There’s nothing more arrogant and obnoxious than an idealistic teenager and that’s what I was. I thought I was going to change the world. I’d say to that 16-year-old, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The life I’ve lived since I was 16 would stagger the teenage me. He has something else waiting for him.
There are so many things about my life that I couldn’t have imagined when I was 16. One of the biggest was struggling to get an apology from the US government for what happened to my family when I was five years old. Along with 120,000 other American citizens of Japanese ancestry, we were rounded up with no charges, no trials, and put into barbed wire prison camps for the duration of the Second World War. We had done nothing wrong other than looking like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. We were Americans. I remember the barbed wire fences and the sentry tower with the machine guns pointed down at us. For my parents it was a degrading, humiliating experience. At the end of the war they gave us $25 and a one-way ticket to wherever we wanted and we were told to go start our lives again. We ended up in LA, in the most terrifying neighbourhood. I remember the stench of urine everywhere and streets full of scary, ugly, smelly people. Those are all my childhood memories.
I came through those hard early years because I was blessed with an amazing father. When I became a teenager I became a voracious reader. I read history books and civics books about the noble ideal of our democracy. And I tried to reconcile that with my childhood. So I engaged my father in long conversations on our imprisonment. I gave him a real hard time. But he was able to explain to me that we lived in a people’s democracy and people are capable of doing extraordinary things, and that’s what makes America extraordinary. But people are also fallible beings and sometimes they fail democracy miserably. Our demo-cracy depends on the people who cherish its ideals engaging with the system. So I began to feel passionately that I had to get involved.
The whole time I was building my career I was actively involved in the civil rights movement. I marched with Doctor Luther King. I met him, shook his hand, had a conversation with him. I had a conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt, told her personally that her husband was responsible for sending us to those prison camps. I’ve been involved in American history the whole time I’ve been pursuing a career. What was very difficult was that for years I was involved in so many social justice campaigns except the one that was closest to my heart. Because I loved acting and I knew I wouldn’t have a career if people found out I was gay. So I put up a facade. I took female friends out to premieres and things like that. But after I took them home I’d be in a gay bar. I was living a dangerous double life. I could have been exposed and my career would have been shot.
It wasn’t until 2005 that I spoke to the press for the first time as a gay man. Our governor in California happened to be Arnold Schwarzenegger at that time, when the Californian legislature passed the marriage equality bill. It was a landmark in American history. But our Republican governor vetoed it. When Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigned for governor he said he was open-minded about gay people, he worked with them, some of his best friends were… then he betrayed them all. I was so angry. That’s what brought me out. I was prepared to lose my whole career. And what happened? My career blossomed. If I could go back, I still wouldn’t come out earlier. If I had I don’t think society would have been ready. It was only last year under Obama that marriage equality became the law of the land. So I guess I timed it well.
I told Eleanor Roosevelt that her husband was responsible for sending us to those prison camps
The word happiness is a relative word. My closet years were tortuous. I had that constant fear of exposure. The press could have destroyed my career. By that time I had Brad [Altman, Takei’s partner for 29 years] in my life. There we were, living together and not being able to share that with the rest of the world. And I had to stay silent on the subject which mattered most to me. It was not a happy time but we were able to find happiness in little snatches.