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The Surprising Controversy Behind The New Gay "Star Trek" Character

Out actor George Takei, who originally played Lt. Sulu, called the creative decision to make the character gay in Star Trek Beyond "really unfortunate," prompting strong responses from Beyond screenwriter and actor Simon Pegg and out actor Zachary Quinto.

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For the first time in the franchise's 50-year history, Star Trek is featuring a major openly LGBT character: John Cho's character Lt. Hikaru Sulu has a husband and young daughter in Star Trek Beyond, BuzzFeed News has confirmed.

"I liked the approach, which was not to make a big thing out it," Cho told Australia's Herald Sun while in Sydney for Beyond's world premiere on July 7.

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"[It] is where I hope we are going as a species, to not politicize one's personal orientations," he added.

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The original actor who played Sulu, George Takei, famously came out in 2005. But in an interview on Thursday with The Hollywood Reporter, Takei said he thought the decision to make Sulu gay was "really unfortunate."

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The actor — who has been with his husband Brad Takei (né Altman) for 29 years — explained that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who Takei said "was a strong supporter of LGBT equality," had conceived of Sulu as a heterosexual character. And despite the fact that Sulu never had a female romantic or sexual partner throughout the original TV series and Star Trek movies, Takei felt Star Trek Beyond director Justin Lin and screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung should honor Roddenberry's choice, especially given the franchise's 50th anniversary.

Takei told THR that he actively lobbied Cho and Lin to not make Sulu gay after they had both privately informed him of the decision last year while Star Trek Beyond was in production.

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Takei said he was left to believe that his wishes were heeded, especially after receiving a supportive email from Pegg. But he said an email from Cho last week made clear the filmmakers had moved forward with their plans.

"I’m delighted that there’s a gay character," Takei told THR. "Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of Gene’s creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate."

In a statement released on Friday, Pegg said he "respectfully disagreed" with Takei's concerns.

Paramount Pictures

"I have huge love and respect for George Takei, his heart, courage and humour are an inspiration," said Pegg in the statement (which you can read in full at the bottom of this post). "However, with regards to his thoughts on our Sulu, I must respectfully disagree with him."

“He’s right, it is unfortunate, it’s unfortunate that the screen version of the most inclusive, tolerant universe in science fiction hasn’t featured an LGBT character until now," Pegg continued. "We could have introduced a new gay character, but he or she 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?"

According to Pegg, the filmmaking team wanted their LGBT character to be someone the audience already knew "as a human being," so that his sexuality would not be the character's "defining characteristic."

Pegg added that he believed Roddenberry would have "explored Sulu's sexuality with George" during the run of the original series from 1966 to 1969, had the culture at the time been "open minded enough" to accept it.

But Pegg also noted that, regardless of Roddenberry's intentions, Star Trek Beyond is part of an alternative timeline started by 2009's Star Trek directed by J.J. Abrams — pointing to the sci-fi conceit that the Sulu played by Takei could still be heterosexual. "Whatever magic ingredient determines our sexuality was different for Sulu in our timeline," said Pegg. "I like this idea because it suggests that in a hypothetical multiverse, across an infinite matrix of alternate realities, we are all LGBT somewhere."

And out actor Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock in the Star Trek reboot movies, told Australian outlet Pedestrian.tv that he was "disappointed by the fact that George was disappointed."

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"I think any member of the LGBT community that takes issue with the normalized and positive portrayal of members of our community in Hollywood and in mainstream blockbuster cinema... I get it that he's had his own personal journey and has his own personal relationship with this character, but, you know, as we established in the first Star Trek film in 2009, we've created an alternate universe," Quinto said, echoing Pegg's statement. "My hope is that eventually George can be strengthened by the enormously positive response from especially young people who are heartened by and inspired by this really tasteful and beautiful portrayal of something that I think is gaining acceptance and inclusion in our societies across the world, and should be."

Paramount had no comment. Representatives for Cho and Lin did not respond to a request from BuzzFeed News for a further comment.

Here is Pegg's full statement:

I have huge love and respect for George Takei, his heart, courage and humour are an inspiration. However, with regards to his thoughts on our Sulu, I must respectfully disagree with him. He's right, it is unfortunate, it's unfortunate that the screen version of the most inclusive, tolerant universe in science fiction hasn't featured an LGBT character until now. We could have introduced a new gay character but he or she 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?

Justin Lin, Doug Jung, and I loved the idea of it being someone we already knew because the audience have a pre-existing opinion of that character as a human being, unaffected by any prejudice. Their sexual orientation is just one of many personal aspects, not the defining characteristic. Also, the audience would infer that there has been an LGBT presence in the Trek Universe from the beginning (at least in the Kelvin timeline), that a gay hero isn't something new or strange. It's also important to note that at no point do we suggest that our Sulu was ever closeted, why would he need to be? It's just hasn't come up before. 

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 viewing audience weren't open minded enough at the time and it must have forced Roddenberry to modulate his innovation. His mantra was always 'infinite diversity in infinite combinations'. If he could have explored Sulu's sexuality with George, he no doubt would have. Roddenberry was a visionary and a pioneer but we choose our battles carefully. 

Our Trek is an alternate timeline with alternate details. Whatever magic ingredient determines our sexuality was different for Sulu in our timeline. I like this idea because it suggests that in a hypothetical multiverse, across an infinite matrix of alternate realities, we are all LGBT somewhere. Whatever dimension we inhabit, we all just want to be loved by those we love*. I can't speak for every reality but that must surely true of this one. Live long and prosper. 

Simon Pegg, July 2016

*and I ❤️ George Takei

UPDATE

This post has been updated with George Takei's interview with The Hollywood Reporter, and Simon Pegg's and Zachary Quinto's responses to that interview.

Adam B. Vary is a senior film reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.

Contact Adam B. Vary at adam.vary@buzzfeed.com.

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