Pop culture icon, actor and activist George Takei, 81, known predominantly for his portrayal of Lt. Hikaru Sulu on the “Star Trek” TV series and film franchise, was in La Jolla last week, speaking on April 26 as a guest of the UC San Diego DeWitt Higgs Memorial Lecture series, held in the Price Center West Ballroom. (These endowed lectures are sponsored by the Law and Society Program at UCSD’s Earl Warren College and the Higgs family.)
For a man known for his laugh and social media hilarity, Takei was stirringly political and serious, focusing on the personal and social injustices he’s experienced in his lifetime. These included his imprisonment in a Japanese internment camp as a child, and the threat of exposure and subsequent loss of acting roles for being gay as an adult. Takei also discussed how these events led to his life of political activism.
He opened with his catchphrase “Oh myyy” to thunderous applause, and then the crowd quickly settled down to pin-dropping silence. Takei first discussed his history with San Diego — having his play “Allegiance” premiere at The Old Globe Theatre, serving as Grand Marshall in the San Diego Pride Parade, and appearances at Comic-Con.
“However, the defining event in my life was the internment of Japanese Americans,” Takei explained. “That shaped who I am. It started with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, which plunged America into the Second World War. That bombing changed the lives of everyone on this planet, but for Japanese Americans, it was a cataclysmic change of our lives. Overnight, people started to look at us with suspicion, fear and downright hatred.”
Soon after, and until 1945, Japanese Americans were stripped of their finances, forced into curfews and, ultimately, sent to internment camps.
“I still remember that fateful morning,” Takei said. “My parents got me up very early. It was a few days after my fifth birthday. My brother was four and our sister was still an infant. My brother and I were told to wait in the living room. We were looking out the window and saw two soldiers walking up the driveway. They stomped to the front door and pounded the door with their fists. It was a terrifying sound. My father answered the door, and literally at gunpoint, we were taken out of our home.”
Takei said he remembered the barbed-wire fences, search lights and conditions of the two camps where he was kept — one in Arkansas and one in Northern California.
“When the war ended, as quickly as we were rounded up, the gates opened up and we were free to go. But it was still a hostile America. The government gave us $25 and a ticket to anywhere in America we wanted to go,” he recalled. “My family moved to Los Angeles where I was educated. I had a teacher who called me ‘Little Jap Boy,’ and that stung. When I would raise my hand, she would look away.”
By the 1950s, and Takei’s adolescence, Japanese Americans were “getting back on their feet,” he continued. “I was very curious at that age about my boyhood imprisonment. I became a veracious reader. I read civics books and was fascinated by the ideals of our democracy. I had discussions with my father, some of them heated.”
Takei said his father explained: “Ours is a people’s democracy, and people have the capacity to do great things. But people are also fallible human beings. … and a people’s democracy is dependent on people who cherish those ideals and actively participate and hold democracy’s feet to the fire and keep those shining ideals shining.”
Soon after, Takei got involved in social justice campaigns, including the civil rights movement. He had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Martin Luther King. “When he spoke,” Takei said, “he had our spirits soaring to the rafters. I was introduced to him, shook his hand and had a brief chat with him ... and for three days after that handshake, this hand didn’t get washed!”
At the same time, Takei explained, he was “living a double life,” because he had not publicly come out as gay, and was convinced his livelihood would be at risk if he did.
“From the time I was a child, I realized I was different. The guys at school would say things like ‘Sally is cute’ and ‘Monica is hot’ and I though Sally and Monica were nice … but Bobby (he excitedly nods).”
Wanting to “be like the other guys,” Takei said he started acting. “When they started to date, I dated. And when I pursued an acting career, I continued that double life. I brought female friends to premieres because by that time I learned you can’t be like me and expect to be hired as an actor.”
Finding solace in local gay bars, Takei said he felt he could let his guard down — a little bit. “The police raided gay bars and lined people up outside the bars and marched them into paddy wagons and took them to the police station and put their names on a list. It was so unjust.” he recalled.
Unwilling to risk his acting career, Takei said he did not come out, but supported gay rights causes financially.
When marriage equality was proposed by the state legislature in 2005, but vetoed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Takei said he could not stay silent anymore. “My partner Brad and I were enraged. We decided it was time for me to engage in the equality movement. I spoke out publicly as a gay man … and from that time on, I was actively engaged,” he said.
When marriage equality was legalized in California in 2008, Takei and his partner decided to get married and his “Star Trek” crew mates took on supporting roles.
“I’ve been blessed in my career with ‘Star Trek’ and to have work colleagues be my lifelong friends — with one exception,” he said, alluding to his feud with co-star William Shatner. “So we asked Walter Koenig, who played Chekov to be the best man. For our matron of honor, we asked Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura. However, Nichelle didn’t want to be the matron of honor, she said, ‘If Walter can be the best man, why can’t I be the best lady?’ And so she was!”
During a brief question-and-answer session after his talk, students asked about the power of social media, his feelings about the run of “Star Trek,” whether the franchise should have an openly gay character, and whether he ever visited the internment camps in which he was held.