“The key to success is not how many people we put in, but how many we keep from coming back."
This is the transcript of an interview with George Takei of Star Trek fame. Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, conducted the interview on April 19, 2006.
I’m Matt Rothschild, and welcome to Progressive Radio. My guest today is Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu, who came out last year to work with the Human Rights Campaign to combat the rightwing’s push against gay marriage.
George Takei: It’s a pleasure to be with you and to discuss this issue with you. But let me put what you said about me coming out last year in context. I’ve been together with my partner Brad Altman for two decades now. We’ve been out with our family and friends and with various activities we’re involved with in the civic community. We support nonprofits. Our names have been engraved together in granite on donors’ walls. So we’ve been out, in that sense. But what I’d not done is talk to the press, you guys, because you’re a whole different ball game.
But last year our California legislature did an extraordinary thing, a historic thing, a landmark event: They passed the same-sex marriage bill, something that the Massachusetts legislature had not even done. It was a judicial process that brought about the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. We were elated. All that was required for that bill to become the law of the state was the autograph of another actor, who also happens to be the governor of the state of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Q: Did you expect him to sign it?
Takei: We did, because when he ran for office, he made all these moderate political statements. He’s from Hollywood, he’s worked with gays and lesbians, he’s comfortable with gays and lesbians, some of his best friends, you know, all these clichés, and many people voted for him on that basis. When he betrayed them and played to the narrowest, most reactionary, conservative segment of his base and vetoed that bill I felt I needed to speak out. And in order for me to do that, I felt my voice needed to be authentic. And so I spoke to the press for the first time.
Q: What was the initial reaction, from the public or the press?
Takei: It was very positive. In fact, the demands were overwhelming: print, radio, television, fan newsletters, the whole spectrum. The most satisfying and comforting part was the overwhelming number of positive e-mails. My computer just exploded.
Q: People were grateful?
Takei: People were grateful, and there were many different kinds of positive e-mails. There were those saying, “Right on. That’s a good thing that you did.” There were Star Trek fans who said, “You’ve added another dimension to it.” There was another group of letters that were very moving: people who were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. They shared with me their pain, their sense of isolation, and how it gave them great comfort and encouragement that someone who is as public and visible and had been on a TV series that is still popular had come out, in quotes. I did get the negatives.
Q: I was going to say, living in America I know you must have gotten not only the positives. How ugly were the ugliest ones?
Takei: The interesting thing was they were all anonymous; they could not own up to their statements. The other interesting thing was, their grammar was incredible. They were practically illiterate. And the vulgar ones, they were just despicable. And then there were the Bible-thumpers. But they were the small minority, less than 10 percent. And that was the other revealing thing. All these attempts at legislation seem to be coming from that reactionary, right extreme.
Q: And yet, they had success with that in 2004. They’re planning on having success with it again in 2006. Do you think it’s going to work again?
Takei: I think that’s because we’ve been caricatured. As an Asian American, I’m aware of how stereotypes can be very destructive. We’ve been defined by the drag queens. And yes, they exist. But we’ve been defined as irresponsible, flamboyant, loud, and garish. I think what we need to do—and what we haven’t done as aggressively as we should have—is to depict the vast diversity of the GLBT community. We’re corporate CEOs, we’re schoolteachers, we’re professional athletes, we’re policemen. And some of our lives are very boring and quite normal. And beyond that, we’re part of the American family. We’re sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, we’re parents, we’re uncles and aunts. But because of the heritage we have of suppression and hiding and not being out, we really haven’t shared our personal lives. So part of what my Equality Trek is all about is to share our lives, our normality.
You know, our adversaries call their campaigns “in protection of marriage” or “in defense of marriage.” Why are they so defensive and protective? Are their marriages so fragile?
You look at the male-female marriages. Half of them end up in divorce.
There’s cheating. There’s lying. There’s infidelity. There’s spousal abuse. That’s not marriage.
What we’re talking about with same-sex marriage is two people who love each other, who take responsibility for each other, and who care for each other. And who are really married in fact, if not in law. If anything, this is really an affirmation of the core value—the true meaning—of marriage: two people who love each other. They may not necessarily be a man and a woman, but that’s a true marriage.
Q: Talk to me more about this Equality Trek, and how you got hooked up with Human Rights Campaign.
