The path to LGBT advocacy, maintaining Pride in our community and the Howard Stern effect
George Takei is a multi generational actor, activist, and trailblazer. With his devilish grin, and signature laugh to match, this movie star is one of our biggest touchstones to one of our most important generations. Takei can just as easily talk about the early days of the civil rights movement as he can about his risqué antics on The Howard Stern Show. But Takei is at his most eloquent when he talks about the influence of his father on his career, his devoted husband Brad, and how the younger people of our community are eventually going to change the world. And, similarly, to how his generation helped to make that possible.
Sitting down with George Takei was an absolute thrill, and he was more open than I could expect. From his days in the Japanese internment camps, to his days as a member of the Star Trek cast, to emerging as one of the leading advocates for the LGBT community today. George Takei’s signature voice is what gets our attention, but his moving and indispensable words of wisdom are what every single one of us should listen to.
You’re coming to the State Theatre on June 20, 2019, at 8pm, right in the midst of Pride month. Does it have a little extra meaning for you to be able to speak to your community during such an important month?
George Takei: It absolutely does. It is 50 years since that galvanizing incident. Fifty years ago, in Greenwich Village at The Stonewall Inn, an incident that made our lives today what it is in the 21st Century. That was the seminal event.
You have had so many acts in your career, from television to the stage. It seems like this act as one of the leading advocates for our community just may be one of your favorites.
GT: Every one of them has been different in each way. As a five-year old, I was incarcerated by my own country, in my own country, the United States of America, in a barbed wire prison camp that was operated by the United States Army. I am an American of Japanese ancestry. Simply because I looked like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor, innocent people of Japanese ancestry were rounded up.
There were no charges, no trial, and I was imprisoned. At five-years old. I was classified as an “enemy alien.” This was preposterous on both counts, because right after Pearl Harbor, young Japanese Americans, like all Americans, rushed to their recruitment centers to volunteer to serve in the United States military. This was an act of patriotism that was answered with a slap in the face. They were denied military service and categorized as enemy aliens, which was totally irrational. Patriots who volunteered to possibly die for this country; whatever possessed the government to classify them as “enemy aliens” was crazy. They’re born and raised here, so to call them “aliens” was equally mad.
How long did the imprisonment in the internment camps go on?
GT: We were imprisoned for the duration of the war. After the war, suddenly we had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor and the gates were thrown open. It was totally irrational and an un-American act. I draw that same parallel when, as a young gay person, insecure in a gay bar, I found that little oasis, where I could be who I am and talk in a warm receptive way with other people that understood me. One of the older guys in the bar said “even here, in a gay bar we have to be careful. The police can raid and end up putting our name on a list.” That was terrorizing. It is the same parallel with me as a young five-year old Japanese American. We were doing nothing criminal; we were just there in a bar enjoying each others company. That was criminalized, simply because we were gay. As a child, it was simply because of my ancestry and how I looked like the people who bombed Pearly Harbor.
My grandparents were the immigrant generation that came from Japan. My mother was born in Sacramento, California, and my father was a San Franciscan. They met and married in Los Angeles, and my brother and sister and I were born in Los Angeles. We are Americans. Yet, we were criminalized. There is a strong parallel; that is how my life began, and that is a critically important American story. Yet most Americans don’t know it. A good number of younger Japanese Americans don’t know their family history because their parents who actually went through the experience were so pained by the situation that they did not want to impose their own pain onto their children, as they explain it to me.
The Broadway musical Allegiance was inspired by your experiences in the Japanese internment camps. Bringing that story to the stage in this era certainly must have had some eerie similarities.
GT: You know, when I did Allegiance, there is a song called “This Is Not Over.” We have that madman in the White House now trying to dishonor transgender people in the military. We thought we went past that, but it was not over. We have a Vice President who uses his faith and writes faith values into civil law discriminating against LGBT people. This is not over. People like Pence and Trump pop up, and the progress we thought we had made has to be qualified. A few steps back again; we will continue moving forward.
It is so important for people like you to continue using your voice with the platform that you have. The generations behind us need to hear the stories that can be told by those of the generations before them. Do you believe that to be true as well?
GT: Absolutely. The thing that is so chilling is that they don’t know their heritage, and the struggle that we had to go through. It can happen again.
It’s safe to say that our democracy remains strong and is something you hold tight yourself.
GT: I do. A people’s democracy is dependent on people who cherish the ideals of our democracy. All men are created equal, one man, one vote. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those ideals are all precious. Most people though, don’t think about it. A good number of people don’t vote and don’t participate in a participatory democracy. From my late teens, I have been a political activist. I understand how great this country can be, but also how fallible it can be. After 9/11, an event was just as devastating to the country as Pearl Harbor was, and once again certain citizens got swept up in the hysteria and prejudice. Americans learn from each experience; you see that with the protests to the [Muslim] travel ban for example.
