Panel discusses issues beyond marriage equality for LGBTQ people


WHAT’S NEXT? — (L to R) Amy Sueyoshi, Robert Nakatani, Kris Hayashi discuss LGBTQ issues beyond marriage. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

WHAT’S NEXT? — (L to R) Amy Sueyoshi, Robert Nakatani, Kris Hayashi discuss LGBTQ issues beyond marriage. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly
WHAT’S NEXT? — (L to R) Amy Sueyoshi, Robert Nakatani, Kris Hayashi discuss LGBTQ issues beyond marriage. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

Editor’s Note: Tomo Hirai is a member of Tadaima: A Japanese American Gathering of LGBTQQ and Allies’ (volunteer) organizing committee.

A panel presentation on the current issues lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning community members face was held Feb. 23 at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco in San Francisco’s Japantown. The program, hosted by Tadaima: A Japanese American Gathering of LGBTQQ and Allies, “Call to Action: LGBTQ issues post Marriage Equality,” discussed the biggest issues LGBTQ people face, such as violence and poverty, following the legalization of same-sex marriage last year.

Elaine Donlin, a Buddhist priest at the church and Tadaima planning committee member, moderated the panel featuring Robert Nakatani, a former lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union; Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center; and Amy Sueyoshi, associate dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University.

Just the First Phase
Nakatani, who retired from his position as senior strategist for the ACLU’s LGBT & AIDS Project, spoke about the legal perspective.

“It feels like people talk about the LGBT Movement as if we won,” he said. “I think it’s because all of us are pretty amazed with the progress we’ve made in the marriage issue the last 20 years or so.” Nakatani, who grew up in Hawai’i in the 1950s and ‘60s, said he and many others never expected same-sex marriage would be legalized within their lifetime.

However, he called marriage just “phase one” of the civil rights movement for LGBTQ people.

The first phase of civil rights movements, Nakatani said, is a push to end discriminatory policies, such as laws that made same-sex marriage illegal. The second phase, where Nakatani believes the movement is now headed, creates anti-discrimination laws. The final phase establishes true equity using those laws, which he admitted is “a much bigger, much more protracted challenge.”

While 51 percent of the U.S. population is protected by state-level anti-discrimination laws, Nakatani said the movement now faces an uphill battle to pass similar laws in more conservative states and at the federal level.

Reactions from Opponents
As laws are made to protect LGBTQ people, Nakatani said opponents have started formulating new ways to impede them. One tactic he cited is exceptions for religious beliefs, allowing people to discriminate on the basis of “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Nakatani said the ACLU has argued that, “we are all entitled to our religious beliefs, but we are not entitled to inflict them on others.”

The far right has also promoted  the so-called “bathroom bills,” anti-transgender laws dictating which bathrooms a person may use in hopes of “inflam(ing) the transphobia that’s out there into voting against civil rights protections for the entire LGBT community,” Nakatani said.

Hayashi elaborated, stating that California had “dodged a bullet” with its own bathroom bill, which did not garner enough written signatures last year. The proposed California law would have incentivized people to find transgender people in bathrooms so they can sue and claim damages from both the transgender person and property owners for using bathrooms that conflict with their sex assigned at birth. Hayashi said a dozen or so states are facing similar types of bills, including South Dakota. He added that they primarily target transgender youth.

“We’re also seeing these attacks to roll back nondiscrimination ordinances, or nondiscrimination campaigns,” Hayashi said. The attacks “chip away” at protections for people of other faiths, ethnic backgrounds, and veterans as well. “That is a way for them to use hatred, fear and transphobia to roll back protections that are really protecting a wide range of people and that our communities have fought for, for many years.”

Violence and Poverty Among LGBTQ People of Color
Hayashi, who works out of Oakland, Calif. to advance the rights of transgender and gender-nonconforming people, said the community has “come a long way” since he started transitioning about two decades ago. Hayashi cited “some wins” for the transgender community, such as the inclusion of transgender people into the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and protections against employment discrimination. “We are in a very different place as a movement than we were even three years ago,” he said. “That said though, the reality is … the majority of my community is struggling to survive on a daily basis.”

Hayashi said there is a “crisis of violence against the transgender community, and this crisis is not new.” He said that 22 transgender women were murdered in the United States last year. Citing a report from the National Center for Transgender Equality, Hayashi said trans people of color face four times the average rate of rapes and high rates of harassment in school and work.

Sueyoshi said violence and poverty have been far more pressing issues for LGBTQ people of color than marriage equality. “In a society such as ours, where poverty is racialized, marriage equality benefits white gays and lesbians,” she said. “Why would it matter if we had anti-discrimination bills for state and federal employees if trans people can’t even get an interview at these agencies? Why would it matter if same-sex couples can transfer resources to each other upon death if there are no assets to share?”

Sueyoshi said “countless” Japanese lesbians live in low-income neighborhoods and work unstable low-wage jobs due to a lack of English skills. “For these Japanese lesbians struggling to make ends meet in the Bay Area, their lives have likely not improved material since … the passage of marriage equality.”

A Call to Action
As Japanese Americans have stood for civil rights in the past, Sueyoshi also noted that LGBTQ Japanese American community members have also served as leaders. She cited Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside, Calif.), San Fernando Valley chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League President Tak Yamamoto, and writer Marsha Aizumi with her transgender son, Aiden Aizumi, as LGBTQ Japanese American community leaders.

“We don’t all have to be presidents of JACL chapters, Congress members or writers to effect change. We can all participate through everyday actions. Implement the new normal,” she said.

Sueyoshi told allies to befriend queer people and to address homophobia and transphobia when they see it. She told LGBTQ community members to take care of themselves and find mental and financial stability. Above all, she asked everyone to share what they have with LGBTQ people. “Take affirmative action to promote, hire and bring opportunities to queer and trans folks of color.”

On Tadaima
Tadaima has worked to build interest in an all-day conference that will be held at San Jose State University Saturday, April 2.

“I think the main reasons for creating Tadaima was to create visibility and community in the JA and LGBTQQ communities,” said Bonnie Sugiyama, Tadaima’s organizing committee co-chair. “The event will also … help people learn about the issues that LGBTQQ JAs face and how to be Allies to the community.”

The conference plans to have speakers such as Aiden and Marsha Aizumi; Michelle Honda-Phillips, daughter of Rep. Mike Honda and mother of transgender daughter Malisa, and Sueyoshi.

An earlier event was held at the Berkeley Methodist United Church in Berkeley, Calif. to discuss gender diversity, presenting on transgender and genderqueer experiences within the Japanese American community.

The next event will focus on fostering acceptance within Nikkei families Sunday, March 6 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Mountain View Buddhist Temple in Mountain View, Calif. The free program, “Raising Awareness and Fostering Acceptance of LGBTQQ in Our Nikkei Families,” will focus on coming out to the family and feature personal stories from queer Nikkei community members.

To register for the Saturday, April 2 gathering, or to RSVP for the pre-event, visit Registration costs $32.64. Discounted rates are available for students.


Accuracy is fundamental in journalism. In the March 3-16, 2016 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly, the article entitled “Panel discusses issues beyond marriage equality for LGBTQ people” erroneously referred to Michelle Honda-Phillips’ daughter as Melissa. Her name is spelled Malisa. The Nichi Bei Weekly regrets the error.

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