Takei: Well, shortly after I talked to the press, the Human Rights Campaign in Washington became aware of me. And I was contacted by them, and my partner and I were invited to visit their office in Washington, D.C. It was impressive: the professionalism, and the thought-out strategy that they described to me, and the various forms of expertise that the Human Rights Campaign had, in terms of the political arena, in terms of the public relations arena, in terms of the strategic planning area. The other department that impressed me was their outreach to the faith-based community, because that’s where a lot of the adversarial activities had been coming from. But the large majority of faith-based people are decent, fair-minded people. The point was, we should not characterize people of faith as the adversaries of GLBT equality. And what we needed to do was reach out and share the lives of GLBT people with that decent, fair-minded group. And they had a department that did outreach to them, as well, and it was very impressive. And so we decided that yes, we will participate in their program. We became members of their Federal Club, financially supportive of the operation.
And when they asked me to go on a national tour, sharing my gay experience as well as my childhood in U.S. internment camps and drawing that parallel, I said I’d be more than happy to participate. We’ve been on this trek, and I must say it’s been exciting, exhilarating, exhausting, and tremendously fulfilling.
Q: Tell me about your childhood, and those few years you were in internment camps. Your mother was a U.S. citizen, your father was not.
Take me through that period.
Takei: My mother was born in Sacramento, California. My father came to San Francisco when he was ten years old, and so he grew up and was educated in San Francisco. He was an American in spirit and he felt he was very much a San Franciscan. He was a passionate San Franciscan, as San Franciscans are. I was born in Los Angeles. I’m a second generation Californian. I was four years old at the time of Pearl Harbor. I didn’t understand what was going on. But I’ll never forget that day when U.S. soldiers with bayonet guns came to our Los Angeles home and ordered us out. And we were taken from our home to the horse stables of the nearby Santa Anita racetrack, where we were housed for about three months while the camps were being built. And when construction was completed, we were transported two-thirds across the country, across the southwestern desert, to the swamps of Arkansas.
Q: What was that experience like?
Takei: I remember the barbed-wire fence. I remember the sentry towers and the machine guns that were pointed at us. I remember the searchlights that followed us when we made the night run to the latrine. But, you know, a child is amazingly adaptable. And what would be abnormal in normal times became my normality. It became just routine for me to line up three times a day and to eat in that noisy hall there. It became normal for me to go with my father to bathe in a communal shower. And I went to school in a black barrack, and our school day began every morning with the pledge of allegiance to the flag. I could see the barbed-wire fence and the sentry towers right outside my window as I recited the words, “with liberty and justice for all.”
As I said, I adjusted. But for my parents, it was the darkest period of their lives. Can you imagine? The young couple, with three children, one a baby, to be taken from their home, losing everything, and initially to be housed in horse stalls.
And so what I do is I draw that parallel of a nation swept up in wartime hysteria, acting irrationally, with no due process, there were no charges, no trial, we simply looked the people who bombed Pearl Harbor, and that’s why we were incarcerated. And here today my partner and I feel the same kind of imprisonment.
Q: And I’m sure Muslim Americans and Arab Americans after 9/11 have felt it as well.
Takei: Exactly, and our history books have been much too mute on that dark chapter of American history, and because of that, we really haven’t learned the lesson of the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during the Second World War. And here we are today, repeating it all over again. The word today is “detained,” not “interred.” People are being detained with no due process. They don’t know what the charges are, why they’re being detained. Simply because they have an Arab name or some association, but there are no charges.
Q: I just read that Halliburton got a federal contract to build internment camps.
Takei: Oh, dear. We never learn, do we?
Q: You were in Arkansas in one camp, and then at another one in Tule Lake, Oregon, and you were there when Hiroshima was bombed. Can you tell me what the reaction was of people in the camp?
Takei: We didn’t get information in the camp. But a few people had short-wave radios; they were verboten. They somehow snuck them in.
There were people who were photographers before the war; they snuck in lenses wrapped in their underwear and they constructed cameras to record our lives there. And people who had short-wave radios were able to glean information from outside. So we got no word of the bombing of Hiroshima through official channels. It was just this short-wave radio information and it spread through the camp like wildfire.
My maternal grandparents came from Hiroshima and before the war they sensed the winds of war coming, and so they returned to Japan with their youngest child, my mother’s youngest sister. She had gotten married there in Hiroshima, and had a baby. My aunt and my cousin, the baby, were in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing, and they both perished in that holocaust.
My grandparents, incredibly, survived. As a matter of fact, my grandmother lived to be 105, and came back to live in America.
Q: Did she ever tell you what it was like when Hiroshima was bombed?
Takei: Their house collapsed, and fortunately, they were far enough from the detonation and it collapsed in such a way that they were shielded from the radiation. My mother went insane not knowing. She went insane with anxiety. My father finally told her, for you to have peace, let us assume that they’ve perished. You’ve got to live your life. We learned much later, after the war, that her parents, my grandparents, had survived, but that her sister and the baby had died.
Q: Let’s talk about Star Trek.
Takei: Most certainly. That comes with the territory.
