Star Trek legend George Takei has been a political activist for more than six decades. Matthew Wade had a chat with him about being a closeted actor in Hollywood, Donald Trump, and the future of queer rights in Australia.
It’s night-time in New York City and seconds after answering his phone George Takei is telling me there were two experiences that ignited his passion for social justice: being rounded up at gunpoint as a five-year-old and seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger veto a same-sex marriage bill in California during the mid-noughties.
“Japanese Americans were rounded up and put into prison camps simply because we happened to look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbour,” he said.
“As a teenager I became very curious about my childhood imprisonment and would have discussions about it over dinner with my father.
“He said people in government can do great things but they’re also fallible human beings and our democracy is dependent on people who engage with the government to make our system as close to ideal as it can be.
“So I became active in the political arena from that point on as a teenager.”
While he was navigating his racial differences and becoming vocal in the political sphere, Takei also began to realise there was something else that set him apart from his peers in high school.
“I was different in ways beyond my Japanese face,” he said.
“Other boys excited me, but those boys were excited by other girls.”
For a long time he lived what he describes as an artificial and straight life despite his sexual attraction to other men. He pretended to be ‘excited’ by women and when his straight friends began dating, he did as well.
When he decided he wanted to be an actor and most notably during his star turning role as Hikaru Sulu on the sci-fi series Star Trek, Takei says he knew right away he wouldn’t have a career if it was known he was interested in other men.
Takei hid his identity with a façade and lived most of his adult life as a closeted gay man secretly exploring gay bars in California.
“I was constantly living with a needle prick anxiety around being exposed,” he said.
However, when the climate around marriage equality began to change Takei too felt a shift in the way he perceived his closeted identity.
In 2005 the state of California was on the cusp of legalising same-sex marriage. A well-supported landmark bill required only one more signature to be passed: that of the then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
As someone that had similarly worked in Hollywood and closely with many LGBTI people, Takei felt The Terminator star was sure to sign in favour of the bill.
When he didn’t, Takei made the snap decision to come out and refocus his social activism to include the rights of LGBTI people, a community he was now openly identifying with.
“I came out and blasted Arnold’s veto,” he said.
“I’d had a good enough career by then so I decided to come out and become a gay rights activist.”
His shift into the realm of LGBTI rights activism over the past 12 years has seen Takei become a leading global voice when it comes to the issues affecting our community.
With millions of online followers, Takei helps to raise awareness and lobby against homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia in their many manifestations around the world.
He says he’s often approached by members of the LGBTI community who express how Takei has helped them through his advocacy. However, he’s quick to reciprocate.
“There are people that stop me in the streets or in restaurants to thank me but I tell them no – we’re all in this together,” he said.
“We’re pulling at the same wagon. Rather than thanking anyone let’s double our efforts to build a better society that recognises the strength of diversity.”
With marriage equality done and dusted in the States and a Trump presidency casting a grim shadow over the lives of minority groups across the country, there are new and more visible issues to be dealt with.
Takei says the ‘T’ in our rainbow acronym now requires the biggest fight, a fight that over the past year has shifted into the bathroom.
“The battle for trans people is now strangely in the bathroom,” he said.
“There are politicians who like to make up an issue when a problem doesn’t exist and try to make it into law.
“In the dead of night in North Carolina politicians passed a bill that said trans people had to use the bathroom that aligned with what was printed on their birth certificates.
“But if trans people went into these bathrooms they could face abuse, humiliation, and perhaps even violence. So
that’s the battle we’re fighting in North Carolina right now.”
And with Donald Trump steering the ship, Takei is cynical it’s in safe hands.
“Trump has said [LGBTI rights] are a settled issue, but Donald Trump is an ad-lib presidency,” he said.
“He just goes impetuously from issue to issue and his base is very right-wing conservative.
“I don’t trust it – he has been changing on a dime. We are very much on our guard.”
Across the pond, Takei believes achieving marriage equality here in Australia will be a matter of concerted effort by members of the community to lobby the government and the broader public.
He’s surprised to learn that Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull supports marriage equality, despite same-sex marriage remaining illegal.
“What’s so hard for me to understand is why don’t people realise that we are the children of straight people, we’re literally members of one big family,” he said.
“We’re the sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters of straight people.
“It’s not ‘them’ and ‘us’ as it is with racial issues or other political issues based on ideology.
“We’re literally members of the same family and what’s grotesquely unnatural is when parents put a dogma over what the most natural thing is – the natural love of their child.”
This August Takei will be visiting Australia for an appearance in both Sydney and Melbourne, as well as a VIP cocktail party with host Benjamin Law in Sydney.
He says he always enjoys his trips down under, citing his appreciation for the ‘distinctiveness’ of our accents. He also diplomatically weighed in on the age-old Sydney versus Melbourne feud.
“Melbourne has a distinctly British feel and Sydney reminds me of Los Angeles,” he said.
“But I like apples and I like oranges – each has its own delight.”
Looking ahead Takei believes the key to achieving hard won rights in the LGBTI arena both in Australia and around the world will be the persistence of advocates both within and outside of the community.
“The people concerned and our allies need to be actively engaged in the process of our political systems,” he said.
“That’s what brings about change, not just sitting and waiting for it to happen.”
George Takei will be in Australia this August for An Evening With George Takei in Sydney on Friday 11 August, and Melbourne on Sunday 13 August. There will also be a special Oh Myyy… Cocktails With George Takei event in Sydney on Thursday 10 August.
Want to win tickets to see meet George Takei when he’s down under in August? Click here to enter the Star Observer competition.