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Kiyoshi Kuromiya, June 17, 1997

Kiyoshi

Kiyoshi Kuromiya.

by Marc Stein. Copyright © Marc Stein 2009. All rights reserved.

Introduction

I interviewed Kiyoshi Kuromiya in June 1997 at his home in Center City, Philadelphia. Having completed my Ph.D. dissertation on Philadelphia lesbian and gay history at the University of Pennsylvania in 1994, I moved to Maine in 1996 to take a position as a history professor, but over the next few years I returned to Philadelphia periodically to conduct additional interviews and do supplementary research while I worked on my book. I had met Kuromiya when I joined ACT UP Philadelphia in the early 1990s. I also had transcribed an interview that Tommi Avicolli Mecca did with Kuromiya in 1983; which I used for my dissertation; I hope to add an edited version of the Mecca-Kuromiya transcript to this website in the future. Kuromiya told me that he was known as Steve in his early years, but began to use Kiyoshi in 1971. Before the taped part of our interview began, he provided me with the following biographical information:

Date of Birth: 9 May 1943

Place of Birth: Heart Mountain, Wyoming

Place of Mother's Birth: Glendora, California

Mother's Occupation: Orthopedic Instrument Trainer

Place of Father's Birth: Sierra Madre, California

Father's Occupation: Produce Buyer

Race/Ethnicity: Japanese American (third generation)

Religious Background: Protestant in Youth; Atheist and Secular Humanist in Adulthood

Class Background: Middle Class

Residential History

1943-45: Heart Mountain Concentration Camp, Wyoming

1945-56: Ohio

1946-61: Monrovia, California

1961: Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada

1961-62: Men's Dormitory at 36th and Spruce, Philadelphia

1962-69: 27th Between Lombard and South, Philadelphia

1969: 2006 Lombard St., Philadelphia

Early 1970s (2-3 Years): 15th and Spruce, Philadelphia

Mid-1970s (1 Year): 21st and Locust, Philadelphia

Mid-1970s (1 Year): 22nd and Spruce, Philadelphia

1978-85: 21st and Pine, Philadelphia

1985-97: 2062 Lombard St., Philadelphia

Kuromiya died of AIDS-related complications on 10 May 2000. For further information, see his New York Times obituary on 28 May 2000 and a feature published in Au Courant on 26 April 1993.

Interview Transcript

Marc Stein Interview with Kiyoshi Kuromiya, 17 June 1997. Transcribed by Lisa Williams and Marc Stein.

MS: Maybe we could start with your years before you came to Philadelphia--being born in Heart Mountain and growing up in California. Anything you want to say that you think was relevant to your adult gay years in Philadelphia.

Billy Manbo at Heart Mountain Internment Camp

Child on fence at Heart Mountain Internment Camp, 1943. Photo: Bill T. Mambo. From Eric l. Muller, Colors of Confinement (UNC, 2012).

KK: Well I don't remember a thing about Heart Mountain, although in 1983 my mother and I visited the site of this concentration camp, which the government called a relocation center for Japanese Americans during World War Two, two-thirds of whom were American citizens. I am fascinated with that part of history and I'm sure it affected my own activism and my own attitudes toward our government, war, racial issues.

MS: Your parents were citizens too, right?

KK: My parents were citizens. My father was born in Sierra Madre, California, and my mother was born in Glendora, very near where I grew up and where we lived before we were moved overnight into the concentration camp.

MS: So how do they describe those years?

KK: They call it the camp days. And generally it's treated sort of like, "Let's not dwell on the ugly side of it." It's sort of like, "Well that's something we accepted and it was our own little thing and we don't make a big deal out of it," although a few people did and consequently reparations were paid to survivors, about two-thirds of the people who were still alive in 1992. We were given twenty thousand dollars. I got my twenty thousand dollar grant in 1992.

MS: Did you have brothers and sisters?

KK: Yes. I had a sister who was born about a year after me in Heart Mountain. And then I had a brother who was born in Monrovia, California, when I was ten years old. Now I'll go into that later maybe, but that's kind of interesting. I think it was about that time my parents figured out that I was gay and that I was not going to continue the family name.

MS: Oh, is that right?

KK: I'm sure they're disappointed now because he's, I guess, 44 years old and unmarried.

MS: And gay himself?

KK: I don't think so. He has a girlfriend, but he's not married and has no children. Although I will say this: I'm a third generation Japanese American, grew up pretty much in suburban, primarily Caucasian schools in Los Angeles suburbs. There were eight people in my extended family who were third generation. And three out of the eight are gay that I know of.

MS: Do you have any theories about that?

KK: No. There must be something special in our genes.

MS: Or special in your culture.

KK: Yeah, maybe.

MS: And I know you talked in your interview with Tommi Avicolli Mecca about some early gay experiences and early experiences of homophobia. Do you want to add anything to those or cover those again?

KK: No. But I know very early on, I was arrested in a public park with a sixteen year old. I was nine or ten at the time. And there was another incident when I was eleven. My parents, of course, were very embarrassed and shocked and thought I would grow out of it. But obviously they didn't think I would grow out of it. Or there was a possibility I wouldn't grow out of it, because ten years after our family had been completed, they had another son. I think in the early days of growing up, I realized, I guess, I was gay. Not knowing what it was, but I realized it at age seven, eight, nine. I had matured fairly early. I think by age eleven I had pubic hair. And I was the first person in my school by about two years whose voice had changed.

MS: Really?

KK: So anybody knew where I was. They could tell my voice anywhere in the school.

MS: And when you say you realized, what exactly did you realize?

KK: I guess I realized I was attracted to boys and men. I was curious because there was absolutely nothing written down about it and it certainly wasn't something that I could talk about. I would hear the usual pejorative kinds of stuff. And that would shake me up a little, but I didn't really identify with it necessarily. Easily identified with the racial stuff, being Japanese and having rocks thrown at you on your way to grade school, that kind of thing.

MS: That did happen to you?

KK: Yeah. But I think that by age nine or ten, when I was in the fourth grade, my parents had gotten me special privileges at the library so that I could go into the young adult section and the adult section and look at books at Monrovia Public Library. But it wasn't until I explored the county library, which didn't have much of a staff and couldn't watch little kids, that I discovered that I could go into the reference area, where they had a copy of Kinsey's reports, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. So sitting at the little table there, at nine or ten years old, I read through the whole book. It was rather dry, I have to say. But I knew how many orgasms during what period of life human males had. And the terms were all pretty technical. I didn't know, but I got somewhat familiar with the terms. When I was arrested in this park, I was put in juvenile hall for three days. They said, "Well gee, we've never seen a Japanese American here."

MS: Is that right?

KK: Yeah. They said, "What are you in here for?" And the word spread real fast and I got all sorts of dates. People saying, "Oh, when the lights go out, maybe we could." Well anyway, the judge or whatever he was told me and my parents that I was in danger of leading a lewd and immoral life. And so for something like three years, in every dictionary, every book, I tried to find out what lewd meant. And I didn't know how to spell it.

MS: L-U-D-E? No.

KK: Well anyway, I was told I was going to live this whatever kind of life and that somehow I was a criminal without knowing it. And it instilled this level of shame in me, so from that point on, I think there was always this aspect of misbehaving or maybe even living on the wild side or being on the wrong side of the law, which kind of perverted me. It made me sneak around and be secretive about my sex life, although I was pretty open. I was consorting in a public park with other guys.

MS: You have any encounters during those years with openly gay people, open lesbians?

KK: I would say a lot of the people I had encounters with may have been open, but this was suburban Los Angeles, 1954. They were having the HUAC [House Un-American Activities Committee) hearings in San Francisco and the Hollywood Ten were being dragged around in front of inquisitorial committees. This was not a place to be open about anything that was not mainstream.

MS: So there was no one, even looking back now, that you could look back and say, "Oh that teacher or that person?"

KK: Well I was familiar with the fact that, what's his name, at ONE magazine?

MS: Dorr Legg?

KK: No.

MS: Jim Kepner?

KK: No.

MS: Harry Hay?

KK: No. Predates that. It was '54, '55. I was aware of that. I may have seen a copy many years later. He died recently. He died within the last six months.

MS: It sounds like you're talking about Dorr Legg, but no?

