Boldly Going: How 'Star Trek' And A Gay Sulu Gave Me The Courage To Come Out

I carried two secrets with me as a I grew up.

Secret number one: I was a Star Trek fan, a kid raised by an old-school fan of the original series who made sure to plant me in front of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which arrived at the perfect time to sink its hooks into me. Half of my life was spent devouring the adventures of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (and eventually Captain James T. Kirk and Captain Benjamin Sisko) while the other half was spent pretending to know nothing about Star Trek in public because that was a social death sentence. To admit that you liked Star Trek in the days before "geek culture" went mainstream was an easy way to be branded and ridiculed and thrown under the bus by desperate kids looking for any way to gain leverage in a hierarchy where appearances were everything.

Secret number two: I was attracted to both men and women, another social (and possibly literal) death sentence and a great way to have a target painted on your back in a world where gay marriage was still a pipe dream and "f*****" was the insult of choice.

For too long, my two secret shames weighed on me, dragging me down, triggering anxiety and depression. Years ago, I was finally able to get over myself and talk about my Star Trek fandom in public. In retrospect, it was easy and my reluctance silly. But my bisexuality remained a truth known only to handful of people, an aspect of myself that I was never ready to talk about. That changed last week, and all it took was a little help from my good ol' friend Star Trek.

These Are the Voyages...

In retrospect, it was inevitable that I would embrace Star Trek: The Next Generation. My parents divorced when I was very young and with the exception of a few visits over the years, I was raised entirely by my mother, an Air Force OBGYN nurse practitioner who went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that her three children didn't want for anything. She was never a pop culture buff, but I can blame/thank her for just about everything that has followed in my life – she's the one who showed me Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, and even fast-forwarded to certain scenes in Predator so I could see the title monster without witnessing all of the gory parts.

But above all else, she was a Star Trek fan and I vividly remember her lending me a boxset of the first six movies and then asking my opinion of them when I had devoured them all in just a few days.

"Who's your favorite character?" she asked.

"Captain Kirk, of course," I replied, because every little boy loves Captain Kirk the best.

She smiled: "All of the adults like Spock the best."

She was right. Now that I'm an adult (when did that happen?), I do like Spock the best and not just because the late, great Leonard Nimoy was a fine actor committing to a character who could have been played as a joke, but because I relate to the guy. At times throughout my life, I even envied him. When I battled suicidal depression, I yearned for his ability to stifle emotions and live a life built on logic. When I watched him struggle between his Vulcan and human halves and how he had one foot in two worlds and was forced to make his contradictory existence work, I was reminded of my own dark truths. I was bisexual and was aware of this from a young age. When I wasn't confused, I was angry. Surely something was wrong with me. I shouldn't be having these feelings. I should be like other people. Why was I cursed with this? What did I do to deserve desires that I never asked for, that would put me at odds with so much of the world should they ever come to light?

Spock, detached but curious, a professional who was incapable of being worn down by the prejudices of others, was a hero. An impossible dream. The ideal.

captain picard

O Captain! My Captain!

Mr. Spock wasn't the only Star Trek character to leave a lasting and permanent impression on me. Growing up with a mostly absent dad forced me to seek out father figures, an occasionally dangerous habit that I only managed to kill off completely in college. Still, I remember my first father figure: Captain Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation, a man who was everything my real father was not. He was cool-headed and diplomatic. He was adventurous and intelligent. He was thoughtful and loyal and while he did struggle with a temper, he actually managed to keep it under control without harming those around him. As silly as this may sound, Picard was a stabilizing factor for me when I was young, a male figure who would never walk out on those who depended on him and a man who commanded with compassion and careful thought.

I remember one of my father's final visits to his children. I was 15 years old. During a lunch outing, my father explained to us how homosexuality was a sin and gay marriage an affront to God. When we got home, I carefully positioned my copy of David Bowie's Aladdin Sane on my desk where I was sure he would be able to see it. He did. Years later, I wrote about how David Bowie saved my life. I can now say that Star Trek did, too.

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There's No Place Like Home

Star Trek's detractors are often correct: this is a series where everyone tends to get along, where the world is borderline utopian, and personal and professional conflicts are quickly and quietly resolved before the credits roll. The lack of dramatic tension in certain episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager is occasionally hilarious – does anyone get stressed out by the fact that they're courting certain death day in and day out? Yet, within these crews, I saw an ideal. Men and women, people from all background and ethnicities, working together for a greater cause.

