Recognizing Japanese American lesbians’ activism, then and now

bioline_Greg RobinsonThe season for gay pride is upon us. This year, there is extra cause for celebration with the selection of professor Amy Sueyoshi, a community activist and leading historian of queer Asian Americans, as a grand marshal of the San Francisco Pride parade. In addition to Sueyoshi’s own considerable qualities, the choice is gratifying on a symbolic level as a recognition of the important presence of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Nikkei within both queer and Japanese American communities.

It is also LGBT History Month, which means it is time for my annual queer history column. I can scarcely believe it myself, but it has already been a decade since I began writing my first queer history columns for Nichi Bei. The first half-dozen of these told the story of the shift from the complex sexuality and “queer domesticity” of the Issei to the adoption of Western-style homophobia within mid-century Nikkei communities and the concealment of gays and lesbians. I finished with the awakening of LGBTQ Japanese Americans and the shift in overall community opinion, crystallized in the Japanese American Citizens League’s historic 1994 vote in support of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. (With apologies for the self-advertisement, I am glad to announce that these columns have once more returned to print, and can be found in my new book, “The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches”).

In recent years, I have told a set of other stories, focusing on the first discussions of homosexuality by gay men and lesbians within Nikkei community media circa 1980, and the first stirrings of larger community support for equal rights, both in Hawai‘i and on the mainland, in the years that followed.

A crucial aspect of this evolution, and one that I have shamefully neglected, is the leading role of women. In one sense, this absence is not surprising. Throughout history the grassroots activism of women, especially outside government, has tended to pass under the radar screen of media coverage and popular notice. Lesbians in particular have often felt invisible, both within LGBTQ groups and in the society at large. Indeed, the reason that women insisted on the inclusion of the word “lesbian” in movement language and organizational titles beginning in the early years of gay liberation was that the word “gay,” which had been originally conceived to refer to both women and men, was popularly associated only with men. (The shifts continued further to embrace other less visible populations — for example, the National Gay Task Force, founded in 1973, was renamed the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 1985, before later morphing into the National LGBTQ Task Force).

That said, in the key period after Stonewall, it was most often lesbians rather than gay or bisexual men who took the lead in speaking publicly within Nikkei communities about their homosexuality and in challenging community silence and hostility. We can speculate about the reasons for this: macho social expectations on men that led them to remain silent; the massive impact of the AIDS crisis in diverting the attention of gay men; greater acceptance of Asian Americans within lesbian communities; high levels of community literacy that promoted self-expression; and the impact of the sexual revolution on women generally. Certainly, one contributing factor was the women’s movement, which tapped into the genuine if contested strain of feminism within Japanese American communities. Throughout the postwar era, large numbers of Nikkei women mobilized to seek education and take up careers or community work, all of which in turn encouraged them to be more independent. Whatever the reason, Japanese American lesbians were outspoken in asserting their existence and their search for fulfillment.

Within LGBTQ communities, Japanese Americans, like other non-whites, were sometimes marginalized. In 1979, at a conference of Third World Gays and Lesbians, poet/activist Michiyo Fukaya (aka Michiyo Cornell) delivered an address, “Living in Asian America: An Asian American Lesbian’s Address Before the Washington Monument.” (The title alluding to the first national Gay Rights March that year). In the address, she linked her experiences as an Asian American lesbian with the larger antiracist struggles of Third World people and spoke about racism within the LGBTQ communities. (Fukaya died at age 34, but her writings were later collected in the volume “A Fire Is Burning, It Is In Me: The Life and Writing of Michiyo Fukaya.”)

Conversely, some of the first recorded public statements by Nikkei lesbians came within feminist circles. For example, in 1983, the feminist journal “Off Our Backs” reported on a women’s studies workshop in Los Angeles. There, Pamela Hamanaka, then a student at the University of California, Los Angeles and organizer for Los Angeles Asian and Pacific Islander lesbians and gays, spoke poignantly about the plight of Japanese American and other Asian American lesbians. Asian women as a group, she noted, remained dominated by their families and were generally not allowed to deal with their sexual identities. Hamanaka added that some black and Latin lesbians in Los Angeles saw Asians as white and excluded them, even as there were white lesbians, particularly older-style lesbians, who saw Asians as passive or even as servants. Interestingly, Hamanaka concluded that groups such as the Japanese American Citizens League were in fact willing to listen to Asian lesbian and gay speakers, but that she still felt the burden of educating Asians about gay life and of explaining about Asian identity within gay circles.

Six years later, at a Passages conference, Lil, a 57-year-old Nisei lesbian from San Francisco, spoke as part of a conference panel on older lesbians. Lil described her experience, explaining that she had been married with children, but had left her husband when she came out of the closet. When asked about her parents’ reaction, Lil stated that her mother didn’t speak to her for seven years after finding out.

At the same time, north of the border in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Mona Oikawa who labeled herself as a “Sansei lesbian feminist,” wrote an article in the journal “Fireweed,” describing her experience of feeling excluded within both LGBTQ and Asian communities. On the one hand, in taking a petition to Lesbian and Gay Pride Day supporting a negotiated settlement for the Japanese Canadian survivors of the Canadian prison camps, she was told by some individuals, “We are not interested in that.” Conversely, among Nikkei she faced the burden of assumptions that she was a single, straight woman.

In 1989, amid attempts by Orange County’s government to undo the city of Irvine’s new human rights ordinance in California banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (a piece of bigotry that drew a stinging rebuke in the Los Angeles Times by renowned poet/activist Mitsuye Yamada), local gays and lesbians mobilized to speak out. In an article in the Orange County Register, Ann Uyeda recounted her experience. Though she had realized from the time she was little that she was different from others, Uyeda recounted, she denied her homosexuality until she was in college. The first open homosexual she had ever met was a gay man who invited her to a meeting of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays in Orange in the spring of 1987.

While sporadic and largely ignored by mainstream media, these first recorded stirrings of openness and pride in the 1980s were impressive, and they would give way to a much stronger current in the 1990s.

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,” was recently published 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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