Home People Bill Tashima: Gaining His Identity and Acceptance

Bill Tashima: Gaining His Identity and Acceptance

Bill helping raise funds for victims of the Great Tohoku Earthquake, 2011. This photo later made its way to the Nikkei Emigration Museum, Yokohama.

By Elaine Ikoma Ko
Special to The North American Post

June is LGBTQ Pride Month, when the world’s gay communities celebrate the freedom to be themselves. Pride gatherings share common ground with those of all minority groups who have struggled to overcome prejudice and be accepted for whom they are.
LGBTQ is an acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer or Questioning. These terms are used to describe a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Sometimes, there is a “+” at the end of the acronym to be more inclusive and respectful of how some individuals may identify themselves.
“Okaeri” is a gay Nikkei group, based in Los Angeles.

Bill Tashima is a beloved community volunteer in the Seattle Nikkei (Japanese ancestry) and Asian American communities, having been involved with many nonprofits and receiving awards for his service. Yet, readers know little about his life journey as a gay man, losing his partner to AIDS, and his family’s love and support that has allowed him to evolve into the wonderfully whole and healthy person he is today. This two-part series will explore his extraordinary story. Part II will be in the June 11 issue.

Bill, while many people know you, there are many who are not familiar with all your community activities. As an introduction, can you briefly talk about your activities in the Nikkei and Asian American communities in Seattle?

Bill (left) with his parents, Howard and Kiyo Tashima, older brother, Irland, with his wife, Kathy, and children David and Kara, and younger sister, Karen, 1983.

I am a community volunteer. I enjoy meeting people and helping at activities.

Volunteering in the community is a trait I inherited from my parents and runs strong in our family. And, in Seattle, we have so many worthwhile non-profit groups with great people that is it always more fun than work.

My local involvement in the local Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, began in the late 1990s when a friend, Lily Eng, convinced me to join the local Chinese Information and Service Center Board and also got me involved to form an AAPI employee group when we both worked at the Social Security Administration (SSA).

A few years later, Elaine Akagi ask me to join the Seattle Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) Board, and years later, I became Seattle JACL President. I remember as early as 1965, first meeting Elaine, who was a leader in the Detroit JACL at that time. Elaine became a lifelong friend and she devoted her life to teaching and JACL—a truly selfless person, and I laugh when I think of her car trunk which was a virtual portable JACL office. I still have trouble when I think of how fast she passed away after being diagnosed in 2012 with pancreatic cancer. It was just two weeks after the 2012 Seattle JACL National Convention, which she chaired, where she was chosen as the recipient of the JACLer of Biennium Award, and where she was elected National JACL Vice President.

As relationships would have it, another local leader, Arlene Oki, also active in JACL, recruited me for the first board of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington (JCCCW). I also served on the Board of Keiro Northwest, which provided elder care services, for about 11 years.

I am currently on the Board for the Kishu Club (Wakayama Kenjin-kai). My father’s family is from Wakayama-ken and my mother’s family is from Kanagawa-ken.

Bill’s senior-year high school yearbook photo, Garfield Heights, Ohio, 1969.

Over the years, I have had the privilege to work with truly amazing organizations. They include Densho, Asian Pacific Islander Coalition, Tsuru for Solidarity, Nikkei Community Network, Okaeri (text box), Ayame Kai, Seattle Cherry Blossom, Seattle Queens Contest, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction—administering the Kip Tokuda Civil Liberty Public Education Fund—Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund Scholarships, Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbian and Gay scholarships, Nisei Veterans Committee (NVC) and NVC Foundation, and InterIm Community Development Association’s Hirabayashi Housing Project.

I also support most of the various church fundraisers by spending money at all the bake sales!

I am proud that I first introduced a fundraiser “dessert dash” to raise funds for our JACL scholarships, which have grown so we could increase the scholarships to $3,000 apiece. Also, through JACL, I served twice as a chaperone for a group of 24 students for ten days in Japan through the Kakehashi Program, cosponsored by the Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

I received the Top Ten Community Contributors award from Northwest Asian Weekly in 2015. I received the JACL Most Valuable Player award in 2017 and they made a special bobblehead of me, which was cool!

Tell us about your early life growing up, and notably, about your early awareness of your sexuality.

My mom was from Wapato, Washington and imprisoned at Heart Mountain incarceration camp, Wyoming. My dad was from Riverside, California and was imprisoned at Poston II incarceration camp, Arizona.

