With the upcoming release of Star Trek Beyond, John Cho revealed in the Herald Sun that the movie would boldly go where it has not gone before; by introducing the character he plays, Hikaru Sulu, as gay. The idea comes from Simon Pegg, the movie's writer and the actor who plays the Enterprise engineer, Montgomery Scott. Both he and director, Justin Lin, wanted to pay homage to George Takei (the actor who played Sulu in the Prime Universe) as both a sci-fi icon and beloved LGBT activist. This "coming out" marks the franchise first main LGBTQ character and fans were elated by the news.
Unfortunately, Takei was not happy when he first learned of the plans for Sulu's sexuality from Cho. Instead, Takei would have preferred the franchise introduce a new gay character rather than change the sexuality of an already established straight character. Sulu said that he rather they were:
Be imaginative and create a character who has a history of being gay, rather than Sulu, who had been straight all this time, suddenly being revealed as being closeted.
Takei, having had the negative experiences of living inside the closet believes that a character who comes of age in the 23rd century, would never find his way inside one. And he is correct. Something like that would never happen in the Star Trek universe. It is for this reason that Takei believes Sulu should have stayed straight. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Takei says:
I’m delighted that there’s a gay character. Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of Gene’s creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate.
I love and respect Takei. He is an icon in the sci-fi community and, as an activist, he has brought attention to many issues concerning politics, race, and the LGBT community. But I disagree with him and, I am not the only one. Simon Pegg also disagrees. Writing to the Guardian, Pegg says:
I have huge love and respect for George Takei, his heart, courage and humor are an inspiration. However, with regards to his thoughts on our Sulu, I must respectfully disagree with him.
Gene Roddenberry's vision for humanity's future has always been a positive one. He believed in the best of humanity and our ability to do good. Despite this optimism, Roddenberry's vision for Star Trek could never be fully realized; the networks would never have allowed a gay character on screen. Pegg argues in this Guardian interview that Gene Roddenberry’s decision to make the prime timeline’s Enterprise crew straight was not an artistic one but a necessity of the time.
I don’t believe Gene Roddenberry’s decision to make the prime timeline’s Enterprise crew straight was an artistic one, more a necessity of the time. Trek rightly gets a lot of love for featuring the first interracial kiss on US television, but Plato’s Stepchildren was the lowest rated episode ever.
The Quantum Physics of the Kelvin Timeline
To understand how a straight and a gay Sulu can exist in the Prime Universe and the Kelvin Timeline respectively, we turn to the Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. First proposed by Hugh Everett III in 1957, this interpretation of quantum mechanics says that there are many parallel worlds that exist in the same space and time as our own.
Every time a physicist performs a quantum experiment, all possible outcomes happen, each in a different world, even if we are only aware of the world with the outcome we have seen. In fact, quantum experiments take place everywhere and very often, they do not have to occur in physics laboratories. The everyday decisions you make to the irregular blinking of an old fluorescent bulb is a quantum experiment.
You may have had several choices for lunch today with you coworkers but eventually, everyone settles on one place. In the Many-Worlds Interpretation, all those choices happen but in different universes; at the point a decision is made, the Universe branches out
We see an example of this in the 2011 movie Source Code where deceased Army pilot, Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), is repeatedly sent back to the same moment in time to learn the identity of a terrorist bomber. Capt. Stevens is told that what he is experiencing is not real but merely a simulation; he can take part but not change anything in the past. Stevens eventually learns this is not quite true.
Every time Stevens travels back in time, he notices there are subtle differences in the timeline. While the circumstances are the same, we see his travel companion, Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), change seating positions in some of the jumps; sometimes she is sitting, sometimes she is lounging back in her seat.
A similar thing happens somewhere in the past. At some point, the timeline split from the Prime Universe and created the Kelvin Timeline, making the Kelvin Timeline is subtly different from the Prime Universe. Spock (Zachary Quinto) realizes how profound this implication is when he says:
Whatever our lives might have been, if the time continuum was disrupted, our destinies have changed.
