THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: The JACL’s historic support for marriage equality

bioline_Greg RobinsonEver since I have been writing my Nichi Bei column “The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great” in 2007, I have devoted an annual column to studying the history of Japanese American sexuality, and in particular in-group attitudes toward homosexuality and the presence of gays and lesbians. I am proud to continue that tradition with today’s installment, which deals with the emergence of LGBT rights as a subject of debate and activism among members of Nikkei communities.

As many readers are aware, in May 1994 the National JACL board enacted a resolution in support of marriage equality, becoming the first national nonwhite civil rights organization to grant official support to marriage for same-sex couples. The national board’s action was controversial, and led to bitter divisions and a number of resignations by dissenting members (notably JACL legal counsel Allen Kato). The resolution was submitted to a referendum by the national council at that year’s JACL National Convention, and was only confirmed by the narrow vote of 50 to 38. Despite the closeness of the vote, the marriage resolution proved an epoch-making event for the JACL, placing the organization in the avant-garde on the issue of marriage equality (some two decades before the U.S. Supreme Court finally decreed it nationwide) and signaling a new direction toward engagement with a larger set of civil rights concerns that would expand after 9/11.

In fact, the vote was the climax of a series of events in the preceding years that set the JACL and Japanese American activists generally on new paths. During the 1980s the recovery of the wartime camp experience and the struggle for redress dominated Japanese American political action. The enactment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and the success of the coram nobis petitions to vacate the convictions of the wartime Nisei defendants were major victories for the community. Once they were accomplished, though, activists and other concerned members were forced to reflect on future directions. (There was also a certain amount of bad blood between members of community factions who had suspended their differences in support of the common cause, but who now resumed their opposition).

It was in this climate of uncertain new beginnings and lingering discord that the issue of LGBT rights touched Japanese Americans. It was not a matter on which the organized Nikkei community had ever taken a position, or paid a great deal of attention. In 1988, even as redress approached its final stage, the JACL adopted a new Constitution in which it added “sexual orientation” to its list of categories for which it sought equal justice. Although this established the grounding for future action, there was zero discussion of the provision in the Pacific Citizen or debate at the JACL national convention that adopted the constitution. By that time, such language was common in municipal laws and nondiscrimination clauses of universities and other private organizations, so it is conceivable that the drafters of the constitution included sexual orientation as boilerplate language, and that JACL voters did not realize that they were setting a new precedent in enacting it.

There was no immediate result of the new official policy. In fall 1992, however, voters in Colorado enacted Amendment 2, an initiative to strip gays and lesbians in the state of legal protections by barring local nondiscrimination ordinances (yes, exactly like the recent HB2 law in North Carolina, though more overt in stating its purpose and effect).

Though the amendment’s provisions were stayed pending a court challenge (and ultimately struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1996 case Romer v. Evans) the prospect of discrimination being enshrined in law was enough to spark discussion by civil rights advocates.

Meanwhile, in early 1993 newly-elected President Bill Clinton, who had campaigned for president on a promise to end the military’s exclusion of LGBT service members, announced his intention to lift the ban. The change was opposed by General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who stated publicly that, “the presence of homosexuals in the military is prejudicial to good order and discipline.” Powell dismissed the comparison to past military exclusion of African Americans by arguing that, “skin color is a benign, non-behavioral characteristic.” The president’s plan was also opposed by Senator Sam Nunn, the powerful chair of the Senate Armed Forces Committee. Nunn proposed instead a policy whereby LGBT service members would not be automatically excluded provided they kept quiet about their sexual orientation, but could be dismissed if their homosexuality became known.

The public debate over antigay discrimination could not fail to interest Japanese Americans, especially given their history of both official exclusion and outstanding military service. In February 1993, the Pacific Citizen published an article on the lifting of military exclusion of gays and lesbians. Martin Karu Hiraga, an openly gay man, reminded readers that the ban affected community members. An outstanding proponent of equal service was Bruce Yamashita, whose views carried particular weight because he had himself been the subject of a major civil rights case. After entering a 10-week course in the Marine Corps’ officers candidate school in 1989, Yamashita, a Sansei from Hawai’i, had been subjected to racial harassment and then kicked out two days before graduation on grounds that he had exhibited “leadership failure.” (Following a sustained campaign, he ultimately received an official apology and the offer of a commission in the Marine reserves).

The Pacific Citizen article on military service was subjected to criticism by columnist and JACL stalwart Bill Hosokawa. Hosokawa (who had rather speciously defended the vote on Amendment 2 in his home state of Colorado as a sane measure to eliminate unneeded laws rather than as bigotry) complained that the PC story was “tilted” against the ban, and gave the appearance of official JACL support for lifting exclusion. Perhaps as a result of Hosokawa’s barbs, the PC published a piece soon after by Lt. Colonel Thomas Mukai supporting the military ban. Mukai argued that the military should not be forced to lead social change, and that the JACL should not focus on the rights of “a special interest group so different from what JACL is.” Even more strongly opposed to “Gays in the military” was Phill Coleman, a librarian with the Japanese American World War II Experience in Lomita, Calif. In a letter to the PC, Coleman noted that, as an African American, he considered it understandable that minorities should band together. However, he insisted that biology was the foundation of human morality. Since “Homosexuality runs counter to human survival,” until homosexuals could naturally reproduce themselves, homosexuality should thus never be legalized or regarded as legitimate. Jimmie Kanaya, a retired army colonel, chimed in that service by gays and lesbians threatened indispensable unit cohesion. “If homosexuals are known to be assigned to a particular unit, they have the tendency to congregate and associate by themselves, and openly flaunt their status to the detriment of the organization.”

Despite the opposition, in spring of 1993 the JACL National Board adopted a resolution supporting the rights of gays and lesbians to military service. Paul Igasaki, executive director of the Asian Law Caucus, welcomed the vote as a symbolic gesture on the critical civil rights matter of LGBT equality, on which he said the JACL still lagged behind.

Karen Narasaki, Washington DC JACL representative, urged Clinton to hold firm and stand by his commitment to lifting exclusion. However, in the face of hardline opposition, the movement for opening military service to gays and lesbians sputtered. Clinton ultimately agreed to Nunn’s offer, leading to the enactment of the so-called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. It was a feeble face-saving compromise, which not only maintained the stigma of the closet and limited freedom of speech in dramatic fashion, but did nothing to stop the investigations and mass discharges that plagued LGBT service members. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” lasted for 17 years until Congress reversed the ban and opened military service to LGBT Americans without restriction in 2010.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., 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. His new book based upon his Nichi Bei columns, “The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches,” will be published this September by University Press of Colorado. 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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