Desperately seeking LGBT memories of World War II incarceration

Two years ago, I was invited to participate in E.G. Crichton’s project “Lineage: Matchmaking in the Archive” in which artists, writers and musicians were asked to respond to personal collections in the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society archive. I was “matched” with Jiro Onuma, a gay Issei who moved to the U.S. from Iwate Prefecture, Japan in 1923 at age 19. Compared to some of the other collections in the archive, Onuma’s is rather modest. It consists of a few photo albums, some personal documents and papers, and a small collection of homoerotic male physique magazines and ephemera.

As I looked through pictures of the elegantly dressed Onuma posing with his male friends and lovers around San Francisco and other travel locations, two photographs captured my attention. Both were taken while Onuma was imprisoned at the Topaz concentration camp in Central Utah during World War II. The first is a group portrait showing Onuma and his mess hall workmates in front of Block #3 Dining Hall. The second shows Onuma, his close friend Ronald, and another man casually posing together on barren prison ground with a guard tower and barbed wire visible in the distance.

As a queer Japanese American, I am deeply moved by these photographs. Like so many Yonsei, I grew up hearing family and community stories about the concentration camps. But no one ever mentioned the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) experience of imprisonment. Onuma’s photographs attest to the presence of queers in camp and connect me to the history of wartime incarceration in a whole new way. These images prompt me to wonder what life must have been like for Onuma and other adult LGBT Nikkei in camp. How did Onuma survive the isolation, lack of privacy, and heteronormativity of incarceration as a 38-year-old dandyish gay bachelor from San Francisco?

When I asked friends, relatives, activists, and scholars if they had come across other traces of LGBT camp histories or memories, the most common response I heard was, “I never really thought about the queer experience of camp.” Why is this the case? Why haven’t we, as a Japanese American community dedicated to social justice as well as racial and gender equality, thought about the queer perspectives on camp? How do we begin to uncover LGBT camp histories and memories? What internal and external factors have contributed to this legacy of silence around queer sexuality in Japanese American World War II history?

The scarcity of LGBT accounts of JA imprisonment may be related to the atypical organization of the World War II prison camps. Unlike most prison facilities that are sex segregated (thereby opening up possibilities for same-sex relationships and queer stories), the Japanese American prison camps organized inmates by extended family unit. Scholars such as Greg Robinson and John Howard suggest that the “unknown” history of Japanese American queer sexuality may also relate to internal pressure within Japanese American communities to assimilate to American culture by conforming to heterosexual norms.

During World War II, this pressure to conform to dominant codes of heterosexuality was heightened especially among some Nisei men, who could assert their masculinity and good citizenship by internally policing their sexual behavior, disavowing homosexuality, and/or enlisting in the military. In terms of the visual representation of camp, most of the documentary and experimental films addressing the incarceration of Japanese Americans tend to focus on political activism and resistance, the heroism of 442nd Infantry, athletic and artistic achievements, or the profound and traumatic impact of incarceration told from personal or intergenerational perspectives.

The photographs of Onuma at Topaz add another dimension to our diverse histories and memories of camp. It was shocking and disheartening for me to learn that Onuma’s Topaz photographs are the only known images of a gay Issei incarcerated during World War II. Therefore, I encourage you to visit Onuma’s collection currently on display at the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco.

More urgently, I implore you to think back, look through old photo albums, and share any histories, stories, memories or insights that you or your elders may have on the LGBT experience of incarceration. Were intimate friendships or same-sex relationships topics of conversation, gossip, or rumors at the time? What kinds of queer relationships developed in the bachelor’s quarters, in the various girls’ and boys clubs, on athletic teams, during the off-site work assignments, in military training camps, in the Women’s Army Corps, or during day-pass excursions to neighboring towns? There must be more than two photographs to commemorate the significance of queer lives in camp. Help honor our queer Nikkei heritage by broadening our vision of Japanese American World War II history to include LGBT perspectives and experiences.

Tina Takemoto is an artist and associate professor of visual studies at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Her current artwork and research explore the LGBT experience of the Japanese American incarceration camps during World War II. Takemoto is a board member of the Queer Cultural Center and a co-founder of Queer Conversations on Culture and the Arts. She can be reached at ttakemoto@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Comments

  1. karen kosasa says

    This is an eloquently worded plea for us to reflect on an important absence in the JA archive of WWII camp experiences. If we are serious in our efforts to obtain social justice for ourselves and our Asian American communities in the U.S., we must be mindful of how we have wittingly and unwittingly sanctioned intolerance within our own communities. I think this is important to consider as we work to gather and care for documents on the diversity of American experiences in local, regional, and national archives.

    • This article is hopefully the first of a torrent of information that emerges from the world war 2 Japanese experience in internment. As there were in Nazi Germany, and any other time period in history Gay people were there and victimized in particular and deliberate ways. I applaud Takemoto bringing this history to light and all the nuances it presents. All generations of Japanese will benefit by this knowledge. Hats off to Takemoto.

    • Kris Mizutani says

      As our elders age your work becomes increasingly time-sensitive. Most of the stories and histories you seek may exist in visual representation, but may not gleaned without the accounts that our grandparents can share with us about camp life and unspoken LGBT relationships. As a queer Yonsei, I too applaud you for taking on this challenging topic. Perhaps we can go to Keiro together next time I go to LA? Maybe there will be many a story waiting there? You are welcome to talk story with my grandparents and family anytime.

  2. georgina fitzpatrick says

    I finished a Phd on internment in Australia during the Second World War at ANU in 2009 and I am not surpirsed that you found so little trace of records of gay life in camps. I was on the lookout for any hints during my research into everyday life in Liverpool (NSW), Tatura (Vic) and Loveday (SA) internment camps but found only a few one-line asides and rumours about it in memoirs, letters and diaries. There was nothing in the scores of official files I went through. As it was a criminal offence at the time, I imagine the camp authorities turned a blind eye as not wanting another complication in the matter of interning people without trial for an indefinite period.

  3. Mandy Hu says

    Tina, thank you for trying to shed some light on this important and under-researched topic. Please follow up with whatever you find!

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