Visiting BC, the ‘Star Trek’ actor discussed racism encountered as Japanese-American during World War II and his work as an activist for gay rights.
Empty seats were hard to come by at Robsham Theater this past Friday, as the Asian Caucus Cabinet spotlight series brought television and film star George Takei before a sold out crowd of many ages on the Heights. Though first known for his role as Hikaru Sulu, Helmsman of the USS Enterprise in the popular sci-fi series Star Trek, Takei’s talk had little to do with his intergalactic endeavors. Rather, Takei spoke to his audience on issues closer to his identity, namely his experiences as an entertainer, an Asian-American growing up in World War II, and an advocate for LGBT rights.
Takei began by sharing his experiences as a young Japanese-American caught in the racist hysteria of World War II. At the age of five, Takei and his family were rounded up by the US government, defined as an “enemy non-alien,” and forcibly relocated to internment camps, where he and hundreds of thousands of other Japanese Americans were confronted with explicit discrimination by their own countrymen.
“Non-alien, what is that?” Takei asked. “That’s a citizen, defined in the negative. They took the word ‘citizen’ away from us.”
With this terrorizing experience in mind, Takei transitioned his talk to shed light on the heroism and patriotism of the Japanese-Americans who fought in the most gruesome battles of the war, specifically those of the 442nd Regimental Combat team. The 442nd was a segregated unit comprised entirely of Japanese-Americans who swallowed their pride in battle in order to prove their loyalty to the United States.
Takei shared the story of this team and the “Gothic Line,” a battle in which the 442nd Regimental Combat team faced a fortified German line head-on and heroically brought an end to a six-month standoff. This team would return to a still-segregated United States as the most decorated unit of the Second World War.
As the War ended and the gates of the prison camps were opened, Takei described the transition back into civilian life as traumatizing. Asian-Americans returning to California were confronted with hostility, racism, and drastically less accommodating living conditions in the Skid Row neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles.
Takei became politically active, defending his newfound ideals of democracy by regularly volunteering for political campaigns, as well as becoming active with social justice issues, such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s and joining the Entertainment Industry for Peace and Justice in response to the Vietnam War.
“I was active in all of these new things, social justice campaigns and political campaigns,” Takei said. “But I was silent on the one issue that was closest to me—the issue of who I am.”
Takei’s struggle to comfortably embrace his sexuality under the microscope of the entertainment industry eventually led him to be outspoken about the gay liberation movement. During this time, gay bars became a sanctuary for the LGBT community across the country, but there was a constant threat of police harassment.
“It was frightening to know that your name would be on a list, your photograph and your fingerprint would be known by the police,” Takei said. “It was scary, the harassment that the police were legally conducting.”
Though silent about his sexuality through the 1969 raids and riots of the Stonewall Inn in New York City and the early stages of the gay liberation movement, Takei eventually lent his support to the AIDS cause. Bearing witness to the ups and downs of gay rights legislation across the country in the early 2000s led Takei to eventually speak out and offer his support to the cause.
“For the first time, I spoke to the press as a gay man … From that moment on, I felt, fully, an American,” said Takei. “I had the heritage of those young men who stood on principle as Americans and for that did hard time … they stood for ideals … I had a responsibility to that heritage.”
In a brief question and answer section following the speech, Takei was confronted with questions ranging from domestic race relations to the international obligations of Americans in promoting sexual equality. When approached with a question of religion, Takei responded cautiously, citing that religion can be used as an excuse for violence but insisting that there still exists a space for all to contribute to the LGBT cause.
“Religion can be twisted and warped and we do what we can within our capacity,” he explained. “Collectively, we can bring about some change.”
At the close of the speech, Takei reminded the audience of its civic duty as protectors of our own democracy.
“We have a great American heritage, and with that we have a great responsibility: to each meet the more complex issues of our time and to be change agents to make a better America in our time.”
Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor