“An openly gay man from Asian and Pacific Islander Lesbians and Gays was on a panel that included speakers from religious organizations, Southeast Asian refugee groups, from a Korean small business owners organization, from progressive coalitions of or including Asian and Pacific Islanders, and from a local chapter of a national Japanese American civil rights organization.
“This sort of unified Asian and Pacific Islander press conference, not to mention one that included a lesbian and gay organization, was unprecedented in Oregon,” wrote Lynn Nakamoto in the NGLTF Fight the Right Action Kit section, Working with Communities of Color: The Asian and Pacific Islander Experience in Oregon.
Lynn, recently retired as the first Asian American and first woman of color on the Oregon Supreme Court, talks with No on 9 Remembered about the organizing that culminated in that groundbreaking press conference, and why it was needed.
“I came to Oregon in 1987,” says Lynn, who was born and raised in Southern California before starting her legal career at Bronx Legal Services in New York City.
Measure 8, the Oregon Citizens Alliance’s first anti-gay initiative, passed in 1988, the year after she and her partner arrived. “It was a shock,” Lynn remembers. “Why did we move here? What is wrong with this state?
“I tried to get involved with the community, joined the board of LCP [the Lesbian Community Project]. With the lesbian and gay community in general, there was some marginalization of Asian Pacific Islander (API) folks back then. There wasn’t always the welcome mat.
“A group of us started Asian Pacific Islander Lesbian & Gays (APLG) so we could have buddies, a sense of community. Part of my being involved came from that experience with the larger community – I felt a little left out. We are constantly overlooked. None of our issues ever gets addressed.”
That experience was magnified during the mass mobilization to defeat Ballot Measure 9.
…as the months passed and election day grew closer, Lynn did not see anything in the media about Asian-Americans taking a stand against Measure 9. She did not see an organized effort by the No on 9 Campaign to get the Asian-American groups on board. Nor did she find any Asian groups in the listings of No on 9 endorsers.From historian Pat Young’s interview with Lynn Nakamoto, cited in Pat’s 1997 Masters thesis
Lynn began to take matters into her own hands. As she documented in her Action Kit essay, “In Oregon, the idea to gain unified Asian and Pacific Islander opposition to Measure 9 did not come from the No On 9 Campaign, but instead from Asian and Pacific Islander Lesbians and Gays (APLG), a Portland-based group for lesbian and gay Asians and Pacific Islanders in Oregon.”
Making connections was essential to their work. Lynn’s “outsider” identity could have been a factor even within the Japanese American community. First, she was a relative newcomer to Oregon. “When I say my name in the Japanese American community in 1992, it’s ‘Who are you, and where did you come from?’ The people who stayed in Oregon after the internment of Japanese Americans – everyone knows each other. They were incarcerated together.”
Then there was the discomfort or lack of familiarity with out lesbian or gay folks within API communities. “When I was young, being gay – what was that?” Lynn remembers. “Like any racial community, the API community is very diverse. There’s a real range of religious affiliation and non-affiliation, for example. Some members of the community have more traditional Christian values.”
Reflecting on the change in LGBTQ acceptance since that era, Lynn says, “There’s been a huge progression in API communities from ‘we don’t know about these folks’ to a really strong identification with the civil rights struggles that everyone faces, including the lesbian and gay community. The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), as a national civil rights organization, had huge, huge debates about whether to come out and oppose LGBTQ discrimination and endorse same-sex marriage rights. Japanese Americans in the main have evolved from we’ll try to control and humiliate you and write you out of our community to being active participants in the struggle for LGBTQ rights.”
A Unified API Voice
Presenting the matter as a civil rights issue, Lynn won the support of local JACL President June Schumann who secured easy passage of a No on 9 resolution with their board. “For the JACL board, there was a very strong resonance,” says Lynn. “You are tying to take away and basically demonize a small group of people. They recognized, Hey, that happened to us.”