Q: Tell me about Gene Rodenberry. How did he come to invent such a concept?
Takei: He was an extraordinary man. I consider him a real visionary. He felt that television as a medium was being wasted back in the ’60s. Here was this potent, powerful medium of communication. It was being used for just light entertainment. And he felt there was much more that could be done with it to inform an audience, to engage an audience, to inspire an audience. He wanted to use that medium for all those purposes. But television was also a very conservative medium because it was dependent on advertising. There was a time when you couldn’t use the word camel in a negative way because there was a cigarette named Camel. So he had to devise a strategy, a way of selling the project to the conservative television people. And so he came up with idea to sell it as a “wagon train in space,” and they bought that.
Q: But he sold it to you as something more than that.
Takei: Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. He said the Starship Enterprise was a metaphor for Starship Earth, and that the strength of the Starship was in its diversity coming together. Obviously, the visual of diversity was ethnicity and culture. But he saw diversity in a much, much broader way, because the ’60s was a time of the Cold War, two great powers threatening each other with mutual annihilation, the madness of that.
And he wanted to imply that that too we would overcome. That’s why we had a trusted member of the crew named Pavel Chekhov. He spoke with a Russian accent and was proud of his Russian heritage. And so there was diversity in not only ethnicity and culture but in history and ideas and politics. And in a private conversation with him, this was after the show was cancelled, we were generally talking about diversity, and he suggested that, yes, he was aware of sexual diversity. But he felt that it was important to keep the show on. Because it was precarious. All three seasons that we were on our ratings were very low. But he implied that this was something he wanted to incorporate.
Q: Did he know you were gay at the time?
Takei: He did not. And I was not out to him at that time.
Q: He did stress that he was going to have a positive role for you as an Asian American. What did that mean to you?
Takei: Well, he described the character to me. He said my character would be representative of Asia. But he said he had some difficult times coming up with a name for my character because all Asian names are nationally specific.
Q: It’s hard to represent Asia since it goes all the way from Pakistan and India to South Korea and Japan.
Takei: And the name Kim is specifically Korean. Wong is Chinese. Tanaka is Japanese. So he was trying to find something that would suggest all of that part of the map. And so he found to the west of the Philippines a sea called the Sulu Sea. And he thought, ah, the waters of the sea touch all shores, and that’s how he came up with the name Sulu. And he said that this character would be a full-fledged professional, the brightest guy out of Star Fleet academy, a very good helmsman, eventually to become the best helmsman of the Star Fleet, and he would be part of this leadership team of the Enterprise. I was excited.
Because I’d been playing the stereotyped Asian roles. I desperately wanted that part.
Q: In your autobiography, “To the Stars,” you write that when you saw this role you knew it would be reversing a pattern in America’s images of Asians, at least the images that Hollywood had put forward. What were some of those images?
Takei: Well, we were either the villains, the enemy, the bad guys, or the servant, the comic buffoon. And here was this role of Sulu, with no accent, and a part of the leadership team. It was so exciting to even think I might be playing that part.
Q: And how important was it for you when Star Trek became a movie then that you ultimately became the captain?
Takei: [laughing] Star Fleet was described as a meritocracy. If he was the best helmsman, you would think that there would be some recognition of that in terms of title. I was commander, but I was still doing the very same work as a lieutenant—there chained to the console of the Enterprise. So I kept lobbying both Gene and the writing staff suggesting ideas, and one of them being a captaincy for Sulu. It took 25 long years, but finally with Star Trek VI, I had my command: The Excelsior. It was glorious. [laughs]
Q: Tell me what you attribute the continued popularity of Star Trek to?
Takei: Well, I think it’s because of those ideas that Gene had: the diversity idea. And also to look to the future with confidence. Confidence in the human capacity for problem solving, for invention, for innovation. To me, the amazing thing is that so much that was science fiction back then, political fiction, today is reality. We have indeed a spacecraft called an international space station. And we have the diversity of this planet working on that ship, including Americans and Russians working side by side. I think the imagineers are the ones that set the goal. And the inventors and the technicians see that as a goal to work toward, or the political scientists and the diplomats. And eventually, that’s arrived at. I think what’s important, though, is for people like Gene Rodenberry to set that goal, a vision for people to work toward. I’m proud to be associated with a show like that. I think Gene was a great man who made an important contribution to our society.
Q: Are there going to be any more Star Trek movies?
Takei: You know, I keep getting surprised. I thought when we were cancelled that was it. Never expected that we would come back as a cartoon series. And then the movie series. In September I start work on an episode that’s going to be available at your local computers and laptops. It’s going to be webcast.
Q: There you go. George Takei, thanks so much for being my guest.
Takei: Great visiting with you.