It only took 50 years.
The first openly gay Star Trek characters appeared in 1991, during the fifth season of The Next Generation. At least, that’s what series creator Gene Roddenberry wanted. “Viewers will see more of shipboard life in some episodes, which will, among other things, include gay crew members in day-to-day circumstances,” Roddenberry said at the time, in a statement later recounted by his personal secretary. Tragic circumstances made that promise an empty one: Roddenberry was dead a few months later (and anyhow, his role on Next Generation was by then largely ceremonial).
The ensuing decade saw an explosion of Trek-related media, including the TV shows Deep Space Nine and Voyager, both hailed for featuring non-white-dude commanders. A 1995 episode of Deep Space Nine featured a same-sex kiss between two female characters – with the qualification that both “women” were from a symbiote-based body-skipping species that transcended ready gender definitions. (Remember: The first-ever interracial kiss on television happened because the Enterprise met some telekinetic alien Greek Gods.) Rumors hold that the 1996 feature film First Contact was supposed to feature a gay character named Lieutenant Hawk – but the film features no reference to Hawk’s sexuality, and in any case he gets redshirt-killed by the Borg.
In a 2011 interview with AfterElton, current Trek steersman J.J. Abrams said, “I’m frankly shocked that in the history of Star Trek there have never been gay characters in all the series.” By the time Abrams began production on his second Star Trek film, Trek cast member George Takei was happily married to his husband, and reboot star Zachary Quinto was speaking publicly about his sexual orientation.
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And Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek films put a greater focus on characters’ personal lives. Trek ’09 dove deep into Kirk’s and Spock’s parental issues, and teased a Kirk-Uhura flirtation before revealing a Spock-Uhura romance. A certain slice of the fanbase might have complained – really, The Search for Spock and The Final Frontier only really make sense if Kirk and Spock are in love – but the personal focus seemed to promise a new frontier for Star Trek‘s portrayal of sexuality. And in fairness, Into Darkness did break new ground, insofar as “Kirk having a threesome with hairless cat-women with tails” is definitely not something that happened on television in 1969.
All this is to say: It’s been a long walk, but this year, there will be an openly gay crew member on the Enterprise bridge. According to Australia’s Herald Sun, this month’s Star Trek Beyond will casually reveal that John Cho’s Sulu is in a same-sex relationship – and that Sulu and his partner have a daughter. (Sulu’s daughter actually appeared in Generations, as the helmsman onboard the Enterprise commanded by Cameron Frye.) “I liked the approach, which was not to make a big thing out it,” Cho says, “Which is where I hope we are going as a species, to not politicize one’s personal orientations.”
In the same interview, Cho explains that the decision to reveal Sulu’s sexual orientation was an homage to Takei. Sulu actually never had any real love interest in the original series – and there’s no specific mention of a mother in Generations – so feel free to interpret this as retroactive canon. Although it’s encouraging to see that the Trek producers are apparently treating Sulu’s orientation as a no-big-deal fact of life, this is a big deal for a franchise built on utopian egalitarianism. And this is just the beginning: 2017 brings a new Star Trek series to CBS All-Access, and showrunner Bryan Fuller told Collider that the casting process has been colorblind and gender-blind. So, all in all, this is a nice way to kick off Trek‘s second 50 years.
And now, to celebrate this historic occasion and prove that some things never go out of style, here is Takei as Sulu rocking a leather jacket-cape like a boss.