There was one way to leave the incarceration camps (without volunteering for the army as a linguist or as combat infantry) and that was for you to be “sponsored” by an employer and “relocate” to the Midwest or East Coast. My mom left the camps in late 1942 and my dad in 1943. Almost 3,500 Nisei (second generation Nikkei) relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, but more than half would later return to the West Coast.

Each Japanese American (JA) faced the injustices of World War II in their own way. I often think about the independence and courage of my mom who, at age 21, left her family in Wyoming, took a train across country, and settled in a city where she would know so few people and where the general population was suspicious of all JAs.

Fortunately, the Niseis initially all lived in a small area in the inner city of Cleveland. Though they were from all parts of the West Coast, they formed a community, to help each other out and to socialize. The Nikkei community formed their own Christian church, Buddhist church, JACL, sports leagues, and more. Most Nisei were unmarried and in their early 20’s. My mom and dad met in 1946 and the rest was history. My dad was one of the first presidents for the Cleveland JACL which, in 1948, had more members than Seattle’s JACL.

Bill spent his junior year in college in Heidelberg, Germany, 1972.

Growing up in Cleveland was fun. Our family lived in predominantly Black neighborhoods until we moved to the “suburbs“ when I was in the seventh grade. The city of Garfield Heights was heavily Polish and Italian, and mostly Catholic. There were two other Sanseis in my school. One would be class valedictorian and the other would marry my older brother and become my sister-in-law.

I was active in the Boy Scouts, March of Dimes program, and even worked on political campaigns starting in the eighth grade. In high school, I was Student Council President, voted “Most Likely to Succeed,” a King’s Court attendant, and Junior Varsity Wrestling Captain. I even attended the American Legion’s Buckeye Boys State.

Following my parents’ tradition of community involvement, I became active in Junior JACL in 1964. The Junior JACL organized in parallel to the National JACL structure with our own national and district conventions. Our chapter had about 40-50 active members and since we were in the Midwest, we had district meetings three times a year stretching from St Louis and the Twin Cities, to Cleveland, Dayton, and Cincinnati, with Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit in between. These cities can be as far as 750 miles apart… a long distance to travel for a weekend in those days, especially since we drove (what young person could afford plane tickets?).

Our weekend workshops were “legendary” with no one getting any sleep. There was something exhilarating about meeting other Sanseis and realizing there were so many shared feelings and thoughts.

I went to a small liberal arts college in Ohio and majored in political science and spent my junior year in Heidelberg, Germany. When I graduated from college, I went to graduate school at Kent State University. Later, I dropped out, had odd jobs, bartended for three years, before I started my career job working for the SSA in Cleveland in the late ‘70s.

But after three years, I realized it was time for a change and requested a career transfer. In 1981, I was transferred to Seattle.

The Seattle SSA office had six other JAs working there and two of the older Nisei women, Hide Shimomura (aunt of artist Roger S.) and Miyo Kiba, took me under their wings. They alerted me to all the activities in the community and introduced me to great places like Kurumaya’s Japanese restaurant—formerly on Rainier Avenue South at  South Orcas across from the Toyo CinemaTobo’s Japanese Gifts—formerly on 12th Avenue South just south of King Street—Linc’s Fishing and Tackle—a Nisei store formerly on the southwest corner of Rainier Avenue South and King Street, and all the fabulous church fundraising bazaars.

In 1981, Hide told me about the Seattle Japanese-American reparations redress hearings, for those incarcerated during WWII. I attended the opening session and was so moved that I called my boss to take leave for the whole week so I could attend all the hearings.

Like everyone else moving to Seattle, I was into the outdoors, like hiking, backpacking, and biking.

All this life history is pretty normal. The one difference is that in growing up, I realized that I was gay.

This was not an overnight revelation. I always had a stronger bond with boys, which at first was not really sexual. I enjoyed dating girls, but this also was not really sexual. As time passed, I began thinking my feelings were all a phase and that things would change.

In the mid-1970s, Bill was a bartender for three years at a restaurant, “Samurai,” Cleveland, Ohio. Here, he is pictured with his crew; two are lifelong Sansei friends, Carol Yatsu Wyble (left) and Wayne Ikeda, 1977.

They did not. I still dated girls and I still thought that I would get married and that I could live a “normal” life. By the time I went to college, I felt like I was leading two lives and one of the lives no one could ever find out about.

As an adult, I was “out” at night but “closeted” at work.

What was it like in the ‘70s and ‘80s growing up and as you become more aware of your sexual orientation?  Tell us about this historical period when there were no real options to become openly gay.

