For Asian American and Pacific Islander/AAPI Heritage Month 2021, the editors at Biography have chosen their top 10 Influential Asian American and Pacific Islander Activists “who fought for marginalized people of all communities.”
“With their leadership and bravery,” Biography wrote, “these trailblazing activists left a lasting mark on American history, fighting for civil rights, labor rights and everything in between.” They added, “While often at the center of many movements, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and their groundbreaking accomplishments and contributions are sometimes overshadowed and ignored.”
Among the activists honored is Kiyoshi Kuromiya, an heroic local figure in the fight for LGBTQ civil rights. During the AIDS crisis, Kuromiya’s work and activism saved many lives.
Born into internment at the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp for Japanese Americans in Wyoming in 1943, Kuromiya referred to his birthplace as a concentration camp. In an interview with gay historian Marc Stein, archived at the William Way Center, Kuromiya said, “I don’t remember a thing about Heart Mountain, although in 1983 my mother and I visited the site of this concentration camp, which the government called a ‘relocation center’ for Japanese Americans during World War II, two-thirds of whom were American citizens.”
In 1992, Kuromiya received his $20,000 reparations check from the U.S. government for what he termed “that atrocity.” Kuromiya told Stein, “I am fascinated with that part of history and I’m sure it affected my own activism and my own attitudes toward our government, war and racial issues.”
As Biography noted, Kuromiya engaged in activism early on, fighting for marginalized communities. He moved to Philadelphia from his family’s home in suburban Los Angeles in 1961 to attend the University of Pennsylvania on a full scholarship. There he studied architecture and worked with the renowned architect and innovator, Buckminster Fuller, with whom Kuromiya traveled and co-authored several books.
Kuromiya’s earliest activism began in the early 1960s with his immersion in the black Civil Rights movement. His anti-war activism and involvement in the gay liberation movement followed.
Before his death from cancer in 2000 at only 57, Kuromiya would become one of the premier AIDS activists in the U.S. and a face of AIDS activism in Philadelphia.
At Penn, Kuromiya protested the draft and the Vietnam war and came out as gay. He said those early years in Philadelphia opened him to both activism and to living openly as a gay man. A co-founder of Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Kuromiya participated in the first “homosexual” rights action in front of Independence Hall on July 4, 1965. That same year Kuromiya marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma.
On March 13,1965, Kuromiya led a group of high school students in a march to the Alabama state capitol building in Montgomery. There were attacks on the marchers by Alabama state troopers. In a Life magazine profile, Kuromiya described the assault: “I was in the South during the spring and summer of 1965….We marched and I was clubbed down and hospitalized.”
Kuromiya said the experience illumined his perspective on oppression, asserting, “When you get treated this way, you suddenly know what it is like to be a Black in Mississippi or a peasant in Vietnam. You learn something about going through channels then, too.”
He said he also learned who he could trust: “I gave my story to an FBI agent in the hospital. He took seven pages of notes, but I remember thinking at the time it was probably just about as effective as relaying information to the ACLU via the House Un-American Activities Committee. Nothing ever came of it, at any rate.”
Kuromiya described his relationship with Dr. King as one of close confidant. For a week after the King assassination in 1968, he was a caretaker for King’s children, Martin Jr. and Dexter.
Direct actions became part of Kuromiya’s hallmark. In one extraordinary event to protest the use of napalm in the Vietnam war in 1968, Kuromiya sent out flyers saying a dog would be burned alive in front of Penn’s Van Pelt Library.
Thousands turned up to protest, only to find a message from Kuromiya: “Congratulations on your anti-napalm protest. You saved the life of a dog. Now, how about saving the lives of tens of thousands of people in Vietnam?”
Kuromiya also served as an openly gay delegate to the Black Panther’s Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention, held in Philadelphia in 1970, at which he presented a workshop on gay rights. Kuromiya would also protest at the Pentagon and engaged in the protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.
Kuromiya would say later, “The white middle-class outlook of the earlier [homophile] groups, which thought that everything in America would be fine if people only treated homosexuals better, wasn’t what we were all about… We wanted to stand with the poor, with women, with people of color, with the anti-war people, to bring the whole corrupt thing down.”
In the mid-70s, Kuromiya survived a battle with lung cancer and soon after began touring the country with Buckminster Fuller from 1978 through 1983, when Fuller died. Kuromiya collaborated on six books with Fuller. As Kuromiya told Stein, “I really believe that activism is therapeutic.”
The AIDS crisis led Kuromiya into AIDS activism. He was the founder of the Philadelphia chapter of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). In 1989, Kuromiya was diagnosed with AIDS, which intensified his activism. He repeatedly said “Information is power,” and founded the Critical Path Project, an HIV/AIDS resource organization that provided information and a 24-hour hotline for the Philadelphia gay community.
The Critical Path newsletter, one of the earliest and most comprehensive sources of HIV treatment information, was mailed to thousands of people living with HIV worldwide. Kuromiya also sent newsletters to hundreds of incarcerated individuals to insure their access to up-to-date treatment information.
Kuromiya was a pioneer of national and international AIDS research advocacy, and his loving and compassionate mentoring and care for hundreds of people living with HIV was world renowned. Kiyoshi was the editor of the ACT UP Standard of Care, the first standard of care for people living with HIV produced by PWAs (people with AIDS).
Now the use of medical marijuana has become commonplace, but in the 1990s Kuromiya literally fought the government for legalization. His lawsuit, Kuromiya v. The United States of America, came before the Supreme Court where he argued for the legalization of marijuana for medical use by people with AIDS.
Author, activist and archivist Tommi Avicolli Mecca was a close friend of Kuromiya’s. He summed up Kuromiya’s work succinctly. “Kiyoshi was a lifelong activist who saw the intersectionality of issues, co-founding Philadelphia GLF, going South on the freedom rides, marching with King in Selma, opposing the war in Vietnam and all war, and, of course, fighting against AIDS in the 80s and 90s.”
Avicolli Mecca, added that Kuromiya’s work was broad, encompassing and fundamentally queer, “Kiyoshi wasn’t about assimilating into the dominant heterosexual culture. He was about changing a system that oppresses so many people, that put profits over human needs. That will always be his legacy.”
In June 2019, Kuromiya was one of the inaugural fifty American “pioneers, trailblazers, and heroes” inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument in New York City’s Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall National Monument is the first U.S. national monument dedicated to LGBTQ rights and history.