KK: No, no. Well anyway, there were no publications. I think there were a few pieces of literature that I could get my hands on at the library, but there was not much in print. There were no magazines. The closest I came was in high school, in the late '50s. I subscribed, my parents thought it was relatively innocent, to the Village Voice. And I followed Jonas Mikas's column and Underground Cinema. And then I got a subscription to a publication, which came in a plain brown envelope from San Francisco, called the LCE News. It was the League for Civil Education News. The headline was just LCE News. And it wasn't until you read it that you realized it was published by the San Francisco Tavern Owners' Guild.

MS: Right.

KK: And they had a war chest to provide legal counsel for people arrested in gay bar raids. But when I was in high school, I was getting that under my parents' noses.

MS: But it sounds like all those kinds of things were at a distance, not in your everyday life.

KK: They were at a distance, because I felt rather isolated. I didn't have a car. I was in Monrovia, California, not West Hollywood or downtown Los Angeles.

MS: Right. Suburban life.

KK: Yeah, I was in the suburbs. Of course, I could take a bus or a trolley into downtown Los Angeles and probably meet people, but that wouldn't happen on a regular basis. That would be more like an adventure.

Rittenhouse Square

Rittenhouse Square, July 26, 1967. Photo: Owens for Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Urban Archives, Temple University.

MS: Well then maybe we should switch to your moving to Philadelphia.

KK: '61. September.

MS: And you came to go to Penn, is that right?

KK: I went to Penn. I was interested at that time, probably because I didn't want to make a decision about a career, and this is the same reason Buckminster Fuller says a lot of people go into architecture. It's an area for comprehensivists, people that are interested in the arts and technology and history and humanities. So I was interested in architecture, but my view of architecture had this kind of mystical cast. Almost Masonic. The idea that encoded into the architecture was more than just a place to dwell or a place to hold meetings. It was more the culture itself was encoded into the proportions and into the decor, the decorations. So I came to Philadelphia because in 1961 there was a movement happening that, at that time, they referred to as the biggest movement in architecture since the Chicago School in the 1890s. And they were mostly students of Louis Kahn, who was at the University of Pennsylvania. So I decided to go to Penn. I was one of six people in the entering class that were designated Benjamin Franklin National Scholars. So I had virtually everything paid for. I had food and entertainment allowances, two round trips to California, housing, and tuition. So it was a very large scholarship that virtually covered everything. And I felt really lucky, 'cause only six of us in the entering class of 1500 got it. So I promptly began exploring Center City. And made friends and spent a lot of time in Center City.

MS: You were living in West Philly around the campus, but you were spending a lot of time in Center City?

KK: I was living in the dormitories, but I did make friends in town.

MS: Do you remember your first encounter with gay space, gay people in Philadelphia?

KK: Very first? Yes, it was a dark alleyway encounter. It was pretty exciting, but pretty sordid, too.

MS: And this was in Center City?

KK: It was in Center City, very near City Hall, actually. And I thought, "Well it's great to be in a big city."

MS: It sounds like in addition to all the other changes, you were moving from suburbia to a big city.

KK: Yes. And of course there were some gay bars. There were the old standby's, the places that had been there since the '40s. I mean Maxine's. And I guess in those early days I used to hang out at some of those. They really weren't fun places, but I would hang out at some of the places that were not particularly gay. It's hard to tell what they were.

MS: Can you tell me some of the names? Do you remember? Or where they were?

KK: Yeah, yes. The Drury Lane on Drury Street. Maxine's, which was almost a piano bar. I guess in the '50s there were a lot of piano bars and bars that, maybe once a week, would have an entertainer in there. And they'd have a hat check lady. That kind of place. And I guess I was one of the younger people in there. It just was not a place where a lot of people would go. It wasn't like later in the '60s, the Allegro, where there'd be 1200 people on any given weekend night on three floors and it would take forty-five minutes to get up the stairway to the third floor and they were terrible fire traps. But they would get raided, too. And you felt safe up on the third floor, because by the time a raid happened, you could jump out the third floor window, break your arm, and scurry off into the darkness.

MS: For the early '60s, then, there were two places you remember? The Drury Lane and Maxine's? Any other places?

KK: Drury Lane and Maxine's. There were others that I very rarely went into. There was a place at the corner of Camac and Locust. And then by the side door there was a place called the Old Pirate Ship. I forget the name of the front bar. Let me think.

MS: I actually have some of the old gay bar guides. I don't have them here with me, but I have a list from when the bar guides started coming out and I think what you're thinking of is one of them.

KK: Yeah. Other than that, let's see.

MS: After hours clubs? Did you go to any of those?

KK: I did. In fact, by the '70s and until the late '80s, I spent a lot of time in after hours bars. As a matter of fact, it was sort of a regular habit on weekends. I would drink quite a bit. I'm not an alcoholic, but I would go out at twelve or twelve-thirty at night. Stop at a couple places and then go to the after hours clubs. And then it seemed like they would go on forever. Drury Lane, for example, on a holiday, at two a.m., when bars closed, they would lock the door, they would still serve drinks, and people would start dancing on the bar top.

MS: Now were the places that you remember, were they all male? Mostly male? Were they all white? Mostly white?

KK: I would say they were ninety percent white, ninety-five percent male. Ninety-eight percent male maybe.

MS: All the places you mentioned? Drury Lane, Maxine's?

KK: Maxine's, there would usually be a group of maybe three or four women that would be regulars. And at any given time there might be one woman in the bar. But that was it. Maxine's had a coat check lady. The hat lady. Mary the Hat Lady.

MS: Did you ever step foot, in the early '60s, into any of the lesbian bars in the city or any of the black gay bars in the city?

KK: No. Let me think. In the early '70s, I would occasionally go to a place at Broad and Spruce, which was called, I forget.

MS: I'm forgetting the name, too. The ones that were earlier were called SK's and the Ritz and Track Seven. Do those ring any bells?

KK: No. I may have been in Track Seven a couple times. I liked sleazy bars, but these were, in some cases, unpleasant. Track Seven, I guess, was called the Track Seven 'cause it was near the old bus terminal. And it was almost as sleazy as the bus terminal itself. It was not a place you would go to have fun. It was more like a borderline skid row. On the other hand, later in the '70s, I would go to JP's and Rusty's. It's gone under a number of names, near the corner of 15th and Spruce. And those were pretty sleazy bars, kind of boys and men bars. And pool tables.

MS: The Hideaway? Did you ever go to the Hideaway?

KK: Yes. Now where was the Hideaway?

MS: I'm afraid I've forgotten, too. I think that was east of Broad, on Locust, maybe?

KK: O.K. Hideaway may have been the bar in front of the Pirate Ship.

MS: Oh, I see. O.K.

KK: It might have been.

MS: I can track down which one was in front of the Pirate Ship.

KK: Now I felt, I guess, a little bit unhappy about the idea that I had to seek social life in a bar. I've never smoked cigarettes, but numerous times I've been burned by cigarettes, just walking around a bar. It's that kind of thing and I just thought, "Well gee, this place smells like stale beer and cigarette. And why would anyone go to a place like this to seek romance?" But then other people were seeking it in men's rooms.

MS: So did you find any better spaces in Philly to do that apart from the bars?

KK: The streets. I guess starting in the late '60s and through the '70s, just up the block, the Merry-Go-Round was pretty active. And actually, all of Center City was pretty active. It was quite gay and you could pretty much stop and talk to anybody and strike up a conversation and/or relationship. Well I won't call it a relationship.

MS: An acquaintanceship?

KK: It was shorter term than a relationship.

MS: What about Rittenhouse Square, Washington Square? Those places as well?

KK: Rittenhouse Square, the Love Park, or what's now called the Love Park. Well actually this predates the Municipal Services Building. So the Municipal Services Building was a plaza, but Washington Square, no.

MS: You said Love Park?

KK: Oh Love Park, meaning at City Hall.

MS: Where the love sculpture is.

KK: Yeah, yes. The Robert Indiana sculpture.

MS: And that was a cruising area for gays?

KK: Well let's just say pretty much all of Center City was fairly cruisy. But it was like any city in this country, where there was a lot of pedestrian traffic and that had a pleasant environment. Rittenhouse Square for many decades. In fact, I think in the '60s I practically lived in Rittenhouse Square. Early evening was very pleasant. People sitting around talking and there were a lot of people there.

