By TRACI ISHIGO
Over 70 community members gathered at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute for “South Bay Stories: A Nikkei LGBTQ Forum for Everyone” on Oct. 4.
With the goals of initiating meaningful dialogue around gender, sexuality and LGBTQ (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer) stories in the Japanese American community, the event engaged attendees through personal stories, and opportunities to share thoughts and ask questions.
Diane Ujiiye, outgoing executive director of APIsCAN (Asian and Pacific Islanders California Action Network) and longtime community organizer, moderated the panel and encouraged the audience to participate throughout the event.
All attendees were invited to participate in an interactive activity that asked them to write down their answers to two questions: “What are your experiences with discussing sexuality with your family and other Japanese Americans?” and “What are some gender expectations you have heard from our family and other Japanese Americans?”
The activity revealed a trend — that many attendees never discussed sexuality with their family, but learned that there were specific roles and responsibilities for girls and boys to conform to. As Diane reviewed these trends at the beginning of the program, she also showed the need to uplift Nikkei LGBTQ narratives in our community.
Three community members from the South Bay area shared their personal narratives from unique perspectives. The panel started off with Melvin Fujikawa, former senior pastor at the Christian Layman Church in Oakland and now a spiritual director and voice coach in Torrance. He told his story of coming out later in life as gay-identified in his mid-50s, at a time where he felt much more comfortable and proud of who he is.
In addition, Melvin said that he reconciles with his gay and Christian identity with the interpretation that God made him the way he is for a reason, and rather than it being a sin, he sees his gay identity as a true gift.
Janet Uradomo also proudly shared her story of being the mother of a young transgender 8-year-old daughter, and the various challenges her family has faced. As a toddler, Janet’s trans-daughter exhibited gender non-conforming behavior, such as her interest with feminine dresses and choosing to play mostly with girls rather than boys. While Janet and her husband thought it was “just a phase” in their child’s development, they have realized over the last couple years that their child is far happier with identifying as a girl.
Following their trans-daughter’s lead of how she wants to identify her gender, Janet and her husband have recently enrolled their daughter at a Torrance public school that supports gender non-conforming youth. They fully support their trans-daughter, and want to focus on making sure she is happy with being her whole self.
Artist, writer and community organizer Traci Kato-Kiriyama read from her 2011 piece in The Rafu Shimpo, under the “Through the Fire” column, called “LGBT(JA)Q.” She described some of her experiences of being queer, her mother’s support of her openly identifying her sexuality, and also the interesting reactions of Nikkei community members who read her piece.
While Traci expected people to engage with her further about her story, instead, most people did not go any deeper than notifying her that they read it. She moved on to encourage the attendees about the importance of opening up the dialogue, and her hope that one day it will be considered “really JA” to be actively inclusive to the LGBTQ community.
The JACL Pacific Southwest (PSW) District, the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute, the South Bay JACL chapter, the Greater Los Angeles JACL chapter, and the Torrance JACL chapter were very proud with the large attendance of “South Bay Stories: A Nikkei LGBTQ Forum for Everyone.” This event was a part of the PSW’s Nikkei LGBTQ Initiative, which also intends to encourage community members to save the date and attend “Okaeri,” a Nikkei LGBTQ gathering coming up on Nov. 14 and 15 at the Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles.
“Okaeri,” meaning “Welcome home” in Japanese, is a gathering of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning individuals, family and allies. Attendees can expect to find support, resources, and motivation through informative workshops and moving speakers, as well as connect with others to build greater inclusion in the Nikkei community.