George Takei knows the power of a cat meme. Because of all things, it’s the pussy that gave him a platform and set the stage for something more than just pervy postings and silly jests: LGBT activism.
Now, the 77-year-old, the iconic Hikaru Sulu on “Star Trek” from 1966-1969, isn’t only the voice of a generation – he’s the voice of generations.
The actor, who swooshed out of the closet at the age of 68 to become a powerful gay advocate and social media magnate, reflects on all facets of his life during “To Be Takei,” a documentary viewable on DIRECTV through Aug. 6 and also in select theaters and VOD later this summer.
In the midst of traveling the Pride circuit, the cultural icon called in to chat about it being “high time” “Star Trek” cast a gay character (and why it hasn’t happened yet), how closeted actors are still common and – oh myyy! – autographing his fans’ private parts.
What’s the message you’ve been bringing with you to these Pride festivals?
That we’re making amazing progress, and that’s because all of the people in the community are pulling at the same wagon. We have some special change agents, people like Stephen Snyder-Hill, the soldier that spoke at the Republican Debate in 2011, where he asked whether any Republican candidate – when he or she becomes president, and also commander in chief of the military – would reinstate “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” It was a legitimate question, and yet the Republican people who gathered at that debate booed an American soldier … on the battlefield … dodging martyrs. It was a shocking thing. But because of people like him who have the courage to ask those questions and take principled stands, we’re making the progress that we are.
You’ve been an integral part of that progress. For someone who wasn’t out for most of his life, how surreal is it for you to be riding in a Pride parade at this point?
I lived most of my life closeted because I wanted my career. That was a heavy price to pay for it, because you’re living with the constant tension of exposure – somebody could expose me and that’s the end of my career.
It must’ve been my early 20s when Tab Hunter, who was a god of the box office at the time – blond, good looking, young – played the lead in almost every movie that was coming out. He was exposed as gay in one of the scandal sheets, and you never heard from him again. That puts the fear in you, and you’re always living with your guard up. You don’t know what or who might destroy your career, and so when you come out, you’re completely relieved of that tension. You can live fully as who you are.
I had an interesting experience: the State Department sent me on one big tour of South Korea and Japan, which culminated with U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, honoring me with a reception. As one of her guests, she had the first lady of Japan, the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who told me that she had ridden in what she called a “Rainbow Pride Parade” in Tokyo this summer. Can you imagine the first lady of Japan riding in a Pride parade? Changes are happening. Not only in the United States, but all over the world. It’s a very optimistic time, but we still have the Employment Non-Discrimination Act before us – you can be fired for no other reason than who you are. It’s the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell of the civilian population. So, it is an exciting time – a time to be optimistic, because we’re making progress – but we still have a long way to go.
Your primary reason for staying closeted was to avoid sabotaging your career. How common do you think it is these days for actors to keep their sexuality concealed for that same reason?
It’s still not uncommon. There are actors who have to be living that double life. I won’t name them, but you know, it’s a decision that they have to make. It’s a very personal decision. I don’t know the specifics, but with society changing, they are seeming to be more and more like outdated dinosaurs who maintain that kind of life.
Are you saying you know people in showbiz who are closeted? Friends of yours?
I do. You know, when I was doing “Star Trek” my colleagues knew, but they’re good people, they’re cool, and they did not expose me. (Laughs) Well, one of them … the fact that I am who I am went right over his head. I’ll leave it to you to guess whom.
You’re a real tease, George.
In the last 10 years, you’ve really kind of become quite the accidental activist, and because your parents come up often in the documentary, I’m wondering what you think they would say about your role as an LGBT role model?
Well, they’re both gone now. My father had passed long ago, and it’s one of my regrets in life – that I never came out to him. But I know he would’ve supported me. (He said he would) accept and support and love his son going into the acting arena. I mean, he did tell me: “Look at TV, look at movies, look at the kind of roles that Asians have to play – tiny roles to begin with, and stereotype roles at that – is that what you wanna go into?” I told my father: “Daddy, I will change it.” He supported me in that. I think he knew deep down who I was; he was waiting for me to come out to him.
