THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Statements on homosexuality in JA press helps trace public’s opinion

bioline_Greg RobinsonAs devoted readers of Nichi Bei may already be aware, I maintain an annual tradition. Each June, in honor of LGBT History Month, I devote an column of “The Great Unknown” to revealing the Queer history of Japanese Americans. Past columns have dealt with topics such as homosocial intimacy among the Issei; the development of homophobia and patriarchy in early Japanese communities; the emergence of various lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Japanese American activists; and the response of the Japanese community.

This week’s column, which represents my ninth successive installment, comes as the Supreme Court is poised to decide whether or not it is constitutional for a state to deny equal marriage rights to same-sex couples. The court’s forthcoming ruling will not only have a significant legal impact, at least in the short term, but an enormous political and symbolic value.

Still, in a larger sense, the issue of marriage rights will continue to be tried in the court of public opinion. In the last years, even as the federal government and a large majority of states have been obliged to accept marriages contracted in their jurisdiction (most often following rulings by judges appointed by Republican officials), diverse polls have signalled an emerging supermajority in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples. Whether the majority of justices follow or defy this consensus, it will continue to weigh strongly in terms of legal developments.

More importantly for the purposes of this week’s column, the rapid turnaround of public opinion has left those who oppose not just same-sex marriage but equal rights for gay people generally rather on the defensive. So far from the days when most Americans regarded homosexuality with open loathing and derision, many conservatives now complain of feeling unjust stigma over their opposition to homosexuality, and of feeling constrained in openly expressing their position.

I confess that, as a citizen, I view such claims with skepticism, especially when conservatives demand license to discriminate in the public sphere on the basis of “sincere” (i.e., Christian) religious belief. Yet as a historian of Japanese North Americans I am glad to discover any public statement on homosexuality in the Nikkei press, as a tool to help trace the nature of opinion on the subject within ethnic communities in the United States and Canada. Looking at references to LGBTs in some earlier pieces, which were generally quite negative in their tone, certainly tells us how far things have evolved since.

The first fragmentary evidence I have found of negative attitudes toward homosexuality in the Nikkei press dates back to June of 1965, when Carole Terada, a Sansei teenager in Toronto, complained in the New Canadian that local teenage guys, notably in the Village, were all dressing and acting in effeminate style, and thereby revealing themselves as frivolous and immoral. As an example, she complained of a singer, Monty Rock III, who wore his hair long, sported earrings, and wore outrageous clothes, and “pranced about the stage.” Although Terada did not explicitly refer to homosexuality in her diatribe about effeminacy, her implication was clear enough to a male reader, Stan Kondo, who slammed her as sensationalistic and as intolerant in associating long hair and modern dances with effeminacy and queerness, which he implied were indeed deplorable: “You paw through a ton of apples until you finally seize upon one rotten one (there is always one)…Take any group of 500 teenage boys and you’ll inevitably find one homosexual among them. And consider that there are 300,000 male teenagers in Toronto.”

Another early piece is an unsigned article that appeared in the Japanese American press during fall 1971 and was also picked up by the Toronto-based weekly Continental Times, whose editors ran it in the Nov. 8, 1971 issue. Despite its title, “Japanese Travelers Warned of Homosexual Attacks Overseas,” the article did not discuss gay-bashing. Instead, it focused on gay sex, beginning with the arrest of two teenagers from a Tokyo high school who had ben caught having sex with men in a Shinjuku hotel. “The school authorities suspended the two boys concerned, but it is said the unhealthy practices are rife even among students. Such unnatural perversions have a long history in Japan as well as in foreign countries.” The author, seeming then to forget the existence of homosexuality in Japan, implied that it was a foreign practice, and went on to warn Japanese men who traveled abroad, especially if they were handsome, “to be careful of men who pass them by in corridors of hotels.” While ostensibly this article concerned only Japan and Japanese travelers, rather than Japanese Americans, the fact that the text was republished without comment, qualification, or visible attribution to a foreign writer suggests that the editors of the North American Nikkei press may have shared the author’s views of homosexuality as sexual perversion and “unhealthy” vice.

A final example of negative discussion in community media arose in 1982, when Judge William Marutani, longtime national counsel for the Japanese American Citizens League and a member of the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, stated in his column in the JACL’s  Pacific Citizen, that he opposed civil rights for “queers,” such as the right to teach in public schools, in order to ensure that the practice of homosexuality “not be encouraged or advanced.”

He added that, like most Nisei he knew, he found the whole concept of homosexuality to be personally and emotionally abhorrent. After Marutani’s article appeared, he was apparently challenged by a Japanese American reader who sent Marutani a private letter with a detailed refutation of his views. Marutani responded by explaining that while intellectually he could accept that gays and lesbians should not be persecuted, he had felt “emotional obstacles … since childhood” to their existence, and he made a distinction between fairness and equality, which he viewed as endorsement.

“Thus, for example, while we fully subscribe to teaching our children the virtues of civil rights, we are not prepared to include in that teaching  the ‘positive rewards’ (our term, whatever that may mean) of a life of homosexuality.” Marutani also stated that he did not know any Japanese Americans who “engaged in homosexual activity,” and while he did not doubt that there were some, he could not imagine that they could amount to even one percent of the total ethnic population. Marutani concluded that he had broached the subject of community attitudes toward homosexuality in an attempt to address and consider realities.

It is difficult to to know whether in 1982 Marutani’s negative attitudes were as widespread among Japanese Americans as he surmised.  They certainly were sufficiently mainsteam that there was no published article or letter refuting his view, either in the Pacific Citizen or in The New Canadian, which reprinted his text. Within a few years, however, not only had Japanese Americans begun to express more positive sentiments toward LGBTs, but Asian American civil rights groups had begun forming coalitions with LGBT groups. In 1988, the national Japanese American Citizens League quietly amended its own constitution to ensure against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. While this action, taken as part of a larger constitutional reform, did not draw any recorded comment (an indication that it was seen as self-evident), the provision led the JACL to take more public positions in succeeding years, leading up to the organization’s historic resolution in favor of marriage equality for same-sex couples in 1994.

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 a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. 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.

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