Back in 2010, I founded an organization called The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, which facilitated exhibitions on LGBTQ+ history in non-traditional venues. One of my favorite parts of Pop-Up was getting to learn about local struggles, heroes, artists, and organizers in every place we visited. These were people of such prominence, heart, talent, courage, and/or ability that I was often gobsmacked never to have heard their names before. Kiyoshi Kuromiya — AIDS activist, black power organizer, writer, right hand man to Buckminster Fuller, Scrabble champion, and gay rights pioneer — was one such person.
When the Pop-Up Museum came to the William Way Community Center in Philadelphia (which houses Kuromiya’s archive), I was introduced to his work by an incredible short film created by Che Gossett & Luce Capco Lincoln.
Kuromiya was born on May 9, 1943 in one of those places most Americans try to forget existed: the WWII Japanese-American concentration camp at Hart Mountain. He would come out around the age of ten, when he was arrested for having sex with an older boy in a public park. But it was after he landed in college at University of Pennsylvania in 1961 that his life as an activist took off. From Black Power to Gay Liberation, there seemed to be no movement that Kuromiya was not intimately — often, critically — involved in. His friend, the artist, writer, and curator David Acosta, said that Kuromiya would joke that he “was like Forrest Gump,” except that he always claimed to be in just the right place by accident. “That was his humility coming through,” Acosta told me over the phone one day this fall. Two years ago, Acosta put together an exhibition devoted to Kuromiya’s life, and even a brief list of his exploits was enough to make my head spin.
In March of 1965, one of the earliest gay rights protests in America happened at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. In natty suits and mod dresses, these courageous activists returned yearly for what became known as the “Reminder Day” protests. The early years were memorialized in photos taken by Kay Tobin Lahusen. In 1966, her photos prominently featured her lover, activist Barbara Gittings, holding a sign that read “Homosexuals should be judged as individuals.” Look in the background of that photo, and there in a suit is a not-yet-twenty-three year old Kuromiya.
The year before, Kuromiya had been beaten while walking across the bridge in Selma with Martin Luther King, Jr. He became such close friends with King’s family that when King was murdered, Kuromiya helped take care of the King children the week of the funeral.
In 1967, Kuromiya joined the Yippies, Alan Ginsberg, and Abbie Hoffman as they used an ancient Aramaic chant in an attempt to exorcise and levitate the Pentagon, a piece of performance-art-cum-protest meant to call attention to the Vietnam War.
The next year, Life Magazine profiled Kuromiya in a piece on young activists, discussing his Civil Rights and anti-War work. But it didn’t talk about his gay rights activism or his close relationship with Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party. In 1970, after helping to found the Gay Liberation Front, Kuromiya presented a workshop on gay rights at the Panther’s Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. This was just a month after Newton gave his famous speech on women’s and gay liberation, where he told his audience that “whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women (and I speak of the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups), we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion.” According to Acosta, Newton’s friendship with Kuromiya (as well as his association with queer French writer Jean Genet) helped Newton to understand the intersectional nature of the movements for black, gay, and women’s liberation.
Throughout the seventies and into the eighties, Kuromiya helped utopian scientist Buckminster Fuller translate his complex ideas into books that could be read by a popular audience, experience that would come in handy when Kuromiya became an early AIDS activist. In fact, he would use the title of one of those books — The Critical Path — as the name for his newsletter (and eventually, website) that disseminated AIDS information. At nearly every major AIDS conference, Kiyoshi would take notes on the science panels and distribute the latest breakthroughs and heartbreaks to his eager international audience. He also built a network of computers in his apartment to provide free internet access to people with HIV/AIDS, and ran a 24-hour hotline dispensing information on HIV/AIDS as well.
What struck me most about Kuromiya, in watching that video and talking to David Acosta, is how easily and fully he made the connections between all of these liberation movements. Freedom for all, or freedom for none, seemed to be his motto. And he brought every activist strategy he had to the final fight for his life, the battle against AIDS, which is still ongoing and present today. In Gossett and Lincoln’s film, he says:
I can very clearly follow that thread of continuity between these various movements… In 1993, I was arrested on consecutive days’ demonstrations at the Capitol building and at the White House... I’m in the back of the police van on the way to the police station from the White House. We were mostly people with AIDS in that van and one of the plastic handcuffs were on too tight and was cutting off circulation and this person was scared, so of course I slipped out of my handcuffs. And of course, everyone thought I was Houdini at the time. I said, “No, I’m used to this. I know exactly what positions to put my hands in as they’re putting them on, and I can get out of it.” I borrowed someone’s nail clippers and got everyone else’s off.
In 1999, Kuromiya would be the lead plaintiff in Kuromiya vs. United States of America, a Supreme Court case that tried to establish the right to compassionate medical use of marijuana to treat people with AIDS-related nausea and wasting. Although they lost, Kuromiya was once again just ahead of his time, as many patients around the world now use medical marijuana to treat these symptoms (and many others).
Kuromiya passed away in 2000 at the age of 57 from AIDS-related complications. But his incredible, intersectional life lives on as an inspiration to activists in Philadelphia and around the country.