By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning community and their allies shared their stories at “Okaeri,” a Nikkei LGBTQ gathering held Nov. 15 at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.
During the lunchtime plenary session, a panel of activists talked about their personal experiences as well as their thoughts on where the Nikkei and LGBTQ communities need to go from here.
Moderator Gary Hayashi, who has a private practice as a licensed marriage and family therapist in South Pasadena, was raised in Los Angeles by Nisei parents. “I grew up in the church,” he said. “I always kind of heard the message that God didn’t like gay people, so when I became a gay people … I was so freaked out about it that I kept it secret for a very long time.
“Then I went into an ‘ex-gay’ ministry to try to change this thing that I thought was changeable at that time. After seven years, I realized this whole thing was bogus and didn’t work, and I came out at the ripe old age of 42 and looked around and didn’t see many guys like me.
“So this is a thrilling thing for someone like me who for almost 20 years never even knew that there was a Nikkei community of people like me.”
On reconciling his faith with his sexual orientation, Hayashi said, “I was more scared of rejection in the beginning because I hadn’t accepted who I was … It’s that act of standing for who you are and taking the next step that actually gave me a greater sense internally of who I was … and what I was created for. So when rejection came … it didn’t define who I was as a child of God, because I had settled that question internally …
“It also gave me freedom to question who actually God is for me, to really go back and look at my spirituality and say, do I really want to continue to hold on to this type of definition of Christianity or spirituality that I’ve had since a child, or does this grow up with me?”
“Welcome to the Club”
Mia Yamamoto, a criminal defense lawyer, was born in the Poston, Ariz. internment camp, served in Vietnam, and founded the UCLA Law School Asian Pacific Islander Law Students Association. Her father was a lawyer in the 1930s and ’40s and had an office in the San Pedro Firm Building in Little Tokyo.
“Eleven years ago, after having been a trial lawyer for a number of years in the Criminal Courts Building and criminal courts all around Southern California, I went from a male-to-female transition,” she said. “… Being transgender as part of the queer spectrum is a very interesting coming-out process because you definitely don’t look the same as yesterday when you come out as transgender. It’s pretty much in your face, so you get to see a very up-close and personal reaction from many of the people that I’ve known for many, many years.”
Although there was acceptance from the community — her coming-out party was held at Centenary United Methodist Church — Yamamoto admitted to “a certain amount of trepidation” about how her work would be affected. “I never heard of in the 1990s anybody who’d ever gone through gender transition anyplace in the legal profession ever, certainly not in the trial court … a place where you’re most high-profile and you’re very evident … Certainly the first time I walked into court in a dress as opposed to a three-piece suit and a tie … you can imagine there were a few eyes popping and jaws dropping.”
An article in The Daily Journal, the local legal newspaper, enabled Yamamoto to come out to all of her peers at the same time. She also wrote letters to the judges presiding over her cases. “If there’s going to be a problem for my client, I need to make sure that my client got a fair shake in this whole process … I had people who were facing the death penalty, I had a lot of responsibilities.”
Yamamoto went to the jails to talk to each of her clients. “They said, ‘No problem.’ Every single one of them said, ‘Why would I want another lawyer besides you?’”
Although there were “a few haters,” she was pleasantly surprised by the reaction from her colleagues. “Judges would come down off the bench in their black robes to give me a hug and kiss and congratulate me. I was blown away. I had expected so much ridicule and rejection … I was moved to tears at how little I had expected of my peers. They were incredible. Even the Republicans.
“Prosecutors, people that I went up against and beat up on every single day, would come up to me and the guys would say, ‘I got your back.’ The girls would say, ‘Welcome to the club.’ So that was my transition, and I’ve been working at it ever since.”
The transition was not without issues in the family. Yamamoto recalled coming out to one of her brothers. “He said, ‘Look, I’m not your brother anymore … Keep away from my family, keep away from my kids. And I’m never going to talk to you again.’
“I said, ‘Okay, if I’m not going to be able to talk to you again, I want to thank you because you were the rebel of the family. You taught me that I didn’t have to be what everybody wanted me to be. Thank you. Goodbye.’ I haven’t spoken to him since.”
Yamamoto remains on good terms with members of her brother’s family and even plays in a band with his three sons.
Stressing the importance of finding allies in other communities, Yamamoto said that Japanese Americans, having been interned, can find “resonance” with the LGBTQ experience — “being basically targeted not because of something you did but what you were.”
She also cited the story of Harold and Ellen Kameya of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), who spoke earlier in the day. “They were stunned and saddened by their daughter’s decision to tell them she was a lesbian. But the next thing they did was to go out and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to try to change the world so that it’s a better world for our daughter.’ To care that much about somebody … That’s what it comes down to …
“It’s people from outside your community seeing the justice in your cause. It is so easy to rally around your own self-interest, but it is so difficult to recognize the justice in another community’s cause and to decide that you’re going to stand up for them, not because of your self-interest but because of justice. Because it’s the right thing to do …
“This message of inclusion and commitment to justice could be a message that you carry to every community until it’s a force powerful enough to achieve … national change in this country … This community is in the vanguard of something really important in the next few years that’s going to see change.”
