This month marks the 20-year anniversary of the death of the prolific AIDS, anti-war, and human rights activist, Kiyoshi Kuromiya. To honor Asian and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (and Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month), we have created this tribute to his life.
Kuromiya was born at the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming on May 9, 1943, where his family was incarcerated with other Japanese Americans during World War II. Upon their release, the family moved to Ohio for a year before settling down in Monrovia, California. Kuromiya came out to his parents at the age of 10, after being caught with a 16 year old in a public park by the police and warned that he was in danger of leading a “lewd and immoral life.”
As punishment, he was sentenced to three days in juvenile hall, with an additional court order demanding that he receive hormone treatments from a glandular specialist. Though unbothered by his brief incarceration, Kuromiya remembered the treatments as “a traumatic experience, partly because I didn’t know exactly what they were doing to me at the time.” Given that Kuromiya was warned that the treatments would increase his already active sex drive, one can speculate that this infusion of “male” hormones was an early attempt at conversion therapy. In addition to increasing his sex drive and causing his voice to break soon afterwards, the incident left him with a feeling of shame and perversion.
After graduating high school, his interest in architect Lou Kahn and the Philadelphia School of Architecture led him to attend the University of Pennsylvania as a Benjamin Franklin Scholar. Kuromiya rarely attended classes, finding them “an incredible waste of time,” subpar to his high-school education. Instead, he immersed himself in creating and publishing a collegiate guidebook to greater Philadelphia’s restaurant scene—the book’s sales provided him with a substantial income—and activism, which he expressed “stemmed from my sexual orientation” and “making it possible to enjoy a full life.”
The Civil Rights, Anti-War, and (Eventually) Gay Rights Activist Is Born
His first foray into activism occurred in 1962 as a participant of the Congress of Racial Equality’s (CORE) Maryland diner sit-ins. While participating in the March on Washington in 1963, he met Martin Luther King Jr., with whom he would work closely throughout the Civil Rights Movement. On March 13, 1965—in anticipation of the march from Selma to Montgomery, in Alabama—Kuromiya, King, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and James Forman were attacked by sheriff’s deputies and their volunteer crew while leading a group of Black high-school students on a voter registration march to the state capitol building in Montgomery. The incident left Kuromiya bloodied and in need of 20 stitches to mend his head wounds. Though initially thought dead—due to the police attempts to cut off information about his condition—he was able to contact the media with assistance from a gay hospital attendant.
The following day, he confronted the county’s presiding officer, Sheriff Mac Sim Butler, alongside King, John Lewis, Foreman, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. After falsely accusing Kuromiya of attacking an officer with a knife, Butler recanted and apologized, which, according to King, “was the very first time a southern sheriff had apologized for injuring a civil rights worker.” As a sign of atonement, Butler signed a statement prepared by King and Kuromiya and “disbanded the sheriff’s volunteer posse,” a group of vigilantes on horseback associated with the White Citizens Council. The next day, President Johnson deputized Alabama’s national guard to protect the march from Selma to Montgomery.
Returning to the University of Pennsylvania, Kuromiya spread a story that the Americong (a fake group that he invented to prove a point) intended to burn a dog with napalm to protest the Vietnam War. On April 26, 1968, thousands of people appeared on campus to prevent the action. Upon arriving, they were handed leaflets that Kuromiya had created the previous evening on his personal printing press, with the message: “Congratulations, you’ve saved the life of an innocent dog. How about the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese that have been burned alive? What are you going to do about it?”
He officially came out as gay on July 4, 1965, at the first Independence Hall Annual Reminder, which organizer Frank Kameny insisted all male demonstrators attend in coat and tie, despite the heat, to show that “We aren’t monsters.” Similar demonstrations were held in New York and Washington, D.C., with the Philadelphia branch pulling in 12 activists. These events, which continued until 1969, marked the first time in recorded history that people publicly assembled to demand equal rights for homosexuals.
