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Who Is Kiyoshi Kuromiya: He Went from A Selma Marcher to A Leading AIDS Activist in The Course of His Life!

When I started The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History in 2010, I wanted to show the history of the LGBTQ+ community in unconventional places. My favorite aspect of Pop-Up was getting to hear about people’s personal problems and triumphs as well as the work of local artists and community organizers all over the country. When I learned about these people for the first time, I was taken aback to learn that I had never heard of them before.

Scrabble champion and pioneer in LGBT rights Kiyoshi Kuromiya was one such individual. He was an AIDS activist and black power organizer as well as a writer and Buckminster Fuller’s right-hand man. A wonderful short video by Che Gossett & Luce Capco Lincoln exposed me to Kuromiya’s work when the Pop-Up Museum visited the William Way Community Center in Philadelphia, which houses the artist’s archive.

Who Is Kuromiya?

On May 9, 1943, Kuromiya was born in Hart Mountain, a WWII Japanese-American internment camp that most Americans would prefer to forget existed.

Kiyoshi-Kuromiya

When he was caught having sex with an older boy in a public park at the age of ten, he would come out. It wasn’t until 1961 when he entered the University of Pennsylvania that he truly found his calling as an anti-war activist.

Kuromiya seems to be a part of every major social movement, from Black Power to Gay Liberation. At the words of Kuromiya’s friend David Acosta, who is also an artist, writer, and curator, used to joke about how he was “like Forrest Gump,” except that he always claimed to be in the perfect place by chance. When I spoke to Acosta on the phone this fall, he said, “That was his humility coming through.” When Acosta put together an exhibition on Kuromiya’s life two years ago, it was enough to make my head spin with even a cursory list of his achievements.

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The Earliest Homosexual Rights Demonstrations.

At Independence Hall in Philadelphia in March 1965, one of the earliest homosexual rights demonstrations in the United States was held. Annual rallies dubbed “Reminder Day” saw these fearless activists return in natty suits and mod outfits.

Kay Tobin Lahusen’s photographs captured the early years. In 1966, her lover, activist Barbara Gittings, was photographed holding a banner that stated “Homosexuals should be assessed as individuals.” There’s a twenty-three-year-old Kuromiya with a suit in the backdrop of that photo.

The year before, Kuromiya and Martin Luther King, Jr. were battered as they crossed the Selma Bridge. When King was assassinated, Kuromiya stepped in to aid with the King’s children’s care during the week leading up to the burial. As part of the Yippies, Alan Ginsberg, and Abbie Hoffman, Kuromiya lent her voice to a performance art-cum-protest aimed at drawing attention to the Vietnam War in 1967 by chanting an old Aramaic chant.

He Was Covered in A Life Magazine.

He was covered in a Life Magazine article the following year, discussing his civil rights and anti-war activism. Huey P. Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was also not mentioned in the book’s summary. In 1970, Kuromiya gave a workshop on gay rights at the Panthers’ Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia after helping to create the Gay Liberation Front.

A few weeks after Newton’s famous speech on women’s and gay liberation, which said “whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about homosexuality, as well as 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,” this was the time. The friendship with Kuromiya (and his association with Jean Genet, a homosexual French writer) helped Newton grasp the intersectionality of the struggles for black, gay, and women’s liberation, according to Acosta.

AIDS Conference.

Kuromiya helped Buckminster Fuller convert his

who is kiyoshi kuromiya selma

complicated concepts into books that could be read by a general audience throughout the seventies and into the eighties, an experience that would be useful when Kuromiya became an early AIDS advocate. This periodical (and ultimately website) distributed AIDS information under the moniker “The Critical Path,” which was taken from the title of one of those books.

Kiyoshi attended practically every major AIDS conference, listening intently to the scientific panels and reporting back to his enthusiastic international audience on the latest breakthroughs and heartbreaks. A 24-hour hotline for HIV/AIDS information and referrals was set up in his flat, and he made the computers on the network available to anyone in the neighborhood who needed them.

I was amazed by how readily and fully Kuromiya identified the links between all of these liberation struggles in viewing that movie and chatting with David Acosta. He seemed to believe that freedom for everyone or freedom for no one was the ultimate goal. For the ultimate battle for his life, he used all the tactics he had learned as an activist in the fight against AIDS, a battle that continues to this day. A quote from Gossett and Lincoln:

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United States of America Kuromiya.

I’m able to discern a thread of continuity running through all of these different movements… While participating in protests at the Capitol and the White House in 1993, I was detained on two separate days. After leaving the White House, I’m riding shotgun in the back of a police vehicle as we make our way to the police station.

When one of the plastic handcuffs was too tight and was cutting off circulation, a person with AIDS in the van was afraid, so I slipped out. At the time, everyone assumed I was Harry Houdini. “No, I’m used to this,” I replied. When they’re putting them on, I know precisely where to put my hands so that I can escape out of it.” I was able to remove everyone else’s clippers by using a borrowed pair.

It was Kuromiya who, in 1999, led a Supreme Court case to establish the right of patients with AIDS-related nausea and wasting to compassionately use marijuana for medical purposes. Kuromiya vs. United States of America Kuromiya was once again only ahead of his time, since many people throughout the world today utilize medical marijuana to cure these ailments, even if they lost (and many others).

In the year 2000, at the age of 57, Kuromiya succumbed to complications caused by AIDS. However, his extraordinary, cross-cutting life continues to inspire campaigners in Philadelphia and across the country.

Marissa Figgs
I write picture books, for middle grade, and young adults, some of which have won prizes, been filmed, or become bestsellers. I've ghostwritten for Pixar and developed teen work for Alloy Entertainment. I think heartfelt writing is the finest. It doesn't have to be personal, but it must be visceral. You want them riveted from the first word, page, or sentence, no matter how painful or unpleasant, and that's my expertise.
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