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May 18, 2007
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Volume 35
Issue 20
 
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Past Out by Liz Highleyman
Who was Kiyoshi Kuromiya?
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer

The life of Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a long-time Gay rights activist who became a leader of the AIDS movement in the 1980s, illustrates the interconnections between the GLBT movement and other liberation struggles of the late 20th century.

Kuromiya was born May 9, 1943, in Heart Mountain, Wyo., a World War II internment camp for people of Japanese descent. After the war, his family settled near Los Angeles. Kuromiya - who then went by the name "Steve" - was a brilliant student. Aware of his same-sex attractions from an early age, he briefly spent time in a juvenile detention facility at age 11, after police caught him having Gay sex in a public park.

In the early 1960s, Kuromiya moved to Philadelphia to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. While a student, he wrote a popular restaurant guidebook, which earned him considerable income. But activism soon became the major focus of his life. He joined Students for a Democratic Society and worked with the Congress of Racial Equality, leading sit-ins at a segregated Maryland restaurant. After hearing Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington and meeting King soon thereafter, Kuromiya traveled to the South to do civil rights organizing. Two years later, he was beaten unconscious by deputy sheriffs at a voting rights march in Montgomery, Ala. Undeterred, Kuromiya went on to march with King in Selma, Ala., and cared for King's children after his assassination.

Kuromiya was also involved in the budding Gay rights movement. He took part in one of the first-ever Gay demonstrations, marching in a coat and tie at Independence Hall on July 4, 1965, to protest discrimination against homosexuals in the federal government and the military. Reflecting shifts in the movement, however, Kuromiya grew increasingly radical. A year after the June 1969 Stonewall riots, he co-founded the Philadelphia chapter of the Gay Liberation Front. "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," he later recalled. "We wanted to stand with the poor, with women, with people of color, with the antiwar people, to bring the whole corrupt thing down."

In 1967, Kuromiya distributed an announcement that a dog would be napalmed on the Penn campus; when 2,000 people gathered to protest, he told them he wished they were equally concerned about the people of Vietnam. He participated in the infamous demonstrations outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and was charged with obscenity for distributing a "F**k the Draft" poster he designed. Kuromiya made common cause with the Black Panthers, though he criticized the use of homophobic epithets by the likes of journalist Mumia Abu Jamal. Kuromiya was an openly Gay delegate at the Panthers' 1970 Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention, which endorsed the Gay liberation struggle.

Having devoted so much time to activism, Kuromiya never completed his undergraduate degree. In the late 1970s, after recovering from surgery to remove part of a cancerous lung, he volunteered to work with renowned architect and philosopher Buckminster Fuller. Kuromiya traveled widely with Fuller and co-authored some of his books, including Critical Path (1981), which proposed that mankind could control its destiny through technology. Kuromiya also found the time to become a nationally ranked Scrabble player and a master of Kundalini yoga.

In the late 1980s, Kuromiya devoted himself to AIDS activism, and was himself diagnosed with HIV in 1989. He co-founded some of Philadelphia's major AIDS organizations, including We the People Living with AIDS, the city's ACT UP chapter, and the Critical Path AIDS Project. Kuromiya sought to learn everything he could about the disease and to share that knowledge with others. Viewing health care as "the new civil rights battleground," he advocated for treatment access for disenfranchised people both in the United States and in developing countries. He ran a community medicine chest offering free drugs, started a medical marijuana buyers' club, participated in Food and Drug Administration meetings, and sat on a National Institutes of Health panel on alternative therapies. But, according to Julie Davids, one of the many younger activists he mentored, "No matter how many panels he served on, Kiyoshi still believed in the power of people in the streets."

Among the first activists to grasp the power of the Internet as a tool for education and organizing, Kuromiya started one of the earliest HIV/AIDS treatment websites and offered free Internet access to people with AIDS. In 1996, he was among the plaintiffs in the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the Communications Decency Act (CDA), an attempt to prohibit sexually explicit material on the Internet; the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the CDA was unconstitutional. Kuromiya, who suffered from AIDS-related wasting, was also the lead plaintiff in a 1997 lawsuit against the federal government's ban on medical marijuana.

Kuromiya died of complications related to AIDS and cancer on May 10, 2000, the day after his 57th birthday. Shortly before his death, he told a friend that he had principles he believed in all his life and that he had never deviated from them.

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
 

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