Actor, activist, and social media sensation George Takei visited Washington, D.C. on Friday to deliver a speech at a luncheon at the National Press Club. In remarks that were by turns witty, impassioned, and poignant, Takei told a packed crowd about his career and his lifelong passion for social justice.
As the audience noshed on Takei-themed sugar cookies, the 76-year-old actor recounted his sightseeing trip to the newly-reopened national monuments. After speaking of the grandeur of the Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Vietnam Memorials, he said that he viewed the towering Washington Monument, then "looked far beyond that and saw the national nuthouse" -- the U.S. Capitol.
He noted that Washington, D.C. -- which serves not just as the dysfunctional capital of the United States, but a living, breathing, vibrant city -- is a fitting embodiment of the paradoxical highs and lows that he's experienced in his life.
Takei and his family were among the thousands of Japanese Americans classified as "enemy non-aliens" ("citizens defined in the negative," as Takei explains) and incarcerated by the American government during the years that the United States fought Japan in World War II. He said that as a young child, he wasn't always aware of the injustice of his condition -- "I thought it was kind of nice that the searchlight lit the way for me to [the latrine]," he joked -- but as he grew older, it became all too clear. For example, each day at the camp's school began with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. But as Takei noted, "I could see the barbed-wire fence right outside my school window as I recited those words, 'with liberty and justice for all.'"
Mr. Takei was heavily involved in the push for African-American civil rights and the protest movement against the Vietnam war, but remained silent on LGBT issues out of fear. Describing the pre-Stonewall days, Takei said, "Whenever I walked into a new gay bar I always looked for the exits. We lived in constant, ever-present fear of being exposed."
Things changed markedly after the Stonewall riots, but not for him. "All were excited and motivated and galvanized," Takei said. "But I was silent -- I had a career to protect."
AIDS, DADT, DOMA, and Arnold
It was the AIDS crisis that inspired Takei to take his first timid step out of the closet. He watched in horror as friends succumbed to the disease and often received care that was perfunctory at best. "The treatment that they got was reprehensible," Takei recounted. So for the first time, he donated money to a gay -related organization. He also marched in his first AIDS walk, but as an ally rather than an LGBT community member. "A cloak to disguise me," he said.
The 1980s gave way to the 1990s, the era of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. To Takei, they carried uncomfortable echoes of his childhood in the internment camps: "Those laws, to me, looked like barbed wires -- legalistic barbed wires, with the sharp barbs of prejudice and ignorance."
But it was then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2005 veto of a marriage equality bill that finally brought Takei out of the closet. "I've got to speak out," he told himself. "And for me to speak, I've got to be authentic." So he spoke to the press for the first time as an openly gay man, and has been an outspoken LGBT advocate ever since.
Hope For the Future
Takei challenged the audience to be agents for positive change in the world, just as the rioters at the Stonewall Inn and the marchers for African-American civil rights were. He also called on closeted LGBT people to come out and be open, especially within Asian cultures, in order to advance the cause of equality and make LGBT identity more socially acceptable.
The harshest words of the afternoon were reserved for Russia, whose draconian anti-gay laws Takei said violated the country's pledge to honor Olympic rules prohibiting discrimination at next year's Winter Games. He was equally withering in his criticism of the International Olympic Committee: "The IOC is spineless," he said. "They need to have some backbone because they are charged with upholding the Olympic creed."
But despite the many hurdles that remain on the path to LGBT equality, Takei remains optimistic. He noted that young people support same-sex marriage by landslide margins, and said that made him confident about America's future. "I love young people," Takei said, "especially young straight couples, because they're going to be making the gay babies of tomorrow."
"It is for them that we must be agents of change."