As a self-proclaimed “Forrest Gump of activism,” Kiyoshi Kuromiya was present for many of the U.S. social justice movements in the ‘60s through the ‘90s, which included the Vietnam War, gay rights and the Stonewall era, the Civil Rights movement and the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Born on May 9, 1943, in a Japanese American concentration camp
in Wyoming, Kuromiya, a sansei (third-generation Japanese) activist, experienced social injustices since he was a baby. His parents were upheaved from Monrovia, Calif., to Heart Mountain Relocation Center along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans during WWII, despite also being citizens and California natives.
On the one hand, Kuromiya faced ostracization because of his race, and on the other, because of his sexual orientation. In an interview obtained by LGBTQ+ news platform Them
, the veteran activist said he knew from preadolescence that he was gay. However, since he also grew up “in [an] ultra-conservative, sex-negative atmosphere of suburban Los Angeles in the ’50s,”
he lacked the education needed to understand his identity.
That was a common occurrence throughout his life as an activist, most particularly during the HIV/AIDS epidemic
, where misinformation and few resources led many to shun those from the LGBTQ community who were thought to be carriers of the disease and terminally ill. And this is still true to this day — a 2021 article from the United Nations
, cited that in a survey of 55,000 people in 50 countries, only about half the number of people knew HIV is untransmittable from sharing a bathroom, and workplaces in Asia and the Pacific held “the lowest tolerance for working directly with people with HIV.”
The Start of His Journey
It was when Kuromiya decided to study at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in Philadelphia in 1961, solely because it was called the “City of Brotherly Love
,” did he find himself in a political awakening. He described the college as being homophobic, which drove him to lobby for human rights as well as a reckoning with where he was born and lived for three years: “behind barbed wire fences, machine gun towers, the works.”
In the ‘60s, Kuromiya was 100 feet in front of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he made his iconic “I have a dream” speech and later marched alongside him in 1965 for civil rights in the Selma to Montgomery March. He was also anti-war and protested the Vietnam War, notably organizing an event and inviting UPenn students to the burning of a dog as a protest to napalm bombings. While he hadn’t intended to do that, over 2,000 enraged students flocked to the event, where Kuromiya placed a flyer 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,”
according to Time
The activist would deploy similar tactics in protest, such as crafting a poster of a man burning a draft card with the words “F*CK THE DRAFT” under the name “Dirty Linen Corporation.” He was bludgeoned unconscious as he rallied and was arrested multiple times for his beliefs. He would help facilitate Black voter registration, was a gay delegate for the Black Panthers and lobbied for gay rights at the city hall in Philadelphia.
In the ‘80s as the HIV/AIDS epidemic started surging in the gay community, Kuromiya became a co-founder of an AIDS advocacy group called ACT UP and was the ACT UP Standard of Care’s editor. He would continue to compile information for those with the disease and to dispel misinformation. That work grew to be the first publication
for PWAs (person with AIDS) and HIV, by PWAs. He also founded the Critical Path Project and created the innovative newsletter, which was another in-depth and valuable resource for those with HIV/AIDS locally and internationally because of its meticulous and comprehensive sources on treatment, and a 24-hour hotline.
In 1989, Kuromiya himself realized that he was HIV-positive, but it didn’t stop him from continuing to fight for the destigmatization of the disease. His newsletter was what could’ve saved a countless number of people with it, according to executive director of the William Way LGBT Community Center Chris Bartlett, who met the activist in 1990.
“You didn’t have to wait for the next journal to come out in the month; you could get on the very day… the information that might be the difference between your surviving another month or not,” Bartlett said.
In 1996, the activist then went on to be a part of the triumphant lawsuit against the Communications Decency Act, whose goal was to censor what it considered “patently offensive” matters online. He contended that by continuing down that path, it could lead to the blocking of sexual information, which could be vital in slowing the spread of the disease. In 1999
, he later led the Supreme Court case Kuromiya vs. The United States of America to legalize marijuana for medical use for PWA, which wasn’t successful.
Kuromiya died on May 10, 2000, from a complication of AIDS, according to an obituary written in The New York Times
. It was a day after his birthday, and he had just turned 57.