But he continued his activism in the anti-war and civil rights movements. On Oct. 20 and 21, 1967, Kuromiya participated in Abbie Hoffman’s organized attempt to levitate the Pentagon. Failing, Kuromiya joined a group of dissenters who collected police barricades and set them on fire. Having decided he had nothing else to learn, he departed the University of Pennsylvania in 1968 to devote himself entirely to activism. After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, he flew to Atlanta and assisted the King family during the week of the funeral by taking care of Martin III and Dexter. A few days later, he was arrested in Philadelphia by federal agents.
Kuromiya had designed and created the iconic “Fuck the Draft” poster, which depicted Bill Greenshields burning his draft card with a gleeful look upon his face at Levitate the Pentagon demonstration. Though Kuromiya used the pseudonym Dirty Linen Corporation, his provocative advertisement—“The perfect gift for Mother’s Day” and “Buy five, and we’ll send a sixth one to the mother of your choice”—would put a target on his back. On April 11, 1968, the FBI arrested and charged him in Philadelphia under U.S. Code title 18, section 1461 of the postal code, which considered the poster an obscene, indecent, and crime-inciting work.
Undeterred, Kuromiya continued to share the poster by disseminating 2,000 copies at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. While there, the Chicago police riot broke out. Though then-mayor Richard Daley described the incident as the work of “professional trouble makers,” Kuromiya and the eventual official reports (including the well-known Walker Report) described it as a night of unrestrained police violence against peaceful onlookers who just happened to be in the area and who had broken no laws, even as protestors chanted, “The whole world is watching.”
Kuromiya escaped the event mostly unscathed, though he spent the next three years fighting his “Fuck the Draft” obscenity charge. It was eventually dismissed on June 7, 1971, in the Supreme Court case, Cohen v. California, which decided that the phrase was protected under freedom of speech.
Following the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City, Kuromiya co-founded the Gay Liberation Front with Basil O’Brien after attending a Homophile Action League meeting. The GLF was one of the more radical pro-gay political organizations to launch post-Stonewall. In a sign of the group’s approach, Kuromiya wrote in the Free Press, “Homosexuals have burst their chains and abandoned their closets. We came battle-scarred and angry to topple your sexist, racist, hateful society. We came to challenge the incredible hypocrisy of your serial monogamy, your oppressive sexual role-playing, your nuclear family, your Protestant ethic, apple pie and Mother.”
Decidedly anti-war, Kuromiya described the GLF’s tactics during this time as willfully daffy. “We’d go up to a line of cops with tear gas grenades and horses and clubs. And link arms and do a can-can. Really threw them off guard.” Unlike earlier gay rights groups of that time, GLF actively recruited a wide range of diversity and expressed solidarity with the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party. At the 1970 Black Panther Party Convention in Philadelphia, Kuromiya attended, representing GLF as an openly gay delegate, where he both introduced and received support for the gay liberation struggle.
Kuromiya Joins the AIDS Movement, Then Is Himself Diagnosed
In 1974, he was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer, which he overcame in 1977 after having an upper lobectomy. A chance meeting with the acclaimed architect Buckminster Fuller resulted in the pair traveling around the world and co-writing six books together, until Fuller’s death in 1983. Once the AIDS epidemic began in the early 1980s, Kuromiya began working extensively as an AIDS activist and researcher with numerous groups, most prominently as a founding member of ACT UP’s Philadelphia chapter. Though he was not tested for HIV until 1989, Kuromiya believed that he seroconverted between 1979 and 1983, during his frequent trips to bathhouses in San Francisco and New York.
Responding to his illness, Kuromiya became self-educated to the point that he was invited to sit on numerous alternative therapy panels of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). These appointments came from his experience with medical marijuana, which he openly distributed to people living with AIDS through a medical marijuana buyers’ club called Transcendental Medication. As the lead plaintiff of a class-action lawsuit against the federal government’s prohibition of medical marijuana—Kiyoshi Kuromiya v. The United States of America—he argued marijuana provided relief against the side effects of early HIV medications and, for some people, was more effective treatment than existing medication. Though the court decided against him, he continued to operate his dispensary.
A fervent believer in empowering people with information, he founded the Critical Path newsletter, one of the first publicly available resources on HIV treatment, which he mailed to thousands of people around the world, as well as to hundreds of incarcerated individuals. Recognizing the limits of mailing information, he created one of the world’s first websites, which operated as a scrolling page with everything anyone needed to know about the latest HIV/AIDS information.
Kuromiya further developed this site into the Critical Path AIDS Project, through which he provided free internet access to people living with HIV throughout Philadelphia, while also operating a 24-hour hotline to make himself available to anyone who might need his help. According to transgender and health rights activist JD Davids, with whom he worked on this project, this was only possible because “Kiyoshi was one of those people who physiologically didn’t need to sleep.”
In addition to describing Kuromiya as intensely stubborn, Davids also credited him as instilling “in me that the importance of queer liberation is understanding not just that all people deserve equality, but that all of us bring something that can improve the rest of humanity.” Davids also provided the accompanying photo of Kuromiya hurling himself against a wall as part of his last act of civil disobedience. This action took place at the U.S. Trade Representative’s office on Oct. 6, 1999, to stop the government from threatening sanctions against countries that were putting regulatory mechanisms in place to make generic HIV medication available at a low cost. This took place nine weeks before the Nov. 30, 1999, World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, which also targeted transnational corporations, particularly pharmaceutical companies, and their push to keep generic drugs off the market at the expense of human lives.
Asked to opine on where Kuromiya would focus his energies if he were alive today, Davids immediately identified supporting an open internet and opposing FOSTA-SESTA, a law that was passed in 2018 under the guise of preventing sex trafficking by penalizing sex workers, particularly the use of the internet for marketing sexual services. Indeed, Kuromiya helped defeat an earlier iteration of that law in 1996, when he argued against the Communications Decency Act, saying, “I don’t know what ‘patently offensive’ means in terms of providing life-saving information to people with AIDS, including teenagers.” In that case, he made the point that legislators could use the CDA to prevent people from accessing information in the name of supposed morality, just as they are now under FOSTA-SESTA.
After his persecution for creating his Fuck the Draft poster, and his later struggles with getting information about HIV out to people who needed it, one can see why Kuromiya fought so hard against any form of limiting expression. There is a logical limit to this freedom for the sake of freedom, which seemed to go over Kuromiya’s head as he showed support for NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association). A number of activists with whom I spoke shared their dismay at this support. And while there was a strong debate in queer movements in the ’80s and ’90s about what position to take on NAMBLA as an organization, this revelation does complicate Kuromiya’s legacy. Jose de Marco, who worked with Kuromiya in ACT UP Philadelphia, recalled their painful conversations around the matter, even after he explained that he had been sexually abused as a child.
One can imagine that Kuromiya saw the group through the eyes of his own childhood sexual experiences, which he enjoyed, or because of his commitment to free speech. This rang true with de Marco, even in regard to race. “He was trying to tell me that there was no way that white leather S&M guys could be racist,” de Marco recalls. “I was like, ‘You’re a person of color, but you’re not Black and you’re not Brown, so you don’t get it.’ I don’t think he quite understood what it meant to worry about the police shooting you or killing you because of your skin color. I don’t think he had to deal with any of those things in the way that Black and Brown people do on a daily basis.”
It’s a complicated issue that feels impossible to reconcile with the brilliant man who was born in an internment camp, marched with MLK, and died fighting for the rights of people with HIV. De Marco acknowledged this while sharing his final memories of Kuromiya.
De Marco shared a story that he heard from JD Davids, on the final days of Kuromiya before his passing.
“When Kiyoshi went into the hospital, folks visited him every day, and even though he was sick in bed, he was still teaching people about what was going on with him,” said de Marco. “He’d say, ‘Does everyone understand? Do you have any more questions?’ That happened even on the day after his birthday, he never took a break, and then he died later that day.”
Whatever his complicated ideas, what matters is what Kuromiya did. Even on his last day, he was fighting to share his knowledge with people who needed him. If he were here today, one can easily see him busting down his former colleague Tony Fauci’s walls to demand that he go rogue against President Trump’s misinformation and mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Thinking of where society would be today if he had not died is both inspiring and devastating,” said Davids. “Devastating because we need him today, and we need everyone we lost today, yet currently we’re losing people that we’re gonna need tomorrow.”
In memory of Kiyoshi Kuromiya, let’s fight against losing any more people.