The History of JACL’s Support of Same-Sex Marriage

Kristen Nemoto Jay

William “Bill” Kaneko. (Photos courtesy of William Kaneko)
William “Bill” Kaneko. (Photos courtesy of William Kaneko)

Editor’s note: In August of 1994, the National Council members of the Japanese American Citizen’s League met and gathered at the JACL National Convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, to discuss whether the organization would stand for or against same-sex marriage. William “Bill” Kaneko, who was the JACL Honolulu Chapter president from 1990 to 1993, was one of the national board members during that time of debate and helped to spearhead the organization to support same-sex marriage. This is his recollection of that time period and what it was like to witness and be a part of JACL’s historic decision to become the first non-LGBTQ+ civil rights organizations in the country to support same-sex marriage.

On Dec. 17, 1990, three same-sex couples, Genora Dancel and Ninia Baehr, Joseph Melilo and Pat Lagon, and Tammy Rodrigues and Antoinette Pregil, walked into the main office of the Hawai‘i Department of Public Health in downtown Honolulu, with gay rights activist Bill Woods — who had been trying to conduct a mass wedding ceremony to coincide with Honolulu’s Pride parade — where they would complete applications for marriage licenses. Their applications were denied and were told by the supervisor that the process could not be “moved forward without further legal guidance.”

Their request for marriage licenses and then denial would go on to make local and national news, which then set a chain of events that would carry on the same-sex marriage debate for decades to come.

Kaneko remembers the time period as “highly controversial” within the state of Hawai‘i and the country, in general, regarding the right for same-sex couples to marry and have the same benefits and rights as heterosexual couples.

While many non-profit and civil rights organizations kept quiet, the JACL Honolulu Chapter’s then-president Allicyn Hikida-Tasaka, who helped the local chapter take a stance in support of same-sex marriage, proposed that the JACL national board officially declare the same.

Kaneko, who was one of a handful of “young punks” at that time, made the motion to the national board to support same-sex marriage as well. With no social media at the time, it was “social advocacy 101” as he and the other “30-somethings” made calls, wrote letters and knocked on doors to rally JACL members and their chapters to support same-sex marriage. When the national board voted in support of same-sex marriages, that’s when — according to Kaneko — “all hell broke loose.”

“The reaction was all over the place,” said Kaneko in a Zoom chat with The Hawai‘i Herald from his office in downtown Honolulu. “One of the board members resigned. We got all kinds of criticism, but also got a lot of praise.”

The organization, said Kaneko, was going through a transition at that time as prior to the same-sex marriage debate, the redress movement was worked on and succeeded with the signing of the Civil Liberties Act by President Ronald Reagan in 1988. Kaneko helped advocate and fight for reparations of “excludees,” Japanese individuals who were not interned but forced to evacuate their homes on the basis of military necessity. But “what is JACL going to do after redress?” was the question that was asked of Kaneko and many chapter members who needed to find another important issue to support after their labors were succeeded.

“The local chapter wanted to become not only relevant but address issues that were beyond Japanese

American issues and that was intentional in Hawai‘i,” said Kaneko who added that the same transition was happening on a national level for the organization. But when the issue of same-sex marriage reached the board, Kaneko said it was like a “bomb” went off in the organization.

“A lot of the members at the time were Nisei and so they were very much set in their ways and then here comes these young and ‘crazy’ people from Hawai‘i who are advancing the issue,” laughs Kaneko. “It was a really tough time but we worked hard at it.”

Founded in 1929, the JACL is the oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization in the United States. Its membership today expands over 100 chapters throughout the country and has over 10,000 members. The initial divisiveness among its members, said Kaneko, was due to the diversity of each chapter’s role within the organization. While chapters such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Hawai‘i, which had more Japanese Americans, were more issue-based than the chapters such as in the Midwest, which would more so gather to socialize and celebrate Japanese American culture, Kaneko said that was the reason at the time for the varying opinions from the organization as a whole. While some within JACL such as the Honolulu Chapter were ready for the organization’s transition to a new issue after redress, with so many members and varying opinions on what the organization should support next, it was a lot harder to persuade some who didn’t agree with same-sex couples’ rights to marry.