Building from this success, several APLG members fanned out to approach over twenty API groups. Lynn remembers Mary Li (later a lead plaintiff in a same-sex marriage rights case) as essential – “she was more deeply involved in Asian-centered groups than I was. Mary and I were the organizers getting people in the various parts of the community to get leaders on board with holding a joint press conference, getting these leaders together in a room.” With other APLG members, they reached out out to more than twenty API groups.
The joint press conference was one prong of the mission that APLG defined when they decided to address the absence of any API-specific organizing against Measure 9:
“(1) Contact and educate leadership in the various local Asian and Pacific Islander communities. (2) Get endorsements from community organizations for the campaign against Measure. (3) Get endorsing organizations to publicize their endorsements and the campaign to their members. (4) Hold an Asian and Pacific Islander press conference opposing the measure.”
The result illustrated Lynn’s assertion in her Action Kit essay: “A tremendous amount can be accomplished even in the relatively short span of two months, which is the approximate amount of time APLG took to initiate the idea and to accomplish the mission of getting endorsements for the campaign against Measure 9 and holding an Asian and Pacific Islander press conference opposing the measure.”
“I remember growing up and hearing the words, feeling the sting of names like ‘nip,’ ‘jap,’ ‘chink,’ ‘slant eye,’ ‘gook,’ ‘f-o-b’– they were mere words, but words which carried real consequences in a country that allowed slavery, genocide and segregation to occur within its borders. I understand that the twisted logic and language of bigotry rendered Asian immigrants less than human, and subject to exclusionary policies, mob violence and discrimination. I understand that the dehumanization of Japanese-Americans, partly through language, paved the way for the World War II imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. Ballot Measure 9 is a 1990’s version of the same twisted language and logic of bigotry.”Asian Pacific Islander Press Conference held at Southeast Asian Catholic Vicariate on October 29, 1992
Read The Oregonian’s coverage of the event, Asian-American Groups Unite to Oppose Measure 9.
“When we pulled it together, I was so proud of all of these leaders who were able to get buy-in from their community to get out there,” Lynn says. “Some were immigrant groups; it was a big deal for them to be willing to step out there and be in The Oregonian and on TV. Probably not everyone’s group was entirely okay with gay people. But they did it.
“I was incredibly proud. People saw that – hey, maybe we can work together in the future on other items of mutual benefit.”
Lessons for Today
Not long after the defeat of Measure 9, Lynn reflected on the unlikely nature of what they had accomplished, writing: “There was significant disbelief among lesbians and gay men and among Asians and Pacific Islanders that we would be able to get many Asian and Pacific Islander organizations or individuals to help or to oppose Measure 9. At times, we as a working group were surprised by the support we received. If we had not attempted to do something despite this prevailing attitude of resignation, we would have missed the opportunity and success ultimately achieved.
“Sometimes we were subjected to rejection or were unable to dispel fears. However, some fear was countered because the working group was Asian, and because of our passion regarding the campaign as vital to everyone’s civil rights. Additionally, our descriptions of our oppression as people of color and as gay men and lesbians were perhaps more believable or better delivered and received by an Asian and Pacific Islander audience because we are Asians and Pacific Islanders. We were able to go forward despite the rejection because of the successes along the way, our clarity regarding the mission, and our mutual support for each other.”
Asked what she would advise people today, based on her experience in 1992, Lynn boils it down to this: “Pick your projects and pick carefully who you’re working with.”
Remembering the press conference, Lynn says, “I was just so elated that we got members of such very diverse parts of our community together. We got people to think about, if this small group [the LGBTQ community] gets attacked like that, we could too.”
As we publish this story, anti-Asian hate violence continues to rise both across the U.S. and in Oregon, where surveys of Asian Oregonians found: “Half of those surveyed indicated that they had heard someone use a racial slur, epithet or degrading language against them or a family member or both,” and “A third of the survey’s respondents said they are spending less time in the community to engage with friends and family, be physically active or go shopping because of a race-based bias incident or hate crime. And nearly 40 percent said they are worried their children will become victims.” (See “Asian Oregonians face rising level of race-based hate crimes, harassment.”)
As they say on The Moth Radio Hour, “Moth stories are true as remembered and affirmed by the storyteller.” Read more about the benefits and challenges of historical memory.