Three Inspiring “Out” Stories and the Love They Now Feel for Themselves
Kristen Nemoto Jay
This month, in celebration with Honolulu Pride, The Hawai‘i Herald proudly presents its inaugural Pride issue, featuring stories about the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community and its collaboration and connection with Japanese American culture and people in Hawai‘i. The Hawai‘i Herald would like to thank the Hawai‘i LGBT Legacy Foundation for their guidance in creating this issue, including the connections made to continue to share LGBTQ stories throughout the year. We’re honored to have been given the opportunity to meet the following three individuals and share their life experiences with us and our readers. These are their stories.
TRIGGER WARNING: HARSH LANGUAGE AND MENTIONS OF DEPRESSION, SUICIDE AND HOMOPHOBIC VERBAL ABUSE IS INCLUDED IN THIS COVER STORY.
He’s known by many Hawai‘i locals and lovers of Japanese enka music as Hikariyama Torao, a talented singer and songwriter with five record albums under his belt at just 26 years old, but to those in his close inner circle, he’s just “Leka.”
“It’s Tongan for junior,” said Tevita Apina-Pacheco, a local resident of Mäkaha who was born and raised in Waipahu. Though he’s not Japanese, rather a mixture of Tongan, Italian and Puerto Rican descent, he’s fluent in the language and knows the culture best through his love of enka music. He laughs when trying to explain how he immediately gravitated to the language and music style as it’s not a typical tune you’d find on a 20-something’s playlist.
“I think about it now and what a weird kid I must have been right?” he said with a laugh as he recollects his childhood memories, which — though some are loving and courageous — are very somber moments.
He remembers watching Kitajima Saburo sing a theme song of Abarenbo Shogun on KIKU for the first time as a 4 year old, his first memory of listening and loving enka music. When his grandmother, originally from Sicily, bought him a kid-friendly CD-ROM with multiple languages on it in hopes of him learning Italian, he kept pressing the back button to repeat the Japanese portion. There was something about the words spoken that felt right and easy for him to learn. When he was in the fourth grade his grandmother enrolled him in Pearl City Hongwanji Gakuen where he studied Japanese for a year with Sensei Shinkai Murakami. When Sensei Murakami moved to Maui, Apina-Pacheco learned to teach himself Japanese. Enka music naturally flowed thereafter as he would practice his language skills through the melancholic Japanese melodies.
Though his personality is warm and inviting, Apina-Pacheco claims he “didn’t have many friends” growing up, therefore Japanese and Hawaiian arts and culture became his escape. Part of the reason, he says, may have been because many did not understand why he was singing songs that were primarily popular among local Japanese elders in Hawai‘i. He couldn’t help himself, enka music was his calling, even when people around him “laughed” and didn’t take him seriously. Coupled by the fact that he knew he was “different” than his boy classmates in elementary school, he often felt alone and isolated. When his own father called him a homophobic slur and that he “never wanted to see [his] son on stage again” after he performed an enka song at his elementary school in the sixth grade, his spirit broke and he still carries that trauma of rejection to this day.
“It broke me but in a really weird sense I didn’t care,” he said with a laugh, while wiping away tears from his eyes. “I just wanted to keep singing and being on stage. It made me so happy and I know now it made others feel happy too … especially with our older generation, they are lonely too. That’s my biggest happiness is making other people happy.”
By the time he was in intermediate school, Child Protective Services removed him from his household and placed him in the care of his grandmother. With her support, his dreams of performing on stage quickly became his new reality.
“There were many days when we would eat saimin and Spam,” he said. “But with the very little money that my grandmother had, she used it on my costumes and just about everything. I owe everything to her.”
Apina-Pacheco flourished as a student of Sensei Craig Shimizu of Shimizu Voice Studio and took minyou (traditional folk music) lessons from the Harada Naoyuki Azusa Minyou Kai School of Music. At 15 years old, he won KZOO’s radio karaoke taikai contest in 2011, which flew him to Japan to compete in the Nippon amateur competition. He didn’t win overall but his heart was full from his experience. “Stepping out on a gigantic stage for the first time” made a lasting impression on him. By the time he was 16 years old, he worked for the Japan Tourism Bureau as a tour guide and used his earnings to record his first song called “Koukai No Umi,” which means “Sea of Regret.”
Enka music, his source for inspiration, therapy and love, helped him especially to accept himself as a gay man. Once a churchgoer, he would pray daily for the guilt he felt of being gay.
“It was really hard for me,” he said. “I was having thoughts that were contradicting to the belief that I subscribed to at that time.”
When he would sing enka music, he “finally felt like [he] could hear the men singing the women side of things,” feelings that he could relate to. Even though the music was mostly sad love songs, he says he was able to take those feelings and relate it to himself. This year marks his 10th anniversary of singing enka music, a privilege and gift he says “saved [his] life.”
“There were many times when I didn’t think I was going to live this long,” said Apina-Pacheco, as tears streamed down his face. “Enka music for me is an avenue to be seen. I just love it so much.”
