THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: The civil rights politics and complexities of Nikkei ‘coming out’ as LGBT

This week’s entry represents the seventh annual column that I have produced for the Nichi Bei on the queer heritage of Japanese Americans. In past entries, I have explored such topics as the varieties of Issei sexuality, the turn to Western-style family models (and homophobia) within Japanese communities, and the community’s turn to support for LGBT equality, capped by the Japanese American Citizens League’s historic resolution in support of same-sex marriage rights in 1994. I am proud to extend here my discussion of LGBT Nikkei history, and its connection to present-day issues of sexuality and equality.

The present column concerns the origins of public discussion of homosexuality within Nikkei communities in the 1970s. During that period, lesbian and gay communities spread throughout the country, with San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York as national centers. Their members built alternative social institutions, such as bookstores, dance clubs, health clinics, women’s music concerts, theaters and bars.

(There were also assorted men’s saunas and sex clubs, many of which would be closed by official decree in the 1980s amid the AIDS crisis). They also turned to political organizing through such groups as the Gay Activists Alliance, and what became the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. In the wake of the Stonewall riots, gay and lesbian activists privileged the “coming out” experience — the public taking on of a queer identity and telling friends and family — not only as an act of personal liberation from shame, but as the core of civil rights politics. (The ideology of the movement has since remained consistent on this point, and not without reason: public opinion polls continue to indicate that heterosexuals who know openly gay people are far more likely to be supportive of equal rights generally).

During these years, despite ambient racism within gay communities, whose public face was very white, countless Asian Americans made a home there. A few gay and lesbian Asian Americans discussed their sexual orientation publicly. Kiyoshi Kuromiya, cofounder of the Philadelphia chapter of the Gay Liberation Front in 1970, was an early activist. Willyce Kim, a Bay Area Korean American lesbian writer/artist, published a book of photographs, “Lesbians Speak Out,” in 1974. Dennis Chiu appeared in the pioneering 1978 LGBT documentary “Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives.” Michiyo Fukaya, a lesbian poet and activist based in Vermont, was a speaker at the first national Gay Rights March on Washington in 1979. As Eric C. Wat records in his book “The Making of a Gay Asian Community: An Oral History of Pre-AIDS Los Angeles” in 1980, a circle of activists in Los Angeles, led by the late Tak Yamamoto, formed Asian/Pacific Lesbians and Gays, the first Asian American LGBT group.

Within Asian communities, however, homosexuality long remained taboo, and many people were frightened to break the silence to their friends and families. As columnist Edward Iwata noted sardonically in 1982, “There is only one thing that most Asian Americans fear more than speaking in public or finding bad skiing conditions, and that is homosexuality. It is the last taboo, it is tainted ground. If one is religious, homosexuality is a filthy sin. If one is a Nisei, it is verboten to discuss. If one is a Sansei, it is a netherworld full of lisping, limpwristed men.”

Still, despite these formidable burdens, at the tail end of the 1970s there were two notable attempts by queer Nikkei, with help from outside allies, to speak out in community-based media. The first was an article, “Japanese American Lesbians Reach Out for Understanding and Acceptance,” by Gardena, Calif.-based journalist Judy Tachibana. It appeared in The Rafu Shimpo on Oct. 24, 1979 (and subsequently in The New Canadian). In it Tachibana told the stories of a quartet of Japanese American lesbians. None of the women, Tachibana explained, were particularly “butch” or distinctive in appearance, and they felt they did not differ from other middle-class Nikkei North Americans whose goals, values and backgrounds they shared. Their special problem lay in explaining their sexual orientation to their families. They had agreed to be interviewed in hopes of changing negative community attitudes toward homosexuality, but each included only the initial of her family name out of concern for privacy, especially for work (the article reminded readers that the “Briggs initiative,” a California state ballot referendum to deny gay people the right to teach in public schools, had been defeated at the polls only one year previously, and people still were wary of going public out of fear of losing their jobs).

The first of Tachibana’s interviewees, Carol, a 28-year-old Sansei, was a recreational counselor who was generally open about her sexuality. She was inspired by the example of a Nisei uncle, an artist who had been openly gay for 18 years and whose white partner was accepted at family gatherings. Carol nevertheless encountered friction from her family over her sexuality. She related that when she came out to her mother, she asked, “What are you getting yourself into?” and had continued to ask whether she had changed her mind. Both Carol’s mother and older brother seemed to consider her lesbianism a “phase.” Carol had never spoken about her sexuality with her father, with whom she had a difficult relationship. She felt uneasy bringing her (Anglo) girlfriend of two years home, because of the tension it provoked.

The second interviewee, Sharon, a 35-year-old Nisei working in the medical field, felt unable to discuss her sexuality with her Issei parents, partly because of the language barrier, partly because of her sense that they would be unable to handle it on cultural grounds: her strict father, in particular, would feel “dishonored” by a lesbian daughter. Because of her own negative feelings about her sexuality, Sharon had initially consulted a psychotherapist to fight her attraction to women. (Using an English-Japanese dictionary, she explained to her parents that she was seeking professional help, but not the reason why. They offered financial help, but did not ask further). Sharon had largely cut herself off from the Nikkei community, both to rebel against her parents’ focus on ethnic group activities and because she did not want her parents to learn through “the grapevine” about her lesbianism. Interestingly, Sharon added that if she did ever come out to her parents, they might find it easier if she had a Japanese American girlfriend.

