‘Star Trek’’s Sulu Being Gay Isn’t As Revolutionary As Who His Partner Is
Fifty years after the USS Enterprise first made its debut on American television, Star Trek continues to break new ground.
Beyond, the 13th overall film in the ongoing movie and TV series, became the first in the franchise’s history to feature a gay character when the film hit theaters in July. In the Justin Lin-directed film, it was revealed that Sulu (John Cho) has a male partner, with whom he is raising a daughter. Although George Takei, who played Sulu in the original series, voiced his concerns about the decision, saying that it was against the original intent of creator Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek has always been at the forefront of diversity. In 1968, Captain Kirk and Uhura shared one of the first interracial kisses on U.S. television.
Following the film’s debut earlier this summer, Sulu has become just one of a handful of openly gay characters in mainstream Hollywood cinema. A recent survey from GLAAD found that the overall number of LGBT characters in top-grossing movies had remained relatively static in recent years, with just 17.5 percent of 2015 studio releases boasting a queer or transgender character. Even fewer of those characters will be portrayed in a positive light, frequently deployed as villains or punchlines.
In Hot Pursuit, starring Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara, the film’s only trans character is a prostitute who gets arrested and is thrown into the back of a squad car. The sex worker outs herself when she speaks with a cartoonishly low voice, much to the other characters’ discomfort (and the audience’s assumed amusement). As GLAAD points out, that character was the only trans person depicted in a Hollywood film all year. That means many viewers, particularly those in middle America, had no other chances to see trans stories on screen or have their lives humanized. At a time when the media celebrity of women like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock has brought unprecedented attention toward trans issues, that invisibility matters.
What’s notable about Sulu, however, is that his partner is also Asian, a pairing that is extremely rare in either film or television, a medium that’s been heralded as shepherding a renaissance of LGBT diversity. When LGBT couples share the screen, they are almost always white or interracial. Seeing two Asian men in love, or a happy, healthy Black lesbian couple is far more atypical, although such examples do exist. In the first season of HBO’s acclaimed drama The Wire, viewers are introduced to Kima (Sonja Sohn), a Baltimore cop who lives with her girlfriend, Cheryl (Melanie Nicholls-King).
But in most cases, LGBT couples on TV are either of the Mitchell and Cam variety (both of whom are white) or like Stef (Teri Polo) and Lena (Sherri Saum) on Freeform’s The Fosters, who are respectively Caucasian and Black. Shows like Empire, Fresh Off the Boat, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Sense8, and Nickelodeon’s forthcoming The Loud Family, the first cartoon to feature a gay couple at the center, all feature positive portrayals of interracial relationships. But while Annalise Keating on ABC’s continually boundary-pushing How to Get Away with Murder, which famously featured gay analingus, struck up a romance with an ex-flame played by Famke Janssen, her same-sex romantic partners don’t look like Kerry Washington.
In many ways, the surfeit of interracial queer romance on TV is reflective of the reality: LGBT people are more likely to date someone of a different race than heterosexual or cisgender people. While 15.6 percent of all couples are interracial, UCLA’s Williams Institute found in 2010 that 20.6 percent of partnered LGBT people are in a different-race relationship. This is especially true in states like California and Hawaii, the latter of which leads the nation in gay interracial couples. Fifty percent of LGBT Hawaiians in a relationship are dating someone outside of their own race.
Those relationships should be celebrated through affirming portrayals that recognize their beauty of these pairings, as well the struggles they face, just like every other couple. On Six Feet Under, closeted David (Michael C. Hall) had difficulty being honest with his family about his identity as a gay man, including his relationship with his partner, Keith (Mathew St. Patrick). In this season of Orange Is the New Black, Poussey (Samira Wiley) is concerned that her new girlfriend (Kimiko Glenn) has pegged her as a tragic character who grew up on the streets and lived a life of immense hardship (a la “Precious”). In truth, Poussey grew up a privileged army brat.
But as Ashleigh Shackelford points out in an essay for We Are Your Voice, there are so many other kinds of queer love stories waiting to be told. Orange Is the New Black has given LGBT audiences same-sex relationships between a variety of characters—including Alex and Piper, Piper and Stella, Nicky and Morello, Suzanne and Maureen, and even an ecstasy-fueled threesome featuring Yoga Jones and Judy King, but has yet to show two of its Black or Latina inmates in love. “There is no room for loving ourselves or our people,” writes Shackelford. This continued erasure may unintentionally compound the stigma that many people of color already feel when dating someone of their own race.
Orange Is the New Black has given LGBT audiences same-sex relationships between a variety of characters…but has yet to show two of its Black or Latina inmates in love.
As The Guardian’s Zach Stafford and Refinery29’s Aaron Barksdale write, it can be a “struggle” for gay Black men to date other gay Black men. “Though the gay community pays lip service to being accepting of everyone,” Stafford writes, “we’ve internalized the feeling that we are not equally beautiful or deserving of the same rights as others in our community. This isn’t about me just not finding black skin attractive…It’s because society at large has decided this.”
Television and film can have powerful normalizing effects when it comes to queer relationships. Just as shows like Transparent and Glee helped pave the way for LGBT acceptance in American society, seeing Black, Latino, or Asian couples in a committed relationship can help show queer people of color that their love is powerful and worthy of being represented. That’s why John Cho actually pushed for Sulu to have an Asian boyfriend. “I thought the cultural stigma was the thickest on the Asian boys I knew,” the actor told the Associated Press. “It would be appropriate that in the future it would look very much like what we tend to see in heterosexual families.”
Seeing Black, Latino, or Asian couples in a committed relationship can help show queer people of color that their love is powerful and worthy of being represented.
In opening the door a little wider for queer people, Star Trek: Beyond is a reminder that every kind of love is beautiful.