Do you think that we can right the course that our country currently seems directed towards? Do you absolutely think we can get back to leadership that every single one of us can be proud of?
GT: You have to think bigger than that. We have a long and great history. This is just a moment in that long history. As troubled as the status of the LGBT community is now, we have made progress. Just think when I was a teenager making discoveries about myself to where we are today. I am married to a beloved man, my husband Brad, who I have been with for 33 years now, and eleven of them legal. The country has changed.
We are moving forward when you look at the big scope of time. I grew up as the enemy alien in my own country. We have made great progress. And I see that just in my short lifetime. That is what this is in the scope of American history. Don’t be pessimistic; there are reasons for pessimism in this short moment, but we have made progress already in this short moment. When I started my career, my parents thought it was a crazy idea to chase an acting career. But here I am. I am working on a ten-part miniseries right now in Vancouver, and we have a small break so I am in New York promoting The Terror: Infamy. We are going back today to continue filming. I am a working actor that has done Broadway, Off-Broadway, television, films, and a legendary television series by the name of Star Trek. I think that you have to think big!
So many of us love you from Star Trek, your stage performances, and your advocacy. But many newer fans have fallen in love with you from your numerous appearances on The Howard Stern Show. What is it that makes you keep returning to the show and having such a raucous and amazing time with Howard Stern and his crew?
GT: I’ll give you a peek behind the stage and some of the thinking Brad and I have. I was working for the Human Rights Campaign and they put together a nationwide speaking tour for me at various universities and corporations to speak about coming out. I was getting a lot of Star Trek fans that came to those events, but my aim was to talk about the LGBT movement and the LGBT condition. The people that were really interested in that part of my talk were either LGBT people, allies, or liberals who were open to considering equality. That is all well and good. But we needed to reach that mainstream majority. I had done The Howard Stern Show a couple of times when I came out with my autobiography To The Stars. The publicist had me do the show. And when I am doing Off-Broadway shows, I have done it then to promote the show I am in. It is a high risk show, though (laughs).
Howard is a good interviewer; when he senses a little skittishness or hiding, he focuses in and probes and probes. We decided that it is Howard’s audience that is the mainstream. We like to think that a good number of them are fair-minded, decent people who are at least open to considering things, particularly when they know you are a celebrity. Especially when some people may say, “yes, we watch you in the bedroom” (laughs)! Star Trek helped me reach one mass group of people, and through Howard, I can reach another mass group of mainstream people. We have made our contact. That is where we have to change peoples thinking in order to get progress for the LGBT community. So, it was kind of strategically calculated to go on the show.
You talk about Brad on the show in both devilishly wonderful and amazing lovely ways. What do you think your “secret” is to lasting this long with Brad?
GT: You know, it really isn’t a secret. In any marriage, there is give and take. At first, there is lust, and it turns into love, then it turns into comfort, especially when you have been together for 33 years. It’s making the loving compromises. Now, sometimes we do have screaming sessions; I am an actor and I know how to play some roles (laughs). Brad is a strong-willed guy as well. So two strong-willed people will inevitably have differences. But you work out the differences. You gain something from those differences also. If I just cut it off and said, “okay, that’s it” then I haven’t learned anything. From the compromises, you think to yourself that, “yeah, life is better with this understanding.” I think that you grow as a person, both of us do.
At the stage that your career is at now, what do you think gives you the most pride?
GT: Each chapter of my life has, in its own way deep significance for me. I am proud of so many things. I am proud that Japanese Americans that were seen as the enemy are now seen as full citizens, more than that, we have achieved. We have Senators and Congresspeople; we’ve got college professors now. On that issue, I am proud of the achievements that we have made. As an insecure and confused young, gay guy, from the time I was nine or ten, I knew that I was different in ways other than just my Japanese face. You don’t know the word gay, but you know that you are more attracted to Bobby than you are to Sally. And that is not the way the other guys are. You want to be like the other guys, but I can’t help it, I think Bobby is cute. So, you hide that. When I started pursuing an acting career, I knew I could not be out. I knew that I would not be able to be hired if it were known that I was gay. And this was in the 1950s when I started my career. I am proud of the fact that my father lived to see me doing Star Trek the Motion Picture, the movie version of the Star Trek television series.
Your father is a constant source of pride for you, correct?