“Being Authentic to Myself”
Marie Kyoko Morohoshi, who has a reiki/healing arts practice in the Bay Area, was raised in Torrance and Gardena by a mother from Japan and a Kibei Nisei father who was a “no-no boy” at Tule Lake. She attended Japanese school, where her mother was a teacher, and studied subjects like tea ceremony and ikebana. Sansei and Yonsei kids labeled her “FOB” (fresh off the boat) because she spoke Japanese, even though her English was flawless.
“Maybe I was kind of born like this, but I always kind of did what I wanted to do,” she said. “I didn’t have a lot of fear around being different. In fact, I was kind of attracted to it … I was always driven by a lot of curiosity and I went into all kinds of funky places even while I was doing the proper Japanese school kind of thing.”
For Morohoshi, who came of age when the gay rights movement was gaining strength, coming out “didn’t seem like it was going to be a big deal. It never occurred to me that I should be closeted. I didn’t know how to be closeted like I didn’t know how to be quiet.”
When her father discovered her sexual orientation, he became alarmed, “going down the hallway screaming ‘Kyoko’s a homosexual!’ … He’s like jumping up and down.” But her mom reacted calmly, as if to say, “What else is new?”
“I think it’s because she always kind of knew anyway, and it helps to have somebody like that,” Morohoshi said. “… She was chief nurse of the heart surgery department and she was pretty badass herself. Unionized the entire hospital … She was just ahead of her time. She had students who were lesbians … I think she knew before I knew … I feel grateful for my parents, especially for my mom, for allowing me to live my life the way I wanted to.”
On coming out to the community, she said, “We are not one unit floating in the universe by ourselves, we are attached to these family members who have a name and a reputation. That’s huge in Asian culture … Acting as a solo agent, I think I would have been fine being out in the world, but because my mom had a pivotal role in the community, I definitely didn’t come out then [during the ’80s].
“But … I wasn’t totally closeted. If somebody said something homophobic, I wasn’t going to not say anything. So there were still ways of being authentic to myself and the Nikkei community.”
At Long Beach State, Morohoshi urged the women’s studies program to be more inclusive of people of color, and called out ethnic studies and Asian American studies classes for their “heterosexist” language.
“I was doing all this work to validate a sense of myself, so I just made my own space,” she recalled. She rented a space in the Women’s Resource Center and started an Asian American women’s discussion group using curriculum from “radical Asian lesbian feminists” in the Bay Area. Many of the women who attended came out. “That wasn’t my intention … It ended up being a safe haven for people ….
“What do you do if there’s nothing that’s going to support you? Well, you must make it happen. You don’t wait for the train to come, you’ve got to just build it.”
For those interested in becoming LGBTQ activists, Morohoshi recommended starting from the field one is working in. As a staff member of the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (now the Center for Asian American Media) and a curator for the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (now CAAMfest), “I wanted to put more lesbians on the screen … I decided, well, I know there are some filmmakers … I programmed a lot of Asian American lesbian stuff, and the closing night was a lesbian film.” She also included works with transgender themes.
Whether you are a parent, a teacher or an IT specialist, “just step it up wherever you are in your life,” she said.
The plenary session also included a performance by Maya Grace Kuida-Osumi, a fourth-grader at El Marino Language School in Culver City, who read two of her stories, “Justice” and “Kiki the Rainbow.”
The conference included the following workshops:
• “LGBTQ 101,” facilitated by Cynthia Wang and Deanna Kitamura
• “Religious Advocates of LGBTQ Persons and Families,” facilitated by Rev. Mark Nakagawa with speakers Rev. John Oda and Rinban William Briones
• “One Family’s Journey” with Marsha Aizumi and her transgender son Aiden Aizumi, joined by Tad Aizumi (Marsha’s husband and Aiden’s father) and Stefen Aizumi (Marsha and Tad’s son and Aiden’s brother)
• “Movement Building in the Nikkei Community,” facilitated by Traci Ishigo
• “It’s a Genderful Life,” facilitated by Riku Matsuda and Rey Fukuda Salinas
• “Holding on to My Faith: A Cultural Shift in the Christian Community,” facilitated by Diane Ujiiye and Bill Watanabe with speakers Rev. Dr. Ken Fong and Melvin Fujikawa
• “Intersections: Between and Within,” a facilitated discussion on intersections among the LGBTQ and Nikkei communities
• “Coming Out: The Act and Process,” facilitated by Daniel Chu, Jack and Sanjay Chhugani, API Equality-LA
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo