Japanese-American Community Has Long Stood With LGBT Folks

JACL endorsed marriage equality in 1994


Photo courtesy JACL

For more than 50 years, the LGBT people have had an unlikely ally: the Japanese American community.

The Japanese American Citizens League has participated in protests, parades, amicus briefs, and celebrations for LGBT equality, including marriage equality, for years.

“It’s addressed in the meeting minutes,” said Priscilla Ouchida, executive director of JACL. “Going way back to the ‘50s and ‘60s, they’re talking about rights of, as they called them back then, homosexuals.”

This was unheard of — the LGBT civil rights movement didn’t even start until 1969 with the Stonewall riots in New York City, so what was it that struck Japanese Americans to protect LGBT people?

Ouchida says it sits in their own history of oppression in America — both Chinese and Japanese people started arriving in the mid 1800s and were met with welcome arms for them to work, but not to be a part of the country. The Naturalization Act of 1870 extended the rights of African Americans to be citizens — but not for Asian Americans. They would forever be considered permanent aliens, and not be allowed to vote, as well as facing discrimination in laws that applied to people of color.

With multiple Japanese American groups formed in the U.S., they joined forces in 1929 to create the Japanese American Citizens League. Things got even worse for them when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, sending the U.S. into World War II. Anti-Japanese sentiments were rampant, and out of fear, the government rounded up Japanese Americans into internment camps for the remainder of the war. In all, about 110,000 Japanese Americans were kept in “war relocation centers” — including all of Ouchida’s grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, and older cousins.

It’s this experience of discrimination and imprisonment that leads Ouchida to believe that’s why the early board members of JACL were so in favor of standing up for the rights of others, including LGBT people.

“No one spoke up on our behalf,” she said. “We realized we needed to help others.”

In 1946, JACL created a campaign against anti-alien land laws, followed by helping pass the Soldier Brides Act to protect the foreign wives of soldiers and their children. This continued into the ‘50s with JACL co-signing amicus briefs for Brown vs. Board of Education, repealing Idaho’s anti-miscegenation laws, marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963, calling for economic sanctions against South Africa when it was in the throes of apartheid, and much more.

Finally in 1993, JACL wrote a resolution in support of ending discrimination of LGBT members of the Armed Forces, and in any other workplace. The next year, they approved a resolution supporting equal marriage rights for all people, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Twenty-one years before marriage equality was the law of the land.

“I know we were ahead of the curb,” Ouchida said. “I always ask myself that question, why us? Why do we stand up for others so early?”

Also, the board has ties to the LGBT community – Ouchida’s daughter is a lesbian, and other board members have LGBT children, leaving them especially invested to make the world a better place for their children.

Many Japanese identify as Buddhist, which does not consider being gay or transgender to be a taboo — another reason Ouchida thinks they were so on board with protecting LGBT people so early in the fight.

“They talk about this as a civil rights issue,” she explained, not a religious one.

This year, JACL wrote a resolution in support of transgender people and recognizing their struggles. They’re also active in speaking out against bills that would prevent Syrian refugees from coming to the U.S., a situation all too familiar to Japanese Americans.

“The rhetoric keeps on coming up again,” Ouchida said. “We have to remind people.”


Originally published in South Florida Gay News’s Mirror magazine.

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