Our Voices

Kiyoshi Kuromiya: Four lessons in Human Rights Activism

Kiyoshi Kuromiya was a prominent LGBT activist who protested the Vietnam War, marched for civil rights with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, and created one of the first websites with HIV/AIDS information. Kuromiya’s life also provides important lessons for activists on how to make a difference in the world.

  • The importance of resilience and experiences: Kiyoshi Kuromiya was born in 1943 at Heart Mountain, a Japanese-American internment camp in Wyoming. Shortly after the 1941 attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and America’s subsequent entry into World War II, more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to these internment camps – called “relocation centers” – and Kuroimya’s family was among them, even though his parents had been born in California and were American. In a 1997 interview for the Philadelphia LGBT History Project with author and history professor Marc Stein, Kuromiya said he knew he was gay from an early age. “I realized it at 7, 8, 9,” he told Stein. As a kid, he was arrested in a public park for lewd behavior and was sent to juvenile hall for three days, he told Stein, and while in court, the judge told Kuromiya and his parents the boy was “in danger of living a lewd and immoral life.” These experiences led him to start organizing, such as being part of the Congress of Racial Equality Maryland diner sit-ins. Despite these and other setbacks, Kuromiya’s experiences helped him overcome obstacles to form his identity and, eventually, shape his activism. In doing so, he intrinsically linked resilience and activism.

  • The power of togetherness, coalition and unity: Throughout his life, Kiyoshi Kuromiya established strategic coalitions to empower marginalized communities. He was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front-Philadelphia in 1969 and served as an openly gay delegate to the Black Panther Convention, which endorsed the gay liberation struggle. He fought not only for gay and lesbian rights, but for the rights of other marginalized groups. As a renowned activist whose reputation relied on working with others, he valued the importance of coming together with people who shared his values and ideals in order to carry the fight together.

  • It is not about you. It is about a just and equal world: Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a personal assistant and confidant to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was one of the few Asian Americans who went to Selma to join the fight for civil rights of Black Americans. Though it might seem that he would not be affected by the segregation Black people experienced, he understood that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” as King said. So while he was known as a LGBT activist, he fought for the rights of all marginalized people.

  • Creativity powers activism: Creativity and innovation were at the core of Kuromiya’s actions. In 1968, to protest against the use of Napalm in Vietnam, he spread the information that a dog would be burned alive during a protest. Thousands of counter-protesters turned up, only to discover a leaflet that read “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.”

Ultimately, Kuromiya’s legacy as a civil rights and LGBT activist serves as a role model for changemakers across the world. Pride Month celebrates LGBT activists like Kuromiya – which now is more important than ever with the unprecedented rise of anti-LGBT legislation in the U.S. and in other countries, including Uganda and Hungary. He strove to protect marginalized voices. His life, full of struggle and triumph, is a story of creating change and overcoming obstacles toward a goal of building a more equitable world for everyone.