I realized I’d made a mistake as soon I asked George Takei about his “new” role as a human rights activist, alluding to his outspokenness on the issue of gay marriage.
This role is not new, he corrected me. He has been speaking out for equality of all kinds his entire adult life, because of the discrimination he endured as a child during World War II, in an internment camp for Japanese Americans.
The 73-year-old Takei, a veteran actor best known for his role as Captain Hikaru Sulu in both the television and movie versions of “Star Trek,” comes to the Autry Sept. 19 to speak of his experiences as a gay Japanese American. It’s part of the museum’s “Out West” series, which looks at the role of gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the West.
“I remember my father encouraging us to be active in student government,” Takei said of his introduction to political activism, in an interview over tea and Japanese pastries at his Hancock Park home. “I was more or less groomed. Because I was able to put what my father was saying into a personal history context, I knew how important it was for us to be visibly and actively participating in the process.”
Through his career, Takei has organized and agitated to get redress for victims of the U.S. internment camps, for the civil rights of African Americans in the 1960s, and, alongside actress Jane Fonda, to get the United States out of the Vietnam War.
And it all goes back to his experience as an American held without cause behind the barbed wire of a U.S. internment camp, because of the fears of others.
Takei was only a small child when his family was forced to move to an internment camp in
Southeastern Arkansas. They were later moved to another camp in Northern California. They spent four years in the camps, reciting the Pledge Allegiance in class every morning, elluding searchlights when they left the barracks at night to go to the latrine, saluting the flag of a country that treated them like enemies.
“I was ashamed of being a Japanese American,” Takei said. “When you become a teenager, and you start reading about democracy and the shining ideals, you really can’t reconcile that with what we went through.”
Takei said that, through discussions over several years, his father helped him reconcile the differences between what he saw in real life and what he read in books.
“My father essentially boiled it down,” he said. “Both the strength and the weakness of American democracy is in the fact that it’s a true people’s democracy, and it can be as great as the people can be, but it’s also as fallible as people are. And that’s why we have to be active participants in the process of democracy.”
Takei was among the first gay Californians to marry in September 2008, just months after California’s Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. He wed his longtime partner and manager, Brad Altman. But he was a late arrival to that cause.
“I’d been active on all these other issues except that,” Takei said.
He watched the progress of bills in the legislature and measures in other states, but remained quiet. Still, when the California Legislature in 2005 passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, and then Gov. Schwarznegger vetoed it, Takei knew he had to step into the fray.
“That night, I was watching TV and I saw all these people marching down Santa Monica Boulevard in anger; and here I was at home,” he said. “An issue that so viscerally affected me, and I was feeling that same anger. And here I am comfortably at home.… That’s not what my father had guided me to do. That’s when I talked to the press for the first time.”
In November of 2008, California voters passed Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to allow marriage only between a man and a woman. The measure said nothing of the same-sex marriages that had already taken place, so it didn’t dissolve the Takei/Altman union. Still, he called the Proposition 8 campaign “stomach-turning.”
“When we were sent into those prison camps, and that’s what they were, it was the tyranny of the majority,” he said. “(Prop 8 supporters) need to know that they can’t write their faith’s values into civil law that applies to everybody. I’m a Buddhist, and I know that I can’t and I shouldn’t write my Buddhist faith into civil law and have it enforced on everybody.”
In August 2010, U.S. District Judge Vaughan Walker ruled Proposition 8 unconstitutional, but the Ninth Circuit continued a stay of his ruling pending its review. Takei is confident that same-sex marriage will eventually become a legality and a reality for all those who seek it.
“If you look at the history of the United States, we have been making progress,” he said. “When the nation was founded, there was no role for women in the institutions of American society. Or for blacks. Or for Latinos. Now we have three women in the Supreme Court. Three women have become U.S. Secretaries of State. We have a Latino mayor. New Mexico has a Latino governor. And there’s a Latina in the Supreme Court. We have now an African American as the President of the United States. When you look at it in the larger historical context we have made incredible progress. With much grief, much pain, enormous suffering, but we’ve come to where we are.”