THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: The Japanese American fight for gay and lesbian rights



This week’s piece represents a fifth entry in the series of annual columns I have produced for Nichi Bei on the Queer heritage of Japanese Americans. In past pieces I have looked at the hidden and sometimes complex sexual history of early Japanese immigrants; the evolution of widespread anti-gay prejudice in mid-century Japanese communities, even among supporters of civil rights for racial minorities; the scattered hints and evidence of alternate Nisei sexuality; and the careers of the few openly Gay and Lesbian Japanese Americans who have worked for racial justice within Nikkei and other communities.

This piece is an anniversary column in a rather broader sense as well, in that it marks 25 years since the period 1986-1987. This was a time of strenuous conflict over the issue of equality for Gay and Lesbian Americans, including those of Japanese ancestry, and the founding moment of what would soon be called Queer activism.

In retrospect, we can identify two principal catalysts for the attention to Gay and Lesbian concerns, and the revival of militancy. The first was the AIDS crisis. By 1986 an estimated 1,000,000 Americans were HIV-positive, and the rate of new infections was increasing. Although the AIDS-related death of actor Rock Hudson in late 1985 had brought the first mainstream visibility to the epidemic, it remained a source of shame and stigma to most Americans, Gay and straight. Federal and state governments failed to make treatment and research a funding priority. The Aids Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) was formed in response in March 1987. ACT UP militants campaigned for new legislation, more money to care for the stricken, and greater access to experimental AIDS medications. Their tactics, which included creating posters and videos and staging “die-ins” and other demonstrations, would serve as a model for a generation of activists.

The other cause was the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick, announced at the end of June 1986. Michael Hardwick was a Georgia man who challenged the state sodomy law after the police entered his home and arrested him for having sex with another male. While a lower court threw out the conviction, by a narrow 5-4 majority the Supreme Court ruled that state anti-sodomy laws were constitutional as enforced against same-sex couples and that there was no “constitutional right” to engage in homosexual sodomy. (The Court would overrule itself 17 years later, in the case of Lawrence v. Texas, in which the majority opinion termed the Bowers ruling an “insult” to Gay and Lesbian Americans.)

The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and other mainstream Asian American organizations did not concern themselves with anti-gay discrimination in any visible way during the 1980s. Not only was their attention fixed on urgent matters such as redress for wartime confinement and prosecuting the murderers of Vincent Chin, but much of their membership likely shared to some degree the larger social discomfort over homosexuality. In addition, it must be stated, mainstream Gay and Lesbian organizations made little effort to engage with Asian American groups or issues.

Still, individual Japanese Americans, especially in Hawai‘i, did begin to make their voices heard on the side of equal treatment for all. In the wake of the Bowers decision, Roy Takumi, a future state legislator then working for the American Friends Service Committee, contended that because heterosexual sodomy was not similarly outlawed. “The ruling implies that the Court believes that identical conduct by heterosexuals is not subject to state action: thus it is not the action but who does it that makes it illegal. It marks the first time since the Dred Scott decision that the Court has carved out a category of people for special treatment, reversing decades of movement to apply rights equally,” Takumi said in an interview with the Honolulu Advertiser. He concluded, “The rights of every minority must be vigilantly protected because the rights of one are the rights of all.”

Meanwhile, in response to the decision, in July 1986 a mixed group formed the Hawai‘i Democrats for Lesbian and Gay Rights, and endorsed a slate of 11 candidates for the fall elections. The group’s biggest coup came in September, when the powerful U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye agreed to attend a meeting organized by the newly-founded group at Hula’s bar, a well known Gay nightspot in Waikiki. Inouye had been for some time a quiet supporter of equality for Gays and Lesbians, and had signed up in 1980 as an early co-sponsor of a bill in Congress to extend to sexual minorities the protections of the 1964 Civil Rights Act against employment and housing discrimination. Inouye told his audience that, while he recognized the difficulties involved in coming out of the closet, Gays and Lesbians needed to speak out. “If you want to hide, that’s up to you. But if you want to stand up and be counted, I think there is greater hope for you,” he said, according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Inouye concluded that Gays and Lesbians had “many friends” in the Congress, and that they would eventually triumph, as other groups had, over “unreasoning prejudice.” He received a standing ovation. While various polls all indicated that he was comfortably ahead in his race for reelection against his Republican opponent, his presence caused a public stir. Inouye’s Republican opponent charged that by speaking at a Gay bar he was “endorsing homosexuality.” The senator’s defenders responded blandly that he was simply meeting constituents.

An unlikely source seconded Inouye’s careful message of support soon thereafter. In early 1987, the Catholic Bishop of Honolulu, Joseph Anthony Ferrario, took a public position in favor of a proposed bill to protect the state’s Gays and Lesbians from housing and employment discrimination. While he followed Church teaching against homosexuality, Bishop Ferrario stated that he distinguished between opposition to sinful acts and the equal right to dignity of all individuals. When a conservative group called Concerned Roman Catholics, claiming to speak for the majority of the faithful, decried Bishop Ferrario’s position, D.H. Matsuda publicly praised the Bishop, asserting tartly in a letter to the editor that if the Bishop’s critics indeed spoke for Catholics, “it is better to be a human being than…a Catholic.”

In the fall 1986 election, Democrats regained the majority in the Senate, which they had lost six years earlier. A group of senators, including Inouye, supported an increase in funding for AIDS research and treatment. In response, conservative Republican Jesse Helms proposed the first of his notorious “Helms Amendments,” forbidding any federal funding for AIDS treatment or any other activities that “promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities.” Although the provision represented exactly the type of “unreasoning prejudice” Inouye had told Gays and Lesbians that their friends would defeat, Inouye recognized that the wall of prejudice was still formidable. In order to secure passage of the legislation, he voted in favor of the amendment — as did all senators of both parties apart from Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and liberal Republican Lowell Weicker of Connecticut. (In part because of Weicker’s stand, conservative groups formed a coalition during the 1988 election to support his challenger, Democrat Joseph Lieberman, who won the seat and thereby inaugurated his own long senate career.)

In sum, the support that Gays and Lesbians received in their struggle for equality from Japanese Americans during the late 1980s was modest, low-key, and largely the product of individuals. Yet even such modest beginnings paved the way for more organized efforts during the 1990s, as Queer Japanese Americans gained increased visibility within ethnic communities. By 1994 the JACL, which had never previously endorsed any civil rights protections for Gays and Lesbians, became the first national racial minority organization to vote an official resolution in support of equal marriage rights.


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 via e-mail at

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