Kiyoshi Kuromiya: “Activism is Therapeutic”

Day 17 of the Pride 30 Project for Pride Month, 2018.

Kiyoshi Kuromiya did not remember his early years in the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming, but he later speculated that it surely influenced his activism. Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th of 1941 and the United States’ entry into World War II, public and political pressure to circumvent potential threats posed by Japanese Americans mounted. Persons of Japanese descent living in the United States, despite their citizenship status, were perceived by many as fundamentally un-American, perpetually alien, and a threat to national security. A Time magazine article from Monday, December 22nd of 1941 entitled “How To Tell Your Friends From the Japs,” for example, used racial pseudo-science to inform readers how to differentiate between Japanese and Chinese Americans on the basis of facial features.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover believed mass internment of Japanese Americans could not be justified; however, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, head of Western Defense Command, argued in favor of the internment of Japanese Americans residing on the West Coast. “A Jap is a Jap is a Jap,” he said, meaning that even second and third-generation Japanese Americans who were U.S. citizens could not be trusted. On February 19th of 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 that authorized the U.S. military to create “military zones” in the form of internment camps for individuals deemed as threats, though persons of Japanese descent were not explicitly named. The order resulted in the internment of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast. These camps were dispersed throughout the western United States, and it was to Heart Mountain in northern Wyoming that Kuromiya’s family was sent.

When the camps were disbanded towards the conclusion of the war, the Kuromiya family moved to Monrovia, California. Many Japanese Americans incurred incredible loss due to internment. As they were instructed to bring with them only what they could carry, many lost not only jobs and property, but also valuable possessions. Younger Japanese Americans, inspired by the Black Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s, began the Redress Movement to petition the U.S. government to provide those interned with reparations. Despite his family’s internment, Kuromiya, who discovered Alfred Kinsey’s landmark study Sexual Behavior in the Human Male as a teenager at the public library, came to realize “even more important than my racial identity was my gayness.”

Although Kuromiya was not directly involved in the Redress Movement, he was similarly inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, especially during his years at the University of Pennsylvania. He also began participating in anti-war and gay rights activism. From 1965 to 1969 he participated in the early homophile movement’s “Annual Reminder Day.” The brainchild of Frank Kameny, co-founder of the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Mattachine Society, the Annual Reminder was held on July 4th at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, to serve as a representation that gays and lesbians did not possess first-class American citizenship.

Kuromiya was an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War and, in 1968, designed a poster to protest the military draft. The poster uses a black-and-white photograph of a young white man burning his draft card above bold text that reads: “FUCK THE DRAFT.” Kuromiya’s statement clearly reflected the mindset of many young anti-Vietnam activists who believed the draft unfairly targeted people of color and the working class while sparing the white and the wealthy. The poster is perhaps the most iconic of those produced during the Vietnam War era to express resistance not represented within the mainstream.

Kuromiya also participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He later became a close confidant of King and even cared for King’s children following his assassination. Between March 7th and March 25th, nonviolent activists participated in a series of three marches along the fifty-four mile stretch of highway between Selma, Alabama and the state capital, Montgomery. They marched to protest Jim Crow segregation and to demonstrate the desire of Africans Americans to exercise their right to vote in the face of voting requirement laws that resulted in the disenfranchisement of millions of Africans Americans across the South. On March 13th of 1965, Kuromiya led a group of high school students in a march to the state capital building in Montgomery and was violently clubbed by Alabama state troopers. He was later profiled in Life magazine and described his experience in Selma as follows:

“I was in the South during the spring and summer of 1965. After Reverend James Reeb was killed, we marched and I was clubbed down and hospitalized. When you get treated this way, you suddenly know what it is like to be a black in Mississippi or a peasant in Vietnam. You learn something about going through channels then too. I gave my story to an FBI agent in the hospital. He took seven pages of notes, but I remember thinking at the time it was probably just about as effective as relaying information to the ACLU via the House Un-American Activities Committee. Nothing ever came of it, at any rate.”

The marches also assisted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act, signed into law later that year by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, which regulated elections to prevent racial discrimination in voting. As part of his civil rights work, Kuromiya also served as an openly gay delegate to the Black Panther’s Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention, held in Philadelphia in 1970, at which he presented a workshop on gay rights. Though the Black Panther’s were hesitant to fully commit to working in partnership with gay rights organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front, they increasingly recognized connections between racial injustice and the Women’s and Gay Rights Movements. Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party with Bobby Seale, delivered a speech on August 15th of 1970 in which he acknowledged the intersection of racial, gender, and sexual oppression:

“Whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women, we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion… I do not remember our ever constituting any value that said that a revolutionary must say offensive things towards homosexuals, or that a revolutionary should make sure that women do not speak out about their particular kind of oppression… And I know through reading, and through my life experience and observations that homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. They might be the most oppressed people in the society.”

Kuromiya was diagnosed with AIDS in 1989, two years after the founding of the direct action activist organization ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in New York City. A pioneer for multiple movements, Kuromiya became an AIDS activist and a self-educated expert on the disease. “Information is power,” he said, and got to work using his knowledge to impact the course of the epidemic. He founded the Philadelphia chapter of ACT UP and the Critical Path Project, an HIV/AIDS resource organization that provided information and a 24-hour hotline for the Philadelphia gay community.

During the 1990s he was involved in several impact litigation cases: a successful lawsuit against the Communications Decency Act to maintain the right of free speech on the internet and Kuromiya vs. The United States of America, a Supreme Court case in which he argued for the legalization of marijuana for medical use by people with AIDS. In 1993, he was arrested after protesting at the Capitol Building and the White House on behalf of people with AIDS. He recounted the experience of his arrest as follows:

“I’m in the back of the police van on the way to the police station from the White House. We were mostly people with AIDS in that van and one of the plastic handcuffs were on too tight and was cutting off circulation and this person was scared, so of course I slipped out of my handcuffs. And of course, everyone thought I was Houdini at the time. I said, ‘No, I’m used to this. I know exactly what positions to put my hands in as they’re putting them on, and I can get out of it.’ I borrowed someone’s nail clippers and got everyone else’s off.”

Kurimiya died on May 10th of 2000 due to AIDS-related complications. As per his own admission, he was a true activist Houdini, effortlessly connecting and moving between multiple causes and movements as if enacting a slight of hand. But the impact Kuromiya made was no mere illusion; he was proud of his activism and his identities as gay and an AIDS survivor.

“I really believe that activism is therapeutic,” he said.

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Jeffry J. Iovannone

Jeffry J. Iovannone

Historian, writer, and educator with a PhD in American Studies. I specialize in gender and LGBTQ history of the U.S. Email: jeffry.iovannone@gmail.com