Now a happily married man to his husband Bryson, Apina-Pacheco has to pretend to be melancholic when singing his enka ballads to audience members throughout Hawai‘i. Apina-Pacheco — who, with his husband, also shares a monogamous throuple relationship with their boyfriend Casey — hopes his life story and experiences will help current and future generations from feeling alone and isolated.
“There’s so much love,” he concluded, with his hands clasped and thumb knuckles pressed into his heart. “If you could see how much love you have now, you wouldn’t even believe or comprehend how much you are loved.”
In the fall of 2017, Francine Beppu was looking down from her condo at Harbor Towers along Ala Moana Boulevard and saw a parade of people walking down the street. It was the annual Honolulu Pride parade, an event she had no idea happened in Hawai‘i since moving home in 2015. After some “Googling” and further research on the event, Beppu found herself with a notebook filled with questions and suggestions at a Hawai‘i LGBT Legacy Foundation meeting. She then became a volunteer and soon after a co-chair of the foundation’s marketing committee. Today she’s one of the board of directors and is in awe of the constant progression of the foundation and support from within the community.
“It’s amazing,” said Beppu. “It’s humbling but it’s amazing at the same time how far we’ve all come.”
Some may recognize Beppu as she was part of the second season of Showtime’s Los Angeles reality show “The Real L Word,” which was based on the network’s popular late 2000 television program “The L Word.” Though she was just a five-hour flight away from her home of Nu‘uanu, O‘ahu, she might as well have been a world away from her experience as a lesbian back at home.
“I didn’t have anyone to really relate to,” said Beppu, who is the only child of her Sansei father and Japanese national mother. “There was always this feeling of guilt that I hung upon myself.”
Beppu remained closeted in high school and didn’t open up and fully accept who she was until she moved to the mainland to attend college at New York University. It was an eye-opening experience for her to see others, open with their sexuality and being who they were in general, that made her able to feel a sense of relief to be herself for the first time. After graduating from NYU, she continued to work in the city and gained experience in entertainment and technology at Sony, Viacom and MTV Networks. In 2008, Beppu moved to Los Angeles to work for Tsutaya as their director of business development. When a former colleague of hers at MTV pitched a possibility for Beppu and her ex-girlfriend’s relationship to be a part of “The Real L Word,” things started to “quickly fall into place.” Beppu and her ex-girlfriend became cast members along with — according to the description on Amazon Prime — five other “real-life, high-profile, left coast lesbians as they [went] about their daily lives, at work and play.”
While many “coming out” stories are held in private, Beppu had hers revealed on camera. It wasn’t ideal or planned but she told her mother on the reality show, at the age of 28, that she was a lesbian.
“There were some tears but at the end of the day my mom wants what’s best for me,” said Beppu, later joking that her mother, a former singer and actress in Japan, was fine on camera because of her career experience. “No seriously, my parents are great. They’ve been very accepting. I’m really lucky to have them.”
In a recent video interview with Sa’Ke Film Group for National Coming Out Day and in celebration with Honolulu Pride, Beppu shares how many “Asian closeted lesbians” reached out to her after the show aired and shared their struggles in dealing with “coming out” as well.
“I didn’t realize my coming out story would have such an impact on other people in the way that it did,” said Beppu, stating how “stressful” the whole process was for her at the time. “I think that by having more of these conversations, it really shows a sense of community. We’re all here for each other, we all support each other. At the end of the day you have to live for your own happiness. The people around you, who still love you, will want you to be happy.”
Beppu stayed throughout season two of “The Real L Word.” It was a “random” time in her life that she looks back on with a smile. She lives and works in Honolulu now as the vice president of network strategy for Nella Media Group.
She’s come “full circle” in her career and also her ability to fully accept who she is as a person. Having turned 40 this past February, Beppu takes what she’s learned so far in her lifetime as a way to help others in their quest to be seen and feel comfortable in who they are just as they are.
“At the end of the day, we’re all human. We go through the same emotions. One difference, when you’re LGBTQ, you have to ‘come out,’ and I don’t think a lot of people know how difficult that is. So it’s about continuing to have these stories be told, to help us all better understand and be there for each other.”
It was the late 80s in Burbank, California, when Camaron Miyamoto first came to terms with who he really was. He was in his parents’ basement, watching MTV when he had an epiphany. He wasn’t depressed about the war and politics at the time, he was depressed because he was gay.
“I did not want to be gay because I didn’t want to let down my parents,” said Miyamoto who said he initially thought he was just really “picky.” “I thought maybe if I wait long enough, the right woman will come along, and I will make everyone happy.”
That day didn’t come, of course, but Miyamoto hadn’t noticed. He already had “stuff to achieve for mom and dad,” so being in a relationship at the time was not his priority anyway. Though his family hoped for him to be the next medical doctor, Miyamoto said he didn’t do well in his pre-med classes and secretly had no interest in becoming a doctor. The pressure was already heavy to accomplish what his parents and grandparents had set for him. Being who he was, in general, the eldest grandson of Amache Internment camp survivors, already burdened his weighted shoulders. He became depressed and several professors of his at Occidental College suggested he see a counselor. Once Miyamoto had the epiphany in his parents’ basement that he was a gay man, a shift occurred inside him and he started to feel “empowered.” He opened up to his therapist, which helped alleviate his depression; especially when he took the “scary step” in attending Occidental College’s Gay and Lesbian Alliance meeting for the first time.
