Star Trek is a franchise for which diversity is not just a bonus, it's the core foundation of why the show was created. Gene Roddenberry stated unequivocally that the peak of humanity's achievement will be when we "not only tolerate, but take special delight in differences of life", and that if we didn't then we didn't deserve our place among the stars. It's ironic then, that it's taken until 2016 for us to get a main character in Star Trek who is gay.
Roddenberry took as many strides as he could for representation, deliberately giving The Original Series a racially and culturally diverse cast. This had a huge impact on pop culture, and is one of the reasons why Trek is so beloved.
But when it came to queer representation, that was a much thornier issue. The Trek writers have struggled with censors for years, while managing to sneak a few LGBT characters into episodes. Now, it's not a case of changing a character's gender in the final draft (as in Rejoined — we'll get to that later), or dealing with LGBT issues on a thematic basis. Star Trek: Beyond sees Hikaru Sulu finally confirmed to be gay, which is a triumph not only for the franchise but for pop culture in general.
Before we get into Trek's long history of LGBT themes, not to mention the other queer characters — Sulu is by no means the first LGBT character in Star Trek — let's just talk a bit about why this revelation is such a cause for celebration.
Obviously there's the representation issue: Having a leading character in a blockbuster be confirmed as gay is a huge stride not only for Trek but for mainstream cinema in general. After all, even within the realm of big scifi franchises, there are currently no queer characters in any of them (with the exception of Deadpool, and whether he counts as representation is debatable).
But what's most important is that this isn't just a new character who people don't already know. This is Sulu, the much loved character from The Original Series, who rose through the ranks to become Admiral, and who has been a symbol of hope for many fans over the decades.
Sulu is prolific, a talented Starfleet officer who's a certified badass with a blade, with a special interest in horticulture. Now, he's gay too, with a husband and daughter. And because of the prequel-y nature of Beyond, in one fell swoop this film hasn't just added a new queer character, its established that one of Trek's first characters was always gay. Which is fantastic, considering the complicated history Trek has with LGBT representation.
Sneaking Past The Censors
As much as we want to praise the creative team of Beyond, there's a slight misconception floating around — a lot of publications are claiming Sulu is the first LGBT character in Trek. He isn't, but he is the first one who has been openly described as gay. Arguably, Trek already had a main bisexual character: Jadzia Dax of Deep Space Nine, who openly expressed her attraction to both women and men.
As fantastic as these LGBT characters from Trek's past are, there's no denying that most of them were one-episode-wonders. The rest was left mostly up to subtext, as in the case of Garak, and even Jadzia's sexuality was mostly expressed in innuendo. This is thanks to censorship, which Trek has struggled with for decades.
Back in the early 90s, Gene Roddenberry promised that the upcoming fifth season of The Next Generation would include a gay character. Unfortunately, this never came to pass, with the episode in question — Blood And Fire — never making it to air. This was thanks to pressure from the studio, so including LGBT themes in Trek became a question of sneaking those characters past the censors. An excellent example is the episode The Outcast, which actually features a transgender character — Soren.
This episode was well ahead of its time, as the subject of trans people was only just being accepted in mainstream society. Soren, who was born into a gender neutral society, identifies as female and develops romantic feelings for William Riker. Ultimately Soren is sentenced to "psychotectic therapy", which is essentially an extreme form of brainwashing to correct the apparent mistake in Soren's gender identification.
Jonathon Frakes, who played Riker, fiercely advocated that Soren be played by a male actor and identify as male, making this story not only about the prejudice against trans people but also against homosexuals. Unfortunately, his suggestions were not heeded.
Of all the Trek shows, Deep Space Nine was the one to really pushed the envelope in regards to LGBT representation. The best example is Jadzia Dax — as a Trill, Dax's gender shifts depending on their host, and they've had multiple spouses over the decades. In the episode Rejoined, Dax's ex-wife Khan returns; she and Jadzia find themselves falling in love all over again.
This is the episode which featured Trek's first gay kiss, but it almost didn't — the first drafts of the script featured Khan as a man, and this was only changed after the script was accepted by the studio. Sneaky.
There are two other bisexual characters in Deep Space Nine, along with one lesbian, but they're all confined to the Mirrorverse — Intendant Kira Nerys (bi), Leeta (bi), and Ezri Tigan (gay). There is one other pansexual character of note, Garak, but this was never explicitly explored within the show.
This wasn't without lack of trying though. When interviewed by Amazon, Garak's actor Andrew Robinson confirmed that he always played Garak's sexuality as universally "inclusive", flirting obviously with the station's doctor Julian Bashir. This is something Robinson explored in the canon book A Stitch In Time.
There are a few other examples of when Trek has defied gender and sexuality norms — one of my personal favorites is the character Vilix'pran, a male alien who becomes pregnant (again, this was on Deep Space Nine). But suffice to say that while Sulu is the first main character to be obliquely described as gay, Trek has a long history of LGBT representation.
With any luck, the 2017 show produced by Bryan Fuller will give us a new LGBT character, and a plot which explores LGBT themes in depth; this is something Fuller has already hinted at wanting to achieve in the new series. For now though, we can bask in the joy of Sulu finally being confirmed as gay, as this iconic character becomes a symbol of hope once again.