Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
For many people in the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning, pansexual, asexual and nonbinary) community, a sense of belonging is hard to find. Not only are they marginalized in greater society, but they may face rejection within their culture and family. Young people who come out as LGBTQ+ may be forced out of their homes. Some don’t discuss LGBTQ+ identities or issues at all, leading to isolation and mental health harms. Support systems and communities are lifelines, possibly saving someone from suicide or other self-harm.
Support is also important for the family members and friends of LGBTQ+ persons who also have a coming-out process as a mom, dad, sibling, or friend of someone who is lesbian, gay, or bisexual or transgender or nonbinary.
Parents of LGBTQ+ persons may also feel stigmatized. They may feel a sense of shame and isolation. A universe of questions may exist when a child or family member first comes out: What does this mean? Is this a phase? Does this change my relationship with my child? Are they safe? What can I do to make sure my child knows I love them? What will my friends think about me if they know my child is gay? Did I do something to make my child transgender? Will my church or religion reject my child and me?
Some of these questions were faced by Lei Ueunten when her child J.J. came out as gay in college and later as nonbinary and also by Marsha Aizumi whose child came out as lesbian and later as transgender. Both mothers love their children and want the best for them. Both had few models of Japanese American families with LGBTQ+ members. Both had their own coming out process. Ueunten explains, “Parents and allies need to come out as well and that takes time. We need a lot of grace, most importantly from our child.” Some parents may need time to process the loss of their child’s former known identity and that relationship with their child. This process starts when their family member comes out. For Ueunten in Hawai‘i, it took an invitation to join her child at an Okaeri: A Nikkei LGBTQ+ Community conference and deep exploration of her faith to start the journey to support other parents in the local Japanese community and in the Christian community. For Aizumi in Pasadena, the community she sought out was fully realized when she worked hard to build it with others in the Nikkei community in Los Angeles.
“People have to be seen. People need to be heard. People need to know they matter,” said Aizumi when explaining why she works to support LGBTQ+ people, their friends and their families. She adds, “If you don’t have a community, you’re not connected to people. Many times you need to hide because of who you are. Maybe you’re out, but you’re not safe. If this is your experience, how can you feel you matter?”
Aizumi started Okaeri, an organization whose mission is to “create visibility, compassionate spaces, and transformation for LGBTQ+ Nikkei and their families by sharing our stories and providing culturally-rooted support, education, community-building and advocacy.” Aizumi was not deeply connected to the LGBTQ+ community when her child first came out. Aizumi wanted to be able to support her child and sought out other people. There was an absence in the Japanese American community of people who were LGBTQ+ or parents of LGBTQ+ people. Aizumi felt ashamed and alone, believing she was a terrible mother because she saw no one who looked like her.
Okaeri had its first convening in 2014. The conference was intended to be a place for families to come together to grow in their awareness. This first Okaeri conference brought together 200 people from nonprofits, individuals and family members. Today, Okaeri’s website features “Okaeri Voices,” videos of Nikkei aged 60 or older sharing their own stories. The first season features a diverse group including George Takei, the actor who played Zulu in Star Trek; Mia Yamamoto, a transgender attorney; and a couple with a lesbian daughter, Harold and Ellen Kameya. Their second season will launch this October. Okaeri held a Queer Obon this June 2023, drawing approximately 400 people to Terasaki Budokan, an events and activity center, in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo. “People could celebrate queer ancestors or come as they are, or act as they are, or speak as they are,” notes Aizumi who remembers the joyful event with couples holding hands and simply being happy. Okaeri has also grown to offer safe and welcoming spaces for Japanese-speaking people in the LGBTQ+ community and their friends. Based in Los Angeles, it has also grown its network to include people in Northern California, which held a rainbow flag raising San Francisco’s Japantown during Pride month and also Hawai‘i, which will share information about Okaeri at the Buddhist Study Center’s “Diversity & Acceptance in Buddhah’s Vow” on Saturday, Aug. 12, featuring a video by Reverend Ko‘e Umezu of the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple.
