THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Revisiting the JACL’s historic debate over same-sex marriage

The rainbow flag, a symbol of the LGBT rights movement.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the NAACP’s May 19, 2012 endorsement of same-sex marriage.
Today’s installment of “The Great Unknown,” which marks my sixth annual column on the queer history of Japanese Americans, is devoted to commemorating the Japanese American Citizens League’s (JACL) historic marriage debate. As most of us are aware, on May 9, 2012 President Barack Obama made the landmark announcement that he supported the right of same-sex couples to marry. Obama explained that, as a Christian, he had faced a long struggle over what position to take, but that in the end the Golden Rule won out. His announcement was greeted with jubilation by LGBT Americans and by straight supporters of equality, but bitterly denounced by religious conservatives and right-wing spokespeople as an attack on both Christianity and marriage.

Whatever the political calculation present in the president’s change of position, and the limitations of that support in terms of changing existing law, his statement marks the first time that a sitting president has placed the moral authority of his office behind the principle of full equality for gay and lesbian couples. The president’s action in taking sides before election time was also a courageous move, given the opposition to marriage rights for same-sex couples among voters in various “swing states.”

JACL Ahead of the Curve
The game-changing nature of Obama’s statement, as well as the sharply opposing reactions it sparked, were mirrored nearly 20 years ago, if on a considerably smaller scale, by the adoption of a resolution in favor of marriage equality by the JACL. The JACL’s action, in mid-1994, made it the first national non-white civil rights organization to grant official support to marriage for same-sex couples. It wasn’t until May 19, 2012 that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), would do the same. Remarkably, it was adopted a full five years before Vermont became the first state to enact civil unions, and a decade before Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. The JACL’s action was the subject of bitter division within the Japanese American community, and led to an unusually public airing of disagreements and ultimately a referendum to repeal the vote of the ruling board.

The origins of the marriage resolution apparently lie with various JACL chapters, most notably Honolulu. In 1993, the question of marriage rights first gained nationwide attention when Hawaii’s state Supreme Court ruled in Baehr vs. Lewin, a suit including two Filipino Americans and their same-sex partners who sought to marry, that refusing marriage licenses to gay couples constituted unconstitutional sex discrimination (Hawai‘i voters ultimately mooted the case by adopting a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples). The Honolulu chapter of the JACL, which had sent a letter of support for the couples, decided to bring the matter to the organization’s national leadership. It was Bill Kaneko, national vice president from the Honolulu chapter, who initially presented the resolution to the national board, with support from Ruth Mizobe, governor of the Pacific Southwest District Council. Meanwhile, progressive JACL chapters in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles — urban areas with more visible gay populations — moved to lobby for its adoption. Many of these backers had previously worked for Japanese American redress. Some were themselves gay or lesbian, like Tak Yamamoto, a founding member of Asian/Pacific Lesbians and Gays, or former JACL staffer Lia Shigemura. Others, like longtime activist Chizu Iiyama, were not, but supported the principle of equality.

A Surprising Move
Even the consideration of such a measure was surprising. In contrast to its championing of racial equality and affirmative action, the organization had never been visible in its support for the rights of gays and lesbians. On the contrary, in 1982 longtime national counsel William Marutani stated in the Pacific Citizen that he opposed civil rights for “queers,” like the right to teach in public schools, in order to ensure that homosexuality “not be encouraged or advanced.” He added that his view surely reflected the feelings of the vast majority of Nisei, if not of all Nikkei. In 1988, however, the JACL adopted a new constitution adding sexual orientation to its list of categories for which it sought equal justice. In 1993, following passage in Colorado of Amendment 2, an initiative to strip gays and lesbians of legal protections, and in the wake of the debate over military service that led Congress to establish the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the JACL national board finally voted to endorse the rights of gays and lesbians to serve in the military and to be protected from discrimination in housing and employment. To take up such a “cutting edge” rights question (in the words of national youth council director Kim Nakahara) as marriage represented something of a revolution for the JACL.

In February 1994, Kaneko presented to the JACL national board a resolution supporting “the concept of marriage as a constitutional right that should not be denied because of a person’s sexual orientation.” Legal prohibitions on same-sex marriage, it stated, violated constitutional guarantees of equal protection and of human rights. The board voted to table the resolution in order to consult member chapters. At its following meeting, in May 1994, the JACL’s national board approved the Kaneko resolution by a vote of 10-3 (with two abstentions).

