Your Typical Yonsei Role Model With Neon Yellow Hair
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
This month I spent some time chatting with Andrew Ogata, a leader in our LGBTQ+ community on O‘ahu. He is a driving force at the Hawai‘i Health and Harm Reduction Center, where he is the director of marketing and communications. He is also on the Board of Directors of the Hawai‘i LGBT Legacy Foundation, where he recently served as the chair of the Honolulu Pride Parade in October. Andrew grew up on Hawai‘i Island and moved to O‘ahu to attend the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. I had the pleasure of reconnecting with him for this interview.
CM: Can you please introduce yourself to our readers? Can you tell us your name, where you are from and a little bit about yourself and your early years?
AO: My name is Andrew Ogata. I am a Yonsei. My family comes from the Kumamoto region in Japan. I grew up in Kona on Hawai‘i Island. I grew up a very typical little Japanese boy, even though I’m hapa. I’m half Japanese and half Caucasian. I grew up in the Kona Hongwanji temple — I played taiko, I cleaned the church and I took the reverend’s daughter to prom… I was very heavily involved in my Japanese culture. Now I’ve lived on the island of O‘ahu for 21 years.
CM: What was it like growing up a typical Japanese boy into the man you are now?
AO: It was very difficult. I lived in the rural south part of Kona — it was a very small community and a very conservative community. My family was very conservative, and it was difficult for me to express myself the way I wanted to express myself. It took me leaving the island to really develop my personality and develop into who I wanted to become and who I thought I should become.
CM: How did you find the strength to become the person you are today?
AO: It was really difficult. When I first moved here I tried to continue to pretend to be straight. I continued to date little Japanese girls in my first couple of years of college, and it got to a point where I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t keep hurting these girls. I couldn’t keep acting anymore, and I think just being exposed to everything that life could be or should be gave me the strength to say that being gay has to be okay.
This feels like just yesterday… I remember sitting in the ASUH [UH Mänoa student government] office and someone said “oh your parents don’t know you are gay?” And I grabbed the girl’s hand and said, “why would you say ‘gay’ out loud? I never say that out loud!” I remember that gut feeling like you can’t say my name and the word “gay” in the same sentence. That just hit me like a brick.
A lot of what led me to do the work I do today was the way I felt so alone because of my sexuality and who I was attracted to. I couldn’t talk to my family about it. There were very few friends I could talk to, and I wasn’t open about it. I remember the feeling of aloneness. Kids are coming out much younger. RuPaul’s Drag Race is mainstream. We are taking over the world now, but still, to this day there are a lot of people that I encounter who still do not have anybody.
CM: Can you tell us about your work at Hawai‘i Health and Harm Reduction Center? What does the organization do and what is your role there?
AO: I work with the Hawai‘i Health and Harm Reduction Center (HHHRC) to try and create programs in the LGBTQ+ community to serve our population and create examples where we can all be successful and where we can be who we want to be, living authentically.
I got into this work because, first, I got into the gay scene, and I met all of these people who were comfortable with their sexuality like Marina Del Rey and all of these drag queens who are so confident, and it was just like sexuality wasn’t even a discussion. This was just about who they were. They were gay people, and it wasn’t even a question like are you gay, are you mähü? I found a community where we were just accepted for who we are. Come as the way you look and the way you act and no one questions it all. It was just so inspiring to be in that community where people were not asking me “Oh, why are you acting so feminine?” or “Why are you acting like this and wearing that color?” To be in that kind of community is so freeing. It’s such a breath of fresh air. I try my best through my work at HHHRC to build those kinds of communities for people who don’t have anybody.
CM: What advice would you share with anyone struggling with their gender or sexuality?
AO: The number one thing I like to tell people still struggling with their sexuality is anyone who is not going to accept you, for whatever this is, is not worth your time. I spent so many years hiding who I was, and now I look back and think about all of the time I wasted. I could have been living my authentic life and so much happier so long before… so long ago. And the amazing thing is not a single person who meant anything to me left me when I told them I was gay. When they saw me with my neon yellow hair, my pink hair, my piercings… none of them stopped talking to me. So that is my advice to people: If people are meant to be in your life, they are going to accept you for being who you are. Whether you are trans, queer or gender non-conforming — if they are meant to be in your life, they will not leave you for being your authentic self.
CM: Speaking as Yonsei to our local Japanese community, what are some things we can do to support one another and our LGBTQ+ family members?
AO: This is very important to address in our Japanese communities. Growing up, we do not talk about this kind of stuff at all. To this day, my parents have not had the birds and the bees conversation with me. My parents know who who I am, they know what I do, and they see me on the news all the time talking about my work, but they have never had that conversation with me. I think that is systemic in our culture, unfortunately, to just keep a tight lip. We are not having those crucial conversations about our sexuality that lead to change, that will lead to the next generation of up-and-coming queer kids that will allow them to feel safe and loved. If we don’t have these conversations in our community, these little queer kids are going to stay closeted, and that is not okay. As an Asian American, as a Japanese American Yonsei, we need to normalize having these conversations. I am not saying we need to go to our temple wearing pride colors with a flag on my back, but I think we can’t shy away when things happen. We must seize the opportunity to connect young queers with mentors. We need to make it okay for these conversations to even take place. I mean, I didn’t tell my Sansei dad “I love you” until he was in his 60s. We both grew so much, and he has gone through so much change. I’ve seen his evolution so I know it is possible. It is going to take those of us who are confident in our skins to come back and really make it okay to be ourselves. It feels amazing to be your full authentic self. I love going back to Kona to temple with my parents with my neon yellow hair to show that it is okay to be ourselves. All of us deserve to wear our pride and aloha.
Camaron Miyamoto is the director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Queer+ Center and tenured faculty in the Division of Student Success at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. As a Yonsei, Mexican and Filipino American, Mr. Miyamoto has served on the boards of the Hawai‘i LGBT Legacy Foundation and the Japanese American Citizens League, Honolulu Chapter, where he advocated for marriage equality in Hawai‘i. Mr. Miyamoto continues to learn from his students at UH Mānoa and is fueled by the belief that by being grounded in our culture and community we will create a better future through compassion, education and a steadfast commitment to social justice. The Hawai‘i Herald is a cornerstone of that future.