Aizumi notes, “One of the keys to Okaeri is really listening to all the diverse voices. Someone came [to Okaeri] who said she wanted to just be in community. She has found community.” For Aizumi, creating a sense of belonging is important as she reflects that her son didn’t have that as a trans man in the Japanese American community.
In 2014, Ueunten was connected with Okaeri through J.J. Ueunten learned her child, J.J., was gay in 2001 when they came out in college; Ueunten did not take the news well. Her first words were, “This is not the life that God has planned for you” and instructed her family to not tell anyone about the news. Ueunten spent the next couple of years seeking prayer for J.J. “to be healed.” This caused a 12-year strain in her relationship. Ueunten explains, “Growing up here [in Hawai‘i], it was inculcated in us. Do not bring shame on the family. I was convinced I had done something to raise J.J. this way.” After being estranged for thirteen years, J.J. had come out as nonbinary, reached out from Chicago to Ueunten, who was in Hawai‘i, inviting her to attend the Okaeri conference. Ueunten, desperately wanting to reconnect with J.J., took the leap and joined them. Ueunten describes feeling overwhelmed and “like a fish out of water” on the first day of the 2014 Okaeri conference. These feelings changed over the three-day conference. Ueunten left with peace and hope.
From J.J.’s coming out and through the Okaeri conference, Ueunten connected with individuals and groups in the local community and began working to support the LGBTQ+ community and embrace parents of LGBTQ+ children. Ueunten attended educational sessions including an LGBT 101 workshop, and she met other parents like her, who expressed that they as parents needed to support their children. She also realized she needed to come to terms with her faith and learn how to reconcile supporting J.J. and others in the LGBTQ+ community with her Christian faith. Instrumental in helping her walk through this reconciliation was Reverend Dr. Ken Fong in Los Angeles. Dr. Fong had helped lead a historically Japanese American Baptist Church to become open and welcoming for LGBTQ+ persons. Also helpful was the book “Changing Our Mind” by David P. Gushee, about including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the church. Both culture and religion made it extremely challenging for her to come to terms with J.J.’s identity. Now it is Asian American communities, including Okaeri and Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) AAPI and her belief that “God is love” that is making it possible for Ueunten to now support other parents who have LGBTQ+ children.
PFLAG AAPI is the support group sponsored by PFLAG National that virtually connects LGBTQIA+ persons, their allies and their families in the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community. PFLAG AAPI meets every second Saturday of the month at 12 noon, Hawai‘i Standard Time. Ueunten shared about PFLAG AAPI, “It’s just amazing. We meet people from all over the country. Kids from all over the country, they are struggling and they find community. Just to support those kids is really gratifying.”
After the 2014 conference, Ueunten and J.J. attended the Okaeri conference in 2016 and in 2018. In 2018, Ueunten and J.J. spoke at the opening plenary about how they found their way back to each other. It was a powerful testament to the power of love, education, support and commitment.
The next Okaeri conference will be held in November 2023 at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, California. The conference will be in-person, offer remote programming and include a convening of parents with two facilitated sessions and other sessions for LGBTQ+ persons.
Connections are so important to us all. For friends and family of LGBTQ+ persons who are exploring what being LGBTQ+ may mean and what it may mean as Japanese Americans, there are resources available. It does take work and courage to reach out. Here are some starting points: (books) “Honor Thy Children” by Al and Jane Nakatani;
“Two Spirits, One Heart” (2nd edition) by Marsha Aizumi and Aiden Aizumi; (online resources) Okaeri, okaeri-losangeles.org; PFLAG AAPI, pflag.org/events/asian-american-pacific-islander-community/; Hawaii Legacy Foundation, hawaiilgbtlegacyfoundation.com; Marsha Aizumi, marshaaizumi.com.
Trisha Nakamura is the Interim Dean of Student Services at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa William S. Richardson School of Law, where she has served as the director of career services. She is a volunteer board member of the Japanese American Citizens League-Honolulu Chapter, an organization advocating for civil and human rights. Prior to her work at the law school, she worked as a deputy public defender, defending the rights of those accused. As a Yonsei local Okinawan woman who was born and raised in Hawai‘i, she is committed to equity and social justice. Her respect for this place and people, and her appreciation of diversity, inform her desire to contribute to the community.