After a Governor Betrayed the Gay Community, George Takei Knew He Had to Come Out
For most of his adult life, George Takei had to hide his sexuality to protect his career as an actor. He came out when he was 68 years old and, contrary to his fears, his work and his life have since blossomed.
George Takei is best known for his portrayal of Mr. Sulu in the acclaimed television and film series Star Trek. He’s an actor, social justice activist, social media mega-power, star of the upcoming Broadway musical Allegiance, and subject of To Be Takei, a documentary on his life and career. Takei’s acting career has spanned five decades, with more than 40 feature films and hundreds of television guest-starring roles to his credit. He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Actors’ Equity Association, and Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
With the outbreak of World War II, Los Angeles, California-born Takei and his family were placed behind the barbed-wire enclosures of United States internment camps along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans. He spent most of his childhood at Camp Rohwer in the swamps of Arkansas and at wind-swept Camp Tule Lake in northern California. At the end of the war, Takei’s family returned to their native Los Angeles. Inspired by this difficult chapter of American history, Takei developed the Broadway-bound musical Allegiance, an epic story of love, family and heroism in which he stars alongside Tony Award winner Lea Salonga.
He is also a member of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest national lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender political organization. Takei is Chairman Emeritus of the Japanese American National Museum’s Board of Trustees; a member of the US-Japan Bridging Foundation Board of Directors; and served on the Board of the Japan-United States Friendship Commission under President Bill Clinton. In recognition of his contribution to the Japan-United States relationship, in 2004, Takei was conferred with the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, by His Majesty, the Emperor of Japan.
With Takei’s expansion into social media, interest in his personal life expanded. In January 2014, To Be Takei, a Jennifer M. Kroot documentary on the life and career of Takei, premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January, and was later released in select theaters across North America. Among his many accomplishments are a Grammy nomination Takei shared with Leonard Nimoy, in 1987, in the Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Recording category. He has received a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame in 1986. And in 1991, Takei left his signature and hand print, in cement, in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
As an author, Takei’s first book, his autobiography, To the Stars, was published in 1994; and in 2012 and 2013 he published his second and third books, Oh Myyy! There Goes The Internet, and its sequel, Lions And Tigers And Bears: The Internet Strikes Back. The latter two books explored his forays on social media and the Internet, earning placement on the Amazon ebook and paperback best-seller lists in 2012 and 2013.
Takei’s social media dominance is best denoted by his numerous awards. Mashable.com named Takei the most-influential person on Facebook in 2012, where he currently has over 8.8 million “likes.” In 2013, Takei won the Shorty Award for Distinguished Achievement in Internet Culture. He has 1.7 million followers on Twitter, and posts on various social media platforms, expanding his reach now with the 2015 debut of the YouTube series, “It Takeis Two,” starring with husband, Brad Takei. The “reality” series shares the couple’s daily navigation of their world, with George’s vibrant sense of humor and Brad’s less-than-optimistic pragmatism. In 2015, Cosmopolitan Magazine named Takei “One of the Internet’s 50 Most Fascinating People.” In early 2016, he has plans to relaunch his personal site, GeorgeTakei.com.
George Takei: I was closeted for most of my life, my adult life. I wanted to be an actor, which alone, just that alone was, some people thought, a crazy aspiration to have because I am Asian and Asians, first of all, don't have many opportunities to get cast. Plus the fact that there were stereotypes that we were saddled with: Either the cold, heartless killer; the inscrutable person that's got something always going on in the back of his mind leading to suspicion that we could be spies; or the servile; the client obsequious; or the buffoon — all very unattractive stereotypes. So why I would go into acting was something that — well, I'm the black sheep of the family. My parents thought it was absolutely crazy, but they knew how passionate I was. And to get cast with, first, this ethnic barrier, hurdle for me to cross, I didn't want to add another one of being gay. Gay people were not cast, or if they were exposed as gay, their careers faded. I remember when I was a teenager there was a very good-looking, handsome actor named Tab Hunter who was a contract actor with Warner Bros. and almost every other movie coming from Warner Bros. starred Tab Hunter. He was the heartthrob of America until Confidential exposed him as being gay and eventually he disappeared. That was an object lesson for me. And so I was closeted. And my career was making progress and so I did everything to protect my career, which meant having my guard up all the time. Being careful about the pronouns I used. Denying a good portion of who I was. It was a very uncomfortable way to live, except that when you're doing it, it becomes a part of your normal existence. I lived that uncomfortable existence as what I thought was going to be my life.
I used to go to gay bars in Los Angeles back then and it was a wonderful place where that guard can come down. I could make friends as who I am and to really relax and enjoy friendship, camaraderie, and a wonderful evening or an afternoon. But one of the older people told me that periodically the police would raid gay bars and they would march the clients out, put them on a patty wagon, drive them to the police station, fingerprint them, photograph them, and their names would be put on a list. It was terrifying. Their lives could be destroyed. They could lose their jobs, perhaps their families. It was a horrible thing. And what were they doing? A criminal activity according to the law at that time. Being gay was criminalized. We were marched out, put into paddy wagons and registered. And I thought, "That's no different than what happened to me when I was a child." Because of this face, because we looked like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor, we were put into prison camps guarded over by soldiers with machine guns pointed down at us from sentry towers. It was the same thing, and I thought that was horrible; it was wrong, unjust, and yet that was the way we had to live, those few isolated moments when we could be ourselves. And then Stonewall happened when the people there resisted. They decided they had had enough. They're not going to take it anymore. And that was the galvanizing event and society began to change. And by the 21st century things were really starting to change. Massachusetts, the State Supreme Court of Massachusetts ruled that marriage equality was constitutional. So that was the first state. Two years later on the other coast in California, the people's representatives this time, through the legislative route, both houses of the California Legislature, the Assembly and the Senate passed the Marriage Equality Bill. All that bill needed was a signature of the governor to become the law of the state. It would have been two states bookending America with marriage equality. The governor at that time happen to be a movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. When he campaigned for that office he told the public, "I'm from Hollywood. I've worked with gays and lesbians; some of my best friends are gays and lesbians."
And persuaded by that, a couple of my gay friends did vote for him, yet when that bill landed on his desk he acted as the representative of his base, the right wing of the Republican Party, and he vetoed it. I was raging, but I had trained my body muscularly to hold in that rage. And that night Brad and I were watching the late night news and I saw all these young people pouring out onto Santa Monica Boulevard. venting their rage on Arnold Schwarzenegger. And we felt the same way. And it got us to thinking and talking and Brad and I discussed it. I was 68 years old by that time and I thought, "Well, I want my life to have some meaning. I want the time that I have left to do something about that aspect of who we are." And so I spoke to the press for the first time as a gay man and I blasted Arnold Schwarzenegger's veto. And what I thought of my career, I thought it was going to go on the downhill side; the opposite happened. It just blossomed and I've been working more since coming out than I'd been when I was closeted."
The story of George Takei's coming out is an epic unto itself. For most of his adult life, during which time homosexuality was considered a crime, he had to hide his true self to protect his career as an actor. When he broached the topic with Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, even the progressive Roddenberry balked, convinced that his show would be shut down if it featured a gay character. After decades of quiet humility, Takei broke his silence and spoke out when Arnold Schwarzenegger, then governor of California, vetoed a gay-marriage bill. While he fully expected his career to decline as a result, the opposite happened. You can catch his live-action show, Allegiance, currently running on Broadway.
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