As a teenager, “Star Trek” actor George Takei’s father told him something about the American democracy that has stayed with him to this day.
The pair would sit together and have long discussions about politics and social issues, the young, idealistic kid challenging the elder Takei on his beliefs.
“My father said ‘the American democracy is the people’s democracy. It’s dependent on good people to be actively engaged in the process,’” Takei, 75, told a crowd of more than 600 students and fans at Cal Poly Pomona Tuesday. “What my father told me really defined who I am.”
The openly gay actor famous for his role as Mr. Sulu on the original “Star Trek” series spoke at the campus in a talk titled “Social Justice in a Digital World.” The author and philanthropist covered topics ranging from his childhood to his career to his push for social justice.
Cal Poly’s Office of Student Life, along with the Violence Prevention and Resource, African-American, Asian Pacific Islander, Cesar E. Chavez, Native American, and the Pride student centers, sponsored the event.
Takei talked about diversity as a source of strength. He said his self-perception was defined by a time when diversity wasn’t valued, recounting how when he was five, armed soldiers marched up the steps of his Los Angeles home and took his family first to the horse stalls at the Santa Anita Park in Arcadia and then to a World War II-era Japanese internment camp in Arkansas.
“It was time of racial hysteria, economic greed, and a lack of political leadership,” Takei said.
After about three years in the camps, he, his parents, and younger brother and sister returned to Los Angeles. The family was poor and forced to move into a rundown Skid Row hotel for a couple of months before his father found a dry cleaning store in a mostly Latino East Los Angeles, Takei said.
He stuck out and recalled a teacher referring to him as “the little Jap boy.”
“It stung,” he said. “It hurt.”
As a teen, Takei said he was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and active in political campaigns with his father. He said that although as a teen and a young adult working on social justice for Japanese-Americans and others, he kept silent about his sexual orientation.
Times were different then and although his co-stars on “Star Trek” knew he was gay, they didn’t reveal that because they knew he could lose his career, Takei said.
As marriage equality began to take hold, he said the fact that he had not spoken out for gay rights began to gnaw at him. In 2005, then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a same-sex marriage bill.
“I was livid, but I remained silent,” he said.
In 2008, when same-sex marriage was allowed in California, Takei got married to his husband Brad Altman. He began to talk about marriage-equality in his speeches and spoke to a reporter.
Nowadays, Takei uses social media to speak to his fans and share his views on social justice and gay-rights issues.
He said he started with telling jokes and posting funny photos he later learned were called “memes.” As he saw the positive response he was getting, he began to share more of his political thoughts.
He used social media to build up an audience for his musical, “Allegiance,” which tells the story of the Kimuras, a Japanese-American family much like his own living and surviving in the World War II era. After a successful run at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, Takei said he plans to take it to Broadway.
Takei said blacks, Latinos, women, and other minority groups have made tremendous strides and cautioned one attendee against being pessimistic about equality’s slow progress
“You make progress incrementally,” he said. “If you are a pessimist, you will give up. Pessimists get defeated. Optimists will ultimately prevail.”
Jonny De La Torre, a 21-year-old third-year construction engineering technology major, said what stood out the most about Takei’s talk was the adversity he overcame.
“It was really inspiring,” said De La Torre, a resident advisor for campus housing. “It’s cool to see diverse members of campus out to support a well-known actor and social justice activist.”