George Takei on the Ugly Danger of Scapegoating

When I was 5 years old, I didn’t understand what a scapegoat was. All I understood was that, because of Japan’s aggression that pulled the United States into the war, my family and I had to leave our Los Angeles home at gunpoint, taking with us only what we could carry.

My mother, tears in her eyes, managed to stash an entire new portable sewing machine in her bag. She knew that where we were going, we might need to make our own clothes. She was right.

We were put on buses and sent to a racetrack in Santa Anita, California, where I lived with my parents and two siblings in a single horse stable for months. Then, it was a thousand-mile journey by train eastward, the blinds pulled down, supposedly for our own safety. No telling what locals might do if they knew a train full of “Japs” was passing through.

Our new home was an incarceration camp in the swamplands of Rohwer, Arkansas. We were sent there because America needed someone to blame. And President Franklin Delano Roosevelt needed to prove he was tough on the “Japanese,” even though our community, comprising mostly American citizens, had absolutely nothing to do with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

That scapegoating went unchallenged by most Americans, was signed off on by our Supreme Court, and left a devastating toll in its wake. A total of 125,000 of us lost our homes, our jobs, our businesses. We were rendered destitute, then held without charge or trial behind barbed wire, all for the “crime” of looking like the people who’d bombed Pearl Harbor.

When I was older, I came to understand what being scapegoated meant: a convenient target for politicians, a way to whip up hate and bigotry to win elections, a place to lay blame where none should lay. It meant hate, vilification, injustice—and even the very power of the state turned upon us.

I have worked my whole life to help ensure that scapegoating on such a massive scale doesn’t happen again in America. But my heart is heavy, some 80 years after our internment. Because once again, my own community is being scapegoated.

This time it is a community I chose to join openly: the wonderful, joyous, yet so often misunderstood and reviled LGBTQ+ community, letters that represent a veritable rainbow of sexual and gender identities. We are a people who have literally had to fight for the right to live, the right to love, and still today, the right to simply be who we are.

Just a few years ago, things were looking promising. Marriage equality was finally the law of the land, after decades of struggle for acceptance and recognition under the law.

I was able to legally marry my longtime partner Brad in California—and, on September 14 of this year, we will celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary as husband and husband, though we have been together as a committed couple for 37 years.

Attitudes of Americans had shifted strongly in favor of gay rights, with strong majorities now in favor of non-discrimination laws. And efforts to turn back the clock had failed, at least until recently.

Enter the scapegoating. Armed with dangerous tropes from over 50 years ago, where gay and trans people are labeled as “groomers” who are a danger to children, wily politicians such as Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida began a campaign to drive us out, to erase our families and identities in education, in library books, and in our own communities. They even targeted retail stores that supported us during our month of Pride.

I have seen where scapegoating, if left unchallenged, leads. And it is a very dark place… And I am alarmed that the fearmongering and hate, particularly against the trans community, are just the beginning.

More ominously, and in the name of “protecting” trans kids and in defiance of all expert opinion, politicians at the state level have banned critically necessary trans medical care, leaving desperate parents and families without alternatives. It was not only ignorant, but it was also deliberately cruel. And it is leading to untold suffering for young people already burdened with the weight of successfully transitioning. They are a group that currently suffers the highest rates of suicide among teens.

I have seen where scapegoating, if left unchallenged, leads. And it is a very dark place, indeed. And I am alarmed that the fearmongering and hate, particularly against the trans community, are just the beginning. I know this because it was how it started with us, 80 years ago. First, the editorials. Then the brutal, restrictive rules. Followed by the ire of our larger communities, which ultimately turned upon us.

America is not somehow immune from these dark forces, the kind that led to the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe. Indeed, we have a long and terrible history of bringing the full power of the state behind the very laws that separate, discriminate, and punish based on differences in race or sexuality.

We must do more than call scapegoating out. We must provide safe harbor for communities affected, and we must demand coordinated, federal-level responses that deter and prevent such abuses in the first place.

I see those levers of power being pulled again, and I recoil, as we all should. There are few things more terrifying than demagogic populism, sharpened dangerously into authoritarian rule, with minorities left at the mercy of those now in charge of writing and enforcing the laws. Yet that is precisely what is happening across much of Red State America today. Most of the candidates running to be the Republican pick for president have been freely expressing their anti-LGBTQ, anti-trans bigotry in a bid for votes, no matter the harm they are doing.

We are more than 80 years out from the Japanese American internment, but we have yet to learn its true lessons. Today, we must do more than call the scapegoating out. We must provide safe harbor for communities affected, and we must demand coordinated, federal-level responses that deter and prevent such abuses in the first place.

All of us have a role to play to ensure what happened before in America does not ever happen again. In 2024 we, and our allies, must vote as if our lives depended on it—because they do.

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