The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great: The origins of the JACL’s advocacy for gay and lesbian rights


bioline_Greg Robinson

This year marks the 14th year that I have commemorated LGBT History Month with a reflection on the important but oft-unremarked presence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people in the history of Japanese Americans. It is with great pleasure that I devote this year’s queer history column to looking back at the latter years of the last century and to studying the shifts in ideas and policy within the Japanese American Citizens League, the largest Japanese American civil rights group.

In 1988, the JACL ratified a new constitution. In that document, the organization for the first time adopted a provision prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and its preamble advocated support for all people “regardless of sexual orientation.” From a current-day perspective, that might seem like quite a time lag, coming some 20 years after the Stonewall Rebellion and after many universities and businesses had created such policies. Yet, it was only two years after cosmopolitan New York City enacted a non-discrimination ordinance, and only Wisconsin had such a statewide law. However, in the following years, the organization’s position rapidly evolved. In 1992, the JACL took an official position against Amendment 2, Colorado’s constitutional referendum to forbid equal rights for LGBT residents (the amendment was enacted but blocked in the courts and ultimately struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court), and the following year, the JACL approved a resolution in support of ending discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military, as well as all other such employment discrimination.

In 1994, the JACL made history when it became the first national ethnicity-based civil rights organization to support an official policy supporting equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. This action caused a major split within the JACL, provoking the departure of numerous JACL members and officers who opposed the new policy. Allen Kato, the organization’s legal counsel, resigned from his position on the grounds that as a Christian, he considered “homosexual marriage” to be morally wrong.

What made the JACL take up the cause of gay and lesbian equality, and at such an accelerated rate, after 1988? The historian can point to a variety of causes. First, there was the desire among many Japanese American activists to find new horizons in civil rights after the achievement of redress for the wartime incarceration, which had long lain at the center of their political agenda. By the same token, many proponents of these measures were interested in them as part of coalition building. Rep. Norman Mineta (D-Calif.), the most distinguished spokesperson for same-sex marriage rights within the JACL, made clear that part of his motivation was solidarity with Rep. Barney Frank, the openly gay Massachusetts congressman, who had been an important proponent of redress.

The nation’s larger political climate also played a role. As the question of LGBT rights became more visible in the political arena and the media, more Americans turned to supporting the cause. In April 1993, the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation drew an estimated 1,000,000 participants, one of the largest group protests in American history. Among those present were a number of Nikkei from around the country.

Still, one less-examined aspect of the turn in the JACL was the activism of LGBT Japanese Americans and their allies within the organization. To a certain degree, it was a case of people who had long been present in the organization taking charge. Tak Yamamoto, who was both a longtime redress activist and a founding president of Asian/Pacific Lesbians and Gays in the early 1980s, combined his two roles. In other cases, new members took the lead in calling for attention to these issues.

In August 1992, the JACL held its biannual convention in Denver.

Organizers scheduled a set of workshops on issues addressing the Japanese American community. One such workshop was a panel on how traditional cultural taboos hindered the progress of personal growth, self-acceptance and the confidence of people “coming out” and “being out,” and the need for acceptance of LGBT community members. The panel participants were Vicki Taniwaki, who also chaired; her mother Marge Yamada Taniwaki, and Martin Hiraga, grassroots organizer of support groups for the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force (today known as the National LGBTQ Task Force). The Taniwakis revealed how the traditional Japanese cultural patterns of reticence and fear of bringing shame (haji) to the family name worked to limit openness, and thereby made Vicki’s struggle to come out of the closet and speak to her mother extra difficult. (She mentioned that telling her father was even more difficult — she hadn’t yet felt able to speak to hers). Martin Hiraga, for his part, commented on the burden LGBT Asian Americans felt as a “double minority,” and having to deal with racism in the larger society, as well as cultural taboos about sexuality within Japanese American communities. Hiraga stated that he had felt obliged to move 3,000 miles from the West Coast to Washington, D.C. in order to live his life freely. Hiraga also reflected on the rate of HIV infection and cases of AIDS among Asian Pacific Islanders in large U.S. cities, and spoke of their special needs in terms of support groups. The veteran YMCA official and community leader Fred Hoshiyama, reporting on the workshop, pointed out that no such discussion would have conceivably been held at a JACL event 10 years before. He added, “The openness of Vicki and Martin helped members better understand and perhaps lend support to gays, lesbian and bisexuals.”

In November 1994, in the wake of the JACL National Board’s landmark vote on same-sex marriage rights, the JACL established a new Southern California chapter to focus on education and advocacy for gay and lesbian issues from an Asian Pacific American perspective. As Tak Yamamoto, the new chapter’s first president, stated, “In essence, the formation of this chapter takes the organization to the next step — demonstrating its integrity to secure the civil rights of all people, including gay men and lesbians.” Craig Fond, a founder of the new chapter, agreed: “We want to energize the organization with new approaches to new issues and address and advocate for other civil rights issues as well.” While the formation of a special LGBT chapter was not nearly as well-publicized (divisive) for the JACL as the same-sex marriage resolution, it likewise pointed the way to a different path and a new set of concerns for the established organization.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., 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 The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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