MS: Any places you thought of outside of Center City that were gay-friendly, disproportionately gay, concentrations of gay activity, places you would think of as gay space?

KK: No.

MS: No.

KK: West Philadelphia, no. Penn campus, no. Penn campus was really very closety. Although the men's room at Houston Hall and at Logan Hall were active all through the '60s, '70s, and until they boarded them up and renovated the whole building.

MS: Put alarm bells in them and things like that.

KK: But there were things happening. I mean there were doorways under stairwells that people knew about. So it wasn't just the men's rooms. But other than that, nothing was happening at Penn.

MS: Some people have described, moving into the '60s, West Philly and Germantown/Mount Airy developing kind of lesbian areas.

KK: O.K. Now I knew that, but that was mostly through the friends I developed in the early days of gay liberation. There was Sag, who lived up in Germantown. There were other people. We would go up there to Hecate's Circle. And we would go to Bryn Mawr. It was almost a folk music environment. And there were quite a few lesbians and kind of the, well I hate to categorize people, but there were a lot of gay men who were into the folk music scene and music festival scene. And that was happening.

Annual Reminder 1965 (3)

First Annual Reminder protest at Independence Hall, July 4, 1965. Photo: Martin for Philadelphia Inquirer. Urban Archives, Temple University.

MS: Now maybe to shift gears a little bit and backtrack really to the early '60s, I know that's when you got involved with the civil rights movement and then later with the antiwar movement before, really, you got really active in the gay movement. Is that fair to say?

KK: Yes. Yes. And within those movements, I would say I was fairly closeted until 1965. Actually is that '65 or '66 when the first march at Independence Hall took place.

MS: '65.

KK: '65, yeah.

MS: It happened for five years, so the last one was '69.

KK: '65, there was a large antiwar march, 250 people. I knew every single person in that march. And I was in the march with twelve of us. In fact, I could almost name all twelve of them.

MS: At the '65 Independence Hall Annual Reminder?

KK: Yes.

MS: Or what became the Annual Reminder.

KK: Yeah, it was Clark Polak. And we met over at Trojan Book Service. Craig Rodwell, who later formed Oscar Wilde Bookstore. We were in a Falcon convertible. And we packed all the signs up, put them in the back of the convertible, and went down there. What's his name from Washington?

MS: Frank Kameny?

KK: Frank Kameny.

MS: Any women at that first one?

KK: Yes. Barbara Gittings was there? I'm not sure.

MS: Well she told me she missed the first one, I think.

KK: O.K., that's right. She wasn't there. I was trying to think, but no, she wasn't there. There were twelve of us. O.K. And I don't remember anyone else. Frank Kameny was insistent, it was very hot that day, was insistent that we not take off our coats or loosen our ties. We were wearing coats and ties because we wanted to make a good impression. The first impression, you know. We aren't monsters.

MS: Now, did you literally walk over from an antiwar demonstration? Is that what you were saying or no?

KK: No, no. I met over at Trojan Book Service and we drove over there with the picket signs. And we didn't know how many people would show up. It was small. There were twelve of us. I didn't know there was going to be an antiwar demonstration.

MS: Oh I see.

KK: So it was a pretty big coming out for me.

MS: Because they all saw you?

KK: Yeah. On the other hand, it was a pretty big coming out with that group. I mean there were other groups that knew I was gay. But people that knew me from civil rights movement, including one person, I can mention his name, Horace Godwin, who's still around, came up with his mother and his sister and thanked me. And later he came over to 27th Street to talk to me. But he was, I guess, somewhat closeted at the time.

MS: He's a Philadelphian or a Washingtonian?

KK: He's a Philadelphian. And he came over. I'm trying to think of other people that were there.

MS: There was a woman in D.C. who came up a lot. I've forgotten her name just now.

KK: I'm not sure. Possibly, and I couldn't be certain about this, but he would be at these events very regularly, Randy Wicker. But I knew some of these people. In fact, I knew Barbara Gittings from East Coast Homophile Organization meetings. I remember particularly, maybe a year earlier in '64, I think, one ECHO conference at the Barbizon Plaza on Central Park South. There were maybe twenty, maybe twenty-five, of us there.

MS: You had gone up from Philly to New York, right?

KK: Yes. I had gone up to New York to meet with them and this actually is in the videotape interview on Outrage '69, the Arthur Dong tape. I showed up there and suddenly realized--I was used to civil rights activists--and I thought, "These are the activists and they're really courageous and everything, but they were accountants and librarians." It was a little bit of a surprise. There were no flaming radicals. It was a pretty staid group of people. Very meeting-like. And very tame. And I was mostly looking for information. In fact, this activity and later the Homophile Action League in Philadelphia led me, at a meeting at the Unitarian Church at 22nd and Chestnut, to  send a note up, at this fairly large meeting of the Homophile Action League in 1969, to the front of the meeting. And the note said we were or I was considering forming a Gay Liberation Front. And if anyone was interested, they should contact me at the back of the room. And they made an announcement at the meeting. And what was surprising to me was they changed all the wording around and everything. And I thought, "Well gee, that's odd." But the fact was that Basil O'Brien had talked to them about making an announcement. Same announcement, same meeting. O.K. So that's when I first met Basil O'Brien. And that was the beginning of Gay Liberation Front in Philadelphia. And Basil died in 1985.

MS: I want to pick up on GLF, but just to stay in the '60s for a minute.

KK: O.K.

MS: The picture you just presented of ECHO, that's consistent with most of what I've seen. And yet Clark Polak seems to have been a little different from the other folks. Not nearly so respectable.

KK: I guess I was attracted because of that very fact. I was fascinated with Drum and with Trojan Book Service. Because it had a little more of the feeling that I was used to 'cause I'd been in civil rights. I had been in the sit-ins in November of 1962 on Route 40 in Maryland. We had been chased out of restaurants and bars there. And played God Bless America endlessly on the jukebox while they were refusing to serve us. And split a grilled cheese sandwich that they did serve a New York Times reporter. And I said, "Well we've been sitting here for six hours and hadn't been able to get anything. They won't throw us out because this is a Continental Trailways official stop and they would lose their license." They would lose their franchise if they threw us out, so they're just letting us sit. But we found they got some good music on the jukebox. And so God Bless America, we played it over and over. They finally unplugged the jukebox. The New York Times reporter gave me half of his grilled cheese sandwich. I broke it into little pieces and passed it down. And we were all eating these grilled cheese sandwiches. That's when the management got really angry. They were giving out free beer to all the townspeople. And it looked like it might get seriously dangerous so we left. The roads were icy. They chased us down the roads and cars were sliding all over the highway. But I was used to that, so I had the same feeling about Clark Polak and also Craig Rodwell. So the three of us met at Trojan Book Service and in I'm not sure whose car it was. Probably Clark's. It was an old early '60s Falcon convertible. And we put all the picket signs. We had many too many picket signs. But I guess through the ECHO conference, they had announced the demo. And some people from other cities had showed up.

MS: So you had positive impressions of Clark Polak. 'Cause not everyone did.

KK: O.K. Well I do in that he was doing stuff and other people weren't. And so I'm not talking about personalities. I'm sure the personalities would clash and I'm sure people thought he was a purveyor of porn and all that kind of stuff. But that didn't bother me one bit. And you probably could have said the same thing about Craig Rodwell. But Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore is pretty respectable.

MS: Was your feeling that the movement in both the Clark Polak wing and the other wing in the '60s treated lesbians well? Treated lesbians equally?

KK: I can't say that, O.K.? On the other hand, I can say that much of the leadership of the ECHO conferences was women. And I do acknowledge on the Outrage '69 interview that these people were really courageous, because there was a period of time when people that had respectable jobs could be ostracized and fired. There was a period of time when people did lose their jobs. Frank Kameny. And I was part of the movement and of course probably people didn't like me for other reasons. I thought it was absurd, Frank Kameny telling us we couldn't hold hands in the picket line. That we couldn't loosen our ties or take off coats. There were women in there. You couldn't wear slacks if you were a woman. He had made up this set of rules. It was purely for the press. It was the idea that this is the first event of its kind and we want the press to concentrate on the fact that we look and act like everybody else, not like a caricature, whatever that meant to him, of what people thought we were.

