Who was Kiyoshi Kuromiya?

Liz Highleyman | May 23, 2007

The life of Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a long-time gay rights activist, 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. 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. He joined Students for a Democratic Society and worked with the Congress of Racial Equality, leading sit-ins at a segregated Maryland restaurant. In the mid-1960s, he traveled to the South to do civil rights organizing, where he was beaten unconscious by deputy sheriffs at a voting rights march in Montgomery, Ala.

Kuromiya took part in one of the first-ever gay rights demonstrations, marching in a coat and tie at Independence Hall on July 4, 1965, to protest federal discrimination against homosexuals. Reflecting shifts in the movement, however, Kuromiya grew increasingly radical. 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. In 1970, he co-founded the Philadelphia chapter of the Gay Liberation Front and was an openly gay delegate at the Black Panthers' Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention. "We wanted to stand with the poor, with women, with people of color, with the antiwar people, to bring the whole corrupt thing down," he later recalled.

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, with whom he traveled and co-authored books. 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 We the People Living with AIDS, ACT UP/Philadelphia, 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 ran a community medicine chest, 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, Kuromiya started one of the earliest HIV/AIDS treatment websites. In 1996, he was among the plaintiffs in the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the Communications Decency Act, an attempt to prohibit sexually explicit material on the Internet. He 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. 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.

For further information:

  • Dong, Arthur. 1995. Out Rage '69 (documentary film).

  • Stein, Marc. 2000. City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972 (University of Chicago Press).

  • Tsang, Daniel. 2001. "Slicing Silence: Asian Progressives Come Out." In Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment, ed. by Steve Louie and Glenn Omatsu (UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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