George Takei, best known as Hikaru Sulu on the popular 1960s science fiction show Star Trek, graced the Robsham stage on Friday, January 16. A collaborative effort between Asian Caucus, FACES, GLC and Allies, the event focused on “media, sexuality and identity.”
Takei began the event by saying that “first always happens in Boston," citing the first telephone call, public library and subway system. Massachusetts is also full of firsts, including producing the first Catholic president as well as being the first state to enact marriage equality.
The influence of the American government was a driving force throughout much of Takei’s life. In April of 1942, four-year-old George and the rest of the Takei family were forced out of their home by U.S. soldiers and eventually sent to a prison camp in the swamps of southern Arkansas.
Japanese Americans across the nation were facing the same persecution, a precautionary measure taken by the government amidst the chaos of World War II. Families with Japanese heritage were asked to swear allegiance to United States and “foreswear allegiance” to the emperor of Japan.
Takei recalls the act as preposterous: most Japanese Americans, especially his family, had no ties to Japan and certainly owed no fealty to the ruler of Japan. He called the ordeal a “degrading, humiliating, painful experience.”
Takei recalled one pungent memory from the small schoolhouse within the prison that all children were required to attend. While reciting the pledge of allegiance every morning he remembers the irony: “I could see the barbed wire fence outside of my schoolhouse window while reciting the words ‘with liberty and justice for all.’”
The family was eventually released from the camp, and even after struggling to rebuild their lives from nothing, the Takeis fought against racism pervasive in the post-World War II America. Takei remembers one teacher in particular hating him because he was a “Jap boy.”
Despite his painful childhood memories, both George and his father went on to assist many political campaigns, including that of Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1952.
Somewhat confused by his father’s political activism, George asked the elder Takei why he still believed in the U.S. government despite all the harm it had inflicted upon their family. “Our democracy is a people’s democracy—it can be as good as the people can be, but it is also fallible,” said his father.
As Takei grew up, he remained involved in various campaigns and had a penchant for social justice. He marched with and met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C.
He was unable, however, to speak out about the issue that was closest to him: homosexuality.
From an early age Takei knew he was “different.” His middle school friends talked about how cute Monica and Sally were, but Takei said “Monica and Sally were nice, but Bobby…” raising his eyebrows to indicate his fondness.
Although Takei knew he was gay, he had to keep up appearances in order to continue getting roles in Hollywood. This was especially important after Star Trek was cancelled in 1969. Knowing it would be difficult to get a role as an Asian American, much less a gay Asian American, Takei often brought his female friends as dates to public events.
Takei realized how important it was for him to be vocal in the gay community when Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill that would grant marriage equality for same-sex couples in California.
Speaking out publicly for the first time with the help of his now husband Brad, Takei became an important figure for the gay community. Personally, he felt that this step made him “fully American,” allowing him to stand up for the ideals that he felt were most important.
With his captivating, iconic voice and sweeping imagery, Takei illustrated issues that pervade not only his life but also all of American society.
Takei left student attendees with an important thought: “With our great American heritage, we have a responsibility to be change agents to make America better.”