MS: What about race in the movement? Did you ever experience any kind of racial discrimination or prejudice in the homophile movement in the '60s? Did it seem pretty open?

KK: I don't think I saw any "people of color" in the early days at all. I'm trying to think. There may have been at the ECHO conferences, but they certainly weren't in a prominent place there. I'm thinking about the picket line in '65, I don't think so. But my memory could be faulty. It's been thirty-two years or something. And that's why when Gay Liberation Front was formed in 1969, we were particularly proud because we had a significant proportion of African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians. I mean we were a small group, a dozen or maybe at most two dozen people. But we had more than one Asian. Lee Claflin's mother is Japanese. We had ministers, ministers of black churches in our group. We would meet, actually we predate South Street. Some of our earliest meetings were at a place called the Gayzoo at 2nd and South.

MS: I've found traces of that, too. And yet [an anonymous oral history narrator] said something about meeting at the TLA. He thought he had helped get some space at the old TLA. 

KK: O.K. It's possible. We met wherever we could. And I can name a number of places. We met on 27th Street, we met in people's houses, we met regularly at the Gayzoo for more organized meetings. We met at the Casket Company in Powelton Village. We met at places on Gaskill Street. There were places in that South Street area, but there were no businesses. Gayzoo was one of the very first.

 

Revolutionary People's Convention, Advertisement

Advertisement for the Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, 1970. From The Black Panther, 21 August 1970.

MS: Actually, can you maybe step back a second and talk to me about how you think gay liberation differed from the movement that came before it? What was different about it?

KK: Well the racial composition. We tried to do something about gender balance, but that was never really worked out. And later we resigned ourselves to it and said perhaps it's inappropriate. We also were well-versed in these documents like Martha Shelley's "Woman-Identified Woman." And I had my own views. I don't want to define the women's movement, but it was almost the idea that gay liberation had to do with men's consciousness-raising. And the women's movement generally had to do with looking for a woman-identified woman. And these were kind of parallel consciousness-raising movements with the leadership on both sides being gay.

MS: And do you think there was a danger in that? In being separate in that way?

KK: I think in the early days of a movement, this may be quite appropriate. Because there's a level of life and death camaraderie that's got to be in there. Because we're talking about affinity groups, O.K. An affinity group, I think you have to share certain kinds of perspective. And it's easier to deal with that, I think, if you share on all levels, including gender. It would be hard for me to discuss, let's say, what it means to be a woman-identified woman. In fact I would be thrown out of the meeting if I tried to do that.

MS: But on the male side, that philosophy, which I've read a decent amount about, sounds like, in part, this was about creating some bridges between straight-identified and gay-identified men. And you, I know, talked to Tommi about how gay liberation was against the idea that gays were a minority.

KK: Yeah. It had to do with male consciousness-raising, but it's sort of putting men in touch with their feelings, whether it was sexual or on some other level. But it was certainly not a denial of sexuality. In fact, it was very sex positive in every way. But it had to do with trying to deal with the fact that people were isolated partly so that they would identify only with their sexuality. You compartmentalize the sexual part of your life because you certainly couldn't be as open about it as you might like to be. Because it would end you up in a lot of trouble. I knew that 'cause it had ended me up in jail. So it was based on personal experience, but it was also based on the social mores of the times and trying to deal with our own feelings so that we could talk about these issues. Not the sexism out there, but the sexism in here. And this continues today. My proposal for a PWA [People with AIDS] retreat that was going to deal with sexual issues and race issues was "Unity and Diversity: Mutually Exclusive?" And of course that was rejected. The idea that we can't deal with the racism out there until we can deal with it in ourselves. This is something that I guess came out of the drug culture of the mid-'60s, when people really intensely looked into their psyches and began to deal with the most primordial aspects of sex and race and being a human being versus a rock or something else. And what it meant to be self-assured about what you are, who you are, how you dealt with these issues and that you didn't hide them away. And you didn't compartmentalize them internally. So I guess we would deal with a lot of these issues. Similar kinds of consciousness-raising took place in RYM I, that's Revolutionary Youth Movement, the Weather people, and also Black Panther Party, particularly Huey Newton. So there were aspects in other movements that were also dealing with similar kinds of issues on the level of consciousness raising, where you would confront people. Or in a closed session, you would confront particular issues within yourself and in front of a group of people. And so there were tears and emotions and catharsis.

MS: And would you say that GLF tried to encourage that kind of process in all men? Or was it directed, would you say, to already radicalized men who hadn't thought so much about sexuality?

KK: Well more than in all men, although my view probably bordered on all men. Because for years a lot of the people I had sexual relations with didn't identify as being gay men.

MS: Right. Right.

KK: More than in all men, it was the idea that we don't want to put down someone who may be a repressed gay person. We don't want to put down someone because he's internalized things and they've come out in some distorted way. Gay bashing or a negative way of relating to other people.

MS: Right. But now it sounds like you didn't necessarily believe that everyone should experience same-sex desire, have the ability to experience same-sex desire. Or would you have said that?

KK: I don't think I would have said that, O.K. I don't think I would have said that in the same way that I think it might be perverse for me to have sexual relations with a woman. On the other hand, I don't think that it's perverse for me to have sexual relations with a man.

MS: Because it's somehow true to your nature? Is that it?

KK: Yeah. But I don't think everyone's in touch with their natures. So that might be something I have to deal with. On the other hand, I think there's a range, certainly not Kinsey's picture of ten percent this and ninety percent that or forty-five percent, sixty percent. I think many bisexuals are bisexuals of convenience, but I don't want to categorize or define any group of people. Even the names, I think, could be offensive.

MS: Maybe we could take up a specific case of what you're talking about, the Black Panthers and Huey Newton.

KK: O.K.

MS: Because I know some about your involvement with the Black Panther convention in Philly in 1970. And I've gotten curious about whether you think GLF, in some ways, was drawn in some erotic way to the Black Panther male leaders. And whether you think, in some way, they were drawn to GLF.

KK: Not particularly, O.K. At least that's not my experience in Philadelphia, although I think that there may be even political as well as social reasons for this being healthy. But Huey Newton, when he came out with his statements, that in a sense validated for Black Panthers a gay liberation movement, I thought, "Well, maybe Huey Newton's gay or something." But later, and this is interesting, this isn't on any tape anywhere, I was talking maybe a year ago to Edmund White, who wrote Genet, along with a lot of other books. And he had mentioned Black Panthers, so I was talking to him about Huey Newton. And he told me an interesting story that I had never heard and I don't think it's in print anywhere. But earlier that year, before Huey Newton made the statement, he was in San Francisco. This was probably the year of the Democratic Convention in Chicago, because I know Esquire had hired William Burroughs, Jean Genet, and Allen Ginsberg to write for them at the Democratic Convention in Chicago.

MS: In '68?

KK: In '68. And I know they were prominent there in Lincoln Park. Apparently that year Genet met Huey Newton in San Francisco. And it was Genet's influence that was behind Huey Newton coming out with that statement. They had spent some time together and talked.

MS: And I know Genet had published things in Black Panther newspaper before Huey Newton's letter, so that also makes sense.

KK: Yeah. So that was an interesting connection, to me anyway.

MS: Yeah, yeah. Let me ask you another really specific thing. I actually found a letter in Black Panther newspaper that cuts right into the contemporary political scene in Philadelphia. It's a letter signed by someone named Mumia, just one name, that talks about Frank Rizzo and violence against the Black Panthers before the convention. And it talks about how Rizzo had been producing perverts and faggots on the Philadelphia police force and, in his own family, in his gay son, Frank Rizzo, Jr. I'm assuming that Mumia is Mumia Abu Jamal because I don't think the Black Panther Party in Philly was that big. And I actually tried to get a question to him, to see if he wanted to say anything about that. Anyway, does this ring any bells for you? Do you remember?

KK: No, I don't remember that. I'm aware that this was a sentiment not just in Black Panther Party or Young Lords or any other group. It was pervasive, which was what we had to deal with. I remember the very first People's Fund meeting. Recently I got an award from Bread and Roses Community Fund. And I got the Sam Naton print from them for the Paul Robeson Social Justice Award. But I reminisced about the very earliest meetings when it was called the People's Fund. Gay Liberation Front was the only gay group that was applying for funds. There were twelve groups applying for funds. Only two of the groups were denied funding. We were denied making a presentation even. We came with a presentation. Forty percent of the people at the earliest People's Fund meeting were gay liberation people. The groups that were getting money, many of them we had worked with, we had supported them, we had doubled the size of the picket lines. And yet when it came down to money, we were voted out. So we were used to the idea and we assumed it was all pervasive.

MS: So when you said that this was familiar, you mean other radicals.

KK: Other radicals and other groups, welfare rights and mothers, well a number of groups, leftist groups, that were uncomfortable and even abusive in terms of gay rights issues. Gay rights issues definitely were not accepted. Although in 1969, we got a fairly good reception at McGonigle Hall at the first People's Revolutionary Constitutional Conventional.

MS: I want to ask something about the internal dynamics of the Male Homosexual Workshop at that convention. Because you delivered the statement, right, at the convention?

KK: Yes.

MS: And how were you picked? Were you one of the only Philadelphians there? Because I haven't found much documentation.

KK: I think it was partly social-political. We want someone to represent us. Well I don't know all the dynamics, but it was kind of based on social consciousness. The idea that, "Well, we have an Asian." And there were a lot of questions. We didn't have the term gay. It was the Male Homosexual Workshop. We had spent a long time at this church in Germantown, living together basically.

MS: A lot of Philadelphians or mostly people from elsewhere?

KK: People from elsewhere, but a sizable number of Philadelphians.

MS: Do you remember any of the specific people who were part of it?.

KK: I know people who would remember. Horace Godwin would remember. I'm not great at names, but I can say this: the majority of the people were people of color. We were more organized than any of the other workshops or caucuses at this meeting. I think the Prisoner Rights group may have been fairly well-organized. But most of the groups didn't have prepared statements. We said this is important. They don't know who we are, they've never heard of us, they've never heard of the movement. So we've got to set out a specific list of demands, and we were thinking this really is a Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention. And we've got to sit down, work hard, and actually think out each of these demands. And make this list of demands and present it to this group. But through the years, the gay caucuses at general leftist meetings tended to be organized, provide the entertainment, do the cooking, do the logistics, make sure that it looks good and looks professional and everything is done right. So we kind of got used to it.

MS: I know the Lesbian Workshop had a very different reception at the convention and ended up walking out. Do you have any of your own theories about why the gay men's and lesbians' experiences were so different there?

KK: No. No, but I do think that Black Panther Party is very male-dominated. Young Lords, very male-dominated. It's something that we were trying to deal with. Because we understood this whole concept of machismo and marching around with rifles and having a underground press conference in Milwaukee with fox holes and real weapons around the farm. So we were used to this, and we thought, "Well gee, let the boys have their fun." But we were just beginning to get organized, so we weren't in the position to say, "That's unfair. We can't do that to the women." Although we did do that. But I wasn't aware and maybe this happened in another venue. I wasn't aware that they walked out. Or maybe I am aware of it.

MS: I know I read something that said that the Women's Liberation and the Male Homosexual Workshop representatives urged the inclusion of the Lesbian Workshop statement and were disappointed that they weren't represented.

KK: Oh yeah, O.K.

MS: Something like that. Because there was both a Women's Liberation and a Lesbian Workshop.

KK: Oh, O.K.

MS: So that's what the documents from the time say.

KK: Yeah, yeah. There were problems. I mean there were problems in the women's movement because quite often the lesbians would split off. On the other hand, they would always leave the others behind. And it became kind of a problem. There were two groups pitted against each other. But I don't recall the details of that.

MS: Well in more general terms, in the local scene in Philly, did GLF have lesbian allies, organized in other groups or in other spaces, would you say? The lesbians in HAL

KK: Yes. It was more like we had friends who were lesbians who might participate or might show up at social things, but weren't necessarily part of the core that planned demonstrations or participated. But we're talking about several years of history and I don't remember all the details. There may be periods of time when we would have more participation than others. I wish I could be more helpful than that.

MS: Well the traces that I have of GLF as a kind of organized group pretty much end at the end of 1970. I guess after the Black Panther convention.

Gay Dealer

Cover of The Gay Dealer, October 1970.

KK: Actually I can almost put a date on it.

MS: Really?

KK: Yeah. Mid-April of 1971.

MS: And was that after a conference of some sort?

KK: Yes, it was after the Austin conference.

MS: And that's around when GAA [Gay Activists Alliance] was starting?

KK: It was also after People's Fund denied us money to continue our newspaper, the Gay Dealer.

MS: Was that what the proposal was for? For funds?

KK: Yes. It was funds to continue it, because we had one issue out.

MS: Right. I've seen that.

KK: And that issue, at the corner of Broad and Spruce, Mummer's Day Parade, we had just published it. We distributed copies to everybody. At that time that corner had 5000 gay people gathered there to watch the Mummer's Parade. And I went running out into the middle of the street with a copy of Gay Dealer, handed it to Frank Rizzo, who was walking proudly down the street. And I said, "I'd like you to have a copy of the first issue of your newest community newspaper." And he smiled, he shook my hands, he rolled it up and stuck it in his back pocket. And everybody at the intersection shouted and applauded and made cat calls.

MS: That's a great story.

KK: So we didn't have money to continue publishing. We were formerly the Plain Dealer and we discovered that the staff was gay and why hide it? And so we changed this underground newspaper into the Gay Dealer rather than the Plain Dealer. And part of our publishing money had to come from underground sources. So we got gelatin capsules and we sold a psychedelic called MMDA and that's how we funded it. That was kind of an aspect of the times.

MS: So that was to fund the first issue, the one issue that came out?

KK: That's right.

MS: That is also great.

KK: They were purple capsules. They were kind of magenta capsules. And we filled them with a powder, yeah.

MS: So then you went off to Austin and that's where you're saying GLF ended?

KK: Yes. That conference was called the Rebirth of the Dionysian Spirit and there was a lot of psychedelics, there were ceremonies. Dennis Patty conducted some of them and we participated. They would have a death and a rebirth ceremony where we, all in white face, and six people would surround the body of a seventh person. And we would massage the body and there would be sounds of the drum beating in the background and then we would bring this person back to life. And it was done in sequence. It was a rebirthing ceremony. And later I met Dennis Patty on a hillside overlooking Enterprise, Utah, in 1973 at a Rainbow Family gathering. He was about to leave and he said, "Where are the gay people?" And I said, "Oh we're camped out on the top of this hill reading the Allosphe book or something like that." And we were on the top of the hill and I brought him up there. And he was about to leave the gathering and he said, "Oh, a bunch of hippies with their camping gear. Where are the gay people?" So we climbed the top of this hill and we had a nice campsite there and we had, of course, the best food, the best entertainment. We had Lee Stone from New York, New York GLF, and some New York friends were professional singers. And we'd stand on a rock overlooking the campsite and these wonderful sounds would be echoing all over this kind of desolate desert area. And later Dennis Patty, who went by another name then, Lee Stone, and a third person, a person I don't remember, left the campsite with the idea that the real gathering was not supposed to be in Enterprise, Utah. This was this very mystical thing. The Rainbow Family gathering was really supposed to meet in Zion National Park. So we hitchhiked, no we drove to Zion. We had a car accident in Springdale, Utah, and we climbed this mountain called the Three Patriarchs. And at the top there was a sandy beach. And we spent the night there and got this tremendous energy that told us to go back to the gathering for the peyote ceremony on July 4th. We went back there. Dennis Patty, dressed in drag, led the peyote ceremony. We were part of the inner circle. There were a couple thousand people on the outside, but twelve of us on the inside. Dennis and me. And they roll up the sides of the teepee and suddenly this woman came in and started attacking and saying that these men are leading the ceremony. This is all wrong, etcetera, etcetera. And all these two thousand people say, "Go home old lady. Get out of here. We don't want you around." And of course the woman talked to Dennis Patty and me and we communicated beautifully. And of course he knew that the ceremony had to be conducted by someone who wasn't identified with a gender. And he was all dressed for it.

MS: I see.

KK: And these people are shouting, "We came 1500 miles to do some peyote. Get out of here, crazy old lady." O.K. So she left with her bag over her shoulder and went down by the lake. And this really disturbed the ceremony. The inner circle broke up, O.K.? And there was no peyote ceremony. O.K. Later we saw the old lady. Of course she had the big bag with all the peyote in it. O.K. And Dennis and I knew that she represented the spirit of Mescalito that had arrived to honor the ceremony. But nobody else recognized that. O.K. So I ran into Dennis under a completely different context a couple of years later. But Dennis did the ceremonies. He's what I would call an authentic shaman.

MS: But at the later event, did you get the peyote?

KK: Oh, we did, we did, We had the peyote that we had for the ceremony. But she had her own big stash. She wasn't official.  On the other hand, the people really mistreated her.

MS: All right, well then back to Austin.

KK: Back to Austin, Texas. Various things happened there, things like us crying on each other's shoulders outside the meeting, saying, "Well here's this other force here that really is very insensitive about gender issues."

MS: What do you mean by gender issues?

KK: O.K. It was the clash, basically, between Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance, where women were really unwelcome, basically. In Philadelphia, I'd been thrown out of meetings. And I go over this in the Outrage '69 tape.

MS: Thrown out of GAA meetings?

KK: GAA meetings. Bringing up issues of racism and sexism. They'd say, "Go away. You're interrupting the meeting." And New York had similar experiences. And there are many GAA people still around in New York and we've discussed this. And of course they were on a campaign to get PBS not to run Outrage '69 because it didn't paint a pretty picture of GAA. In fact, one of the people on the tape says, "This was the dirty little secret of GAA."

MS: And this is the one that's been released?

KK: Yes.

MS: Because I actually haven't seen it yet. But it's the four-part series?

KK: It's the four-part series, yes. It's Arthur Dong's documentary..

MS: Yeah. Well, he took it over, actually. It was originally going to be done by a group of people, including a friend of mine who's a filmmaker.

KK: Yes, and I think I did a tape for the earlier version, too.

MS: Oh I see. I actually think I told this friend of mine, she's a Rutgers film studies person, about you when they were going to focus on Philly.

KK: Well anyway, they were calling up PBS stations, trying to get it banned. Because it painted this awful picture about sexism. But they had women who were in GAA who openly said, "Yes, I was the token woman. They made me vice president even though I was the only woman in the organization." So these kinds of issues would come up and the group would take the wrong position. Well I'll call it the wrong position.

MS: Right.

KK: They were taking a very insensitive position, so we would be outside of the building, crying on each other's shoulder. It was a radical fringe of Gay Liberation Front also. It was people like Charlie Shively from Boston.

MS: Yeah I know Charlie.

KK: People from Seattle. Myself and Basil. [Jim Fouratt was] sort of on the borderline. Although he took radical positions, in other areas he was conservative. He was his own person. He was a close ally of Martha Shelley: Jim Fouratt. Of course, Jim Fouratt left the conference heading north in Texas with a lot of gay lib literature in the backseat and a marijuana roach in his ashtray. He was stopped, arrested, and spent a year in a Texas prison. But a lot of us, I guess, did we drive? Or we hitchhiked, I guess, north. Of course we always had a place to stay. In Chicago, we'd stay at the Chicago Theological Seminary. They had gay liberation posters up along all the corridors. We knew we were welcome. We stopped in Minnesota and then I went to New York and then back to Philadelphia. 

MS: But there was a feeling that gay liberation as a movement was in a struggle?

KK: No. It was more the feeling, it was more a positive, conscious decision, the idea that we were not into political structures, patriarchal structures that perpetuate themselves. That basically our concern was consciousness-raising. We would be Gay Liberation Front, whatever we were doing. We didn't need any organization. That these organized meetings and things like that were a little not to our taste. That we had experienced this and it was now time to do two things: go out into the world and go underground. But not really go underground. It was just kind of consciously disband without any regrets, without the feeling that there was a struggle that we had lost or that something that happened and we couldn't do it or be part of it. It was more the idea that, yeah, this was great.

Kiyoshi Kuromiya and friend, 1970.

Kiyoshi Kuromiya and unidentified friend, 1970. The Gay Dealer, 1970, 16. GLBT Archives, Philadelphia.

MS: So you continued in a sense doing gay liberation work after GLF?

KK: Well sure. Soon after that I formed Gay Coffee Hour, which was the first gay organization on the Penn campus. We got university funding from the student government and we met in Houston Hall, six o'clock every Wednesday. I would take on a bus from 27th Street a coffee urn, a thirty-two cup coffee urn, and a bag of donuts and Kool-Aid or something like that. And we averaged sixty people every Wednesday night for several years. The idea was it was all ages. It had a fairly good balance. It was maybe one-quarter to one-third women and two-thirds to three-quarters men, depending.

MS: And mixed race, too?

KK: Mixed race, not quite as much as Gay Liberation Front, but definitely mixed race.

MS: And it sounds like mostly not students, so mixed age?

KK: Mostly non-students. The whole idea was that I had also worked, actually, with Ira on Free University at University of Pennsylvania, with the idea that we were freeing up unused rooms on the campus for the community. This two hundred million dollar building campaign on the University of Pennsylvania campus wasn't benefitting the community. And so we created Free University with 200 students. It was an SDS project. A hundred courses and about two to three thousand students. It was the second oldest and second largest free university in the country. So we were real used to freeing up campus space and rooms at that time. And the idea was that this was going to be all ages, no smoking or alcohol, an alternative to the gay bar scene, and particularly to help the fact that there were a lot of students, a lot of young people, a lot of old people, a lot of people who did not like or appreciate the bar scene and needed to socialize.

MS: So would you say the purpose was socializing and consciousness-raising?

KK: Well let's say it was a very political thing, but no politics. The political act was basically taking over a university building for gay people. And allowing us to do whatever we wanted with that space at that set time every week and invite everybody. So in a sense that was an offshoot of Gay Liberation Front.

MS: I see. I see. And would you say there were any other spaces gays took over in the city, a again, apart from Center City?

KK: Well let me say this. Once I left the Gay Coffee Hour for other things, the very first act of the second official gay organization at Penn was to move it out of Houston Hall over to the Christian Association, which I thought was absurd, counterproductive, and everything else in the book.

MS: You felt that because it's a less open, less public space?

KK: Because it was moving it off campus in a sense.

MS: I see.

KK: And that was a victory for us, to be able to use the oldest student union building in the country for gay activities. And to say, "No, we'll go to Christian Association." That's off campus.

MS: Do you remember when that shift happened? Did you start the Gay Coffee Hour in '72?

KK: '72 to '75? Something like that. I don't know the dates. The '70s were kind of a fog. A lot of drug use in the '60s and early '70s, so I don't remember all these dates.

MS: But I take it that you weren't involved with the fight for the gay rights bill in City Council in the 1970s?

KK: No. That was not particularly my thing. Although I'm going back on a lot of that now, with the politics of AIDS. Actually, for life and death reasons, I have to participate in City Council and Congress and FDA and state government and all of that. But at the time, it was sort of an abhorrence of politics generally, the idea that politics was inherently patriarchal, male-dominated, anti-social, anti-gay, anti-women.

MS: I've assumed, actually, that that's what explains the difference between how you talk about working within the system then and doing AIDS activism within the system now.

KK: Yeah.

MS: And so I've assumed that it was what you just said. That this is life and death and there's no time.

KK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And we've accomplished a lot. For example, it took ten years to get a drug through the FDA. We took ladders to the FDA building for the Merck protease inhibitor. And I was the only PWA that sat on the panel that recommended that the FDA approve the Merck protease inhibitor Prixovan. And there are something like two hundred thousand people using it now. We got it through the FDA in forty-two days. So when I talk about life and death issues, I'm talking about myself, my own life, and a lot of other people's lives. Because expanded access programs, accelerated approval, etcetera, those program have saved a lot of lives.

MS: Some people have said that AIDS activism is where lesbians and gay men have come together, working together more than ever before. Do you think that's true?

KK: In some ways, in some ways not. I think there are other areas where lesbians and gays have sort of come together. And one is on the internet. We host on our web page, Critical Paths web page I mean, a whole wide range and mix of groups, including maybe ten lesbian groups, ten specifically gay groups, transgender groups, youth groups for fourteen to seventeen, youth groups for seventeen to twenty, groups that deal with religion and gays, groups that deal with schools and gays, parents and friends of lesbians and gays, campaigns against Chrysler, other specific campaigns. So in a sense, on the internet I see a coming together in cyberspace of lesbians and gays. I also see that in gay pride parades and I think that lesbians have had a prominent role all along in AIDS activities. I would say in some ways yes, but there are other venues where this has been the case. I think the bar scene has been a detriment to gender parity.

