• Sulu is revealed to have a same-sex partner in Star Trek Beyond. (PARAMOUNT PICTURES)
A nerdy kid in rural Western Australia will see a strong, courageous, partnered gay character in Star Trek – and his mates will too. It’s difficult to be cynical about that.
By
Ben Winsor

11 Aug 2016 - 11:38 AM  UPDATED 11 Aug 2016 - 1:39 PM

It seems 2016 might be the year that hollywood turns a corner on LGBT+ representation in major blockbusters. 

In Star Trek: Beyond, long-standing character Sulu is seen reuniting with his daughter and husband.

In Independence Day: Resurgence, Dr. Okun from the original film wakes up after a coma to be greeted by his male partner.

In Ghostbusters it’s pretty heavily hinted at that Kate McKinnon’s ghost-busting character, Jillian Holtzmann, is into women. 

In Bad Neighbours 2 Dave Franco’s character gets engaged to his boyfriend during a poker game, to cheers from his fellow frat mates.

It’s easy to be cynical and dismiss these LGBT+ cameos as tokenism, and it some cases it probably is.

But that doesn’t mean the boosted visibility isn’t making a real and tangible difference to people’s lives around the world.

When I first realised I was attracted to other guys, I was a super confused tween.

I’d never met another gay person, my parents had never spoken about gay people and I’d never even seen a gay character on TV. 

The primary-school stereotypes of gay guys being effeminate or pedophiles didn’t resonate with me, so I genuinely thought I wasn’t gay – despite some undeniably strong feelings for other guys. 

It wasn’t until I saw gay characters on TV much later in my teenage years – Queer as Folk on SBS and Angels in America on ABC – that I realised there were other people like me in the world. 

It sounds stupid and naive in hindsight, but hey, everyone’s stupid and naive as a teenager right?

The short film Golden – which resonated with so many gay people around the world – kind of sums it up nicely. 

Short film 'Golden' shows how LGBT+ people create safe spaces in the world
"Wherever you are and not matter how tough times are right now: You are never alone. You have a place in life and together we gonna make sure it’s a safe one."

I can’t remember seeing a single gay character in a mainstream movie when I was a kid - which wasn't all that long ago, by the way.

But now teenagers don’t have to stay up late to watch an explicit Showtime series on SBS or stumble upon a HBO drama on ABC to see people just like them, they’re seeing them in major blockbusters with millions of others.

And the impact of greater visibility goes further than self identification. Unlike a series on Netflix or an arthouse flick, going to see a blockbuster film is something you often do with your family.

A nerdy kid in rural Western Australia will see a strong, courageous, partnered gay character in Star Trek – and his mates will too.

For me, it’s difficult to be cynical about that.

And the impact of greater visibility goes further than self identification. Unlike a series on Netflix or an arthouse flick, going to see a blockbuster film is something you often do with your family.

I had no idea how my parents were going to react when I came out. I’d never seen them comment on or interact with a gay person before – for all I knew I could have been the first.

But if the films they’d taken me to all throughout my childhood had featured normal LGBT+ characters doing normal things, and my parents had then reacted entirely unremarkably, then that would have given me a pretty clear sign everything was going to be cool.

That shared experience is something millions around the world will now have.

And there's another thing blockbusters have that indie movies don't – massive global reach.

Many have remarked on how disappointingly low-key recent depictions have been, a product of the tentative timidity of the major studios. 

Sulu from Star Trek doesn’t kiss the father of his child, he only subtly touches his back. 

Dr. Okun in Independence Day doesn’t leap up to kiss his partner and say 'I love you'. 

But this subtlety may have a silver lining. 

"One day you have a gay character as the lead and nobody will wonder at it no more. But we’re not there yet."

It means the scenes are more likely to escape the eye of censors and other self-appointed morality police when the films screen in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Russia – where being LGBT+ is even more isolating than in middle-class Western suburbia.

I’ve met Iranians who know barely anything about lesbians and gay people, but know that Neil Patrick Harris from their illegal downloads of How I Met Your Mother has a husband.

They say they’ve never met a gay person, but they've seen gay characters on Game of Thrones.

That’s why it matters. That’s why it’s more than ineffectual tokenism.

“We have a gay couple in the film,” Roland Emmerich, director of both Independence Day films told the Hollywood Reporter last year. 

“We don’t make a big deal out of it. You start small and then you get bigger and bigger and bigger, and one day you have a gay character as the lead and nobody will wonder at it no more. But we’re not there yet.”

We might not be, but we’ve definitely come a long way.

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