GT: I owe so much to my father. He is really my hero; he is the touchstone for me. I am proud that he was proud that I was succeeding at what he thought was an impossible choice. He wanted me to be an architect, he was in real estate. I think his dream was to put on a sign “Takei & Son Real Estate Development.” I would design the buildings and he would develop them. When he saw me working on a feature motion picture of Star Trek, he was very sick. When he passed, he knew that I was making it in my career. So, I am proud of that. My father was proud of the decision I had made that he had, in a very circumspect way, been actually disappointed about (laughs).
You are a true pioneer of so many civil rights battles, even before you took on LGBT causes.
GT: I came out very late in life. It wasn’t just a struggle with myself, but I was an activist in all of the social justice issues of the time. I was involved in the civil rights movement. I met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and I chatted with him. I met Eleanor Roosevelt, the woman who was married to the man who put us in the internment camps. I was involved in the peace movement. And I worked with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in that movement as well. In the 1970s, when the movement began to get an apology and redress for the unjust imprisonment of Japanese Americans, I campaigned for that and lobbied Congress. I testified at the Congressional hearing about how the internment impacted my life and defined my life. I have been active in all of these issues, but silent on the one issue that was very personal to me: the LGBT equality issue.
What was the tipping point to make you come out publicly as a gay man, and become the tremendous activist that you now are?
GT: As an activist, you feel discomfort in knowing that you are gay, but at the same time, you have this torture of guilt. All of these other guys who have sacrificed everything, their careers, their jobs, and some of their family in the liberation movement for LGBT people. And here I am silent as an activist on all of these issues. Then when the AIDS plague hit, your friends are suddenly getting very sick and losing weight and looking gaunt, and skeletal, and then they’re gone.
The guilt becomes even more torturous when it is so personal. That was torture living through that because of the activism of those people who were in the arena. Things started to happen. In 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality in Massachusetts, which was a very hopeful event. Two years after that in 2005, on the West Coast this time, in my home state of California, the legislature, the people’s representatives, the Senate and the Assembly passed the Marriage Equality bill. It was a thrilling event. But it needed one more signature, that of our governor, who happened to be Arnold Schwarzenegger. When he campaigned for the governor’s office, he campaigned by saying that he was from Hollywood, he had worked with gays and lesbians, some of my friends are gays and lesbians, things like that.
I thought that surely with that kind of campaign rhetoric, he would sign the bill. But then when it landed on his desk, he played to the right-wing Republican base and vetoed it. Brad and I were raging over that veto. We were at home watching it on the late night show. We saw young people pouring out onto Santa Monica Boulevard venting their rage on Arnold Schwarzenegger, and we felt the same way, but here we were at home watching the late night news. And there they were on Santa Monica Blvd.
We talked through the night and many days after, and we finally decided that it was time. We said, it’s time I took a stand. I spoke to the press for the first time as a gay man. That was a prideful moment, but also a scary moment. I thought my entire career could be gone. The interesting thing was, my career opened up. I was given more guest spots on television shows, but this time as gay George Takei (laughs)! Will & Grace, The Big Bang Theory, really great shows! America was changing because of these young activists they are in this arena sacrificing so much. I am proud of the LGBT community heritage that we have. It all made it possible for me to proudly and openly make a contribution. And here we are now; with an out gay candidate for the President of the United States. We are making progress!
I actually met him [Buttigieg] recently, and he is amazing. He incorporates his husband into his campaign. How many presidential candidates have their spouses actively participating on the stage with them? He had a Q&A section and the person asking those questions was his husband, Chasten. Mayor Pete answers the questions that Chasten asks so in-depth, and eloquently and spontaneously. He is such a sharp guy. An out gay person rising in the polls. I am proud of that. Each of the chapters in my life is important; I was able to meet and have my picture taken with Mayor Pete and Chasten, and it was such a thrill.
When people say that “celebrities should not talk about politics” there are many mixed responses. How do you reconcile that with your dynamic activism?
GT: The question is, why are celebrities disqualified from being citizens of the country that we belong to? We are Americans, entitled to all of the rights. Some people who don’t want to speak out manufacture that as an excuse. I was too young to understand my imprisonment as a child; to me it was an adventure. My father had told me that we were going on a vacation to Arkansas, which sounded exotic. You really grow up in stages. I did know not what a barbed wire fence meant as a child, but as a teenager I got very curious about it. That ended up with me having discussions with my father about it. My father shared his pain, anguish, and outrage with me, and he believed in a people’s democracy, which is the way our government worked. It can be as great as the people can be. The people have done great things. But it is as fallible as human beings are, and we make mistakes. I say all that to say, we are all citizens here. We all have a voice.