MS: Is that right?

KK: Yes. I think on the whole a lot of lesbians have been very unhappy with lesbian bars. I think there are other issues. But I do think you could just go through lists of web pages that we host on our system and there are a whole lot of specifically lesbian and gay groups coming together.

MS: Well to go from the cyberspatial to the real local spatial, maybe this will be my last question and then I want to see if there's anything else that you want to say that I haven't asked about, I'm wondering about your thoughts about Philadelphia as a place. Because you said, early on, this wonderfully Philadelphia proud statement, about how you really like Philadelphia and you're happy to have been here all the years that you've been here. But I wonder if you could say a little bit about what you see as the distinctive qualities of Philadelphia in a general sense and in terms of gay life. And what is it about Philadelphia that you like?

KK: Well I guess, not to reminisce, during the '60s and '70s there was a lot of gay street life in Philadelphia. In its own way, it was kind of an East Coast San Francisco. It did not to me have some of the depressing aspects of Greenwich Village or Boston Common or Dupont Circle. To me, it was a village. I think there were a lot of gay businesses. At one point there were thirty or forty gay bars in Center City. A lot of them have disappeared and a lot of the street life has disappeared, but I do think that that could happen again. I don't think it is now what it used to be. On the other hand, any given block west of Broad Street you're as likely as not to see a rainbow flag hanging from someone's apartment window.

MS: And you say west of Broad because that's where you live or because it's less true east of Broad?

KK: It's because it's where I live. I guess some people may be attracted to east of Broad and that's where all the gay activities now are centered, aren't they? I wouldn't particularly want to live east of Broad.

MS: I have to say I'm with you. I love this part of Center City more than the other.

KK: Yeah. You know, it's nice to visit, but I wouldn't want to live over there. I certainly go to enough meetings so it would certainly be a lot more convenient for me to be on other side of Broad Street, but no, I love this area. I think Rittenhouse Square is one of the best used urban spaces in America. I think that it has perhaps the best balance of mixed-use neighborhoods of any large East Coast city.  And you can walk anywhere you need to get to in Center City. I'm also used to and I love Los Angeles also. And a lot of people, to get their mail from their mailbox, drive. To go to the corner store, you drive. It's just not very civilized to walk anywhere in Los Angeles.

MS: But there are different things you like about California?

KK: Different things, yeah.

MS: But it sounds like you also think Philly's not what it used to be in terms of gay life?

KK: Well I'm sure there's more gay life than ever. But in many ways in the '60s and '70s, Philadelphia, in this part of town, west of Broad Street, was more bold, flagrant, in your face. And I think part of this is the fact that one thing that has kind of put a damper on a lot of that is AIDS. I know when not only have half your clients at a gay bar died, but half your bartenders and two-thirds of your bars are closed, well then that puts kind of a damper on the idea of schmoozing on a street corner and decorating yourself every Halloween and making a nuisance of yourself in terms of the general public. I know Halloween used to be a real event, every bit as exciting as Halloween is in West Hollywood or in New Orleans on Bourbon Street. And certainly never as depressing as Halloween in the Castro, where they herd people inside cyclone fencing, check you with metal detectors, and you're packed in like cattle into a neighborhood.

MS: What did you do on Halloween here?

KK: Oh, well people would dress up or not, do outrageous impromptu parades in cars and convertibles. People would ride around on the hoods of cars and walk down the street kissing strangers. That doesn't happen anymore.

MS: I know there used to actually be a drag parade but it ended right before you got to Philadelphia.

KK: Well some of that was happening when I was here. Yeah, they had drag parades and informal drag parades. And now it's more parties. You pay your money and you get a show. But it was a lot more out on the street. And Mummer's Parade was also much more gay. You'd be hard pressed to find a large gathering of gay people watching the Mummer's Parade together anymore. It used to be five to ten thousand people, like clockwork, who would show up between Pine and Broad and Locust and Broad.

MS: Is that right?

KK: And we would be there, waving and yelling and shouting and carrying on. And people that knew people who were in drag or in white face or in costume, you didn't know who it was, would recognize someone, come running out from the line of march and kiss somebody. And you couldn't quite tell whether they knew the person or were just pretending to know the person.

MS: Was that through the '60s and early '70s, would you say?

KK: Yeah, I would say that was through the '70s.

MS: '60s as well?

KK: Yeah, through the '60s and through the '70s. It's high point was perhaps late '60s, early '70s. But it was even to the point where on Broad Street they would have, in lights, a Christmas tree at Broad and Spruce. And the decorator would purposely or accidentally leave one string of lights so you'd have this and this, a huge lambda right at Broad and Spruce. And that kind of thing was pretty regular. And of course we would see it and we'd cheer. And of course there was constant traffic. Any weekend night there was the Allegro and the Mystique and the Steps and Westbury and Rusty's, J.P.'s, and just a constant flow of people. And you knew that there were 5000 gay people in that two block area on a weekend night. And there were lines of a hundred people waiting to get in the Allegro on Mummer's Day. So that was happening then. I think now, a little tamer, but nice in its own way. A comfortable place to live.

MS: Well I've been asking everybody what they remember about the Bicentennial, so I want to make sure I ask you that as well.

Kiyoshi Kuromiya at a 1960s Antiwar Rally at Penn.

Kiyoshi Kuromiya (front row, right) at a University of Pennsylvania antiwar rally in the 1960s. Photo: Robert Brand.

KK: O.K., the Bicentennial. Basil O'Brien, Bruce Hamilton, and Horace Godwin and myself--Horace was called Dushan at that period of time--had gotten a room at the Warwick Hotel and were having a party and some of the hotel staff smelled marijuana. So we were thrown out of the hotel. We escaped by going down the stairwell and got a much better room at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel. It was pouring rain, but both Basil and I wanted to watch them move the Liberty Bell. So we took off, soaked all the way to the skin. We took off to Independence Hall.

MS: Was this January 1st, moving the bell? Or was that July 4th?

KK: That has to be January. I'm not sure. Oh, July 4th. But then, I'm trying to think, it's a little unclear. Because if it was January 1st, how did we get a room at the Bellevue Stratford? No. It's got to be July 4th. July 4th.

MS: July 4th was when there was a big counter-demonstration, multiple-issue, at Fairmont Park and a march through the city.

KK: Oh I don't remember that.

MS: O.K.

KK: I don't remember that.

MS: But there also was the moving of the Liberty Bell.

KK: I know that we were in town having a party. And Basil and I wanted to go. Other people wanted to stay warm and dry. And we went over and we watched them move the Liberty Bell. Other than that, I can tell you in great detail everything that happened that month, but I'm sure you don't want to know.

MS: You mean around the Bicentennial?

KK: Yeah that month, July.

MS: Well what sorts of things are you referring to?

KK: I know later that month I spent five days at a conference for which I wasn't registered, a SAM conference, Society of American Magicians, at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel. I was there every day except Friday, July 17th, which was the one day when everybody that got Legionnaire's Disease. I was in Atlantic City that day. I remember that they didn't announce Legionnaire's Disease 'til August 1st. The cover of TIME magazine was this huge picture of this enormous bug and it said the bugs are coming. That was a coincidence, though. But yeah, I was in there. I had been doing research on plagues and was very interested in that. So I had all the details. I had been doing research. We'd gotten German biological warfare research off the Penn campus. When was that? Several years earlier. Actually eight years earlier. And I think actually the research moved one block away. That was the beginnings of University City Science Center.

MS: Oh right. Right. Right, yeah.

KK: Well anyway, I knew, and no one else did and it certainly wasn't in the papers, that the American Legion had met in 1926 in the Bellevue Stratford. And the big order of business on that day was to, along with the American Chemical Society, urge the U.S. Senate not to ratify the Geneva accords banning chemical and biological warfare. They won. The United States was one of two countries that didn't ratify that ban on chemical and biological warfare, you see. So maybe it's karma, maybe it's cycles or something, but fifty years later, the American Legion's meeting in that same hotel and is struck with Legionairre's Disease. I had nothing to do with it. I just happened to be in that hotel that whole week because I was interested in magic. I even have the souvenir brochure from the conference.