The board’s action catalyzed a storm of protest. JACL legal counsel Allen Kato resigned, publicly stating that, as a Christian, he considered homosexual marriages to be “morally wrong,” and the board’s action an affront to his religious freedom. Esteemed columnist Bill Hosokawa accused the board of moving the JACL past the purposes of its founding, which was to focus on issues of direct and paramount importance to Japanese Americans (the existence of LGBT Japanese Americans, and the impact on their rights, went ignored in Hosokawa’s discussion). Numerous individuals sent letters to the Pacific Citizen deploring the vote as endorsement of homosexuality. A writer from Renton, Wash. complained that the JACL now favored granting same-sex couples the same benefits granted “normal married couples to protect them and their children.” One from Redondo Beach, Calif. proclaimed that “If the JACL constitution says that we should support a person’s civil rights regardless of sexual orientation, change it! Otherwise we must support people engaged in paedophilia, incest, and bestiality.” A reader from Dublin, Calif. called on the JACL to stand for the “traditional family.” While Buddhists remained silent on the religious question, several authors, following Allen Kato, couched their opposition in explicitly Christian terms. One correspondent from Stockton, Calif. thundered against “same-sex” as the sin of sodomy by the prepetrator “against the maker and against his own flesh.” Another from Santa Ana stated that “civil rights” could never take precedence over “moral rights” in a nation founded on Christian principles.

Various local chapters protested the board’s action as unauthorized. The JACL’s Mount Olympus chapter, based in heavily-Mormon Salt Lake City, brought a resolution to have the national council, made up of representatives from all chapters, vote on repeal of the national board’s resolution. Hoping to resolve the debate, Mike Hamachi of the Diablo Valley chapter (following a proposal by Peggy Sasashima Liggett) introduced a competing resolution to support domestic partner legislation rather than marriage, and respecting the right of JACL members to disagree about whether domestic partnerships were a matter of civil rights.

For veteran JACLers it must have seemed like déjà vu — the tone of the debate was eerily reminiscent of a similar controversy over civil rights that the organization had faced a generation previously. In early 1963, the JACL national board accepted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s invitation to send representatives to that summer’s March on Washington. Several local chapters then protested that the JACL should not identify itself too closely with the Black Freedom movement, since it was not their struggle and would alienate useful white allies. The Pacific Citizen published a number of letters from Nisei, most advising against marching. In the end, National President K. Patrick Okura called an emergency national board meeting to set policy — he set the meeting in his hometown of Omaha, Neb., far from local West Coast pressures. The delegates there approved the right of JACL members to attend the historic March, though only a few dozen actually did so. [With apologies for the self-promotion, I direct readers wishing a fuller account of this conflict to the final chapter of my new book, “After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics” (University of California Press, 2012)].

A Showdown
In summer 1994, there was a showdown over marriage at the JACL’s national convention in Salt Lake City. In order to blunt the Christian-based opposition, Kaneko presented articles written by religious leaders, such as the Rev. Joan Ishibashi of the United Church of Christ in Honolulu and the Rev. Mark Nakagawa of Sacramento, Calif., who endorsed the same-sex resolution. He also introduced letters of support from the Asian Law Caucus, the Asian Bar Association and the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium. Perhaps surprisingly, given both his reputation as a moderate consensus-seeker and his vulnerability as an elected official to negative publicity, then-Rep. Norman Mineta proved to be one of the most forceful advocates of the national board’s resoution. Mineta asked rhetorically, “Where would we be today if the NAACP, or the National Council of La Raza, or the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith, or the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force had taken the position that redress was a Japanese American issue — and had nothing to do with African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Jews or gay and lesbian Americans?” In more practical terms, he reminded the JACLers that Rep. Barney Frank, the first sitting Congressman to come out voluntarily, had been a leading actor in moving redress through Congress, and that Japanese Americans had a debt to repay to their champion.

Following the end of debate, the national council voted 50-38 to uphold the national board’s resolution. Four chapters split their vote and 11 more abstained. (By a large majority, the national council then passed the Hamachi resolution on domestic partnerships, though it had been rendered effectively moot.) Carole Hayashino, the JACL’s associate director, later stated that while she had not expected the national board resolution to actually be overturned, the narrow vote showed how difficult it was for the various chapters to accept it. “It was an emotional discussion.” JACL executive director Herb Yamanishi added two years later that the decision, which remained controversial, had cost the group part of its membership.

Now, a generation later, when the president and — according to public opinion polls — a majority of Americans (including a large majority of those under 30) support extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, the JACL’s action appears forward-looking and responsible. In another generation, young Nikkei may look back with puzzlement that there was ever any controversy in the community over marriage rights for LGBT.

 

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is an associate professor of history at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Speak Your Mind

*

Kyplex Cloud Security Seal - Click for Verification