There are of course, two major angles to look at this change through. There’s rationalizing who Hikaru Sulu is as a character in the Star Trek universe. And there’s rationalizing this choice, who this character is and what it means for our society, in the real world.
As a lifelong Star Trek fan who takes particular joy in aligning continuities in my head, this has left me with quite a conundrum as well. And the conundrum has less to do with the outrage or praise of this choice by the writers, and more about what it means for the character. Star Trek has always been simultaneously about ideas and people, and there’s an aspect of Sulu’s identity that hasn’t been addressed in any of the media surrounding this change. Let me introduce you to Demora.
In the first few opening scenes of Star Trek: Generations, we are introduced the Enterprise-B, fresh out of spacedock and enjoying a bit of fanfare and celebration for its launch. Now all but retired from Starfleet, James T. Kirk, Pavel Chekov and Montgomery Scott are the guests of honor at the new starship’s ‘shakedown cruise’. On the bridge, Chekhov takes his former captain aside to introduce him to the helmsman of the Enterprise-B, Ensign Demora Sulu, daughter of Hikaru Sulu. Now for the purposes of this film, she mainly exists as a narrative device, prompting Captain Kirk to ponder the missed opportunities of his life. This would ultimately play strongly through the film not only for Kirk, but for his future counterpart, Captain Picard as well. The entire film wrestles with duty, obligation, family and the sacrifice a Starfleet Captain makes to help others.
Now let’s take a trip into the alternate universe. Known as the Kelvin Timeline, the universe depicted in Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness and the upcoming Star Trek Beyond deliberately made a break from the original timeline while still keeping the essential history leading up to the destruction of the USS Kelvin intact. This meant that the things fans knew about the history of Starfleet before Kirk’s father’s death were the same. This allowed the differences wrought by this altered timeline to be more keenly felt, as you witness the point from which it diverges. But more importantly, the 2009 film reassured us that, whatever may have changed in their lives, the crew of the USS Enterprise as we knew them, were still the same people. Events had changed, but the essential identity of these characters that we loved hadn’t. This allowed us to see the same people, in new scenarios, different backdrops, experiencing new or familiar things for the first time.
Which leads us to examining Hikaru Sulu. He clearly follows a similar (if not identical) career path, ending up as the helmsman for the USS Enterprise at roughly the same time frame as he would have in the original timeline. His skills, his intelligence and his tenacity remain intact and apart from now using a sci-fi Katana instead of his fencing foil, he is the same man we knew from the three seasons of Original Trek and the Original Series films.
Again, that was very much the point of the 2009 film. That these people, at their core, do not change. Their nobility, their identity, their compassion will always be what we knew and loved before. And this means that for many fans; he is a heterosexual individual. And not because ‘Oh my God, Sulu can’t be gay!’ but because as far as history is concerned, he was born as a heterosexual individual, had a daughter and became a single parent. And if all of the people on the bridge of that ship are at their cores the same people we knew from the original timeline, then Hikaru Sulu is still a heterosexual man.
And now we’ve come back to the beginning. As of Star Trek Beyond, Sulu is a homosexual man in a homosexual relationship. And there are excellent reasons one way or another for wanting him to be homosexual or heterosexual. As Simon Pegg put it, it establishes an LGBT character whom the audience already has a relationship with and a history of viewing them as a person, performing their duties, regardless of their sexual orientation. And that’s a beautiful thing!
But on the other hand, as George Takei (who starred as Sulu in the Original Series and all six films) stated, Sulu was not created to be a LGBT character. And the stories that have been told about this character, the performances created around him, don’t depict him as such. Any actor portraying a character, especially for as long as Mr. Takei has, often becomes the keeper of that character. They’ve lived in their skin, they have made deliberate choices about mannerisms, backstory and action not determined by a director. And when George Takei says that he portrayed Sulu as a heterosexual male, that should mean something to us. Not just because we have entrusted this actor to embody this character, but also because George Takei is a homosexual man who did what all great actors do: remove their own identity and for a time, wear the identity of someone else.