February in the JA community is filled by two major holidays: Day of Remembrance and Valentine’s Day. On the first, we teach future generations about the camps: the rebuilding, the gentrification, the histories and the struggles and the joys that are so often pushed into footnotes. Our history teaches us that memory is malleable. It is shaped and warped over time by what matters in the present. It is contested, and so often the silence in our memory tells us who is being made to be forgotten in our present.
Queerness, for me, has always been silent. Which brings us to the second holiday this month, and why we need to change how we talk about gender and sexuality in the JA community.
I was one of those typical Southern California JA kids who participated in every community activity: summer camp, Girl Scouts, sports, temple, etc. etc. etc. I’m profoundly grateful for all of these spaces and institutions, which provided me with the legibility, history, and context to develop huge parts of my racial identity through my interactions with others.
However, the same sleepaway camps that made me feel seen as a Japanese American child in ways that I could never hope to find at school were also some of the most insistent in defining me as a straight woman.
It wasn’t that JA spaces acted like queer (an umbrella term for anyone who isn’t strictly attracted to the “opposite” gender) and transgender folks didn’t exist, it was just that no one ever assumed that any of us could be either. In hindsight, the signs were obvious. I informed my Nishi Center kindergarten class that I wanted to marry my female best friend. I was always more comfortable pounding mochi with “the boys” than I was shaping the final product in the kitchen with “the women.” None of these individual inclinations does a queer person make, but add them together and it’s a pretty simple math problem.
The same sleepaway camps that made me feel seen as a Japanese American child in ways that I could never hope to find at school were also some of the most insistent in defining me as a straight woman.
Despite this overwhelming evidence, camp counselors would ask us without fail which boys we had crushes on when we were as young as seven or eight years old. Adults held dances or other activities that forced us to interact with these boys in a romantic context that claimed to be “cute” or “harmless.” When I bring these things up, adults consistently dismiss the need to center, or at least acknowledge, the potential for queerness in JA youth spaces. “Kids don’t know how they identify!” “They’re not old enough to be thinking about this stuff.” Yet, the “staple” JA experiences I’ve just listed all assume really young children are both straight and cisgender (identify with male/female assignation at birth based on outward anatomy), which is just as clear and broad of an assumption about who they are, who they are attracted to, and why.
This sometimes active, sometimes passive, but always harmful homophobia and transphobia that permeates the ways in which we socialize our children is anything but harmless. Study after study shows that repressing and ignoring queer and transgender children, even if you aren’t directly violent, is directly related to depression, anxiety, and suicide. We bring our children into community spaces because they are a source of truth-telling: they tell you that your name is Mariko, not “mareeko.” They tell you your lunch isn’t “weird,” your eyes aren’t “too small,” that you belong and that you matter. At the same time, we are all quietly told as children that the only way to be Japanese American, or at least the most obvious, is to also be a cis and a straight Japanese American. And it always hurts more when it comes from inside the house.
Of course, it’s not all on us. Some of it is fear: how can you reclaim femininity for everyone when the emasculation of Asian men used to kill us now? Some of it is erasure: we never talk about the fact that homosexuality was fairly normalized in Japan until the Westernization of the Meiji Era.
And that’s the crux of it all. When we talk about queerness as a way of looking at the world around us and within us, what we are ultimately taught is liberation from systems of power that were never meant to serve us. Historian Lisa Lowe explains that intimacies of desire, sexuality, marriage, and family are inseparable from the imperial projects of conquest, slavery, labor, and government. Slavery, for example, has been incredibly violent in eradicating queer relationships because producing more children led to more profit. In Japan, eradicating queerness in the post-occupation era was deeply linked to America’s “redemption” of Japan’s imperialism and the erasure of Japanese culture. Time and time again, queer intimacies are actively erased and forgotten because they don’t produce outcomes considered “valuable.”
What do we value, as a community? My first answer has always been each other. One of the things I love about moving through JA spaces is that those who are the most accepting of me are also quiet in their acceptance. I never had to actively come out because there were Issei, Nisei, and Sansei who saw and knew me for who I was, and accepted this without question. Western individualism often criticizes Japanese group-oriented culture as conformist, but misses the point that you don’t have to stick out because everyone is proactive about honoring your needs and wants.
What if we waited to use gendered pronouns until our children figured it out for themselves? Why are girls considered girls until they actively tell us otherwise? What if we stopped gendering activities that have nothing to do with our bodies, even if it’s just who gets to steam rice for mochi and who gets to shape it? The only thing we have to gain by giving our children the freedom to be who they are and love, or not love, who they want, are the voices we need to liberate us all. I’d say that’s a pretty good way to celebrate Valentine’s Day and Day of Remembrance.