Marriage equality for gay couples may have arrived like a thunderbolt, as President Obama said on Friday, but smaller skirmishes, flashes of light, have led to this historic moment. The smaller moments — at kitchen tables, in church halls, at social gatherings, in community forums —have occurred in communities throughout America, in the Japanese American community as well.
The slow, incremental movement towards acceptance can be traced in the JA community, perhaps like no other Asian American group.
One of those moments came in 1994 at a JACL National Convention held in — of all places — Salt Lake City, Utah. Months earlier, the JACL National Board, at the urging of the Honolulu JACL Chapter, had passed a resolution in support of same-sex marriage. I was there at both meetings as a reporter for Pacific Citizen.
It was a case where a largely Sansei leadership at the National Board was pushing an older, Nisei membership in a direction that many were not ready to accept. Today while there is fairly broad consensus favoring gay marriage, there was no such thing in 1994. At the convention, it looked likely that the National Council would vote down the board’s decision, but in a moment of high drama that I will never forget, Norman Mineta asked to read a statement that swayed the membership.
Mineta said Japanese Americans could not have won redress if they had stood alone, and that now it was time to stand for gay rights. With a nod to Rep. Barney Frank, who was the first member of Congress to come out as gay, Mineta said, “A gay congressman from Massachusetts, with only a tiny Asian Pacific American constituency, makes redress his top civil rights priority. Why? Because he saw our civil rights as an issue of fundamental principle for this country.”
“Doing what is right is often controversial. Doing what is just is often unpopular. But if we are to remain a viable voice in the national civil rights movement, we cannot back away from our commitments simply because the issue is difficult,” Mineta stated.
I don’t think Mineta’s speech swayed the opinions of dissenters, just as opposition to gay marriage hasn’t ceased with a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling. But it did shame the JACL members at the meeting from turning their backs on the rights of a subjugated minority.
Fourteen years later, George Takei and Brad Altman chose Little Tokyo and the Democracy Center specifically as the place they would exchange wedding vows. In his signature booming voice, Takei proclaimed, “As we tie the bond of our love here — with this wedding ceremony, in this forum of democracy, in the September of my life — I vow to you to care for you as you’ve cared for me. To cherish you with all my heart and to love you as my husband and the only man in my life.”
From those larger moments in the JA community, there have been smaller moments at the grassroots level. Activists like Harold Kameya, Riku Matsuda, Phil Shigekuni, Traci Kato-Kiriyama and Marsha Aizumi have organized forums and spoken eloquently about their experiences. The pages of The Rafu have given voice to Japanese Americans like Melvin Fujikawa, a former pastor who came out later in life.
I think those Sansei leaders of JACL can look back with some satisfaction on the events of Friday. Over 20 years ago, they started a movement in the JA community that is being passed on to a millennial generation that is more welcoming, more accepting of the rights of gays and lesbians.
Today, Rep. Mark Takano of Riverside is the first openly gay minority to serve in the House. George Takei is widely beloved beyond the JA community and “Star Trek” fans as an icon of gay rights. He also continues to share the story of what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II.
I don’t think the ruling means that the country or the JA community is of one mind on the issue. The Japanese American community is grounded in many ways by some basic tenets: cultural traditions, religious faith, respect for others and a welcoming spirit. So the voices of those in our community who disagree are important as well and should be listened to with respect.
It is remarkable to be witness to the long road that has brought us to this moment in history: to see the wisdom of Martin Luther King when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Gwen Muranaka, English editor-in-chief of The Rafu Shimpo, can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.