On April 26, Star Trek star George Takei took the stage at Price Center Ballroom West as the 2018 Dewitt Higgs Memorial featured speaker. In his speech “Where No Story Has Gone Before,” Takei reflected on his experience living in a Japanese American internment camp, his career as a political activist, and his coming out as gay.
“The defining event of my life happened when I was a child,” Takei began, referring to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, post-Pearl Harbor. “Overnight, people started to look at us with suspicion and fear.” Describing the deplorable conditions Japanese Americans suddenly began to live in with curfews, frozen bank accounts, and lost livelihoods, Takei said that his family and countless others were forced out of their homes and sent to internment camps by Executive Order 9066.
After a five-day train ride from Los Angeles, Takei ended up at the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas, where every prisoner was surveilled to the highest extent. “Five year old me thought it was nice that they lit the way for me to pee,” Takei joked as he described the flashlight that followed him to the latrine.
Takei elaborated on his experience by mentioning that it became routine to line up for lousy food three times in a day in a noisy mess hall. He also stated that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance became part of his daily regimen, as ironic as it was. “I was too young to understand the stinging irony in those words ‘liberty’ and ‘justice,’” Takei explained.
In the same light of false nationalism, Takei described a loyalty survey given to all Japanese Americans age 18 and older. Among the 30 questions asked, two stood out to him: 1) Will you bear arms to defend the United States of America? 2) Will you swear your loyalty to the United States of America and forswear your loyalty to the Emperor of Japan?
“The Emperor of Japan?” Takei said, “My mother was born in Sacramento!” But what was even more troubling than the racist assumptions was the fact that America, the very country that had imprisoned and impoverished around 120,000 Japanese Americans, was now expecting them to fight alongside those who had treated them with so much hatred and disrespect.
When Takei’s parents refused to sign the loyalty pledge, they were forcibly transferred to Tule Lake in California, the largest and harshest camp of them all. Holding about 18,500 prisoners, Tule Lake was surrounded by three layers of barbed wire with rows of tanks heavily guarding the perimeter. “Those tanks belonged on a battlefield, not watching us,” Takei said.
After World War II ended in 1945, Japanese Americans were released from the camps and given a mere $25 to restart their lives and assimilate back into the American community. While most families decided to move to the Midwest or East Coast, Takei’s family went back to Los Angeles. However, even though the war was over, the prejudice was not. Recounting his transition into an American school, Takei said that his teacher would call him “little Jap boy,” and ignore his attempts to answer her questions in class.
But Takei was also struggling with something far greater than external acceptance; he was struggling with his sexuality. “The other guys at school would say ‘Sally’s cute’ or ‘Monica’s hot’ but,” he smirked, “‘Bobby.’” He called this his “double-life” and explained that trying to fit in with the other boys in his class was what led him to start acting. He maintained this double life during his career until 2005, when he publicly came out after his frustration with Governor Schwarzenegger choosing to veto same-sex marriage legislation in California.
From there, Takei became one of the main activists for the LGBTQIA community. He worked with the Human Rights Campaign, travelled nationwide to speak at college campuses and to professional groups about marriage equality, and even flew to Washington D.C. to lobby Congress representatives to approve legalization of same-sex marriage. In 2012, Takei also became the most influential person on Facebook, totalling about 10 million likes on his page.
Come 2008, same-sex marriage was finally legalized in California through the court system. “Brad and I were overjoyed and we decided to plan our wedding to reflect our lives,” Takei explained. Just a few months later, Takei and Altman officially got married at the Japanese American National Museum. Takei noted that he wanted his wedding to be marked “in a forum of democracy, because that’s what made [their] wedding possible.” With a Mexican American Buddhist officiate, an African American best (wo)man, and a Scottish bagpiper playing at the entrance, Takei wanted to celebrate the diversity of American culture in his biracial marriage ceremony.
As historical and life-changing as California’s legalization of same-sex marriage was, not all states were there yet. “It was all a patchwork of states that have marriage equality,” Takei explained. “If we had been driving through the country and something had happened in a state that didn’t have marriage equality, we didn’t have any rights at all.” Again, Takei and Altman found themselves in Washington D.C. trying to convince the representatives for nationwide acceptance of same-sex marriage, which came at last in June of 2015.
“Our spirits were soaring—in fact they were soaring 35,000 feet in the air,” Takei joked, as he and Brad were flying from New York to Los Angeles at the time.
To end his story, Takei recited a Barack Obama quote: “‘Justice grows out of the recognition of ourselves in others, that my liberty depends on you being free too.’”
And as if his speech wasn’t enough to win the audience over, Takei concluded with his trademark “Oh Myyy,” leaving UC San Diego forever blessed by his presence.