Thursday, June 19, 2008

Takei, Trek, and Tolerance: A Feeble Attempt At Investigative Reporting

Sulu Wedding Dance
George Takei, best known as Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek series and movies, recently announced that he would marry his long-time partner and business manager Brad Altman. The couple's decision to tie the knot in one of California's first high-profile legal celebrity gay weddings just seems right on a number of levels. For starters, ever since Takei made his sexual orientation public in 2005, he has been a tenacious yet exceptionally good-humored advocate for gay rights. As both a gay man and a prisoner of a Japanese interment camp during World War II it seems only fair that at the age of 71 the actor is finally able to enjoy all of the rights he is entitled to as an American citizen. Finally, his association with Star Trek, a show purported by fans to represent a better future where prejudice and inequality are things of the past makes Takei a perfect representative in the ongoing struggle for truly universal civil rights.

Roddenberry's Legacy
There is little doubt that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had a political agenda when designing the show. The racially and ethnically diverse crew of the Enterprise--not to mention TV's first bi-racial kiss--showed us that in the future we really would, in the words of Rodney King, "all get along." Or at least that's what Trekkies (or Trekkers, to use the "politically correct" term) would have us believe. In reality, there was still a very real "other" on the show in the form of the Klingons, and it's not hard to see them as a stand-in for godless commies that we were supposed to fear during the Cold War era. The fact that the Klingons became Federation allies in the perestroika-era Next Generation series seems to further enforce the Russian connection.

Peace, Love, and Utopia?
While I do believe that Roddenberry had the best of intentions when creating Trek, I have never been convinced that the show is the great teacher of tolerance and diversity that Trek fans claim it to be. In part, this is because, as a game designer and former comic book store manager, I have met a lot of Trek fans over the years. While many do pay lip service to Roddenberry's Utopian dream, most Trek fans, like most members of the more general fan community, tend to be somewhat sheltered and naïve. While they may believe themselves to be tolerant and worldly, most Trekkers have had little experience with people who are not very much like themselves (which is to say middle class white males). As a result, they are frequently guilty of racist, sexist, or homophobic comments or actions without even being aware that what they're doing could be considered offensive. In addition, they often exhibit an obvious nervousness or change in attitude when interacting with a person of another race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

Trek Fans And Gay Marriage
Getting back to George Takei, I have little doubt that some Trek fans will point to the community's support of Takei's lifestyle as yet another way in which Trek fandom encourages tolerance. The question, in my mind, is “do said fans have any right to make this claim?” Knowing that Takei's wedding announcement offered a perfect chance to get an idea of whether Trekkers practice what they preach, I Googled up some Trek forums and looked for discussions of Sulu's nuptials and the gay marriage issue in general.

What I Found
Oddly, I didn't find much. Of the five or six boards I looked at, only one (www.trekbbs.com) contained any significant discussion about Takei's upcoming wedding, and many boards (all on the first page of the Google search for “Star Trek forums," and therefore theoretically the top Trekkie discussion forums) didn't contain a single post about gay marriage. In general, posts that were specifically about Takei were mostly positive, containing congratulatory words for the couple. While there was the occasional homophobic post, most of the controversy within these threads involved the guest list—specifically the fact that William Shatner isn't on it. The Trek BBS did, however contain one general thread about gay marriage in California, and the discussion was not as genial without Sulu as the focus. The thread was 670 posts long, compared to an average of about 20 posts for Takei/Altman wedding announcements. While the majority of posters were in fact pro-gay marriage, there were still enough homophobes (most citing Christianity as the reason for their anti-gay views) to keep the discussion going.

Conclusion
When I started this little experiment, I expected to find that Trek fans were in fact generally (but not universally) tolerant. While the thread on the Trek BBS was slightly more accepting of homosexuality than I expected, it was reasonably close to my hypothesis. Of course, that was one thread on one board. The fact that so many Star Trek fans are seemingly not talking about Takei's upcoming wedding may be more interesting (and frightening). Is it really possible that hardcore Trekkies are so isolated from everyday world that they simply haven't heard the news?
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