Step Aside Spirk, It’s Hikaru Sulu’s Time to Shine
Hikaru Sulu is officially gay, a reveal we’ll see incorporated in the upcoming Star Trek: Beyond film. Given the overall lack of Asian representation in film (both movies and television) and the lack of queer characters of color on the big and small screen this is a huge step forward in regards to queer representation. Especially since science fiction is often bone dry genre when it comes to diversity. Yet, dispute this step forward for queer fans of color there’s already fans who are derailing the conversation in order to advocate for Kirk and Spock (both separate and apart) being queer over Sulu. There’s a key difference here, in that, fans are attempting to marginalize Sulu to build up Kirk/Spock (or “Spirk”) as the “better” form of queer representation. All while ignoring the racial aspects of the conversation and how white cis male characters already dominate the conversation of queer media. By pushing out a prominent man of color who is now canonically queer in order to prop up a popular white male/male fanon ship contributes to the continued diminishing of characters of color and queer characters of color.
The overwhelming whiteness of slash shipping culture has been discussed in detail before by fans of color. Spirk, despite being the original slash ship for many, is no different. If the source material has marginalized characters of color, that’s a criticism on the media itself and should be acknowledged not used as an excuse to further marginalize them by ignoring their importance or status in canon.
Which is exactly what some Reboot (or Alternate Original Series) Star Trek fans (both Spirk shippers and non-Spirk specific shippers) have begun to argue about Sulu. That him being gay in the upcoming film isn’t progressive enough because he’s a minor character, where as Kirk being bisexual or pansexual, and in a relationship with Spock in particular, would be. Derailing the conversation about the importance of having a canonically queer Asian character in a major science fiction franchise, to a conversation about white men. This argument also ignores the reasons why Sulu isn’t the lead character in the same way Kirk or Spock is – which is classic Hollywood racism that prioritizes white characters stories over characters of color.
Personally I disagree that Sulu is a minor character; he’s been apart of the fabric of Star Trek for decades and is a cultural icon in his own right as a character. As a character, Sulu is hugely important to the history of positive representation of Asian characters in film. To erase that erases one of the handful of positive representations Asian fans and other fans of color have (a similar aspect seen in how poorly AoS fans and Spirk shippers have treated Uhura since the beginning of the reboot).
This is a continuing fandom pattern that stretches back years.
Sterek (Stiles and Derek from MTV’s Teen Wolf) shippers also used this argument when promoting their ship and erasing the existence of canon gay character Danny (played by Native Hawaiian actor Keahu Kahuanui). Fans argued because Stiles and Derek were part of the main cast unlike Danny, they would be better representation for queer people. Yet, why not instead just push for Danny to be apart of the main cast? Why the heavy focus on the white male characters? When white cis male characters already dominate the conversation and media in regards of queer representation?
Even though Tyler Posey (who is Mexican) often advocated for Scott McCall – the actual protagonist of the show – to be bisexual, that wasn’t something a majority of fans who positioned themselves as LGBTIA activists latched onto. And rather, Posey was on the receiving end of erasure from his own show, and extreme racist harassment by Sterek shippers for years. All in the apparent name of queer representation and progression.
Similarly, with Spirk and AoS, instead of seeing fans celebrating this one great step forward we see this:
Now, it is not that Kirk can’t or shouldn’t be bisexual or pansexual in the current Star Trek films. He can be, and that would still offer positive representation in the franchise. What is being stated, is that the overall conversation surrounding queer representation in media is heavily skewed towards white cis men or white cis women (reactions towards Lexa from The 100 vs Poussey from Orange is the New Black’s deaths for example). If you want to discuss Kirk being bi or pansexual in Star Trek, that’s all well and good, but you don’t have to downplay Sulu’s canonical importance nor his importance to fans of color (especially queer Asian fans) to build up why Kirk or Spock should have been chosen instead. Queer people of color deserve representation too, and characters that aren’t in line to die or be sidelined.
What some Star Trek fans are showcasing is a prioritization of two white male characters, over a male character of color as well as the erasure of a black female character. All by making the conversation that should be focused on Sulu’s importance as a gay character and the elation fans now feel, to derail the conversation to, “but what about Kirk? It would have been better cause he’s the lead”.
This, again, erases race from the conversation completely. It is important that Sulu, an Asian man, is gay in a mainstream science fiction franchise. And it is progressive given the racist history of how Asian characters and actors have been treated in Hollywood. To suggest that Sulu’s now-canon status isn’t as progressive as Kirk or Spock or Spirk being canonically queer ignores the racial aspect of the conversation completely.
A majority of the conversation is always centered around Kirk and Spock (and thus typically Spirk). We don’t often see posts discussing how Uhura could be queer, perhaps bisexual and was previously dating Chapel which is how Chapel heard about Kirk’s womanizing and disrespectful history. Then they had a mutual break up and Uhura began dating Spock. Maybe Scotty’s asexual, and so is Carol and they discuss acephobia together. Maybe Kirk’s aromantic and joins them. Maybe Sulu and Uhura talk about their husbands (or in Uhura’s case almost husband at this point in canon) together over gardening. Maybe they discuss what it’s like to be queer and people of color together. If these sort of fandom discussions occur, they’re typically driven by fans of color.
In all my personal time in fandom, I’ve seen more people advocating for just Kirk and Spock to be together and queer while erasing Uhura from the equation completely even though she’s been in a long-term relationship with Spock for two whole movies. Thus completely disregarding her importance as a black woman who’s playing a prominent character in a major science fiction franchise and in a prominent romance with one of the leading male characters.
It is progressive that Sulu is gay and we should be discussing how he should continue being an important member of the crew and an important part of the plot of the films. We can also discuss how other characters within Star Trek could and should be queer without putting down queer characters of color in the process or marginalizing their presence in a franchise.
Stop erasing race from conversations about queer representation in media. Stop further marginalizing queer characters of color more than the source material already does. Stop leaving out characters of color from shipping culture, and fandom culture and queer headcanons. Start pushing for the source material to include characters of color more within the narratives of their respective media. Start advocating that we see more prominent queer characters of color. Start celebrating the ones we now have and the ones we could have. Start being a real ally to queer fans of color.