The U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark 5-4 decision in favor of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges June 26, affirming that all states must recognize same-sex marriages. The fight for same-sex marriage, with roots in the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York, took decades of activism before gaining the public’s approval and support, including among Japanese Americans.
The Japanese American Citizens League considers itself one of the first national organizations to support same-sex marriage. In a 1994 resolution, the JACL National Board endorsed their support for same-sex marriage in a 10-3 vote with two abstentions, historian Greg Robinson wrote in a May 18, 2012 column in the Nichi Bei Weekly. Robinson said the decision was contentious and in a vote by the national council, the resolution was upheld in a 50-38 vote with 11 abstentions.
“Briefly, the same-sex marriage resolution was an epoch-making event for the JACL,” Robinson told the Nichi Bei Weekly in an e-mail. The decision gave the organization, at the time “known for conservatism,” a “notable progressive agenda,” Robinson wrote.
Part of what drove the JACL to uphold the resolution were the words of Rep. Norman Mineta. The JACL quoted Mineta’s address at the JACL National Convention in Salt Lake City in 1994 saying, “Doing what is right is often controversial. Doing what is just is often unpopular. But if we are to remain a viable voice in the national civil rights movement we cannot back away from our commitments simply because this issue is difficult.”
Since the resolution passed, the statement said, the JACL has filed amicus briefs in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer issues, including Obergefell v. Hodges.
Recent Swing in Favor
While the JACL endorsed same-sex marriage on paper, the reality may have been lackluster. Robinson contended that the impact of the resolution to the outside community may have been minimal. “Judging by the PC (the JACL newspaper, the Pacific Citizen) and other things, while the JACL never retracted this policy, neither did the organization support it in an active way,” he said. “I suspect that in 2015 even many Japanese Americans were unaware that the organization had ever taken such a stand.”
Outside of the JACL, support was more sparse. Aiden Aizumi, a transgender Japanese American activist, said the Japanese American community has been outspoken and supportive. However, more people have yet to chime in.
“I have found that most of my encounters with API people and LGBTQ issues is that they don’t have a strong stance in supporting or not supporting,” he said. “Many actually deny that there are any API LGBTQ people in existence …”
Activist Lia Shigemura told the Nichi Bei Weekly that LGBTQ rights were not a main priority among even the more progressive Japanese Americans. “I came out in the mid-80s. I was living in Japantown, working on Sutter Street … and it was quite a homophobic place,” she said. “I was working in the Japanese American community. Otherwise progressive people on issues of race would make homophobic jokes, comments, and everyone would cackle.”
While Shigemura said Japanese Americans were no more homophobic than any other community, it was difficult being out. It was only in the last two years that she saw public opinions change at “warp speed.”
For many Americans, LGBTQ issues came into public consciousness following then-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision to issue same-sex marriage licenses in San Francisco in 2004. Since 2004, the California Supreme Court first struck down a ban on same-sex marriage in 2008, which was when Shigemura married journalist and scholar Helen Zia. Later that same year, Californians passed Proposition 8, outlawing same-sex marriage again until the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals struck it down in 2013. According to the Pew Research Center, public support for gay marriage surpassed 50 percent for the first time in 2013.
At around that time, recognition of LGBTQ issues began to coalesce within other groups, including clergy members.
The Buena Vista United Methodist Church became a reconciling congregation in 2006. “The United Methodist Church continues to struggle with the matter of same-sex marriage in our international church polity,” the Rev. Michael Yoshii, senior pastor at the church, wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. Yoshii also officiated the first same-sex wedding at Wesley United Methodist Church in San Jose’s Japantown in May 2014. “To be a ‘reconciling congregation’ means that we publicly declare our support and inclusion of LGBTQ persons within the life of the congregation.”
For Yoshii, supporting LGBTQ people is a matter of dignity and respect. “One’s sexual orientation should not be a basis for discrimination or denial of equal rights,” he wrote. “From a spiritual point of view, same-sex marriages should be facilitated and valued as a declaration of love between two persons who seek to make a commitment to one another.”
The Rev. Ron Kobata of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco told the Nichi Bei Weekly the Buddhist Churches of America’s Ministers Association adopted a resolution in support of gay marriages more than 10 years ago, and that some ministers have officiated marriage for gay couples since the 1970s. Five years ago, the ministers association adopted another resolution to encourage the Boy Scouts of America to change their policies regarding openly gay scouts and leaders as well, Kobata said.
While the churches have not been particularly visible otherwise, Kobata said his church’s congregation has participated in the San Francisco Pride parade for the past three years. “It was actually initiated by members of our congregation who are openly gay, but supported by a cross-section of our community,” he said. “The church’s role is to provide a forum for better understanding the issue, and encourage an open and welcoming community.”
Future Intersections between LGBTQ and Japanese American Issues
Yoshii said the LGBTQ and Japanese American communities faced similar hardships being targets of oppression and discrimination. Yoshii also saw an intersection within Japanese American LGBTQ people themselves. “Within our own community we have members of families and communities who need to be affirmed and supported for who they are,” he said.
Yoshii said Japanese Americans can be part of the larger LGBTQ community, while the LGBTQ movement can also be more sensitive to race and ethnicity issues.
Priscilla Ouchida, executive director of the National JACL, told the Nichi Bei Weekly that the organization has not held a major discussion on LGBTQ issues since the 1994 resolution. “In the last 20 years, the conversation has changed,” Ouchida said.
She said the issue of transgender identity, which goes beyond sexual orientation, has become more visible, especially through Aizumi’s activism and Rep. Mike Honda’s pledge of support for his transgender granddaughter. Ouchida said the JACL National Convention, starting Monday, July 13 in Las Vegas, hopes to discuss the JACL’s future priorities within LGBTQ issues.
With nationwide recognition of same-sex marriage, the issues of civil rights are just beginning for LGBTQ people. Shigemura said having the federal government recognize her marriage “is an affirmation of our equality and humanity,” but noted there is till more to be done. “This one was a big incremental movement, but it’s just a closer and closer approximation to true equality.”
Shigemura said that just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not end racism, homophobia has not been eradicated. “We are hardly past the final hurdle,” she said, citing it is still legal in several states to be fired from the job for being gay.
She stressed it is important for everyone to create a safe space. “That’s my job, it’s your job, it’s everyone’s,” she said. “Not just issues around issues of homophobia, issues around race and justice, socioeconomic issues … because we’re all in it together.”