By Karen Ocamb
On Thursday, June 19, the Pew Research Center released a report saying that Asians recently surpassed Latinos as the fastest-growing racial group immigrating to the United States. It’s also a group that historically has faced both intense discrimination and success—suffered and appreciated by LGBT Asian-Americans, as well, with more progress on the way. If Mark Takano wins his election in November, he will become the first openly gay Asian-American in Congress.
The Williams Institute estimates that there are more than 66,000 gay and lesbian Asians in California—the highest population of gay and lesbian people of Asian descent in any state. And they are not invisible. Indeed, during the fight against Prop. 8 in 2008, API Equality-L.A. succeeded in moving their Asian Pacific Islander (API) communities to vote against the antigay marriage constitutional amendment.
But Prop. 8 didn’t mark the beginning of the struggle for LGBT equality by API activists, and on Sunday, June 17, at the One National Lesbian and Gay Archives, API Equality-L.A. launched the Pioneers Project—an effort to document and share the stories of the earliest API LGBT activists in Southern California. The launch featured two short films profiling June Lagmay and Tak Yamamoto, founding members in 1980 of Asian Pacific Lesbians and Gays, described as “the first Asian queer group in Los Angeles.”
The presence of June Lagmay, currently the City Clerk of Los Angeles and the city’s only Asian woman general manager, was clearly appreciated. The 74-year old Tak Yamamoto was unable to attend because of health problems.
The documentary told how Lagmay met Rita Romero as a teenager at an all-girls Catholic school more than 40 years ago. The two married in 2008 when marriage was legal in California, before the passage of Prop. 8 in 2008. But Lagmay was out long before then—working as an early employee of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, as well as being active in the LGBT Catholic group, Dignity USA. All the while, Lagmany was active in electoral politics, serving as an aide to three mayors and other elected officials.
Tak Yamamoto, a supervisor at the county registrar-recorder’s office in the late 1980s, was a fixture in the LGBT community during the struggle against HIV/AIDS and for LGBT civil rights during that turbulent time. In the documentary, he described being subjected to the federal government’s interment of Japanese during World War II. At the age of 5, he was sent to the Poston concentration camp in Arizona with his family. As an adult, Yamamoto became a leader of the Manzanar Committee that got the State of California to declare the Manzanar camp a historical monument with educational lessons on that dark period in American history. API Equality-L.A. also notes that Yamamoto was “the first openly-gay chapter president of the Japanese American Citizens’ League, the nation’s largest Asian American civil rights group. In that capacity, he helped move the organization in 1994 to become the first non-LGBT national organization to publicly support same-sex marriage. Tak has been together with his partner Karl for 45 years.”
“The Pioneers Project promotes intergenerational story-telling, honors our elders, and celebrates our collective history,” says API Equality-L.A. co-chair Marshall Wong, who has has worked for the L.A. County Human Relations Commission since 1999, was named NASW Social Worker of the Year this past April and has an interesting family immigration history of his own.
API Equality-L.A. will hold a second screening of the two short documentaries featuring Lagmay and Yamamoto in the coming months at the Japanese-American National Museum.