Panelists recall JACL’s landmark 1994 decision to support same-sex marriage and the impact it had on their lives and the organization from that point onward.
By Annakai Geshlider, Contributor
In the nearly 30 years since the JACL National Council passed a resolution to support same-sex marriage at the organization’s 1994 Convention in Salt Lake City, the memories of that campaign for Jon Kaji, Bill Kaneko, Trisha Murakawa and Ruth Shikada are a mixed bag of pride in having done the right thing — and personal trauma.
The four, who at the time held national-level positions in the JACL, reunited for a workshop titled “The Impact of Taking Bold Action,” which took place July 22 at the Japanese American National Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Lab during the 2023 JACL National Convention in Los Angeles.
For this quartet, the word “impact” was not just about helping steer the JACL toward taking such a forward-looking stance on the issue of same-sex marriage at a time when no other national civil rights organization of similar stature had done so. The impact of that bold action was one that would also exact a toll on them personally, within the Japanese American community and upon their once-active roles in JACL.
“I wanted to live my values,” said Murakawa on her decision to leave the JACL in 1994 in protest of the organization’s growing division over the issue of same-sex marriage.
That year, the organization was in the “post-redress phase,” said Kaji, who served as secretary/treasurer at the time. A presidential apology for incarceration during World War II had been issued, and checks had gone out to Japanese Americans around the country. Kaji recalled that following the tremendous achievement of the redress movement, JACLers were wondering, “What’s next?”
When in April 1994 the Hawaii State Legislature voted to outlaw same-sex marriage, Kaneko brought the issue to the JACL National Board.
At the time, Kaneko was national vp of public affairs and a member of the Honolulu chapter. On Feb. 12, 1994, he introduced a measure in support of same-sex marriage at the organization’s national board meeting.
The decision sparked varying responses. Some board members opposed the idea, stating the issue of same-sex marriage was not within the realm of the JACL’s goals or pertinent to enough members to necessitate a motion. Others voted in favor, believing it was a civil rights issue and one relevant to the lives of many members. The final vote before the board: 10 in favor, two against and three abstentions.
Following the motion’s passage, tensions over the issue erupted. “When the board took a position, all hell broke loose,” Kaneko remembers. Longtime staffers stepped down, including those who supported and opposed the JACL taking on the issue.
“As a Christian, I believe the issue of same-sex marriage is a moral issue and not a civil rights issue,” said Allen Kato of the national legal counsel, who resigned in May 1994 in protest of the board’s decision. “I believe homosexual marriage is morally wrong.”
As debate heated up, the Mountain Plains District voted against supporting same-sex marriage. Not long after, the Pacific Southwest District, where panelist Shikada (then Ruth Mizobe) was governor, became the first district to declare support for the issue.
In May 1994, the Mount Olympus chapter hosted a meeting of the JACL National Council in Salt Lake City. When the Mount Olympus chapter sponsored a resolution to rescind the JACL’s support for same-sex marriage, Murakawa immediately began preparing for the convention in August.
“We knew we were going to have to do some serious community organizing,” she said. Proponents teamed up with the Los Angeles LGBT Center, Human Rights Coalition and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) to garner more support for the issue.
Panelists recalled working on the ground, starting up one-on-one conversations across the country about why they felt same-sex marriage was a civil right. They printed 20-page packets with arguments in support and distributed them to every chapter in the country, Kaneko remembers. The fight taught him the nitty gritty required for working toward a political goal. “You can’t just take a position, and let it happen,” he said. “You have to work.”
When August rolled around, the Mount Olympus chapter hosted the National Convention. Not knowing which way the vote would swing, the morning of the National Board meeting brought high emotion and nerves. The deciding moment came when former San Jose chapter president, Congressman Norman Mineta, took the podium — something highly unusual for a member in the midst of a debate, Kaneko said. “When he took the podium, you could hear a pin drop.”
What happened next completely flipped the feeling in the room. In a moving speech, Mineta reminded listeners that Rep. Barney Frank, the first Congressman to voluntarily come out as gay, had been a leader in the fight for redress in Congress — and that Japanese Americans thus owed him respect. “Did we ever question his sexual orientation when he was helping us?” Kaneko recalls Mineta asking the audience.
The National Council voted not to pass the Mount Olympus chapter’s resolution to rescind support for same-sex marriage: 38 voted for, 50 against, four chapters split votes and 11 abstained.
It was an emotional time, Murakawa said. The moment the vote was over, people within the JACL began coming out to her and others. “To see these folks among us for the first time in their lives be validated by a community outside of their own LGBT community, on a national level, was the most wonderful and compelling and beautiful thing,” she said. “People who have held that secret about themselves inside their entire lives.”
“I was at that ’94 convention, and the passage for supporting the Hawaiian same-sex marriage bill was one of my greatest JACL experiences,” said Jim Oshima of the Contra Costa chapter, who attended the panel at this year’s convention.
Following the vote, tensions continued to mount. Denny Yasuhara, JACL national president at the time, fired five national staff members (including the newly appointed national executive director), all of whom had supported same-sex marriage — which “we saw as payback,” Kaji remembers. It was “gutting the national staff, and there was really nobody left to do the work of the organization,” Shikada said.
In protest of the retaliatory firings, in August 1995, Shikada and Murakawa decided to resign from the JACL. Bitter backlash ensued. “It was painful,” Shikada said. “I withdrew from the community.” Still, the experience only affirmed her desire to continue organizing for justice and “really guided me as I moved through my professional career.” She has been working in local government for the last 30 years, including as an assistant city manager for the city of Santa Clara. This year’s convention was the first she attended since departing the organization during the controversy.
Looking back, Shikada sees a period of groundbreaking change. “We brought forward a lot of issues that were … kind of pushing the envelope a bit,” she said. “And it was uncomfortable for people.”
Coming out in support of same-sex marriage in a homophobic society was not something easily done. During this period of change for the JACL, Kaji attended a summer camp held by his church. There, he watched as others gave him the silent treatment, acting like he didn’t exist. “Each of us, some of us in our own way, had to pay a price,” Kaji said.
The panelists were not the only ones to pay. While Murakawa, Shikada and Kaji moved on to other endeavors after departing the JACL, the organization was deprived of their enthusiasm and leadership for 30 years.
When organizing to support the resolution for same-sex marriage, Murakawa was vp for planning and development. She, too, feels her time with the JACL rooted her, preparing her for future work. She now works as the chief problem solver for a communications firm, dealing with water, transportation and waste. She also serves as a trustee of the El Camino Community College District and organizes for the well-being of foster and formerly incarcerated youth. “Pretty much everything that I do for a living, I learned from my experiences in community organizing through the JACL,” Murakawa said.
Following the struggle, Kaneko went on to advocate for the rights of migrants from Micronesia, as well as founded the Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs, an influential public policy institute. He also helped several leaders win public office, including former Congressman and Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie. Kaji went on to win a seat on the Torrance City Council.
Like the others, Kaji believes his experiences in the same-sex marriage fight gave him the building blocks to understanding civic engagement and community-building. “You’re not going to get this sitting in a classroom,” Kaji said.
“If we as an organization didn’t take this step, I don’t know where we’d be today,” he said.