Public Lives: George Takei

Find Your State

Know the laws in your state that protect LGBT people and people living with HIV.
The activist and actor talks to Lambda Legal about turning 80, his teenage heartthrob and fighting the good fight.
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Your musical  about Japanese American internment camps  in the U.S. seems so prescient right now. Allegiance is a story about racism and how destructive it is. Some people and the government couldn’t see that fact. All they saw was that we looked like the enemy. This recent election showed that many didn’t know American history. In particular, this dark chapter of our history when racism took over, combined with war hysteria, and put innocent people, American citizens, in prison camps. This assumption that immigrants are all alike. Allegiance underscores how people can love each other if they can see beyond difference.

Your musical ends with optimism. Do you think in that same way about the future of our country? Oh, I’m still in shock. The recovery is soon to come, I know, because we have to recover. The fundamental ideals, the core ideals of this country, are what’s got to move us forward.

What would you say, especially to the members of the LGBT community, who may be feeling scared after the election? I’m someone who grew up behind barbed wire fences and here I am today. It’s important that we actively engage in this participatory democracy and not flee from what we stand for. If anything, this has got to galvanize us even more.

Fear has also been at the center of the whole “bathroom predator” issue. People are creating a problem where none existed. Politicians who are resistant to the idea of diversity in our society are making up issues. When you challenge them to name a case where sexual predation has happened, they can’t. They say, “I’ll look into it.” But, they cannot point to an example. Ultimately we’re going to win in the same way that marriage equality was fiercely resisted by these very same people. We’ve got to be engaged to protect what we’ve gained and also to continue to push the nation forward.

You came out at the  age of 68. Yes. During my time, you could not be gay and have a visible career. Once I started making some progress as an actor, getting cast, there was that fear that it was going to be taken away from me. When I was a teenager my movie heartthrob was Tab Hunter. He was gorgeous. He was the star of almost every other Warner Brothers release at that time. But when he was exposed as being gay, his career just stalled. For me, that was a very intense wakeup call.

Then came Star Trek. But Star Trek was cancelled in ’69 and that was the year of Stonewall. Here I am having worked steadily for three seasons and suddenly I’m unemployed.

And you were in  the closet. Stonewall was exciting.  At long last, here are people standing up, saying, “We won’t take this anymore.”  I was vocal on very important issues of the time, like civil rights and the antiwar movement. Yet I was silent on the very issue that was profoundly personal to me. It was torturous. I lived with this constant, needleprick anxiety and fear of exposure. And it’s difficult to have a relationship when you’re asking yourself: will he be damaging to me?

You came out so publicly. I blasted Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto of the marriage equality bill in California that day. Once I made that move to speak out to the press for the first time as gay man, I felt completely myself.

You’re everywhere. Onstage, online, making appearances. What’s your secret? I’ve been an activist throughout my life on political and social justice issues. When you’re engaged like this, it’s difficult to spend 24 hours a day on social media. We have a team and a timetable so  we can build an audience.

You’re returning to the stage in Pacific Overtures in April, and you turn 80 that same month. Congratulations. I’d like to shout it from  the mountaintops. The theater has always been  my first love.

How do you do eight performances a week? Discipline and staying healthy. We’re living longer and we’re finding new challenges. That's why LGBT seniors are an issue that has to be more on the minds of people who advocate for LGBT equality. We need to create an environment where they can be truly comfortable. Some people have had to go back into the closet when they go into assisted or communal living, just to survive. I have contributed funds to build a housing complex for LGBT seniors in Los Angeles.

You’re fighting the  good fight. We LGBT people have made such amazing ad- vances. We’re all pulling at the same wagon, as I say.


George Takei stars in  Classic Stage Company’s production of Pacific Overtures in New York City, opening April 6