By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
An outspoken opponent of the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy gave an impassioned speech at the JACL National Convention.
Lt. Daniel Choi, who took on the policy by announcing he is gay on national television in 2009, was one of three recipients of the JACL Outstanding Leadership Award at the convention’s Culmination Banquet, held July 9 at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel.
A native of Orange County and the son of a Baptist minister, Choi graduated from West Point with degrees in Arabic and environmental engineering, and served as an infantry officer in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. To protest DADT, under which gays and lesbians can serve in the military only if they keep their sexual orientation a secret, Choi and other service members chained themselves to the White House fence last year and were arrested.
Congress decided last December to repeal DADT, and Choi was among the LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) advocates who attended the signing ceremony at the White House. Implementation was delayed to allow the military to make preparations, but this month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the military to immediately stop enforcing the policy. DADT will officially end on Sept. 20.
JACL National Executive Director Floyd Mori introduced Choi as a hero who “showed a great amount of courage to do what he did.”
Choi praised the JACL for becoming one of the first non-LGBT civil rights groups to “stand up for gay Americans and full personhood” by supporting same-sex marriage back in 1994.
He also lauded the Court of Appeals for deciding that “this immoral law, which poisons our country, cannot be enforced anywhere in the entire world. So we’d like to thank our court system for this stand … on the right side of history.”
He cited Fred Korematsu’s court challenge to the internment of Japanese Americans as further proof that justice can be achieved “so long as individual citizens rise up and refuse second-class citizenship.”
On a personal note, Choi talked about coming out to his parents. When he came back from Iraq, his mother asked him, “When will you marry a Korean girl?”
When he explained that he is gay, his mother responded, “There is a white gay. There is a black gay. There’s a Mexican gay. There’s no Korean gay. Maybe there is a Japanese gay, but there’s no Korean gay!”
“Even though we don’t talk anymore … I’m honored to be here on behalf of my parents, because they taught me honor,” he said. “After all the discussions we had about saving face, about shame, (they asked) how could I tell anybody in my family? I reminded my parents that they were the best parents I could ever wish for. They taught me that saving face means nothing so long as you have no integrity.
“West Point taught me honor. And I’m saddened when I look around our society and we don’t always understand the meaning of honor. Sometimes it’s used as a punchline or relegated to Hollywood. But honor is real. Honor lives whenever we sacrifice on behalf of justice. When we sacrifice on behalf of those who cannot stand up for themselves. That is the meaning of honor.
“So I honor my parents today by being here before you in this uniform of my country, proudly declaring this uniform is no longer the uniform of just white Americans or just male Americans or just eighth-generation Americans or just privileged Americans or just straight Americans … this is the uniform of all Americans!”
He added, “My parents would say that gay is a phase or a choice. It’s not a choice. Bigotry is a choice. It’s not a phase. Second-class citizenship is a phase, and it’s a phase that we will end so long as we confront our oppressors.”
Choi asked the audience to join him in chanting the words he and his fellow advocates have been using in their protests: “I am somebody! I deserve full equality right here, right now!”
“My parents may not have had the nicest things to say about Japanese people when I was growing up,” he acknowledged, “but I’ve learned from my history books and from my friends the struggle of those people who were ripped out of their homes and dragged to concentration camps — an American version of concentration camps — incarcerated by their own government. Second-class citizens and enemies even though they were patriotic enough to serve their country …
“The same people that incarcerated you and the same bigotry that would treat you as a second-class citizen is the same bigotry that is alive and well today. When you stand up for yourself, you stand up for everybody else … The lesson of those who were incarcerated and fought for others, who stood up and said no more will you treat our people like second-class citizens, this is the definition of honor … to fight for justice and not ‘just us.’ ”
Paraphrasing Martin Luther King, Choi said, “We hold these truths to be self evident — that all men are created equal, all men and all women, black and white, East Asian, South Asian, congressman or refugee … I do believe that we shall overcome someday, but when we stand up, that someday is today. That somewhere is right here.”
AAPIs Working Together
Lisa Hasegawa, who was born and raised in Orange, received the leadership award for her work as executive director of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD), which meets the housing needs of low-income Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, and as community liaison for the White House Initiative on AAPIs.
Hasegawa said her mentors included Mori, with whom she shared an office in Washington, D.C., and convention organizer Gary Mayeda, who got her involved in JACL when she was a student at UCLA. “Ever since then, JACL has been very much a part of my life.”
She noted that her family — including her 91-year-old grandmother, who was in the audience — was interned at Tule Lake, Heart Mountain and Jerome, and that her mother’s side of the family was sent to Japan. “That was my grandfather’s first trip to Japan because he had found out that his mother, an Issei, was possibly going to be deported. So those decisions that families made because of the uncertainty in times of crisis certainly impacted my family …
“My mother grew up in Japan because of that, didn’t return to the United States until she was in high school … That allowed me to really connect with the immigrant story here in the United States, to be a better advocate … (to understand) what it’s like to be a family that is stateless and doesn’t have legal standing …
“I take those stories and history of Japanese Americans and I have tried to bring that to the work that I’ve done … to be able to fight for the rights of everyone, particularly the Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians.”
Father Vien The Nguyen of Mary Queen of Viet Nam Catholic Church was honored for helping his Gulf Coast community to recover from Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, and opposing a project that would have turned part of the community into a toxic landfill. Mori and other JACLers, including youth, have gone to New Orleans to work with Nguyen’s group.
Nguyen noted that within his community, “there were a lot of secret ingredients in the cooking, and oftentimes I’d ask them to teach me. They said, ‘Well Father, if you want to have special food, ask me and I will make it for you, but I will not tell you.’ … The question that I raise with my people is, do we preserve our uniqueness by maintaining isolation of that secret ingredient, or do we broadcast so that it will be expanded … so that more and more people will know about it, and thus we preserve our unique cultural identity?”
He thanked JACL for not “hiding the secret that you’ve learned from all of your struggles. You came to us, to my community, to meet and give us the secret … (not) to make it just your own so that you could rise above everyone else.”
Mori became “not only my mentor but also my friend,” Nguyen said.
The community also got help from an experienced politician, Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose), who was present at the dinner. Nguyen quoted Honda as saying, “It’s difficult fighting at the back end when everything is already said. You have to nip it in the bud. Not only must you vote, but you must have someone in office … who makes the decisions.” This advice led to the election of Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.) as the first Vietnamese American member of Congress.
In addition, Nguyen said, “we formed a JACL chapter for the Gulf Coast. It’s a little bit strange when you go the meetings of that chapter because there are only two or three Japanese Americans and the rest are Vietnamese Americans.”
He stated that the two groups combined will continue to be “the voice for the voiceless.”
The banquet was emceed by actress Tamlyn Tomita. Other speakers included Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), State Controller John Chiang, Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Ichiro Fujisaki, JACL National President David Kawamoto, Leslie Moe-Kaiser of State Farm, David Lin of AT&T (also a National JACL vice president), and Kim Delevett of Southwest Airlines.
There was a special tribute to Mori, who is stepping down after five years as executive director and four years as national president. He was “roasted” by Honda, former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, and former JACL National Executive Director John Tateishi.
Mayeda and his team were thanked for organizing the convention. It was a particularly trying time for Mayeda as services for his late mother were held that same weekend.
Seattle was announced as the site for the 2012 convention. Starting this year, conventions are held annually instead of every other year.