George Takei says there’s a not-so-secret mission — or two — behind the bitingly funny videos and Facebook updates which the “Star Trek” legend posts regularly to his 3.5 million Facebook followers, who grow by 40,000 per week.
“I think my new image as a comic observer of society happened as a result of a very serious mission I have,” he explained in an interview on my SiriusXM OutQ program this week, while also weighing in on Jodie Foster’s coming out; President Obama’s embrace of gay rights in his inaugural address; Arnold Scwharzenegger turning his back on the gay community; Tennessee Sen. Stacey “Don’t Say Gay” Campfield; and being an openly gay entertainer spearheading LGBT rights.
With a new book, “Oh Myyy! (There Goes the Internet),” and a musical headed to Broadway — “Allegiance,” which focuses on the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II — Takei, who became a regular on “The Howard Stern Show” in 2006, a year after he came out as gay, says all the attention is even more wonderful because it can serve a higher purpose.
“My life mission has been to raise the awareness in America of a World War II chapter of our history when innocent American citizens, simply because they looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor, were incarcerated,” he explained. “The thing that brought me to social media is that we developed a musical about the internment of Japanese-Americans. We wanted it to go to Broadway. But we had a marketing challenge: How do you sell a musical on a very dark and shameful chapter that people know little about and understand even less? And the way to do it is the communication medium of the 21st century, social media.”
Takei revels in explaining how he, with the help of his husband Brad Altman, built his social media empire.
“I began with my base, ‘Star Trek’ fans, the geeks and nerds of sci-fi,” he said. “I made some comic observations and that got a lot of likes and shares. And so then I started posting pictures — as I learned, they’re called memes in the lingo of the Internet. That prompted fans to send me more pictures like that, and, and then the audience grows and grows. And as my audience grows, the range of my topics grew. I started to feel more confident so I started talking about advocacy for the LGBT community, and adding the internment for Japanese Americans. And that brings in a whole different audience.”
Having grown up in a U.S. internment camp, Takei says his father inspired him to become involved in the political system, which would eventually lead him to speak up on LGBT rights as well.
“When I was a teenager I wanted to understand our incarceration,” he said. “And I had long discussions with my father on the internment, and despite the fact that my father lost everything — his businesses, his home, his freedom — he maintained his belief in the basic principle of the democratic system. He sort of very gently guided me into being an activist.”
Takei, who is 75, came out as gay in 2005, after what he felt was a betrayal by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“In California, both houses of the legislature passed a same sex marriage bill,” he recalled. “We were elated. That bill then need the signature of the governor of our state, Arnold Schwarzenegger. When he campaigned, he said, ‘I came from Hollywood. I worked with gays and lesbians. Some of my best friends are gay.’ So we felt that was the message. He is friendly. He will sign the bill. When he played to the reactionary right-wing sector of his Republican base and vetoed it, I was angry, but I couldn’t speak out without coming out. My voice had to be authentic. And so that’s when I talked to Frontiers [magazine].”
Takei says coming out, particularly for a public figure and an actor, is a “long, long process,” and that he’d been somewhat out to actors on the set of “Star Trek” even as far back as the late 1960s — “it goes without being stated” — and for that reason he sympathizes with Jodie Foster, who recently acknowledged her “coming out” in a speech at the Golden Globes which had its share of critics from within the LGBT community.
“It’s a very difficult and personal thing, particularly for a public person,” Takei said. “An actor is in the public eye. My speaking to the press was to one person in our home, a very comfortable setting. There was Jodie Foster, speaking to the cream of Hollywood with a million eyeballs on her via television. She did it in her way. The gay community, particularly, started sniping at her. It was cruel. I mean, they said she didn’t use the word ‘gay.’ But I thought, each person on their own timetable, under their own circumstances, should be applauded, with open arms. And I thought that was not the way to support one of our community members. We need to say, ‘Thank you for saying what you said. We embrace you.’ Every person who comes out adds to that change. In four years our society has changed dramatically. The president of the United States, at his inauguration, using the word ‘gay’ and ‘Stonewall.’ It was a major landmark event.”
Takei also weighed in on a target of one of his most popular videos, Tennessee’s Sen. Stacey Campfield, who again introduced his “don’t say gay” bill in the Tennessee legislature this year, which, if passed, would ban teachers from discussing homosexuality in schools.
“Criminalize a teacher for using the word ‘gay’ when they’re dealing with young people who are making discoveries about themselves?” he asked with awe, then broke into a smile and explained the popular video he made in response, which went viral in 2011. “Rather than being outraged — this man’s a fool. Alright, if using the word gay is going to be a criminal offense, then substitute my name, Takei, which rhymes with gay, and march in the Takei pride parade!”
Takei sees his humor as a way to bring people into the LGBT rights movement who might not have previously supported it.
“We need to reach that vast middle that don’t think about what it’s like to be gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender,” he explained. “When they think about it, they’ll be with you. That’s why I ventured forth on Howard Stern, because his listenership is a whole different audience, and those are the people that we need to reach. And having an audience that began with sci-fi geeks and has now grown to embrace a huge, diverse audience, we can talk about various issues, including equality for gays and lesbians.”