The third subject was Nancy, a 22-year-old Sansei working as an auto mechanic. Though she had long been aware of her attraction to women, it was attending a meeting at the Los Angeles Gay Community Center that had led her to live a gay life, and she had since dated several women (including a Japanese American). After being “outed” to her family by an older Nisei friend, Nancy had tried to make her mother understand her, and felt she had succeeded. The rest of the family knew of her sexuality, but were less accepting. The last of the women Tachibana interviewed was Grace, a 24-year-old Hawai‘i-born Yonsei, who was raised by her grandparents.

Grace had previously been sexually involved with Asian American friends, but they had all “turned straight” on her, as a result of feeling the pressure to conform and live a heterosexual lifestyle. Grace did not feel ready at that point to speak to her own family about her sexual orientation.

Tachibana’s article caused a certain stir in local Japanese communities when it appeared in the Rafu Shimpo. As Donald Hata, an educator and then-city councilman in Gardena, recalled: “The Rafu’s English language editor, Dwight Chuman, was a gutsy Gardena Sansei who thrived on publishing stories that made the Nisei Establishment uncomfortable, and Judy’s lesbian piece was perfect for that purpose. [Chuman] gave it special attention by lowering the masthead and printing Judy’s article above it. ” Hata added, “Gay and lesbian issues were evolving topics in mainstream political circles, but totally suppressed in Gardena. This is why so many Nisei parents, as well as Sansei, were shocked when [Tachibana’s] Japanese American lesbian article appeared in the Rafu.”

Just months after Judy Tachibana’s article appeared, Jeff Sakuma, then a student at the University of Washington, pushed the discussion a step further by publishing a bylined article, entitled “Coming Out,” in the Seattle-based Asian American monthly International Examiner. Sakuma (who was unaware of Tachibana’s piece) began by relating that some months previously his father had remarked that he did not know of any Asians who were gay, and wondered if such a thing even existed. Sakuma had quickly changed the subject because he felt unable at the time to tell his father about his own gayness. Following the incident, however, he realized that many Asians, like his father, still saw homosexuality as a “white man’s disease,” a misconception that rested on the absence of visible gay Asians. He was therefore inspired not only to come out to his family, but to take a public stand.

Sakuma’s article briefly refuted some of the popular myths about homosexuality, such as that it was a mental illness, or a choice. He explained that being gay, in terms of the struggle against hostile stereotypes and discrimination, was much like being Asian or part of any other racial minority. Gay Asians had an especially difficult time, since they generally lived in close-knit ethnic communities, so coming out not only meant being open to their families, but to the entire community. The fact that so few Asian Americans were open about their sexual orientation made many gay Asians fear that they might be the only one. Sakuma concluded that he had written to offer himself as an example, both to increase community awareness of gay Asian existence and to make it easier for others to come out. Sakuma bravely published his home telephone number (plus the hotline number for the LGBT student group at UW) in case people needed some one to talk to or wished to speak to the Asian community about homosexuality.

Sakuma’s article was well received. He later recalled that he received positive responses from all sorts of people, including distant family members whom he had not previously “filled in” about being gay. Interestingly, he was contacted by Japanese American religious leaders, and was even invited to speak before a local JA congregation about homosexuality shortly afterward. Apparently so many people asked how his parents were taking his public revelation, though, that Sakuma’s mother ultimately penned a letter to the editor of the Examiner to express support for her son.

Two months after his first article in the International Examiner, Sakuma published a follow-up piece. Here he again answered basic questions about gay life: When did he first know that he was gay? (He realized he was “different” by age 5). Were all gay men effeminate and lesbians masculine? (No). Did he want children (yes) and if so, would he want them to be gay? Here Sakuma opened his feelings. He had already stated that gay life was rewarding, and added that he would not wish to change his sexual preference (as it was then termed) any more than his race. However, in the face of society’s negative attitudes, being gay was, he admitted, “Not the easiest way to live,” and he would prefer that his children grow up without that burden. Imagine, Sakuma explained by way of example, if his children had to miss out on the best years of their lives because they could not experience “Puppy love, dating, and attending their senior prom with the person that they were truly attracted to.” Even as the focus on high school proms as the summit of life betrayed the author’s youth, the larger question of gay families pointed to the turn that LGBT civil rights would take in the following decades, where legal status for same-sex couples, especially those with children, would take precedence over protections for individuals against housing and employment discrimination.

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.


Correction
Accuracy is fundamental in journalism. In the June 13-26, 2013 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly, the article entitled “The civil rights politics and complexities of Nikkei ‘coming’ out as LGBT” referred to Eric C. Wat’s claim that the Los Angeles group Asian/Pacific Lesbians and Gays, founded in 1980, was the first official Asian American LGBT group. Daniel C. Tsang reports that the first coed LGBT Asian American group was Boston Asian Gay Men and Lesbians (later renamed the Alliance of Massachusetts Asian Lesbians and Gays), founded in early 1979. Siong-Hat “S.H.” Chua, its cofounder, was a speaker at the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979.
The Nichi Bei Weekly regrets the errors.

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