In 1980 after being featured in an article in the Seattle Gay News where I spoke of being both gay and Asian-American I received a call from the International Examiner. At the time it didn’t occur to me that the Asian/Pacific American (APA) press would be interested in this topic. To the contrary, I was given the opportunity to write two articles on the nexus of being Asian and gay. The paper then published a letter to the editor that my mother penned making it clear that I had the full support of my family.
I was 20 years old when I wrote the articles. Like many young college students I come across both strident and skeptical—convinced I could change how society views me and others like me yet unsure whether things would be easier in my lifetime. The first article appeared under the banner of the “Opinion Page” and the second is headlined by a quote I make: “It is simply not the easiest way to live.” It’s clear that at the time the IE was being somewhat measured in allowing me to write these articles. This, however, does not detract from the bold stance that the paper made 35 years ago to let my voice be heard free of any counterpoint.
After re-reading these articles so many years later I am struck by a number of things. While words and terms are obvious markers of time, the real change that has occurred in the intervening years is no longer the need to justify—to justify existence, to justify feelings and to justify equal treatment. In these articles I go to great lengths to dispel myths and seek understanding. While lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals still face discrimination and whose rights are not fully protected in many states, we have become part of the fabric. We now live openly as family members, neighbors and co-workers. In most situations we no longer need to explain ourselves. Sadly, there is still part of our community, the “T,” or trans individuals in our oft-used shorthand moniker “LGBT,” who still face that 1980s-level of misunderstanding and bias. Trans individuals, and those who are gender non-conforming, are still met with fear, discrimination, and outright violence. With visibility and progressive advocates this, too, hopefully, will change.
The title given to the first piece I wrote was simply “Coming Out.” While the concept of coming out still exists, (there is a national “Coming Out Day” celebrated in October each year), why and how it is done continues to evolve and is accomplished at younger and younger ages. It is true that the vast majority of individuals are both heterosexual and cisgender hence being otherwise is not always considered. LGBT individuals still have to come out because societal biases still live on. I equate this with my parents’ need to explain to people they were Americans simply because of their race—something I rarely needed to do. Recently, Facebook reported that over 800,000 users had updated their profile to same-gender attraction or specifying a custom gender. While back in 1980 when the Internet was just being invented, coming out was mostly accomplished person-to-person and person-by-person. Of course writing an article in a local paper expedited coming out to some degree. It, however, pales in comparison to clicking a button on Facebook that allows millions of people around the world to know you are LGBT in a matter of seconds.
In the second article, I focus on relationships trying to convey the fact that same-sex relationships mirror opposite-sex ones in both structure and aspirations including my want for children. Interestingly, the word marriage was never used, and honestly, never something I even conceived of at that time. I did understand that acceptance was linked to sameness—the more our love looked alike the more we would be liked. Same-sex marriage and its quick march toward broad-based acceptance simply is the flip side of this coin—the more we were liked the more our love should look alike. My husband and I had been together for 30 years before we got married in June of 2014 after the Washington State vote to allow same sex marriage—the historic Supreme Court ruling came the following year in 2015. Marrying each other was more about securing the legal components of our relationship than the need for governmental or societal affirmation. While I believe strongly in the right of same-sex couples to marry I also understand that a successful relationship is so much more than marriage and can be defined and described in many ways.
Over these 35 years, being an Asian-American gay man has put a focus and intention in my life. From the work I have done both professionally and as a volunteer, my engagement stemmed from a sense of otherness and the need for social justice at a deep level. My 20-year-old self could scarcely imagine how the degree I chose to pursue, the employment I sought, and the causes I took up all were driven by what I was experiencing, and then wrote about, long ago.
Which brings me to the third item that the IE published back in 1980: a letter of support from my mother. Fearing that readers were under the impression that I was on this journey by myself, my mother wanted to make it clear that she and my entire family were behind me. In this letter she admits to never thinking about “homosexuality” outright but also to not being surprised when I did come out. She ponders why I am gay but ultimately states that it is not relevant. Most importantly, she states clearly that she and my family will always be behind me. While I have talked about the many things that have changed since I wrote these articles for the IE, as she promised, this support has never waivered.
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Editor’s note (10/23/2015 at 6:28 p.m.): An edit was made to reflect that Jeff Sakuma and his husband were married in June 2014 after the Washington State vote to allow same sex marriage and that the historic Supreme Court ruling came the following year in 2015.