Sinjir Rath Velus is the unlikeliest hero in Chuck Wendig’s new Star Wars novel Aftermath: An Imperial loyalty officer who faked his death, deserted his fellow fighters following the Rebel victory on Endor, and is now resigned to drink away his days in the scuzziest Outer Rim watering holes.
He’s also gay, meaning that, for the first time in that galaxy far, far away, a major character — not someone consigned to the background — is out.
Sinjir is a reluctant member of the motley band at the center of Aftermath, which takes place after Return of the Jedi and finds the New Republic (né the Rebel Alliance) tracking down the still-formidable remnants of the Empire. He reveals his sexuality when his cohort, the female bounty hunter Jas Emari, pronounces him suitable mating material.
He laughs. “Oh.”
“If you’re going to laugh about it,” she says, suddenly stung. “Then you can take my invitation and stick it in your exhaust port.”
“No, I just mean… I’m not into… this.”
“This?” Her scowl deepens and her teeth bare. “Aliens?”
Despite the awkward exchange, Sinjir’s sexuality doesn’t define him and is not treated with affect. And the revelation comes several chapters after the introduction of a married female couple, Esmelle and Shirene, supporting characters who once served as caretakers for another member of the main team.
The LGBT representation in the Star Wars universe has been progressing incrementally to this point. Earlier this year, in another novel that is part of the new Star Wars canon, Lords of the Sith, a secondary character named Delian Mors is introduced. In the story, she’s lost her passion for her day job as an Imperial operative, suffering in a deep depression after the death of her wife years before.
And while it’s no longer considered canonical — Disney hit the reset button on which works would be considered essential Star Wars texts when the company acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 — there was an even earlier example of an out Star Wars character. In a Legacy of the Force story from 2007, the relatively minor players Goran Beviin and Medrit Vasur, two male Mandalorians and friends of ace bounty hunter Boba Fett, were happily married and eventually adopted an orphaned teen girl.
Diversity is a key component of the latest iterations of Star Wars. In addition to the gay characters of Aftermath, the chief antagonist is a very capable black female admiral, while the leader of the Rebel band is a female pilot whose flying skills rank up there with Luke and Han.
“The characters were all mine, though of course they had to pass muster with the Story Group,” Aftermath author Chuck Wendig tells Yahoo Movies, referring to the Lucasfilm division responsible for ensuring narrative unity across the whole franchise. “Everything I created in this book had to sing for its supper in terms of belonging true and proper to the Star Wars universe.”
Qui Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Jar Jar Binks in ‘The Phantom Menace’ (Lucasfilm)
The universe spawned by George Lucas has not always been such an inclusive place. His 1977 original Star Wars film, A New Hope, consisted of an all-white cast, not counting the uncredited voice of James Earl Jones as Darth Vader. Stung by criticism at the time, Lucas expanded the main cast for the 1980 sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, notably adding Billy Dee Williams as charming rogue Lando Calrissian. But Lucas didn’t do himself any favors when he returned with 1999’s The Phantom Menace, which featured the outlandish Jamaican patois of Jar Jar Binks, the stereotypically Asian-accented villain Nute Gunray, and the scheming merchant Watto, who managed to offend Arabs, Jews and Italian-Americans.
However, with Lucasfilm now under the stewardship of Kathleen Kennedy — and with J.J. Abrams serving as a chief architect of the new world-building — the ethos has changed. The new heroes of the upcoming The Force Awakens are played by a black man (John Boyega as Finn), a Latino (Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron), and a woman (Daisy Ridley as Rey). Abrams says the casting process was colorblind and his ensemble spans race and age.
‘The Force Awakens’ cast at D23 Expo in August; from left: Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Lupita Nyong’o, Daisy Ridley, director J.J. Abrams, and Harrison Ford (Disney)
“We wanted [The Force Awakens] to look the way the world looks. I think it’s important that people see themselves represented in film,” Abrams said at Comic-Con, when asked a question about the diversity of the cast, specifically the franchise’s historical dearth of Asian actors. To which Kennedy added: “There is every intention to carry that [notion] on to all the Star Wars movies that we make.” (Indeed, next year’s Rogue One has an even more multicultural cast.)
‘Star Wars: Rogue One’ cast includes (from bottom left) Riz Ahmed, Diego Luna, Felicity Jones, Jiang Wen, and Donnie Yen (Disney/Lucasfilm)
That sentiment is even more readily apparent in the expanded universe of novels, comic books, and video games, which has the ability to fill in the cracks and explore characters unseen on screen. Aftermath, for instance, is the first of a trilogy of books, and Sinjir has been established an ongoing character.
But ultimately, based on how things are trending in the galaxy, it might not be too long before an LGBT character is sharing screen time with the droids and Wookiees.