By Andrea Plaid
Of course, when I think of this week’s Crush from the standpoint of my childhood, he’s forever Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, looking calmly into the starry universe and co-steering the USS Enterprise through it on the reruns I’d watch with my mom on Saturday afternoons. In my adult life, he’s the criminally underutilized character, Kaito Nakamura, on Heroes. And a helluva of a social media user and activist, boldly using the former for the latter.
The US government forcibly relocated Takei’s family from their home in Los Angeles to an interment camp in Arkansas in 1942, when he was 5 years old, and then to another internment camp in northern California. After World War II ended, his family moved back to Los Angeles. In junior high school Takei was voted student body president; he was also a Boy Scout at his Buddhist temple. After the jump is an interview in which he recalls his childhood:
Takei first studied architecture when he attended college but ended up earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in theater from UCLA in 1960 and 1964, respectively. He also studied at the Shakespeare Institute in England and at Japan’s Sophia University. (Source)
When Takei pursued acting in the late 50s, there were few Asian American images on the large and small screen, and the ones that were seen veered into stereotypes, from the Yellow Peril (e.g. the character of Dr. Fu Manchu) to yellowface. His first role was voiceover work for Japanese monster films. His first major co-starring role was in a Twilight Zone episode called “The Encounter” in 1964, which caused Japanese Americans to complain that, unlike the father of his character who spied for the Japanese navy during WWII, there was no evidence that Japanese Americans committed such espionage or other forms of disloyalty during the Second World War. Due to complaints of the anti-Japanese American racism about the ep was omitted from syndication. (You can watch it on Netflix–that’s where I saw it–and Twilight Zone DVDs.)
In 1965, Gene Roddenberry tapped Takei to play the iconic Lt. Sulu. Takei has gracefully aged with the character, not only appearing in the first six Star Trek films but also appearing in other episodes in the Star Trek franchise and at sci-fi conventions, in cartoons and video games, and in a fan-created web series.
After Star Trek ended, Takei returned to electoral politics: he served as California’s alternate delegate for the Democratic National Committee in 1972. In 1973 he barely lost his bid for Los Angeles’ city council but was tapped that same year to be on the board of directors for the city’s public-transit team who helped design Los Angeles’ subway system.
Takei self-identifies as a gay man; he told his Star Trek castmates and hinted that the only person who had a problem with it was William Shatner. In 2005, Takei stated his gay self-identity in a more public forum: in a interview with Frontiers, a magazine aimed at California’s queer communities, he revealed that and that he and his partner, Brad Altman, have been in a committed relationship for nearly two decades. And he has done some amazing lead-by-example social activism, from doing PSAs calling out ex-NBA player Tim Hardaway, Arkansas school district vice president Clint McCance, and the Tennessee state legislature on their homophobia and doing “Equality Trek,” a 2006 speaking tour on his experiences as a gay Japanese-American man, to serving as the Human Rights Campaign’s “Coming Out Project” spokesperson. (Source) Takei and Altman married in 2008–with Nichelle Nichols as the matron of honor–two months before Proposition 8 declared cisgay marriages unconstitutional. (Takei’s and Altman’s marriage stayed legal according to the initial ruling.) This is what he said about the ruling’s passage in a 2008 Time interview:
Obviously this is a setback for supporters of gay marriage. Was it a fight you expected to win?
I knew the way Proposition 8 was going. Our side was losing. The thing that gave me hope was that Proposition 8 got only 52% of the vote. I say only because eight years ago, there was another initiative to ban marriage equality and that got 61%. So the percentage is coming down. We know that we have a long road ahead, but we are making progress. It was stirring to see President-elect Obama speak on Tuesday. I was involved in the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, and I’m certainly mindful of the whole history of the African American struggle for equality. Civil rights was never an easy thing to do, and it didn’t happen overnight or even in one generation. I know that this is going to happen in our generation, though. It happened for Brad [Altman, Takei's husband] and me. We are married, and we are confident in the validity of our marriage.
