Japanese American Citizens League Supports Same-Gender Marriage

The Japanese American Citizens League was the first Asian American civil rights organization that was not focused on gay and lesbian issues exclusively, to support same-gender marriage. The organization’s support inspired early same-gender marriage activism in Hawaii and Alaska.

Summary of Event

The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), founded in 1930, is one of the oldest Asian American civil rights groups. Group members were instrumental in contributing leadership during the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. In 1994, the year JACL showed its support for same-gender marriage, JACL had twenty-six thousand members and 114 chapters. [kw]Japanese American Citizens League Supports Same-Gender Marriage (Aug. 6, 1994)
[kw]Same-Gender Marriage, Japanese American Citizens League Supports (Aug. 6, 1994)
[kw]Marriage, Japanese American Citizens League Supports Same-Gender (Aug. 6, 1994)
Same-gender marriage[same gender marriage];Asian Americans and
Asian American support of same-gender marriage
[c]Civil rights;Aug. 6, 1994: Japanese American Citizens League Supports Same-Gender Marriage[2390]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Aug. 6, 1994: Japanese American Citizens League Supports Same-Gender Marriage[2390]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Aug. 6, 1994: Japanese American Citizens League Supports Same-Gender Marriage[2390]
Shigemura, Lia
Hayashino, Carole
Mineta, Norman Y.

The movement to support same-gender marriage started with discussion on the issue at the JACL Pacific Southwest district council meeting in Hawaii on February 28, 1994. Hawaii had earlier banned same-gender marriage. Ruth Mizobe, president of the chapter, said, “The government should not deny gays and lesbians equal benefits and privileges and sanctions that are accorded to all married couples.” The chapter agreed, and then voted to support same-gender marriage.

Then, in May of 1994, six district representatives and seven officers of the JACL national board took up the issue. Someone at the meeting had reminded the others that the first Japanese immigrants were not allowed to marry whites because interracial marriage was considered morally repugnant and unnatural. Some Japanese people were harassed and sometimes attacked for marrying whites. In the end, the board voted 10-3 in support of same-gender marriage. The JACL’s “marriage resolution” affirmed marriage as a basic human right that should not be denied to same-gender couples.

The JACL then held its national convention on August 6, 1994 in Salt Lake City, Utah. This national convention became an important event for both JACL members and LGBT Asian Americans. Several former JACL leaders, including Lia Shigemura, a former JACL program director, came out of the closet at the convention. Shigemura had come to the national convention after talking with her former colleague, Carole Hayashino, who mentioned that even though the JACL national board had passed a resolution in support of same-gender marriages, homophobic JACL members would try to reject that resolution at the convention.

At the convention, the Mt. Olympus chapter asked JACL members to oppose same-gender marriage. There was a motion on the floor (resolution six) that would have made opposition to same-gender marriage the official national JACL position. However, there were many more members in support of same-gender marriage than those opposed, who spoke to the issue. The debate over the resolution was extended many times so that all the delegates and members who wanted to indeed could speak on the issue. Shigemura announced her support for same-gender marriage and then courageously came out as lesbian in front of her Japanese American colleagues. It was the first time she had come out in public.

Also, there was a speech made by California congressman Norman Mineta, a former president of the JACL. He stated that marriage was a civil rights issue and asked members to support same-gender marriage. He also talked about appreciation for gay U.S. congressman Barney Frank from Massachusetts, who had given his unconditional support to the JACL. At last, a vote was taken on resolution six.

There was silence during the vote count. By a count of fifty against, thirty-eight for, eleven abstentions, and four split votes, resolution six failed. With the rejection of this resolution, the JACL had announced its national support of same-gender marriage. By rejecting the resolution, the national JACL had upheld the national board’s marriage resolution.


The JACL’s denial of the resolution inspired same-gender couples across the nation, especially Asian Americans, to continue advocating for their rights and continue celebrating their commitments. The vote also had an impact on national politics. It led to premature same-gender marriage movements in the late 1990’s in both Hawaii and Alaska, where the Alaskan and Hawaiian courts found that denying same-gender marriage violated their state’s constitution. However, those court opinions were subsequently reversed by state constitutional amendments in 1998.

The vote also emboldened the JACL: It later officially opposed the Knight Initiative, a proposed marriage law in California sponsored by Republican state senator Pete Knight of Palmdale, whose son is gay. The initiative was passed by ballot on March 7, 2000. The Knight Initiative, in turn, influenced antigay and antilesbian extremists in other states. They crafted similar marriage laws to challenge or deny all equal rights and protections to LGBT people, rights such as hospital visitation, domestic-partner benefits, and even local nondiscrimination laws.

Yet, after they announced their support, the JACL has been joined by other supportive Asian and Pacific Islander organizations, such as the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance, the Gay Asian Pacific Support Network, and the Japanese American Bar Association. Asian Americans have supported same-gender marriage in greater numbers, as a group, than any other ethnic or racial group in the United States. Same-gender marriage[same gender marriage];Asian Americans and
Asian American support of same-gender marriage

Further Reading

  • Berlet, Chip. Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash. Somerville, Mass.: Political Research Associates, 1995.
  • “Same-Sex Marriage: A Selective Bibliography of the Legal Literature.” Law Library, Rutgers School of Law. http://law-library.rutgers.edu/SSM.html.
  • Sullivan, Andrew. Same-Sex Marriage, Pro and Con: A Reader. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
  • Watt, Eric C. The Making of a Gay Asian Community: An Oral History of Pre-AIDS Los Angeles. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
  • Zia, Helen. Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

October 12-15, 1979: Lesbian and Gay Asian Collective Is Founded

1981: Gay and Lesbian Palimony Suits Emerge

1982-1991: Lesbian Academic and Activist Sues University of California for Discrimination

1987: Asian Pacific Lesbian Network Is Founded

1993-1996: Hawaii Opens Door to Same-Gender Marriages

September 21, 1996: U.S. President Clinton Signs Defense of Marriage Act

December 20, 1999: Baker v. Vermont Leads to Recognition of Same-Gender Civil Unions

May 25, 2001: Japanese Human Rights Council Recommends Lesbian and Gay Rights

April, 2003: Buenos Aires Recognizes Same-Gender Civil Unions

June 17, 2003, and July 19, 2005: Canada Legalizes Same-Gender Marriage

November 18, 2003: Massachusetts Court Rules for Same-Gender Marriage

November 18, 2004: United Kingdom Legalizes Same-Gender Civil Partnerships