George Takei is arguably best known for his role as Mr. Sulu, helmsman of the Starship Enterprise, on Star Trek, a short-lived TV series that became a cultural institution.
He reprised the role in a half dozen Star Trek movies and became a frequent guest at Star Trek conventions. As an original cast member, he’s royalty to legions of Trekkies.
Takei’s role as an activist is giving his Star Trek fame a run for its money in terms of how he’s best known to the public.
Social media provided Takei with a forum for both his droll humor and his passionate advocacy for human rights and social justice.
Two elements from Takei’s life guided him toward activism.
First, he’s Japanese American, born in Los Angeles in 1937. He spent part of his childhood living in government-run internment camps. Following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, American citizens of Japanese descent were driven from their homes and herded into makeshift prison camps. The Takeis first night of imprisonment was spent sleeping in the stables of a hastily converted horse track. When the camps were closed at the end of World War II, the Takeis, like many others, were released to find that their homes, bank accounts and other assets had been seized, and they were left to start again with nothing.
Takei’s memories of his time in the internment camp were the basis for Allegiance, a musical about the camps and their impact on those who were confined to them. Allegiance had a brief Broadway run in 2015-2016, and recently completed a three-month limited engagement on London’s West End.
Second, he’s gay. This wasn’t news to anyone who knew Takei, but he had never acknowledged it publicly.
That changed in 2005 when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in California. Takei had never spoken publicly about his sexuality but felt compelled to do so after the veto. He expected his career to bottom out, the fear that kept him silent until then.
It didn’t. if anything, it made Takei far more prominent than had the Star Trek series or movies.
His social media posts and other public appearances became platforms for him to promote LGBTQ inclusion and call out homophobia.
He’s also determined to keep the memory of the camps alive, both as a reminder of the shame of government-mandated xenophobia and as a cautionary tale for this and future generations.
He drew on those memories again for the 2019 graphic novel, They Called Us Enemy, written with Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott and illustrated by Harmony Becker. The book has drawn praise for its insight into the human costs of the incarceration, both during the internment and after.
If all of this makes Takei sound like an unsmiling, cause-driven activist, rest assured that he’s quite the opposite. He became a social media powerhouse with humorous anecdotes and wry observations. He mocks his targets with satire rather than invective. And of course, his trademark response when no other words will do: “Oh My.”
Most of all, Takei projects joy even discussing serious topics. At 86, he looks as trim and fit as he did when he first played Sulu. He married Brad Altman in 2015 when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. The two have been together for almost 40 years after meeting as members of a Los Angeles club for runners.
As Mr. Spock might say, Takei has lived long and prospered. His career has boldly gone where no one, even he, could have imagined. And he has used that fame for good, promoting inclusion, social justice and equal rights.
Oh my, indeed.