“I'm a twenty-year metastatic lung cancer survivor and a fifteen-year AIDS survivor. And I really believe that activism is therapeutic.” – Kiyoshi Kuromiya
Hello, all! This is the last article for the month of January and the last article that’s going to be written by Grace – Laura is coming off hiatus in February so Queer History can celebrate Black History Month!
Today, however, we’ll be looking at the life and activism of Japanese-American Kiyoshi Kuromiya. Kuromiya lived from 1943 to 2000; he was born in a Japanese Internment Camp at Heart Mountain. His activism ran the gambit from queer rights to work with the Black Panthers to the legalization of marijuana. His willingness to fight against an unresponsive government is a trait that the queer community can look to at all times, but in particular in the coming days.
Marc Stein interviewed Kiyoshi Kuromiya on June 17th, 1997, asking a range of questions to paint a biography of the man. Many of this article’s quotes come from that interview, as it’s a grand opportunity to learn about Kuromiya from Kuromiya’s own quotes.
In this interview, Kuromiya states that he “[doesn’t] remember a thing about Heart Mountain,” the Japanese Internment Camp where he was born. A brief history lesson, for some of you: during World War II, President Roosevelt believed that anyone of Japanese descent living in America at the time had some innate loyalty to the Japanese Emperor. In response, 120,000 people were removed from their homes and placed in internment camps – deliberately not called concentration camps, mind – along the West Coast. The novel, When The Emperor was Divine, by Julie Otsuka, tells the story of a nameless family as they go into and leave these internment camps; I highly recommend it. The four years of internment between 1942 and 1946 revealed a blatant disregard for human rights as demonstrated by the United States government – a disregard built on unfound fear and racialized bias.
Kuromiya’s identity as a Japanese-American would shape his life after his family left Heart Mountain alongside his discovered queerness. In the interview with Stein, he states that “I think in the early days of growing up, I realized, I guess, I was gay. Not knowing what it was, but I realized it at age seven, eight, nine. I had matured fairly early.”
Kuromiya was arrested several times during his youth for loitering in a local park near his new residence of Monrovia, California. He says that “My parents, of course, were very embarrassed and shocked and thought I would grow out of it… Or there was a possibility I wouldn't grow out of it, because ten years after our family had been completed, they had another son.” Kuromiya spent time in a juvenile detention center, as well, where he says that he had several encounters with the other boys doing time. According to his interview, “…the judge or whatever he was told me and my parents that I was in danger of leading a lewd and immoral life.”
Immoral, indeed. Kuromiya would spend much of his life moving in and out of holding cells, as he was frequently arrested for his activism. His early recognition of his queerness led to equally early involvement with queer activism. He worked with a variety of groups before heading up the Gay Liberation Front, a group born out of New York City shortly after the Stonewall Riots. Kuromiya also served as a gay delegate to the Black Panthers movement as well as an aid to Martin Luther King Jr. throughout King’s various campaigns. In his interview with Stein, Kuromiya states that:
“I had been in the sit-ins in November of 1962 on Route 40 in Maryland. We had been chased out of restaurants and bars there. And played God Bless America endlessly on the jukebox while they were refusing to serve us…I don't think I saw any ‘people of color’ in the early days at all. I'm trying to think. There may have been at the ECHO conferences, but they certainly weren't in a prominent place there… And that's why when Gay Liberation Front was formed in 1969, we were particularly proud because we had a significant proportion of African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians. I mean we were a small group, a dozen or maybe at most two dozen people. But we had more than one Asian. Lee Claflin's mother is Japanese. We had ministers, ministers of black churches in our group. We would meet. Actually, we predate South Street.”
Here we can see Kuromiya’s race intermingling with his queer activism. This striving towards intersectionality and a recognition of queerness in nonwhite individuals is still a struggle the queer community deals with today. Kuromiya does state that while there was an attempt to involve more women loving women in the Gay Liberation Front, many women felt uncomfortable in such a male dominated space. This obstacle to inclusion wouldn’t prevent Kuromiya from continuing his efforts to make the queer rights movement more inclusive, however. Diagnosed with AIDs in 1988, he would eventually go on to join ACT UP, and then to found PWA or People With Aids. In his interview, Kuromiya elaborates on this foundation, saying that “ My proposal for a PWA retreat that was going to deal with sexual issues and race issues was "Unity and Diversity: Mutually Exclusive?" And of course, that was rejected. The idea [was] that we can't deal with the racism out there until we can deal with it in ourselves.”
Kuromiya kept going. Not only did PWA eventually find a foothold, but Kuromiya found time to protest against the use of napalm in the Vietnam War. In one of his most well-known moments of activism, he threatened to burn a dog alive on the library steps at the University of Pennsylvania. According to Emil Guillermo of NBC, “When thousands turned up, they say Kuromiya’s message: Congratulations on your anti-napalm protest. You saved the life of a dog. Now, how about saving the lives of tens of thousands of people in Vietnam?”
Kuromiya was a man who existed outside of his activism, however, even though it permeated nearly all aspects of his life. He was what many called a “renaissance man”: he was a nationally ranked Scrabble player and a master of Kundalini yoga, according to Guillermo. In his later life, he became fascinated with the connections the Internet allowed to form between distant individuals, and he advocated for its use as a free source of information. This work fit in nicely with PWA, as he could “[send] information first through newsletters, then through the internet, to thousands of HIV/AIDS patients to ensure access to the latest treatment news,” according to Guillermo.
This cause also translated itself into the Critical Path Project, a project that is still at work today. According to Critical Path’s ‘about’ page, “The mission of the Critical Path Project is to provide free and convenient access to information technologies, to implement and create alternative technological tools, and to develop meaningful, relevant, non-judgmental education for all people, particularly those who are in the greatest need and those who advocate for and/or serve them in order to enable all people to integrate technology into everyday life.” This education and advocacy focuses on those individuals suffering from HIV and AIDS but is not limited as such.
Like many who lived during the back half of the 20th century and identified as part of the queer community, Kuromiya himself was diagnosed with AIDS. At the time of the interview most commonly sourced in this article, he stated that he’d survived the diagnosis for fifteen years. He would die in 2000 as a result of the illness’s effects on his immune system.
Kuromiya was a man who gave his life to activism while also cultivating a rich personal life away from it. He seemed to be a man of relentless energy and vast ideas. His courage and willingness to stand not only with the queer community or with his Japanese community but also with those struggling against Jim Crow and a racist United States government is the kind of courage we should embrace in this day and age. The lesson of Kuromiya is arguably one of balance. Take time for yourself – celebrate your interests, be they playing a musical instrument, writing, reading, or watching television documentaries. Then, when you feel ready enough to do so, go out into the world and fight with all of your intelligence, passion, and might.
“About”. Critical Path Project. Critpath.org.
Guillermo, Emil. “Life of Kiyoshi Kuromiya: From Selma Marcher to AIDS Activist.” NBC News. 7 March 2015. Web.
Stein, Marc. “Kiyoshi Kuromiya, June 17, 1997.” Out History. 2009. Web.