So I just saw Star Trek Beyond. You know, the one with gay Sulu.
Not to spoil it; it’s super subtle. While on temporary leave on a star base, Sulu is able to meet up with whom we are led to assume is his partner and his daughter. His partner is a man. The only other shot we get is his partner appearing next to him at a party later on.
And so, everyone has been freaking out that Sulu is gay.
George Takei has stated that he is disappointed that the character he played on The Original Series has been changed so fundamentally. He agrees that it’s about time for an LGBT hero to show up in the Trek universe on screen, but feels that a new character should have been developed instead of changing one that Gene Roddenberry created as a heterosexual. He says that the interracial kiss that Star Trek aired in 1968 was about as far as they could push the envelope at the time, so excluding LGBT characters was “not some oversight by [Gene Roddenberry]; it was a conscious decision with which he grappled.”
Simon Pegg has respectfully disagreed. He claimed that in introducing a new character as gay, the character “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?” He argues that Roddenberry would have made Sulu gay himself, and “[i]f he could have explored Sulu’s sexuality with George, he no doubt would have.”
While I see both points of view, why is nobody considering the option of Sulu just being bi? Bisexuality would allow all Sulu’s chemistry and cavorting with women in the past to maintain its meaning, while also allowing him to be in a relationship with a man in the alternate timeline of the rebooted Trek.
Logically, though, I know the reasons why. It makes me really sad. It’s because bisexual men are still seen as unicorns that don’t actually exist. Bisexuality is deemed a promiscuous orientation, so Sulu as a family man with a daughter would make no sense to viewers. Modern Family has solidified gay men as monogamous family men, but bisexual men are still overwhelmingly absent from visual media. The B-word itself has been absent from the definitions of many characters.
Willow Rosenberg from Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes immediately to mind for me. I get that it was a different time, but it’s frustrating to see a character you love devolve into simply being the gay token that Pegg refers to above. She first noted that her alternate universe vampire self seemed “kinda’ gay”, but vampire Willow seems to me to be “kinda’ bi” to me. I was sad when her relationship with Oz and her attraction to Xander (even to the detriment of said relationship with Oz) was swept away under the guise of gay now. She gets paired up with a terrible character in season seven as if only to reinforce that she’s still gay.
Piper Chapman from Orange is the New Black is a more recent, and less excusable example. Throughout the first season, she refers to the intense relationship she maintained with Alex as a phase – that she was a lesbian “at the time”. But despite being in a happy, sexual relationship with a man since then, she still starts another relationship with Alex – and even another woman in a later season. She says “I like hot girls. I like hot boys. I like hot people.” But she is never called bisexual, nor does she claim the identity herself.
The situation with Sulu is the most frustrating of all for me, since sexuality and attraction are known these days to be a fluid concept on a continuum rather than a definitive homo or hetero check box. Star Trek is the very definition of this, with the Vulcan concept of IDIC – Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Why is Sulu now facing the homo vs. hetero quandary when Star Trek itself says he could be anything? Maybe Sulu has been attracted to men outside of what we have seen in The Original Series. His partner in Beyond might not be the only man he’s ever been with. Or maybe this man is the only man that has ever attracted him. It wouldn’t even matter, because these are all legitimate expressions of bisexuality.
And so, I respectfully disagree with both George Takei and Simon Pegg. In the era of Star Trek, one would assume that Sulu never needed to come out the of the closet. It is the idealized future, after all. So calling him gay wipes out the character that Takei originally brought to life. Since he is portrayed now in a same-sex relationship, the label of heterosexual is no longer applicable.
But establishing Sulu as bisexual rather than gay means Sulu’s relationship with a man doesn’t automatically negate his past attractions to women (thereby preserving Takei’s performance as canon), and we can keep this new side to Sulu also firmly as canon. Everyone wins!
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