I was honored to be part of such a large gathering of queer and trans Nikkei. My feelings of shame were replaced with pride, as I heard Japanese Americans of different sexualities, genders, and generations share their stories.

Since I was old enough to develop crushes, my parents taught me I could love whoever I wanted, regardless of gender. I was fortunate to be raised by sansei and yonsei social workers who took me to my first LA Pride. Although my parents were clearly allies, I struggled expressing and exploring my sexuality until I left Japanese American-filled Gardena for college. During my time in the closet, I attended the last in-person Okaeri Conference in 2018 as an ally. I co-facilitated the family and allies group with my Mom in support of my trans aunt and other LGBTQ+ individuals.    

Photography Credit: Scott Oshima

Growing up, I was actively involved in Dharma School, Sangha Teens, Jr. YBA, and other Nikkei community organizations, which were all pretty heteronormative. I was uncomfortable with the thought of not being straight due to the social pressures of conformity. Queerness was rarely addressed or discussed among my JA peers. However, the advocacy and involvement of my family in organizations like Ichi-Mi and Okaeri developed over the years. I was involved in Gardena Buddhist Church’s Ichi-Mi, an organization that creates a safe space for LGBTQ+ people within the temple. Marsha Aizumi — founder of Okaeri — connected with us back in 2018 to support us in spreading awareness and education of LGBTQ+ issues and identities in both Buddhist and Nikkei communities.  

Photography Credit: Willa Cutolo

I was honored to be part of such a large gathering of queer and trans Nikkei. My feelings of shame were replaced with pride, as I heard Japanese Americans of different sexualities, genders, and generations share their stories. 

After 5 years, I finally felt comfortable to be my authentic self among other queer Nikkei at this year’s hybrid conference. The conference opened with an unapologetically-queer Friday night of drag bingo with Kristi Yummykochi. Saturday kicked off with an opening plenary of trans activists, Kris Hayashi and Cecilia Chung who spoke about their personal experiences with anti-trans legislation, and how to fight it with hope and collective action. More stories—and more tears—of hope were shared in the discussion “Uplifting the Rainbow,” allowing us to take a moment to soak in the joys of being queer in a world that does not want us to. I made sure to sit in on my aunt’s panel “When Dinosaurs Roamed” of queer and trans Nikkei elders, who have persevered in spite of their erasure and invisibility.

On Sunday, I learned from community leaders about the barriers and successes in building LGBTQ+ Nikkei spaces. Both days included more intimate, identity-based meet-ups, so I chose to attend the bisexual/pansexual and LGBTQ+ groups' meetups. Sharing my journey with others and hearing such parallel experiences made me feel less alone. As a queer Nikkei, it can sometimes feel isolating and lonely being in predominantly hetero spaces.

Photography Credit: Willa Cutolo

After a weekend full of a wide array of emotions and experiences, we released our energy through Obon dancing led by Gia Gunn! This was the perfect way to culminate a Nikkei gathering of queer and trans folks — I could feel the love and liberation permeating the room.

Okaeri’s mission is to “create visibility, compassionate spaces, and transformation for LGBTQ+ Nikkei and their families by sharing our stories and providing culturally-rooted support, education, community-building, and advocacy.” I truly felt empowered and seen by the speakers, panelists, and participants who shamelessly showed their vulnerability. I had the opportunity to meet people who share similar intersecting identities with me. It is rare to find around 207 LGBTQ+ Nikkei, parents, and allies under the same roof of JANM, as well as about 65 virtual participants. I grew up exploring the exhibits of JANM, and would have never imagined the space being used in such a beautiful and transformative way. 

Photography Credit: Willa Cutolo

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