George Takei delivers S.H.O.U.T. week keynote

Every year, the Pugh Community Board (PCB) hosts Speaking, Hearing and Opening Up Together (S.H.O.U.T.) week, and this year’s event took on the theme of “The Personal is Political.” On Thursday, Feb. 26, community members made their way to Lorimer Chapel to hear the S.H.O.U.T Week keynote speaker, actor, director, author, social media star and human rights advocate George Takei address this theme in the context of his own work and experiences.

Best known for his role as Commander Sulu on the television show Star Trek, Takei began his speech by recounting his acting days, saying that the show was used as a metaphor for issues of the time. “We dealt with the Vietnam War, the Civil rights movement, with the Cold War, but the biggest and most physical metaphor we had was the Starship Enterprise,” Takei said, while also noting the diversity of the show’s actors. “It was a metaphor for the Starship Earth, and the implication was that it was the diversity of this starship coming together, many people from all over this planet, different races, different cultures, different faiths, all working in concert as a team. That made the Starship what it was: strong but also very engaging.”

Takei spoke about the early United States—how in the beginning, only white men had rights, but he quickly moved to the topic of contemporary equality movements and their potential impact: “We have a faulted history, but have learned from it and gotten better.” But, “there is a missing chapter.”

This chapter, according to Takei, is the interment of Japanese Americans during World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, hysteria swept over the United States as people began to look at Japanese Americans with fear and suspicion. Nonetheless, Japanese American young men went to fight for their country, but were denied military service. The government labeled these men as “enemy non-aliens.”

“It was outrageous to call people who were volunteering to fight for this country, possibly even die, an enemy, but that insult was compounded by the second word, non-alien,” Takei said. “A non-alien is a citizen defined in the negative. They even took the word ‘citizen’ away from us.”

Shortly after, a military curfew was placed on Japanese-Americans on the West Coast from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., and the U.S. government froze their bank accounts. When Takei was five years old, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast to be rounded up without charges or trials.

Takei remembered the soldiers arriving at his house: “they carried rifles….They banged on the door and my father answered. Literally, at gun point, we were ordered out of our home,” he said. “My father gave my brother and me little bundles to carry and we walked out…My mother took some time to come out, but when she came out of the house, she had our baby sister in one arm, a huge duffle bag in the other, and tears were streaming down her face. It was a terrorizing moment and I’ll never forget it.”

Takei and his family were taken to a racetrack where they lived in one single horse stall for months until the government finished building internment camps. After the construction was complete, the Takei family was among a number of Japanese-Americans loaded on a bus and taken to an internment camp in Arkansas.

Takei spent much of his childhood in internment camps. “I still remember the barbed wire fence that confined us. I remember the tall sentry towers with the machine guns pointed at us. I remember the searchlight that followed me when I made the night runs to the latrine. But to five-year-old me, I thought it was kind of nice that they lit the way for me to pee,” he said. “It became routine for me to line up three times a day to eat lousy food…to go with my father to bathe in a mass shower.”

The government continued to oppress Japanese-Americans, until their release at the end of World War II. The Takei family moved back to Los Angeles. As a teenager, Takei began to love reading, especially about the ideals of America. However, Takei could not reconcile the ideals he read about with his past childhood imprisonment. This was aptly illustrated when he recalled saying the Pledge of Allegiance, “I could see the barbed wire fence and the sentry tower right outside my school house window as I recited the words ‘with liberty and justice for all.”

As he got older, Takei began to work on political campaigns. His first successful campaign was that of Tom Bradley, the first and only African-American mayor of Los Angeles. Takei also testified against internment, encouraging the government to pay reparations to those they discriminated against. Each family was promised a $20,000 compensation, which Takei invested in a Japanese-American history museum with hopes to increase awareness of America’s unjust practices during the war.

Though Takei has actively advocated for Japanese-American rights throughout his life, he long remained silent about the issue closest to him: gay rights.

As an adult, Takei began going to gay bars. In a conversation with an older patron, he learned that the police raided gay bars and would take the customers to the police station, finger print them and take their picture. “They were criminalized for just being there,” Takei said.

As he was just starting his Hollywood career, Takei was hesitant to advocate for gay rights. He remained silent during the raid of the Stonewall Inn in 1969 and the AIDS outbreak, though he did donate money and participate in support walks with his partner, Brad.

It was not until former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a 2005 bill that would allow marriage equality in the state that Takei ultimately spoke out. Takei blasted the Governor for his decision and publically declared himself a gay man.

Takei became involved in the Human Rights Campaign, an organization that lobbies in Washington and state capitals, as well as another campaign to educate people of faith. Additionally, he has also worked with GLAAD, which strives to get a more honest representation of LGBT people in the media. “It started to make a difference,” Takei reported. “Now we have 37 states that have marriage equality.”

Takei is now working on a Broadway play, _Allegiance-A New American Musical_: “I’m combining my life mission of raising the awareness of the internment of Japanese-Americans with my profession and my passion for theater…This Fall, at age 78, I will be making my Broadway debut,” he said.

After his speech, Takei took some time to answer questions from the audience before making his way to Pulver Pavilion to meet and take photographs with students. The event was a kickoff to PCB’s S.H.O.U.T. week, which will also include a variety of conversations on the “Personal is Political” theme.

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