When I came out to my mother, she had some difficulties, but she knew who (my now-husband) Brad was. Brad was in my life already, and she thought of him as my friend, but when I came out to her, the situation was changed. She already knew Brad for who he was and that he was a nice guy, so it wasn’t really that difficult. As life would have it, Brad and I took care of her in the last years of her life. She moved in with us. He became more a son to her than my own brother.
Your career resurgence is really something to marvel at. You know your way around social media like no 77-year-olds I know.
(Laughs) You’ve got a stereotype in your mind about 77-year-olds! There are a lot of us who are very comfortable with social media. My generation is not as out of touch with technology as you youngsters seem to think.
(Laughs) I’m very aware of this stereotype; I’m basing this off my own experience with my father. Recently, he posted a message for someone else on my wall.
You talk about your father – I have a sister who finally got a cell phone, but she leaves it at home when she leaves! What’s the point? (Laughs) So it’s not just you and your father. In my own family, I have that to deal with.
What role has humor played in how you present politics and social commentary on LGBT issues?
It is key to building your audience. The reason why I got so actively involved with social media is, it’s been my mission in life to raise the awareness of my childhood incarceration – imprisonment of Japanese-Americans simply because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. So, I’ve been going on speaking tours to universities and doing corporate events, and we founded a museum called the Japanese American National Museum – we’re an affiliate of the Smithsonian – and we developed a musical based on the internment called “Allegiance.” I thought I’d use social media (to promote it), but my base, when I started in 2010, was essentially made up of sci-fi geeks and nerds – my “Star Trek” audience – and I had to grow that.
So, by trial and error I found that the humorous things, the funnies – or the cat memes – got the most likes and shares. Then I started concentrating more on that, and it started to explode. It was really amazing how fast, and how big, your audience base can grow in social media. I discovered that humor was the key to growing the audience, and once the audience had grown to a certain size I started zinging them with social justice issues, LGBT issues and the internment of Japanese-Americans, as well as various other things … like proper grammar!
Do you think we’ll ever see an out LGBT human on “Star Trek”?
I think now it’s high time. I did very quietly bring up the subject to (“Star Trek” screenwriter) Gene Roddenberry when we were starting our movie series – our feature film series – and he said with television he had to walk a very tight rope. You know, we were dealing with issues at that time – the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Cold War – and that episode where Kirk kissed Uhura, a white man kissing a black woman, that was blacked out in all of the Southern states: Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Our ratings plummeted!
(Gene) said he knows that the LGBT issue is a civil rights issue, but he had to keep the show on the air as a television series, and if he pushed the envelope too far he wouldn’t be able to address any of the issues. He’d be canceled. Same thing with feature films now: bigger budget, higher risk. And he had said he’s predicting a 23rd century when the LGBT issue would not be an issue, but it is an issue of our times that we’re dealing with metaphorically in terms of science fiction and he wants to deal with it and still be able to make movies. He had said he hopes for the time that he will be able to do it.
Alas, Gene passed. It was in ’91 that he passed, and we’re 20 years-plus from that time. We’ve advanced with unimagined speed, and I think now it is high time “Star Trek” deal with the issue of LGBT equality. Now there are “Star Trek” actors who are out. Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock in the reboot, came out, and I am out. With the two of us out, it is now safe for “Star Trek” to deal with LGBT equality.
Some fans have some very specific requests when they meet you. What’s been the most bizarre fan request you’ve experienced?
(Laughs) This is not PG – and this isn’t “The Howard Stern Show” – so I will be more circumspect about the bizarre requests that I get. I’ve been asked to autograph various body parts. And some are, um, very private parts. I’ll let your imagination go there.
Did you follow through on these requests?
Did these requests involve the front or the back?
Both! (Laughs) And some have gotten a tattoo artist to trace my autograph on those body parts. One woman displayed hers to me at a convention … in the flesh!
“Oh geez” – I love your reaction!