Then in August 1994, when the JACL National Council would meet and vote on their stance on same-sex marriage at the national convention, which, if decided otherwise, would override the national board’s initial decision to support it, Kaneko said the mood was “hot” as he and his colleagues tried to organize all the chapters to understand why the organization’s support of same-sex marriage aligns with JACL’s mission to “secure and maintain the civil rights of Japanese Americans and all others who are victimized by injustice and bigotry.”

Though “a lot of lobbying and advocacy was going on” at that time, Kaneko said the most profound moment that he believes persuaded the National Council and many other chapters to finally agree to support same-sex marriage was when the late Norman Mineta, who was the U.S. Secretary of Transportation at the time, read a statement to the thousands in attendance about why he was in support of same-sex marriage and that the JACL National Council and its members should be as well.

“You could hear a pin drop,” said Kaneko, when describing what it was like to see Mineta take the stage. “It’s very unusual for a member of Congress to take the floor of a non-profit organization in general but nonetheless he was compelled to do so.”

Mineta was one of four proponents for the redress legislation, which included Bob Matsui from Sacramento and Spark Matsunaga and Dan Inouye from Hawai‘i. A key player that wasn’t recognized as much as Mineta and his colleagues was a member of Congress from Massachusetts named Rep. Barney Frank, who was openly gay. When Mineta read his statement, he reminded everyone that Japanese Americans could not have won redress if they had stood alone and that it was therefore a time to stand for gay rights.

The editor for Rafu Shimpo, Gwen Muranaka, in her June 30, 2015, article “J-TOWN BEAT: The Arc of History,” who was there in attendance for Mineta’s speech, reported that Mineta said “a gay congressman from Massachusetts, with only a tiny Asian Pacific American constituency, makes redress his top civil rights priority. Why? Because he saw our civil rights as an issue of fundamental principle for his country. Doing what is right is often controversial. Doing what is just is often unpopular. But if we are to remain a viable voice in the national civil rights movement, we cannot back away from our commitments simply because the issue is difficult.”

It was after Mineta’s passionate speech when, according to Kaneko, “you started to see all the ‘no’ votes turn to ‘yes’” resulting in the National Council voting to support same-sex marriages and the national JACL becoming the first national non-LGBTQ+ civil rights organizations in the country to support same-sex marriages.

Bill Kaneko (then-JACL Honolulu president) with legal counsel, Clayton Ikei, at a press conference discussing the unlawful eviction of Japanese in America during World War II, circa 1991.
Bill Kaneko (then-JACL Honolulu president) with legal counsel, Clayton Ikei, at a press conference discussing the unlawful eviction of Japanese in America during World War II, circa 1991.

“This was before the NAACP or MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) now … all the big ones,” said Kaneko. “No one else took a position. Though we had some fall out, fast forward to now and the organization is very proud about taking the position, including myself.”

When asked why he was a proponent for same-sex marriage from the start when the topic 30 years prior was so controversial, Kaneko said it was his former mentor, the late Dr. Franklin Odo who — among many roles including the director of the Asian Pacific American Program at the Smithsonian Institution, was the founder of the ethnic studies program at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa — helped him see the “lightbulb in terms of Ethnic Studies and ensuring that we live in a fair and equitable society.”

“To be able to advocate on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community … it was natural in terms of taking on the issue.”

Kaneko said his Sansei generation have to still keep pushing for social justice issues as he believes “we’re not doing enough” and have become “too comfortable” living in the rewards and hard work that their Nisei fathers and grandfathers have helped the Japanese American community gain in Hawai‘i throughout the years.

“We should all be doing more for the disadvantaged and persons who need help,” asserted Kaneko who acknowledges that there are some who are helping the community but not with the kind of “vengeance and furor” that the Nisei generation did when they came back from the war.

Next mission for Kaneko, who is a partner at Dentons and currently on the advisory board for JACL’s Honolulu Chapter, is to continue to acknowledge his place of privilege and use it to help others whose voices may not be in the room or able to be heard.

“There’s strength in numbers and that’s how you become successful,” said Kaneko. “If you can harness all kinds of different interest groups and roll in one direction … We can work together on more common and broader social justice issues. That’s part of a success of creating coalitions.”


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