“It was like a secret society in those days,” said Miyamoto with a hearty laugh as he recalled the meetings were always late at night in a classroom when everything was closed down. Though discreet and small in number as they were, the meetings were “life-changing” for Miyamoto as he finally felt he found a place where he was understood and heard. “I remember how much I felt connected and having caring administrators really saved and changed my life.”
Miyamoto’s continued contributions and leadership led him to become the next president of Occidental College’s Gay and Lesbian Alliance, helping others who, at that time, constantly felt they were under attack politically. As Miyamoto was also a part of an experimental cohort that studied the biological foundations of homosexuality one semester, CNN reached out and interviewed him for the piece about his experience. With his involvement in the cohort and the interview as president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance set to be aired soon after on national television, Miyamoto decided it was time to come out to this parents.
“I was like ‘Oh no, Mom and Dad are going to find out … well, I guess I have to come out on Thanksgiving,’” laughed Miyamoto, who recalled the very scene as if it were yesterday. In the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, Miyamoto’s father got tired and said he wanted to go upstairs to rest. In a rush, hoping to catch his father before he went to sleep, Miyamoto told his dad that he had something very important to tell him.
“I was very nervous,” said Miyamoto. He read all the “pamphlets” prior, which laid out “a bunch of scenarios,” including what to do if his family rejected him. Miyamoto had already moved out and was nearly 30 at the time so worrying about a place to live in case he was “kicked out” was not the issue. The emotional rejection was what he feared the most. But the immense toll of his secret that he kept from his family was the reason why, he now knows, he was extremely anxious and depressed during college. The timing of the CNN interview was partly a blessing for Miyamoto, as he’d been dreading yet wanting to tell his family who he really was for years.
When Miyamoto told his father that he was a gay man, other than a stern lecture to “don’t do anything to get into trouble and embarrass the family” and an emotional moment from his mother who was upset that she wouldn’t have “future grandchildren” from her eldest son, the family was overall understanding and supportive of Miyamoto’s “coming out.” The next day Miyamoto’s brother, who was also his roommate at Occidental, asked if he was OK as he heard from their mother that he had something important to talk about. When Miyamoto said that he had come out after their Thanksgiving meal, his brother shrugged and asked if that “was it?” and if they could still grab dinner at the dorms together that evening.
“My sister called later and said: National Coming Out Day was last month. You procrastinated again,” laughed Miyamoto.
Unlike many others who’ve come out and experienced traumatic and hurtful reactions from close family members, Miyamoto is one of the lucky ones whose family’s reactions were generally a positive one.
Miyamoto’s experience of overall acceptance among his close circle solidified his commitment to helping others within the LGBTQ community through their struggles. After he graduated from Occidental in 1992, Miyamoto moved to O‘ahu for graduate school in American studies with an emphasis in Asian American history and queer theory at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. He worked for a non-profit organization that helped push for marriage equality in Hawai‘i and anti-harassment initiatives in schools. In 2002, Miyamoto became the director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer+ Center at UH Mänoa, where he continues to learn from his students and hopes to create a “better future through compassion, education and a steadfast commitment to social justice.”
If there’s one thing he wishes we all could improve on to further help the next generation not feel isolated or alone in who they are, no matter who or what they become, Miyamoto hopes we all just let our children be who they want to be.
“Let’s have them play and laugh the way that they are without fears of what’s right or what we perceive their gender to be,” affirms Miyamoto. “To not limit them. That they have the innocence of play and laughter … And then nurture those kids to thrive in what they want to do so that they may end up bringing their whole selves to their greatness. Many of us feel like we have to leave a part of who we are behind in order to succeed. I just want a world where all of us, including those of us who are LGBTQ, to be our full selves. That’s the kind of world that celebrates love and respect.”
If you or someone you know is in need of someone to talk to, please visit the following websites for more information and remember that you are not alone:
ACLU Hawai‘i: acluhi.org/
Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) Hawai‘i: glsen.org/chapters/hawaii
Hawai‘i Health and Harm Reduction Center: hhhrc.org
Hawai‘i LGBT Legacy Foundation: hawaiilgbtlegacyfoundation.com
Kua‘ana Project: hhhrc.org/transgender
The Lavender Clinic: lavenderclinic.org
Mental Health America of Hawai‘i: mentalhealth-hi.org/stopyouthsuicide-and-bullying
PFLAG (for families and friends of LGBTQ+ people): pflag.org
Campus Pride: campuspride.org
Gender Spectrum: genderspectrum.org
Human Rights Campaign: hrc.org
Human Rights Campaign (Coming Out): pointfoundation.org
Lambda Legal (Hawai‘i): lambdalegal.org/states-regions/hawaii
Point Foundation Scholarships: pointfoundation.org
National LGBTQ Task Force: thetaskforce.org
The Trevor Project (free confidential crisis counselors 24/7, 365 days a year): thetrevorproject.org/get-help
Trans Lifeline (crisis counseling by and for trans and non-binary people): translifeline.org/hotline/