I think George Takei is my new hero. This 77-year old actor, most famous for playing Sulu on the original Star Trek, truly has lived a life of exploring new worlds and bursting through frontiers that once seemed final. He’s a social media sensation with over 2 million Likes to his page, a passionate advocate for marriage equality, and a longtime civil rights activist. The new documentary about his life, To be Takei, brings together all the aspects of his life and helps us understand just how amazing this man is.
The film is named after one of his Facebook campaigns. When the state of Tennessee attempted to make it illegal to use the word “gay” in schools, Takei volunteered his name as a solution. He suggested that when teachers need to refer to a gay person, they could simply substitute the word “Takei.” “That’s so gay” became “That’s so Takei,” but of course the advocate used his sense of humor to put his final mark on the effort, stating boldly: “It’s OK to be Takei.”
Let me just stop there. As a working actor, George Takei encouraged his name, perhaps an actor’s most valuable commodity, replace a loaded word that offended both the state of Tennessee and – in the way it was used – also offended the LGBT community. Using his honesty sense of humor, he eviscerated a civil rights violation while also launching himself into social media superstardom. That takes both a strong sense of self and serious courage.
In To be Takei, we learn a lot more about his life that helps us understand how Takei got to that point. He has been overcoming barriers and barbed wire, sometimes real and sometimes metaphorical, his entire life. The US government forced his family to live behind the walls of three internment camps during World War II. Later, as his acting career developed, he began to be pigeon-holed into stereotypical Asian roles, complete with the heavy accent, thin mustaches, and exaggerated karate moves.
Star Trek has a long history of pushing society’s taboo buttons. In 1965, the very idea that a federation starship could be piloted by a Russian and a Japanese man with communications being handled by an African-American woman was downright revolutionary. Takei finally had the opportunity to play a character who could pronounce the letter R and represent his heritage with dignity. It was his first public foray into civil rights.
But as we all know now, he was hiding a secret. Takei was a closeted gay man, and an openly gay character or actor was too much for even Star Trek’s utopian vision to handle. Kirk and Uhura could kiss, but not Sulu and Chekov. So despite challenging racial stereotypes, Takei still was trapped behind that other wall for most of his career. Thankfully, he emerged from that closet in 2005 and has been openly fighting homophobia in his unique and humorous way ever since.
Yet the most powerful message of the film could easily be overlooked. Very briefly, Takei mentions that when his family was released from the internment camps they were scared. Not overjoyed. Not proud. Scared. Confinement had become comfortable and safe. There were no guarantees on the outside, and life had to start anew. America’s prisoners greeted their liberation with fear.
There was a lot to be afraid of. Lingering racism from the war created a fence. Jobs were hard to find for Japanese-Americans, homes were hard to obtain, and education was still separate and not equal. Later, there were very few working actors of Asian descent, and Takei’s father encouraged him to forego his dreams. Another fence.
Even after establishing a career, there was that final fence: exposure. There was a constant fear of his career being ruined by that one sci fi geek at a gay bar who recognized him and outed him. These days, the paparazzi would slobber all over that story. That last fence imprisoned the man for most of his career, just as it imprisoned other public figures like Rock Hudson and Liberace. They could not be themselves and work. They had to choose.
And yet, as Takei mentions in the documentary, those fences become comfortable. They are safe; easy. Breaking through them is difficult and dangerous. It takes time and perseverance, as we see in the life of George Takei.
We all have some kind of fence around us. Sometimes it is real. Ask the people of Ferguson, MO. Racism is still a very real barrier. Women who work for places like Hobby Lobby have a very clear fence around them. There are still people ignorant of American history who interpret the word “freedom” to mean “freedom for them, but not for others.” The majority race, religion, sexuality, and gender can do as they please, but the rest of us have to move to the back of society’s bus. Of course, if we challenge that we are limiting their freedom to discriminate. These fences are real.
Sometimes, though, we fence ourselves in. Much like Takei’s situation, the fence is real but we choose not to disturb it. Unjust situation happen all around us, but sometimes challenging them seems scary. We just accept out confinement.
What fences have you grown comfortable with? What new frontiers look too scary to navigate? What do you tell yourself you can’t do when, really, you can but it would require taking personal responsibility for your life instead of relinquishing control and allowing life to happen? We say we can’t lose weight, but we can. We say we can’t give up chocolate or smoking, but we can. We say we can’t afford this or we’ll never have the money for that, but do we ever seek out ways to obtain the funds? Is the “never” actually more comfortable that acknowledging our own power?
Each of us has a different fence. Find it. Face the fear. Boldly go.