After Election Night, I'd fully planned to spend this past week in a media-free bunker and avoid any mention of the unreal reality show unspooling in Washington. If you'd told me at the time that I'd instead end Inauguration Eve imbued with if not hope at least resilience, I would've called you crazy. And if you'd told me that the source of my inspiration would be a meme-spreading Facebook celebrity and friend of Howard Stern, I would have backed away slowly and called the cops. But while some say celebrities should stay silent on serious social issues, the Winter Park Institute's Jan. 19 lecture by actor and activist George Takei turned out to provide exactly the historical context many of us craved to hear.
Takei's appearance at Rollins College's Alfond Sports Complex naturally touched on his career as Star Trek's original Lt. Hikaru Sulu, with warm remembrances of departed colleagues James "Scotty" Doohan ("a really down-to-earth, easy to like guy ... he became my favorite drinking buddy") and creator Gene Roddenberry, who was "a trailblazer" who "wanted to use science fiction as a metaphor for the real issues of our time." Takei said Roddenberry began the "table read" for Trek's first episode by explaining, "Starship Enterprise is a metaphor for Starship Earth, with people of all races and cultures coming together and working in concert."
That utopian appeal for equality, represented by the Roddenberry acronym "IDIC" (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination), was not only the underpinning of Star Trek's long-term success, but Takei's deeply personal interest since the age of 5. In 1942, Takei and his family were among the 120,000 innocent Japanese-American citizens dragged from their homes at gunpoint and sent to "desolate, hellish" locations across the country where they were "imprisoned behind barbed wire" in internment camps. "Children are amazingly adaptable," said Takei, recalling how he thought the sentry's spotlights were there to aid his nighttime outhouse visits. "What would be grotesquely abnormal became my normality behind those barbed wire fences."
Once released, Takei's impoverished family returned to Los Angeles, where they could only find housing on Skid Row. Takei's parents lived the American Dream, working their way up from dry cleaners to real estate investors, but as an "arrogant, idealistic teenager" he couldn't reconcile the "noble ideals of American Democracy" with his childhood internment, which was absent from the history books. Takei's father responded by forcing him to become politically active. "He used to tell people that 'we' volunteered for the [Adlai] Stevenson campaign, but actually he volunteered me."
That was the first of several losing candidates Takei backed, but as his father said, "in a democracy, you never give up, you keep on keeping on." Takei helped L.A.'s first African-American mayor win, and was involved in the civil rights movement, even performing at a rally with Martin Luther King: "I shook his hand, and for three days this hand wasn't washed." He also worked with Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda to protest the Vietnam War, and testified to Congress about the Japanese internment before President Reagan's long-awaited official apology and "token" redress.
But for all his public activism, Takei admits he remained private "on the one issue that was closest to me, that was organic to me." He became aware of his homosexuality at around 10 years old, which left him feeling "isolated, as popular as I may have been, and alone" in school. After discovering gay bars, Takei was able to "let my guard down, to relax, and to enjoy camaraderie and friendship," but the threat of career-ruining exposure kept him closeted, "living a double life" filled with "needle-prick anxiety ... a tense, torturous feeling with which I lived all the time." In a question-and-answer session conducted by 90.7 WMFE's space reporter Brendan Byrne, Takei expressed solidarity with the Pulse nightclub victims, calling the attack "an assault on one part of the First Amendment: freedom of assembly," and advocating communal action to "deal with the wanton misunderstanding of the Second Amendment."
Despite watching the Stonewall riots and the growth of gay civil rights, Takei stayed silent until 2005, when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed California's marriage equality bill. "I thought, I've had a good enough career," Takei recalled. "Maybe it's time that I spoke up. I spoke to the press for the first time as a gay man and I blasted Arnold Schwarzenegger's veto." Since then, he's come out "vociferously, loudly, and with amplification" with Brad, his now-husband and partner of nearly 30 years, and lobbied legislators for marriage equality.
It may not seem like it at present, but Takei insists that "we have made amazing progress towards the core ideal of democracy: equality." If a man who has seen America's darkest horrors up close can still say, "I'm an optimist; sometimes I get tired, but I don't get disappointed because I know that there is a solution that can be arrived at by all of us working together," then what excuse do the rest of us have for not boldly going where no one has gone, no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office?