Takei speaks on social equality at Pgh Humanities Festival

Greydon Tomkowitz, Print Editor

Star Trek star, social activist, and most influential man on Facebook, George Takei, spoke at the Byham Theater on Sunday, March 29 as part of the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival.

The Pittsburgh Humanities Festival, which took place March 26-29 throughout Pittsburgh’s Cultural District and neighboring locales, is a project of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the Humanities Center of Carnegie Mellon University.

The inaugural Pittsburgh Humanities Festival featured internationally renowned academics, artists, and intellectual innovators offering interviews, intimate conversations and select performances focused on topics ranging from art, literature and music to science policy and politics.

As a key speaker in the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival, Takei spoke about all forms of social equality, ranging from Japanese American internment during World War II to marriage equality in the present.

To a small but attentive audience, Takei started by talking about his experiences from the internment camp he and his family were taken to when he was only 5 years old. Called the “Rowher Relocation Center,” Takei spent the next 8 months there before he and his family were transferred to the maximum-security camp at Tule Lake, California.

This transfer was the result of Takei’s parents answer to “dreaded question 28” on a mandatory poll of all those interned over the age of 17. Question 28 asked this, “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attacks by foreign and domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or disobedience to the Japanese Emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?” This question had only two answers: yes, which implied a former allegiance to Japan, or no, which implied that they were unwilling to swear loyalty to the US.

The Takei family all answered no to this question, fearing the consequences of “confessing” to allegiance to the Emperor of Japan. This compromising question forced all Japanese Americans to either be branded a traitor or admit to former loyalty to the Emperor of Japan.

The Takei family remained at the Tule camp in their home state of California until 1946, when the internment camps were shut down.

Takei said: “When they finally released us, innocent American citizens, from prison we were given a ticket to anywhere in the US we wanted to go to, and $20 per person. My family and I went back to LA, where we found that our home, possessions, and business had all been sold off to other people. We were left homeless, jobless, and basically penniless.”

Takei continued to tell his life story, moving on to his volunteer work with the Adlai Stevenson campaign headquarters in California. He and his father volunteered, where they were put to work at multiple jobs: answering phones, handing out leaflets, and knocking on doors. Takei recounted a day when Eleanor Roosevelt visited the campaign offices, saying he was excited to meet her, but laughed with his family later because she had, “teeth like the front fender of a car.”

His work led to more volunteer work with campaigns, supporting everyone from presidential candidates to city councilmen, eventually resulting in a failed attempt to become an LA city councilman himself.

Takei’s work with various campaigns sent him down the path to becoming the social activist he is today. He said that his work with the Stevenson campaign drew his attention to the civil rights movement and eventually led him to join in on one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s marches in Washington D.C. Takei said he greatly admires King, and he was inspired by King’s mission and even had the chance to meet him one time during a march.

Using the final twenty minutes of his speech to talk about his work with the marriage equality movement, he talked about several key events in the US that inspired him to start advocating for same sex marriage. He said the first was when he heard about the supreme court of Maryland legalizing same sex marriage. Takei said this gave him hope for the future.

The next event Takei said inspired him were the riots at the Stonewall bar in New York. The riots started when city police raided the bar, attempting to arrest the homosexual clientele. The riots began when bar patrons resisted arrest.

Takei recounted the tale as told by a friend of his who lived near the bar: “It all started when the police tried to raid the place. The people inside were finally fed up with being arrested for their sexuality, I guess, ’cause the second the police came in they started to fight. They fought with everything they could, throwing bottles, ashtrays, chairs, even shoes at the surprised police.”

This initial fight caused the police to retreat and call for reinforcements. While the police awaited backup outside, patrons of the bar began to call  friends and family who lived near the Stonewall. Takei said, “soon after the people inside started calling, a huge stream of people came out from all the apartment buildings around the bar. And by the time police backup came, they had a full out riot in front of the bar.” These riots lasted for 5 days, before police finally retreated and allowed the people to disperse.

The final event, according to Takei, which led to his activism was the California governor’s veto of a marriage equality bill. At the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the governor and Takei had secretly been with his partner Brad for many years. When news broke of the bill’s veto, riots broke out across the state, and Takei and Brad reached an agreement that since, or so Takei believed, his career was waning, he could afford to be outspoken and resist the veto. Takei could not have been more wrong; following his public announcement of his being gay and his attack on the bill’s veto, he began to have more opportunities than ever, as people all over the world respected his opinions on social equality.

Takei finished with an announcement that, at 78 years old, he would finally be making his Broadway debut in Nov. 2015 with the release of Allegiant, a musical about the lives of Japanese Americans in the camps during World War II. The show was co-written by Takei and will feature him in a leading role.