In 2013, I attended an early screening of 21 & Over to prepare for upcoming interviews with two of its stars, Miles Teller and Sarah Wright. It took place in a theater in Chelsea — known as one of Manhattan’s “gay” districts — and largely consisted of fans with a few press members sprinkled in. I wasn’t expecting much from a bro-y film about a college guy’s 21st birthday gone Hangover-style wrong, but I will never forget the homophobia I witnessed from the film and crowd.
Teller and his male costar Skylar Astin acted out a scene in which their characters were forced by a group of sorority girls to strip naked and lock lips as punishment for an earlier act. When they ever so reluctantly complied, the majority of the audience erupted with, “Ew!,” “Gross!,” and similar jeers.
My phone interview with Teller the following day did little to lift my spirits. When asked how he and Astin got comfortable for the scene, he said, “You don’t, man. You just tell the camera guys, ‘Make sure you’re in focus. Let’s just do one take and let’s go.’” I could’ve followed up with more questions. I could’ve sparked a lively debate and pressed him further, but I was both caught off guard and, much like Teller himself at the time, still somewhat green when it came to celebrity interviews.
History doesn’t remember 21 & Over, but everyone knows Star Trek.
John Cho made headlines and history when he announced his character in Star Trek Beyond, Sulu, would become the first openly gay character in the franchise. Actor and screenwriter Simon Pegg seemed equally proud of the inclusion, despite initial pushback from George Takei. “It’s unfortunate that the screen version of the most inclusive, tolerant universe in science-fiction hasn’t featured an LGBT character until now,” Pegg said in part.
The reveal in the film came early on when the Enterprise crew, about three years into their five-year expedition, docked at a Starfleet base. Sulu runs to embrace his daughter after having been away for so long, but he was oddly less affectionate with his husband, played by screenwriter Doug Jung. The two merely walked off into the crowd with their arms around each other.
During an earlier interview with Vulture, Cho revealed that a kiss between the two characters was indeed cut.
There was a kiss that I think is not there anymore…It wasn’t like a make-out session. We’re at the airport with our daughter. It was a welcome-home kiss. I’m actually proud of that scene, because it was pretty tough. Obviously, I just met the kid, and then Doug is not an actor. I just wanted that to look convincingly intimate. We’re two straight guys and had to get to a very loving, intimate place. It was hard to do on the fly. We had to open up. It came off well, in my view.
Update: After this article went to press, Steven Sprung, a film editor on Star Trek Beyond, reached out to Collider via email, writing he “was very surprised to hear that people were saying we had cut their kiss out of the movie, since I had looked at every frame shot for that scene and I never once saw a kiss. As a gay man, I was particularly excited to help bring this milestone moment into the Star Trek universe and would have loved to have been able to include such an intimate moment.”
He added, “I can’t speak for John Cho’s recollection, but I can assure you that what you see in the final film is the most touching and heartfelt take we had and one that we considered the most fitting for this moment in the film.”
The intention seems clear — the creative powers that be actively decided to include this scene — but it still begs the same question: would this supposed “intimate” moment have played out differently if it were between a man and a woman? In fact, many self-proclaimed LGBTQ allies in Hollywood have offered similar diplomacy to temporarily diffuse the diversity issue in films.
The original article continues below.
J.J. Abrams told The Daily Beast, “It seems insanely narrow-minded to say that there wouldn’t be a homosexual character” in all the galaxies of Star Wars. Marvel’s Kevin Feige told Collider we could theoretically see the first gay superhero in the MCU “within the next decade.” He also told /Film there’s “no reason” why we couldn’t see one on the big screen.
Adding more insult to injury, especially after GLAAD’s tragically eye-opening Hollywood report card, we’re now seeing a new type of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
/Film’s Angie Han wrote a poignant piece, citing Kate McKinnon’s Jillian Hotzmann in Ghostbusters. Director Paul Feig played “coy” in an interview with The Daily Beast and seemed to imply studio interference was the reason she was kept in the closet. A similar instance was found in Independence Day: Resurgence, a blockbuster that promised to not make a big deal about introducing a same-sex couple, but did in the most disappointing way possible.
This is why Sulu’s reveal in Star Trek Beyond is both hopeful and frustrating. It’s hopeful because the character is in fact gay, but frustrating because LGBTQ stories are still not treated the same way as our heterosexual counterparts on the screen.
Modern Family had a similar “don’t kiss and tell” moment from Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) in the first season. Sparking a headline-grabbing Facebook campaign, the couple merely hugged while the same shot showed Claire (Julie Bowen) and Phil (Ty Burrell) kissing even though both endured the same ordeal.
It’s easy to include LGBTQ as tropes in entertainment for cheap excuses so audiences can laugh with or — in the case of 21 & Over — laugh at, while legitimate, well-rounded moments are too little, too late.
One that was surprisingly authentic involved Dave Franco’s Pete in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, which fell into a similar genre to Teller’s romp-fest. Pete’s boyfriend, surrounded by the Delta Psi fraternity brothers singing a Jason Mraz cover, proposed. “Look, I don’t know what the rules are, I don’t know who’s supposed to propose to who,” he said before kissing and embracing his new fiancé. It was a touching scene made more impactful when considering Seth Rogen’s admitted past of homophobic jokes.
Our culture has reached a moment where, for better or worse, fans are demanding more diversity in entertainment. We’re seeing Hollywood move in the right direction with films like Wonder Woman (the first modern superhero blockbuster to feature a woman in a headlining role), Black Panther (the MCU’s first with a predominantly black cast), and the Star Wars universe with Daisy Ridley spearheading the new trilogy and Felicity Jones holding down the Rogue One fort.
It’s clear when studios cast women and people of color in lead roles because their gender and race are inherently visible. Everyone can see that Gal Gadot is a woman, and no one would refute Chadwick Boseman’s ethnicity. In the same breath, people did notice when Zoe Saldana was cast as the darker-skinned Nina Simone, and when works like Exodus: Gods and Kings and Gods of Egypt cast caucasian actors in racially diverse roles. When it comes to LGBTQ, Hollywood doesn’t have it so easy because, as evidenced by Cho’s Sulu, sexuality isn’t as clearly visible as some might want to believe.
Last year, I interviewed Denis O’Hare for Frontiers magazine on American Horror Story: Hotel, in which he played the gender-fluid Elizabeth Taylor. He told me:
My life has often been a case where people don’t know that I’m gay, and I have to correct them. So I’ve never actually been in the closet, and yet on any given encounter, people will assume I’m straight. As a gay person, I played fast and loose with that ability to pass as straight, and part of that has to do with a form of homophobia that I, myself, haven’t really come to terms with. So, being asked to play Liz Taylor was, in a way, being asked to come face to face with my own homophobia — my own sense of ‘What is wrong with the feminine aspect of anybody?
I’d like to think that we’ve moved past the point in time when it was okay to throw verbal jabs at LGBTQ and exploit cliches for laughs, but now there’s a new challenge. Holtzmann might be a lesbian, but I bet most moviegoers wouldn’t have been able to tell. The same goes for the women in Finding Dory and Dr. Okun in Independence Day. We know Cho is gay, but even he was denied something we’ve seen endlessly on camera: a kiss.
LGBTQ, like women and people of color, want to be seen — and given the political climate in America, we need to be seen. One kiss may not be able to change that overnight, but the moment is more significant than it may seem.