Much has been written about Star Trek's progressive perspective and its portrayal of a multicultural crew, but what makes this so powerful is how infrequently it is commented upon. Star Trek oh-so-rarely pats itself on the back for its diverse cast of characters – it just depicts a world where people have gone above and beyond giving a shit where other people come from or what color their skin is or even, in my wildest fantasies, who they loved. Although it took Star Trek 50 years to introduce an LGBTQ character (and that's only if we ignore the episode where Commander Riker falls in love with that gender-neutral alien), you could always imagine that various characters on the bridge and in the background where gay, lesbian or bisexual. After all, this is the future. This is Star Trek. No one would even bat an eye if you were gay.

You're a man who loves a man, Ensign? Why do I care? Go realign those warp coils!

But down here in the real world, people do care. They care a lot. In a nation where 49 people can be gunned down in a gay club by maniac, everyone with a heart should care. To many people, LGBTQ rights can feel like a collection of abstractions until they can put a personal face on it. By remaining closeted, I wasn't helping anyone. I couldn't even be a member of a cause that was fighting every single day to allow me to be okay with my very existence. I was aware of this, but I was too afraid to act differently, to do my part to make my lifestyle feel as natural to others as it does to me.

chris hemsworth star trek

Boldly Going

My fear of being outed as a Star Trek fan dissipated in college, where I met other science fiction fans and realized that there is no greater hell on earth and no place more crippling to your personal loves than high school. Amongst my fellow nerds, I was able to discuss the finer points of Star Trek versus Star Wars and how Star Trek: Deep Space Nine only manages to deepen the importance of Gene Roddenberry's utopian vision by showcasing how flawed people struggle to achieve perfection within its rigid systems.

I also dipped my toe into my first male relationships during these years, but never publicly and never with anyone who would want something permanent. It was too painful. Too shameful.

Years later, after my fair share of time spent with both men and women, I met the woman who would later become my wife. She didn't watch Star Trek, but she would gladly endure me talking about it. I came out to her as bisexual a few weeks into our relationship and we would bond by discussing the finer points of Chris Hemworth, both as an actor and as the Most Handsome Man On The Planet. I would occasionally remind her that Mr. Hemsworth played Captain Kirk's father in the 2009 Star Trek movie. She would always nod politely and inform me that yes, she remembered.


The Continuing Mission

My mother knew. My sister knew. My wife knew. A few friends knew. And then, last week, it was revealed that John Cho's Hikaru Sulu would be revealed to be a gay man in the upcoming Star Trek Beyond. I could feel the dam crumbling almost instantly. Star Trek had finally gone where it had never gone before and I couldn't help but feel swept up in it all, both as a longtime fan of the franchise and as a bisexual man. It was like fate: there would never be a more Jacob Hall-friendly moment to come out.

Within an hour, I came out to whoever happened to be checking their Twitter and Facebook feeds.

I don't care that George Takei, who played Sulu in the original series and the first six films, is opposed to the character being gay. His thoughts on the matter are reasonable and well-considered and he only deserves respect and admiration. Since coming out in 2005, Takei has been become as powerful a gay icon as he ever was a science fiction icon. I understand entirely why he wouldn't want those waters muddied, why he doesn't want a character he always played as straight man to take on the characteristics of his real life. Takei is 79 years old and has experienced things as a closeted gay man that I will hopefully never have to endure. His perspective will never be mine and I respect that completely.

Still, I feel like a weight has been lifted off my chest. I feel like I can breathe for the first time in over twenty years. For the first time in my entire life, I feel like me when I go outside or send a tweet or write some piece of movie news. This is the power of representation – it lends courage to those who need it and perspective to everyone else. Please make Iron Man a black woman. Please bring on the lady Ghostbusters. If any of those characters can make anyone else in the world feel like I do now, then I welcome all future diversity in movies, television, comics, and video games with open arms. This matters. Seeing little shards of yourself in your heroes matters.

I don't think about my father much anymore, but I think about Captain Picard every day. I love and cherish my mother and all she sacrificed to raise her children, but Mr. Spock provided me with a perspective she could never give me. I was content to keep my true self restricted to a handful of people until Sulu gave me the nerve to take the helm of my own life and boldly go where I never thought I wanted to go.

I'm out. I'm proud of it. And I can say, from the bottom of my heart, that it was Star Trek that gave me that final push.