Multiple Worlds mean Multiple Versions of You (and Sulu)
The question on whether the Narada's arrival in the Kelvin Timeline, or something else, is what causes the divergence is answered (somewhat) in the IDW comic book. In issue #55, as Spock-Prime walks through the halls of Starfleet Academy, notices that the alternate timeline, while similar in many ways to the timeline he came from, is subtly different . It appears the Kelvin Timeline diverged from the Prime Universe some time ago and this accounts for the subtle differences Spock observes.
The Many-Worlds Interpretation has some deep philosophical implications. It implies that, in different realities, there are unique versions of you each living different lives. In one universe you might be a famous rock star because you were introduced to music at an early age. In another you could be a famous scientist whose mind rivals that of Stephen Hawking. (Hey, it's possible!)
In his Science vs. Hollywood article, science writer Phil Nista, examines how the Orphan Black clones can each fall on different parts of the sexuality spectrum; despite sharing the same genome, we have met lesbian and transgender clones. We are not sure how this occurs but, as in real life, this is likely due to numerous factors. Conditions in the womb, hormone levels, could have triggered developmental or epigenetic cascades that influence gender and sexual orientation.
According to the StarTrek.com database, Sulu was born in 2237 in the Prime Universe, a few years after the arrival of the Narada in 2233. Assuming that both Sulus were born at the same time in both universes, disparities in both timelines could lead to subtle differences at conception. It means that the Kelvin Timeline Sulu is not a closeted character simply because he has a straight counterpart in another universe.
Kelvin Sulu's Canon and the Prime Timeline
In one of the Star Trek Beyond trailers, we see someone who could be Sulu's husband, played by co-writer Doug Jung, and a version of little Demora. While we do not know how much of a role Sulu's family will play, the film-makers have certainly made the effort to make these family members visible in one of the trailers.
Little is known of Demora in the Prime Universe other than her mother, Susan Ling, died of Sakuro's disease. Demora was brought to Earth when she was six years old where she met her father for the first time.
It appears that Demora's family life is a lot more stable in this timeline but, could she still be Hikaru's biological daughter? Yes, she could. In fact, she might be both Hikaru's and his spouse's biological child. A recent paper, published in the journal Cell, outlines the procedures needed to transform human skin cells and fibroblasts (a different kind of adult cell) into embryonic stem cells. This can then be programmed to form primordial germ cells, the stem cells that can go on to form either eggs or sperm.
This means that a primordial germ cell, originating from the skin of a male, can be turned into an egg, which could then be fertilized with his partner’s sperm. The same applies to a lesbian couple where one woman's skin cells are turned into sperm to fertilize her partner's egg. Assuming the kinks are ironed out, this technology could be available and widely used in the future. This means that little Demora in the Kelvin Timeline could be Sulu's biological daughter.
The Case for a gay Hikaru Sulu
Gene Roddenberry imagined a world where humanity had overcome many, if not all, its foibles. He imagined a world where prejudice and racism did not exist. Unfortunately, what he envisioned, could not fully be realized on screen. While he may have wanted a gay character on screen, the political climate of the time would not have supported it. That climate is different today. The Sulu of the Kelvin Timeline can be a gay man with a spouse where both are the biological parents of a little girl.
There has been a dearth of LGBTQ characters in the Star Trek universe and introducing one could help make representation more balanced. We could solve this problem by introducing a new, main character but that character will first be defined by his/her sexuality, and that should not be. Sulu is already a character we know (and love). We acknowledge his sexuality in the Kelvin Timeline as a part of who he is and not something that defines him.
Making Sulu straight was done for political reasons. It does not imply that Sulu was closeted in the Prime Universe. The divergences between timelines happen long before the Narada appeared. This is important for a couple of reasons. One, it shows that sexuality is not a choice, and second, it shows that the two Sulus are different characters. Takei's Sulu remains unchanged and both Pegg and Cho can explore a Sulu in the way Gene Roddenberry originally envisioned.