By traci kato-kiriyama
(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on Sept. 22, 2011.)


“Senior Moments” writer Phil Shigekuni recently phoned my mom with a kind of courtesy that I consider “really JA.”

He was writing an article about his perspective on the need for more and safer spaces for Japanese Americans to be able to “come out” as LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer), and he wanted to know if my mom would be okay with him mentioning that I identify as Queer.

(Yes, folks, I do.)

Now, my mom responded in a way that I’m not sure whether I can determine was “really JA” … not yet, anyway.

She simply replied to his thoughtful inquiry with, “Well, how does Traci feel?”

Would this be the typical response of most JA parents about their Queer child? Would they ask Phil not to write that in his article? Would they react out of concern for the safety of their child? Would they react out of fear for their own level of comfort and reputation in the community?  Perhaps a combination thereof?

What is “really JA” when it comes to awareness and support of LGBTQ issues?

Most who are close to me know my personal history and past partners and know that I identify as Queer.  I prefer this term over “Bisexual.”  While it is mostly a personal preference, it simply feels more “natural” for me to use this term. Even though I hadn’t been in a relationship with a woman until my early thirties, I had always felt and known that I was interested in relationships with both women and men.

What I appreciated about Phil’s concern with his article was a sense that he wanted to respect my mom’s comfort level and he didn’t want to go and “out” anyone.

At first, I was amused because I thought, “Well, I’m already out.”  But through our email correspondence, it was evident that it might not be known among the handful of folks who may remember me from my writing in the Rafu years ago — and more importantly, by those who know my parents in the community.

Elder PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians & Gays) activist Harold Kameya commented to me that there may be many his age who would be shocked to read this about me in the paper.

At this point, I could spend a lot of time here trying to educate what I perceive to be “The Rafu Audience” on LGBTQ identity and issues.

But honestly, it’s an identity that is both ever-evolving for the larger community and for me as an individual. I have been in a great relationship with a straight male for over three years now, but only recently considered a thought shared with me by a friend and Trans/Queer activist, riKu Matsuda — that being with a straight male does not define the relationship as “straight.” That I am still Queer (of course) and thus it is definable as a Queer relationship.  It’s been a great point of growth for me and my partner in my desire for us to be more active in LGBTQ issues together.

For active elders like Phil and Harold, it seems their note of caution comes from a place of wisdom that knows much of the Japanese American community to be one of inactivity and little to no involvement in LGBTQ issues. This inaction or disassociation can lead LGBTQ folks IN our community to believe there will always be a lot of fear and poor reaction when people take the chance of coming out.

There can be a tendency for JA Queer people to be “out” everywhere else but at home and in the community.

I don’t want to assume that I need to hold anyone’s hand through their discovery of my Queerness. I might assume that most of you don’t know and don’t really care. Likewise, it’s probably also safe to say there are some out there who may find it fun fodder that anyone is talking about their Queerness in the Rafu of all places.

But that is what makes our community like any other — like a family. One that will provide the full spectrum of support and dismay. One that can upset as well as surprise us with their reactions as they find out.

We need the courage and support to be “out” anywhere we may be.  We also need the straight-identifying community to be OUT and visible with their support and love for their LGBTQ family, friends and peers so that we may have healthy, nurturing spaces at home.

As this article was due on the heels of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I realized this is the first time in about 10 years since I’ve written for “Through the Fire.” The last piece I submitted was a poem I wrote on the day of 9/11 about my personal/political connection as a Japanese American to American Muslims and Arab Americans, who would surely become targets in this country as of that day. It was inspired by a sense of solidarity instilled in me throughout my lifetime by some of the most righteous activists right in our own community.

It’s been the privilege of so many in my generation to be influenced and mentored by organizers who fight through so many issues — from redress to political imprisonment to apartheid to military bases and violence and war. We have a strong legacy in our community of solidarity work. For me, “solidarity work” has become action that connects us across generations and communities for the sake of human and civil rights and is, simply, a connection that feels natural. “Social justice” work inherently addresses the rights and needs of humanity.

When others are struggling, we naturally step up. Many of us have and will continue to do so.

“LGBT(JA)Q?” is the title that artist/activist Sean Miura came up with for a workshop we are planning as part of “Legacy of Japanese American Activism: Building an Intergenerational Community Movement,” a conference happening on Nov. 5 that’s sponsored by the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California (JAHSSC).

With our workshop, we’re looking to bring together people who identify as LGBTQ and Nikkei/Japanese American (along with family and friends who want to be involved and/or more active).  While there have been several programs or events throughout the years that focus on JA LGBTQ people and issues, we still don’t have a named, known network for folks who can and want to bridge the two spaces — to build a gap between what is already overlapping.  Some are active in both circles, but the circles remain separate.

As we constantly find ourselves being asked the question, “What is the future of the Nikkei community?,” I believe a strong future lies within how we build our “we” mentality — our sense of collective identity. When we build this sensibility within our community, we expand the paths and entry points for people to be actively engaged with it and each other.

My mom has gone through her own process of understanding and acceptance of my various identifications.

I hope we can all continue to grow and expand our engagement with our whole selves, no matter what space we’re in.

If the community at large seems to be uninvolved with LGBT(JA)Q issues, perhaps we can move together from a place of silence or quiet existence — or mere “tolerance” and “acceptance” — to a place of vocal, well-known support, involvement and wholehearted appreciation and love.

So that maybe a JA elder will say, “Oh, you’re Lesbian? Well, I totally support you … 100%! You should meet my daughter, she’s still single!”

…and maybe someday we’ll hear that and can say, “Yeah, that’s really JA.”


For registration and information on the conference, visit Registration is $5 online, $10 day of event. Saturday, Nov. 5, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. at the Central Hall of the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.


Traci Kato-Kiriyama is the creator and director of Tuesday Night Project. She is a writer, performing artist, educator and grassroots organizer and can be contacted by email. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Rafu Shimpo.



1 Comment

  1. How refreshing it was to read your article! Thank you for breaking the silence on terminology and reclaiming use of the term ‘queer’! Rev. Mel White, on receiving the Lazarus Award some years ago from the West Hollywood Presbyterian Church, told this story about the late conductor Leonard Bernstein: Leonard Bernstein was the ‘darling’ of the society ladies in NY city, and at a cocktail reception, one matron said to the other “Did you hear that our Lenny is a bi-sexual?” Her friend, without missing a beat, responded, “Isn’t there anything that our Lenny can’t do?”

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