This past June, Okaeri LA hosted the first ever Queer Obon (we think), or a festival designed to bring LGBTQ+ people together in community for this important Buddhist holiday.

As an organizer of the event who fell sick a few days beforehand, most of the day was a Sudafed-filled blur of leading dances, organizing tents, and carrying supplies in and out of the Terasaki Budokan until the last of the rainbow chalk lines were mopped up. Over the past few months, however, it became clear to me that our small organizing committee had built something much bigger than we could have imagined, as seen by the lovely pieces written by several community members after the event. 

We also faced a number of questions, particularly leading up to the event. The most frequent of these was, “Why call this an Obon, and not a non-denominational matsuri or festival?” 

Photo Credit: Willa Cutolo

1. Buddhism is a pretty queer religion

While we don’t often learn about this in Dharma School, many aspects of Buddhism do not adhere to Western concepts of gender and sexuality. Amida Buddha, for example, has no gender; instead, the statues and pictures we see in Japanese American temples have both male and female features. Many Buddhist bodhisattvas have also changed genders in texts over the past few hundred years. Today, various sects of Buddhism approach gender and sexuality differently across the world; however, unlike in some religions gender and sexual identity aren’t a central focus of any Buddhist tenets.

Additionally, Japanese American Buddhism pushes against several intertwined systems of oppression, including racism and homophobia, as they exist in America. For example, our current prison system disproportionately incarcerates both queer and BIPOC communities (and particularly people who identify with both identities). According to incarceration historian Anne-Marie Cusac, early Puritan governments in British colonies enacted a legal disciplinary system of punishment based on Christian religious theology. As God punished sinners, so did the state punish those who committed religious and criminal offenses with violence and incarceration. As slave patrols morphed into the modern police force, punishment against homosexuality and racial identity have continued to drive state violence against marginalized people. Over the years, imprisonment-worthy offenses have included homosexuality and Japanese American incarceration, and it is important to recognize that our Japanese American community’s struggles are fundamentally linked with that of the queer community. 

I don’t believe that Christianity is inherently “anti-LGBTQIA+” and Buddhism is a fundamentally “queer” practice. There are many Christians who are affirming and supportive of LGBTQIA+ individuals, and elements of both religions encourage compassion, deep understanding for others, and community support. However, Buddhist theology can provide a helpful alternative lens that supports and encourages queerness in the face of a violent colonial Christianity that is used to uphold anti-queerness and racism. 

Photo Credit: Mariko Rooks

2. Obon holds joy and mourning, both of which are essential and often suppressed aspects of queerness

One of the most revolutionary ways we can heal ourselves as queer people is through queer joy. As activist Brittany Packard once wrote, “Oppression doesn’t have room for your happiness. You resist it when you find joy anyhow.” So much of the stigma and discrimination faced by queer people is rooted in the belief that we should not and cannot exist. To feel joy in being completely ourselves –in how we look, in how we identify, in who we love– is a crucial element of freedom. Obon, quite literally the gathering of joy, is such a powerful way in which we can center this concept of queer joy as we gather in community. As we danced, ate, and talked with our loved ones, joy was everywhere this year at queer Obon and it was a truly beautiful thing to see. 

Integral to that joy is grief; obon, after all, is a holiday created to remember the dead. To be queer is to face a disproportionate level of mourning. Every week, we hear about queer siblings killed: by senseless acts of violence, by the police, by 566 anti-trans legislative bills this year alone, by mental and physical health conditions caused by LGBTQIA+ discrimination, the list goes onward. Even those of us who survive often grieve elements of our own experiences, from safely walking at night with our partners to so many lost years of suppressing our own identities. Because queerness is rarely talked about in the Japanese American community, there is no space to mourn these losses; for example, we never hear about our Japanese American LGBTQIA+ elders who were killed by HIV/AIDS. Creating a space to embrace and honor loss and mourning is crucial for the health, well-being, and support of the Japanese American queer community.

Photo Credit: Willa Cutolo

3. Camp Dance (the good kind)! 

If you’re going to choose an unapologetically queer holiday that encourages queer people explore their freedom of self-expression, Obon is an excellent option. Dance has long been an important form of queer self-expression, and queer people have created many of the most popular dance trends throughout modern history. While not every queer person dances and you don’t have to dance to be queer, centering dance at Queer Obon is a wonderful homage to both Japanese American and queer history. Additionally, Obon dances give all of us wonderful and gentle ways to explore gender.

Take Ei-Ja-Nai-Ka and Tanko Bushi where all dancers perform different kinds of Issei and Nisei labor that are heavily male gendered, such as working in the coal mines or driving trains. How about Hokkai No Abarembo, where we all pretend to be the fisherman going out to sea and we all pretend to be his wife begging him not to go? Using “deliberately exaggerated and theatrical behavior or style” in interpreting these dances is also a delightful form of “camp,” a queer methodology that creates “community, style, and taste” through over-the-top interpretation. Regardless of whether you’re a first time dancer or a seasoned veteran, Obon dances are a good reminder that we can all explore what it means to “perform” or enact gender, regardless of how we identify. 

Photo Credit: Mariko Rooks

For me, being a queer Japanese American Buddhist is not more than an intersection of my gender & sexual identity with my race and my religion. Rather, each of these elements informs and strengthens the other. I practice Buddhism through “being” Japanese and vice versa, from the food I eat after service to the yukata I wear at Obon. I better understand my own queerness through teachings in Buddhism such as interdependence and the ego-self. Seeing this symbiotic relationship thread through Queer Obon and watching so many people unapologetically and joyfully dance together was a truly unparalleled experience. I’m so grateful for the team at Okaeri who initially envisioned this project for inviting me along, and I’m so excited to see where we go next. 

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