By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Since the first Okaeri conference was held two years ago at the Japanese American National Museum, a lot has happened in the Nikkei LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning) community.
Similar gatherings of LGBTQ individuals and their families have been held in other cities, says Marsha Aizumi, a coordinator of the 2014 Okaeri and the 2016 Okaeri, which will be held at JANM on Oct. 14 and 15. She and her son Aiden co-authored “Two Spirits, One Heart: A Mother, Her Transgender Son, and Their Journey to Love and Acceptance.”
“When we started Okaeri, we thought it would just be a local event in the greater Los Angeles area, but as the words spread, people from all over wanted to attend,” Aizumi said. “We know people came from Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Arizona, Illinois, New York, Washington, D.C., Vancouver and Toronto. We also know that some of the people who came to Okaeri began to do work in their cities …
“I think what amazes all of us is the ripple effect that Okaeri has had on the Nikkei and the API community in other cities … We have also heard stories of people coming out to their family and friends after attending Okaeri. We have been told that seeing all the Nikkei people attending Okaeri influenced them to share their true selves with their family, because they saw that there was support in the JA community for LGBTQ individuals.”
“Okaeri” means “welcome home” in Japanese. A Bay Area version of the conference, Tadaima (“I’m home”), was held in April this year at San Jose State University, co-chaired by Komo Gauvreau and Bonnie Sugiyama, director of the LGBTQ Center at SJSU. Aizumi described some of the highlights from her participation:
“Having a gay person ask about working with her mother. Sharing my story of the importance of patience and acceptance of a mother’s journey and later hearing that her conversation with her mom went to well, because of her patience towards her mom. She said she felt so good about their interaction.
“Having some of my family at the event and finding out afterwards how much they enjoyed the event and grew in understanding and awareness about the LGBTQ community. They are a sponsor for Okaeri 2016.
“A highlight for me is always seeing people from the Nikkei community that are willing to learn and grow in compassion and acceptance for the LGBTQ community. It makes me feel like one heart at a time, the world is getting safer for Aiden and all LGBTQ individuals.”
Other examples of Okaeri’s “ripple effect”:
Family: An API LGBTQ Gathering was held in Seattle in June 2015, organized by two Seattle JACL members who had attended Okaeri. In turn, the lead organizer of APIQ Homecoming, held last April in Sacramento, had attended the Seattle event.
Glenn and Karen Murakami attended Okaeri and started a group called Open Arms at Faith United Methodist Church in Torrance, and another Okaeri participant started a monthly gathering in Chicago.
A delegation from Japan met with Okaeri organizers. Earlier this year, a Japanese mother from New York met with some of the LGBTQ organizers in Japan that were part of the delegation. Okaeri is looking to partner with the U.S. State Department and the National Queer API Alliance to do family acceptance workshops in Asia next year, and has been approached to translate a video about Okaeri into Japanese.
The Korean LGBTQ community heard about Okaeri and has organized a national gathering to be held in Virginia this weekend.
“As a result of the interest in family acceptance, two mothers from Okaeri have been lead supporters in a National Family Acceptance Campaign that has been booked in 12 cities in 2016 working with the National Queer API Alliance,” Aizumi added.
“We received an email on our Okaeri 2016 website recently from a woman who has been out for 20 years. She says that she is so grateful for this space, because when she came out there was nothing like this for her. Okaeri is also creating ripples among individuals. We have heard stories of people being healed by Okaeri and once more feeling welcome into the Nikkei community.”
Being able to participate in these events with her son and other family members is very meaningful, Aizumi said, noting that many LGBTQ Nikkei are still estranged from their families and community. “Things could have turned out so different. More than anything I am doing this work to foster greater family acceptance, because I know what that acceptance and unconditional love has meant to our family and can mean to other families as well.”
The keynote speakers at Okaeri will be Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose), his daughter Michelle and his transgender granddaughter Malisa. Michelle Honda-Phillips was also a speaker at Tadaima.
Okaeri begins Friday with a reception at 7 p.m. and the all-day conference starts Saturday at 9 a.m. JANM is located at 100 N. Central Ave. (at First Street) in Little Tokyo. Registration is $20 to $35 but no one will be turned away for lack of funds. For more information, visit www.okaeri-losangeles.org.