It’s interesting that you mention Obama, because while he did not support Proposition 8, he is also not in favor of full marriage equality.
But he is for equal protection under the law. You don’t amend the constitution of any state by threatening the very core of that constitution: equal protection under the law. Proposition 8 is an attack on our constitution and our judiciary. It’s not an amendment; it’s a revision. It’s about taking a core value of the constitution out. It’s like taking freedom of speech away from redheads.
So you’re hopeful about witnessing real improvements during his presidency?
People will change. Their thinking will change. When you look at the results of this election on Prop 8, the people that supported it were older people. Those under 30 were overwhelmingly for defeating it. There’s hope.
Takei’s hope became reality: wiser legal heads prevailed in California and overturned the initiative. And Takei himself been given praise for his social-justice work: he received accolades for his public handling of homophobia and given the LGBT Humanist Award in 2012 by the American Humanist Association.
Then, Takei took to social media in 2011–and has been tweeting and Facebooking with his fans ever since. According to a 2012 Forbes interview, Takei started on Twitter but just couldn’t interact with his 425,000 (and counting) followers the way he liked, so he started a Facebook page. His page has more fans than early social media adapter Wil Wheaton and William Shatner’s combined–about 2.5 million, 84,000, and 161,000 respectively. (And Takei’s on Pinterest!)
What was your approach on Facebook to start engaging with your fans?
I have had a lifelong engagement with Star Trek fans as well as a more recent engagement with fans who know me from my guest announcer gig on Howard Stern on Sirius XM. So I naturally began with that, which produced a curious combination of geek/nerd humor and somewhat raunchy and irreverent banter. It was rather like The Sci-Fi Channel meets Comedy Central.
I also had a vibrant following among LGBT fans who have come to embrace my message of combatting idiocy with humor. It’s really hard to hate someone for being different when you’re too busy laughing together. So my early fans were also comprised of equality-minded activists ready to do battle against the “douchebags” and bullies of the world.
You’ve been a vocal supporter of gay rights and other human rights issues. Do you find that having a strong social media presence has helped you advocate for those causes?
My social media presence has been a game-changer in this regard. I used to rely exclusively on TV and radio, and, to a smaller extent, print, to champion my favorite causes. I was entirely dependent on whether the news media wanted to pick up a story. But now with YouTube and my blog (“That Blog Is So Takei“), I get to decide when a message or cause matters. The content not only can be shared and reshared, but those who missed the first wave can go back and see it later. With crowd-funding sites we can agglomerate supporters, show a relevant video, and compound the effect of our ask. None of this was possible even a few years ago.
And he used the crowdfunding site IndieGoGo to help produce his musical, Allegiance, about the US’s Japanese internment camps.
You’re currently working on a musical ‘Allegiance’ – which tells the story of the Japanese American internment camps. What prompted you to tell this story, and how did it feel to revisit that part of your life?
I’ve dedicated the better part of my life to ensuring that this dark chapter of our national history is not only told but understood, so that we never forget and never repeat this grave injustice. I am a founding member and chairman emeritus of the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles whose mission is in large measure to continue this effort.
Allegiance is a personal journey of mine for certain, and I view it as the culmination of my work not only as an activist but an actor. It is a beautiful, haunting story, with glorious music and an unparalleled cast including Tony winner Lea Salonga, the original Miss Saigon. It will take the theater world by storm when we open this fall at The Old Globe in San Diego, and then transfer in 2013 to the great American stage on Broadway.
The Twilight Zone controversy notwithstanding, Takei’s advocated for the US government to rights its wrongs against Japanese Americans and for bridge-building between the two nations. Among other things, he asked his fans to call their senators to not vote for a bill that echoed the executive order that interred Japanese Americans and co-founded the Japanese American National Museum.The Japanese government bestowed the Order of the Rising Sun, Golden Rays with Rosette for his activism. (Source)
From the earth to the heavens, from history to the future and back again–I couldn’t think of a cooler person to co-steer us through, calmly and boldly.