The Sun Dome filled with sound of lecture attendees singing “Happy Birthday” to guest lecturer George Takei, an actor, social media star and social justice activist, while two women presented him with a rainbow cake.
“Oh my,” Takei said when he saw the cake.
These were the same words written on the cake, an early present for the speaker, whose birthday is Wednesday. The surprise cake was delivered at the end of a Q&A session following Takei’s Monday night lecture.
Takei took guests through his life journey, characterized by rising above oppression.
Takei opened the lecture discussing the TV series “Star Trek,” on which he played Hikaru Sulu, and the show’s rise to popularity. He focused on the idea of infinite diversity in infinite combinations, which he explained was exemplified in the main crew of the starship Enterprise, a metaphor for starship Earth. The strength of that starship, Takei recalled his director explaining, lays in its diversity.
“It was a very idealistic view, a very utopian view, but we today knew that that was fiction because we know the very real challenges of our time …. Today we have conflict, division and hostilities,” he said.
Takei mentioned modern terrorism, hateful rhetoric and sweeping statements made in the current presidential race.
“I hear the echoes of the 1940s,” he said.
Takei’s memories included the persecution of Japanese-Americans by the U.S. government. They were classified as enemy aliens, then enemy non-aliens, and Takei said “they even took the word citizen away from us.” This was followed by curfews, frozen bank accounts, and then internment.
He spoke about his family’s time in a Japanese internment camp in the swamplands of Arkansas during World War II. The Sun Dome fell silent.
“I could see the barbed wire fence and the sentry tower right outside my schoolhouse window as I recited the words ‘with liberty and justice for all,’” Takei said.
He recalled being forced from his home in Los Angeles, California, and the images of life at the internment camps that remain with him. His parents woke him and his siblings just a few weeks after his fifth birthday, dressed them and told him and his brother to wait while they packed.
“We were gazing out the front window and we saw two American soldiers carrying rifles with bayonets on them marching up our driveway,” Takei said. “They stopped on the porch and banged on the front door … My father answered them and literally at gunpoint, we were ordered out of our home.
“My father gave my brother and me little packages to carry and we walked out and stood on the driveway waiting for my mother to come out, and when she finally emerged from the house, she had my baby sister in one arm, a huge duffel bag in the other, and tears streaming down both her cheeks.”
“I still remember the barbed wire fences that confined us,” he said. “I remember the tall sentry towers with the machine guns pointed down at us and I remember the search light that followed me when I made night runs to the latrine.
When the war ended, Takei remembered his family going back to Los Angeles. Back home, his parents struggled to find employment and housing, but worked with determination that Takei still admires.
“My parents worked their fingers to the bones, and in four years they saved enough capital to buy a three bedroom home in (a) nice neighborhood,” he said. “It was an amazing feat.”
During his teenage years, he began to struggle with American democracy, unable to reconcile it with what he holds to be a blatant disregard of the U.S. Constitution and the denial of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness he faced during his childhood in internment.
“And yet, I learned about American democracy from the man in our family who had suffered the most … He told me that our democracy was a people’s democracy,” he said.
But then his father took him to the headquarters for then Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson during his presidential bids. It was during that experience that Takei became engaged in the political process.
“It was exciting and it was fun, but I really understood a people’s democracy, and from that experience on, I became active in the political arena,” he said.
Another struggle in Takei’s life was coming to terms with his homosexuality. He remembered being aware at the age of around 9 or 10 that he was different.
“My buddies, my friends, were saying things like ‘Sally’s cute’ or … they would say ‘Wow, Monica’s hot,’” he said. “I thought Sally and Monica were nice, but Bobby … he was gorgeous.”
The Sun Dome filled with a mixture of applause and laughter.
He remembered being involved in so many social movements, but remaining silent when it came to the movement for the LGBT community mainly because of a fear for his acting career. When Takei was starting out as an actor, and until recently, homosexuality was usually kept a secret.
“I was active in the Civil Rights Movement,” he said. “I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. I shook his hand and chatted with him and I felt his power come through that handshake. During the Vietnam War … I became active in the peace movement … I testified in Congressional hearings on internment and I made speeches at rallies and made visits to top Congressional representatives … But on the one issue that was closest to me, that was organic to me, I was silent.”
During his life, he tried to fit in, although he felt isolated after realizing he was the only one who felt the way he did. He started to date when his friends did.
“I even went on double dates with my buddies, but, to tell the truth, I was more interested in my buddy than my date,” he said.
He mentioned milestones in the LGBT community made during recent years, such as marriage equality. He recalled the 2005 marriage equality legislation that moved through both houses of the California Legislature, only to be vetoed by then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It was a moment of change for Takei. After talking to his husband Brad Takei, he decided it was time to speak out.
“I spoke to the press for the first time as a gay man and I blasted Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto,” he said.
The audience erupted into applause, which Takei thanked them for.
“From that day on, I became a vocal activist,” he said.
When the battle was won and marriage for members of the LGBT community became legal in California, Takei and his husband Brad married in the democracy forum of the Japanese-American National Museum, which the two founded.
When Takei said this, his husband stood up and the audience exploded with applause.
He went on to say that the backlash has come wearing a mask of religious freedom. He mentioned various acts of legislation across the U.S., most recently North Carolina’s bathroom bill which forces transgendered individuals to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender at birth.
“Who knew the Bible said anything about toilets?” Takei said.
Takei also mentioned the progress made by women and the current struggles they faced today, such as the wage gap. He talked about the large progress of African-Americans and the refusal of White House politicians to hold hearings to fill the current Supreme Court vacancy while President Barack Obama is still in office.
“This is dereliction of their duty, and what are they doing?” Takei said. “Collecting their paychecks.”
Takei’s message was a positive one, as he strongly encouraged those in attendance to try to look to the future and the challenges it holds with optimism.
“And I know that with that spirit, we will indeed, as Americans, live long and prosper,” Takei said.
He also encouraged everyone, especially the youth, to get involved in democracy and the political process.
“It is people who actively engage in the democratic process that make things happen, that make progress happen,” he said.
The Q&A session following his lecture focused on Takei’s Broadway show “Allegiance,” which tells the story of Japanese internment in the U.S. Takei refers to it as his legacy project.
“That’s my mission in life, to make sure that Americans know that one time when the Constitution of the United States was egregiously violated against innocent American citizens who happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor,” he said.
During the Q&A, Takei also talked about his experiences at Star Trek conventions and his rise to social media fame. The session was moderated by College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) Dean Eric Eisenberg.
Approximately 800 students, faculty, staff and guests from the general public attended the evening with Takei. Eisenberg, who introduced Takei, felt his message of activism and acceptance was especially relevant.
“The way I see it, Americans have become masters of turning difference into opposition — good, bad, left, right, feminine, masculine, right, wrong,” Eisenberg said. “We try to avoid the gray areas and we’re encouraged by media culture that profits from polarization, and we find ourselves demonizing those who see the world in a different way than we do, and this is a tragedy, all having to do with distancing ourselves from others that we see as different. When we do that, it limits our opportunity to learn and to grow, (and) it robs us of the opportunity to create inclusive communities that celebrate what our species shares.”
Takei’s lecture was the 21st as part of the Frontier Forum lecture series put on by CAS and the Office of the Provost. Frontier Forum has been bringing speakers to USF for the past five years.