Growing up, we were not “gay,” we were “homosexuals, fags, and queers.” It was a topic that was never discussed in my family. All outside references to homosexuals were negative. I remember watching movies where homosexuals were depicted as extremely effeminate and if there were any positive homosexual characters, usually closeted, they were either killed or committed suicide.

I remember seeing movies like the “Carpetbaggers” (1964) or “Advise and Consent” (1962), when the closeted homosexual characters committed suicide. I missed the veiled clues, that their characters were gay. I asked my mom why they killed themselves, and she said they were “different.” I asked her why they were different, and she said they just didn’t like women. She didn’t provide details. It was just that.

In those early days, there were no open role models, support groups, allies, or advocates. If you were gay, you could be subject to physical and verbal harassment, you could be fired, evicted from your apartment, and socially ostracized. There was no opportunity for open relationships and other contacts were often underground and impersonal.

Things started to change in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There was a definite correlation with the civil rights movement of the ‘60s. The change wasn’t in society; the catalyst was within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer, or “LGBTQ” community. When the drag queens fought back during a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City, in June 1969, it was the first time gays and lesbians physically fought back. It was really the shot heard ‘round the LGBTQ world.

As with other marginalized communities, it was time to stand up.

To this day, Gay Pride Parades are held each June across the world to mark the “Stonewall Uprisings.” To me, it is important to remember that this “revolution” was not the result of highly connected, well-to-do gays, who socialized over brie and chardonnay. Rather, it was from the actions of drag queens and the poorest and most marginalized sectors of the LGBTQ community. To these true activists, I say, “Okage sama de” (thanks to you).

What were the internal conflicts you struggled with? How did you manage it or how did it impact you from the standpoint of your mental health, personal self-image, and confidence?

Bill with Ken Kurata and Elaine Akagi. The two JACLers took Elaine to Teatro Zinzanni, for a needed dinner-theater respite, shortly before Elaine left for pancreatic cancer treatment in Washington DC, 2012.

I loved my parents and they raised me to be proud of my JA heritage. We went to movies that featured JA actors. I remember seeing “Go for Broke” (1951) in the 1950s and they taught me to persevere if taunted about being JA. But they also instilled the thought that somehow my actions reflected on all other JAs, so if I did something wrong, then it would be a mark against not only our family but also on others in the community.

Meanwhile, it took a while to realize that I was a homosexual. I thought it was a phase that would pass and when it did not, I thought if I refrained from contact then I wasn’t a homosexual. I was determined that no one would ever find out and if they did, then I thought in horror that I would have to end up like the characters in the movies.

There were many times I was distraught and felt like there was no future. Outwardly, I was happy, but I now realize that I used humor as a disguise. And like many young people, I used alcohol and drugs as an escape.

This was not a good road to be on and I decided to move from Cleveland and find myself. I “came out” to my close friends in Cleveland and they were incredibly supportive, and we all remain close friends even today. I hated leaving my family in Cleveland without telling them the truth, but I just wasn’t ready.

Moving to Seattle was like raising the shades and letting the sunlight in. In the 1980s, Capitol Hill was a gay mecca. I could walk around and feel welcomed. I happened across my first Gay Pride parade and it was so uplifting seeing thousands of people from all walks of life demonstrating their pride in who they were.

The most exciting place was the gay disco as I always loved to dance, and gay disco was the epitome. There was so much pure energy. The music blasting, the beat thumping, the strobe lights abounding, and pulsating waves of humanity of hundreds of men dancing for long periods of time. It was a total release of solidarity where you could be yourself among others who were just like you.

I became active with a group called SEAMEC (Seattle Municipal Elections Committee) that interviewed candidates for elective offices for their views on LGBTQ issues. For a couple of years, I sat in on almost all the interviews and had a chance to talk with candidates like Jim McDermott, Charlie Royer, and Mike Lowry, as well as newcomers at the time, such as Gary Locke, Al Sugiyama, and Ron Sims.

Again, as free as one side of my life was in Seattle, the reality was that on Monday, I returned to work and downplayed what I did on the weekend. I remained closeted to most of my co-workers.

Again, I realized that I needed to make a change. I may not have yet realized that it was going to be a positive and life-affirming change.

To be continued

Editor’s notes. The Poston camp was so large that it was subdivided into three parts, with a total population of 17,814 (Sept. 1942). The NAP covered Linc’s Tackle in “Linc’s Last Day,” May 2017.