS9 did give us mirror versions of some characters who were gay or bi, which was progressive for their time, but that’s not the same as permanent main characters being out.
George Takei usually delights me. His activism is inspiring, his love for the character of Sulu is wonderful, and I’d thought he would be more pleased than anyone. It was incredibly disappointing to read his reaction. Simon Pegg’s reaction and explanation for his choice put some of my thoughts into words beautifully.
If they introduced a new character who is LGBT, that’s what they would be known for. They would be “the gay character”; that would be the defining characteristic everyone would know. Any other aspects to their character would be irrelevant to many people, because they would be The LGBT Representative (TM).
More than that, writing in a new character specifically to be The LGBT Representative (TM) makes it too easy to dismiss or forget their presence. We remember the core, canon characters from each series. They’re the ones everyone recognises. New characters, bit parts, can be dismissed and washed away by fans because they’re not the core group.
And how would that even work? We rarely know much about the characters outside their role on the ship. Only the core characters are ever shown to have other parts to their lives, and that’s rare, so the new character would have to either make a really big point of saying “Hello, I am gay” (otherwise the audience won’t notice – everyone is assumed to be straight until stated otherwise, remember) or we’d need to see a big scene of their life and partner beyond the ship, which will also be about as subtle as a slap with a wet fish when we don’t see that for other, bigger characters.
From what John Cho and Simon Pegg have said, the reveal is small. It’s subtle. It’s clear that he’s Sulu’s partner and co-parent, not his BFF, but it’s also deliberately not A Big Teachable Moment (TM), which is what it would be with a new character. That’s what has made so many people so happy about this. It’s something Star Trek should have done a long time ago, they’re redressing the balance now, and they’re trying to do it without turning it into a Lifetime movie kind of thing.
As for the argument that Sulu has always been straight…um, not necessarily. Society defaults to assume that everyone is straight unless stated otherwise. And given how little we see of these character outside their work on the Enterprise, many of them could have entire worlds and families we’ve never seen. The core three got their flirt (and more) on during the course of some adventures, but Sulu? Chekov? Scotty? Uhura? Not so much. A good argument can be made that Sulu wasn’t closeted, it’s just never been something that came up on screen, because we never saw any of their home lives. He has a daughter, but the gender of his partner was never specified onscreen. Sulu doesn’t code as specifically straight to me, he never has. Finding out about this new dimension to the character, one we never saw before due to conservative networks and never seeing their lives at home, hasn’t fundamentally rewritten him for me. It’s made concrete something they never had the possibility of stating before, but was always a possibility.
(There’s also the argument that bisexuality exists, and thus, even Kirk’s history with women doesn’t necessarily mean he’s 100% straight. Just putting that out there to watch heads explode.)
All of that is why Takei’s comments were disappointing to me, because it shows he’s stuck, to some degree, in an outdated minds-set about this. And it’s why I’m choosing to ignore his disappointment.
If Gene Roddenberry were alive now, I think he’d be fuming that it took them so long to do this. It’s been possible to show that main characters on TV and film are gay for a long time. It’s not illegal any more. Star Trek had a record for pushing boundaries, and it ended up behind the times on this. I think Gene would be delighted that they’re finally getting there, and he’d be agitating for the new TV show to push some more boundaries. How about having a trans main character, for example?
After all, this show’s tagline is “To boldly go where no one/man has gone before”, and that’s what it needs to keep doing. Sulu being gay is the catch-up step. The next step should, and must, go somewhere further and bolder.