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'Star Trek' Icon George Takei Talks About Stonewall Riots and Other Bold Journeys

The actor and gay rights activist, 82, reflects on inspiring changes he has seen in America

George Takei for AARP

Photo Credit: Jessica Chou

The Stonewall riots that powered the gay rights movement happened in New York in 1969. Where were you?

I was in Los Angeles at, as a matter of fact, a gay bar. Oh, the news spread like electricity through all the gay bars. I was pursuing an acting career, and the climate was totally different in those days. To be gay was to essentially give up any kind of public career. I knew I wouldn't be hired again after Star Trek if I came out. I was protecting my career.

Stonewall Riots 1969

Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

On June 28, 1969, a police raid at a nightclub leads to riots outside the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City.

What does Stonewall represent to you?

The Stonewall riots went on for days. That kind of total commitment was inspiring to me. It's profoundly important. My father said that this country is an amazing country. It's a people's democracy. In 50 years gays have gone from being looked at with contempt and disgust to a point where we have a credible gay candidate for the presidency. Fifty years in America can do amazing things, inspiring things.

It was a painful time for you. Why?

I saw these young men and women campaigning for what was called gay liberation, and giving up everything — their jobs, careers and families — to campaign for equality for us. It was very difficult for me. Here I was campaigning for civil rights or the peace movement during the Vietnam War, but I was silent on the one issue that was organic to me, that was very personal. During that period I was weighted down by that sense of guilt and not participating.

When did you come out?

It wasn't until the California legislature passed the marriage equality bill, in 2005. It was a thrilling moment! We partnered with the Human Rights Campaign, and I went on a nationwide speaking tour. That's when I felt like I was a whole person.

George Takei-Walter Koenig

Paramount/Courtesy: ©Everett Collection

STAR TREK, George Takei, Walter Koenig, 1966-69

1969 was also the last year of Star Trek...

We were low rated back then. Every season was a cliffhanger — Are we going to be canceled? And sure enough, in 1969, our third season, we were. But Star Trek went into syndication. They aired us five nights a week, and that's when we finally found our audience and the ratings soared.

Do you have a favorite episode?

"The Naked Time” [Season 1, Episode 4], where I demonstrate my fencing prowess shirtless. [Laughs.]

You were among the Japanese Americans sent to internment camps. Were you bitter?

You have to remember that I was a 5-year-old Southern California kid at the time. To be in the swamps of Arkansas was a great adventure. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I started thinking about my childhood imprisonment and felt anger. As I got older, what happened galvanized me to make our democracy better. I am an American and cherish the shining ideals.

You have an amazing 2.9 million Twitter followers. How do you decide what to post?

Issues that concern us or humorous observations about our social condition. We try to make it positive, mindful of all the damage that does go on.

You did some videos on embracing change with AARP a few years back. How was that?

What I've learned is that aging is a matter of boldly going where you haven't been before. I think AARP broadens the world for seniors. When you're older, there's no reason to be skittish about learning new things. It keeps you alive.

Are you surprised to be performing at 82?

I have good genes. My grandmother celebrated 104 birthdays. I'm very competitive. I'm going to beat my grandmother!

What are you working on now?

A miniseries called The Terror: Infamy, which will air on AMC in August. It's about the internment of Japanese Americans told on a massive scale, from before Pearl Harbor through years of imprisonment. I've also written a graphic memoir coming this July, titled They Called Us Enemy. It's about my childhood imprisonment.

Are you still feuding with [former Star Trek star] William Shatner?

Over a life span, you learn to put people in their category. Some people I put in a loving category and I enjoy them. But there is no need for people who are in another category. Has that been diplomatic enough?