MS: And you said it was a magician's conference?

KK: It was a magician's conference. So I was in that hotel more than once that month.

MS: I see. Wow. I just realized that, when you mentioned what you were just talking about, that I'm not sure I have a good list of the highlights of your student, antiwar, civil rights activism in the '60s.

KK: O.K., let me go through it real quickly then. In '62, I worked with CORE on the sit-ins in Maryland. And Horace Godwin participated in those, too, and he's still a close friend. And there were a lot of other things. The very first antiwar demonstration, it was me and a Columbia student picketing over a snowy Christmas, snowy blizzard, for two days after fasting for two days. We were staying with Quakers at the Peace Action Center in Washington. This was also Christmas of '62, the Grinnell Support Against the Resumption of Nuclear Testing. In '63, I flew with Hollywood entertainers in a chartered plane from Burbank Airport to Washington for the March on Washington. I sat next to Mark Crawford, who was foreign editor of Ebony magazine. All the bars were closed in Washington that day and so we went to all the black clubs. So I was in all the black clubs, hearing the talk on the day of the March on Washington. I stood maybe a hundred, hundred and twenty feet in front of King when he made the "I Have a Dream" speech. That night, Mark Crawford and I went over to, and I don't think he's gay, but he might be, I don't know, the Willard Hotel to meet James Baldwin and Lucien. And in the lobby was the first time I met Martin Luther King and Reverend Abernathy, that night after he made his great speech. We didn't know how great, although I mean we felt it. It was an impressive speech. On the other hand, so much was happening. It seemed like the largest march ever. I mean in retrospect. I've been to marches that had five, ten times as many people, supposedly. You know a million people, rather than a hundred thousand. But that seemed huge. Just oceans of people. Well anyway, that was in '63. In '65, we took over Independence Hall. They called it Freedom Hotel in support of people injured at the Pettus Bridge incident in Selma. Later in the week, SNCC, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, made a call. They needed some people to help get media there and to help protect a group of high school students. So three of us wanted to go down. But there was no way we could get there by commercial plane, so we needed to raise some money for a chartered plane. There was a jazz concert at Academy of Music. Duke Ellington. And according to Martin Luther King later on, Duke Ellington had never given to the civil rights movement. He gave us a hundred dollars that started it off. Sloppy White put us on stage, they passed the hat, we got seventeen hundred dollars and within two hours we were at Coatsville Airport, chartering a six passenger plane and the pilot. We went down in this little plane. I sat in the co-pilot seat. Went down to Montgomery. And a couple days later, I was leading a group of black high school students on the state capital building in Montgomery. And I was surrounded by the sheriff's volunteer posse. They were specifically going after me. They cornered me against the wall and clubbed me on the head. I had twenty stitches down my head. They carted me off. The last thing people saw was me with a blood-soaked shirt down to my waist. They dumped me on the back floor of the police car, took me to St. Margaret's hospital. And then there were three cordons of police around the hospital. They weren't letting out any information, so there was a big rally with ten thousand nuns and priests that were in Selma that rushed over to Montgomery. And minutes before I was clubbed down, I saw Jim Forman, who was smart, wearing a helmet. I saw his helmet go flying. Someone hit his head hard enough so that the helmet just went flying right in front of my face. Well, Jim Forman and Martin Luther King said they're not letting out any information. We hope he's O.K. We suspect he might be dead. In the hospital, the doctors wanted to throw me out, but there was a male nurse there from Long Beach, California. I don't know his name, but he was gay and he held my hand. And when the doctors weren't looking, he gave me a list of media that were trying to call me. And he wheeled me on a gurney out to the hallway, and I made all these media calls, told my parents I'm alive. They had a camera crew in the living room at the time.

MS: Wow.

KK: Well anyway, the next day we confronted Sheriff Butler in Montgomery. Later a suit was filed against George Wallace, Earl James, the mayor of Montgomery, E. W. Croslin, who was circuit solicitor, Sheriff Butler, Al Lingo, head of the state troopers, and the members of the sheriff's volunteer posse, which is the same as White Citizens Council or K.K.K. It was a group of vigilantes on horseback with not just weapons but things like chains and canes and things. Well anyway, he accused me of going after him with a knife and brought a pair of pants with a slice down it and said we have videotapes. That's not true. Then he apologized and we got a statement out of him which was drafted by King and myself. And King said, "This is the very first time a southern sheriff had apologized for injuring a civil rights worker." Well anyway, the following day, President Johnson federalized the Alabama State National Guard to protect the Selma to Montgomery March. Well anyway, to move on real quickly, in 1966 Norman Mailer wrote extensively about the armies of the night, the groups that went after the Pentagon building. Our idea was that we were going to join hands around the Pentagon building and get it to levitate. If it levitated even one inch off the ground, this would signal the beginning of the Aquarian Age. But we couldn't get all the way around 'cause you have Fort Hood on the back side of the Pentagon building. So instead we took all the police barricades and made big bonfires all around the Pentagon building. You could see the Capitol dome in the distance and the Washington Monument across the river in the distance and all this smoke from these bonfires. And it looked like the War of 1812. It looked like Washington under siege. Five of us Philadelphians were the only people that actually made it inside the Pentagon building. We burst through one of the doors through a crack in the ring of soldiers that they had protecting the building. And inside the corridors were all lined with troops. And so we left very quickly. That was '66, '68.

MS: And you were doing local things at Penn too?

KK: A notice showed up, a leaflet showed up, signed by the Americong that, in protest of the horrors of using napalm on humans, there was going to be a demonstration in front of the library at Penn. An innocent dog would be burned with napalm, showing what a awful thing napalm was, O.K.? So, of course, the mayor, the police chief, everybody said whoever was perpetrating this would spend a long time in jail, etcetera. The day showed up and at noontime there were four ambulances from four different veterinary schools there. People, as a lark, brought their pet dogs. There were a lot of dogs. There were 2000 people. It was the largest antiwar demonstration in the history of the University of Pennsylvania. I had four friends of mine. I had a printing press in my basement and I was a publisher at the time. So out of the crowd, leaflets showed up.

MS: So had you helped organize or had you organized this demonstration?

KK: No one else knew. This had to be very secure.

MS: But that demonstration, the napalm of the dog, that was your idea?

KK: That's right. Yes. And I handed out these leaflets, Americong, you know, was a fiction. There was no group. But the leaflets showed up at this big rally and it said, "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? I was also told by Gaylord Harnwell at the time that I was persona non grata on campus because I had blocked the door of the Dow Chemical Company recruiter, who was recruiting people to develop these weapons. I blocked his door and I was told I was persona non grata on campus. And Daily Pennsylvanian published the letter on the front page of the next day and he withdrew it on advice of his lawyers. And then a couple years later, I published, under the name Dirty Linen Corporation, these Fuck the Draft posters with a guy burning a draft card and it said in huge letters, "Fuck the draft." The guy was someone from Detroit who was doing prison time for burning his draft card. I was arrested at home by federal marshals and Secret Service for using U.S. mails for a crime of inciting with lewd and indecent materials. I had run an ad that said, "Buy five and we'll send a sixth one to the mother of your choice." And I listed a number of places, including the White House. So I was kept at the FBI headquarters here. They couldn't hold people overnight so they took me in chains down Chestnut Street with four guys watching me, down to the Round House and I was held there. Anyway, I took these posters to the Democratic Convention in Chicago. And everybody was told to stay away. This was going to be very dangerous. But I went anyway. I rented a car to haul these posters around. And I had a coat and tie on so I could move easily in and out of the hotels and the various delegations and caucus meetings at the convention. So I was the only one in Yippie Park, Lincoln Park, in a coat and tie. But I handed out the posters, 2000 of them, at the amphitheater, just minutes before the riot where someone tried to lower the American flag. People, to protect themselves, took the park benches and made a barricade, but a lot of people's heads were bloodied and a lot of that's on film. But then later, you couldn't get over to Grant Park. I mean, you couldn't get across. You had to go all the way into near Northside and they had blocked the pedestrian bridges into the Loop. So I had a car, so I was ferrying people back and forth into the Loop. This was on Wednesday. The previous night I was almost hit by a tear gas grenade. Rennie Davis was hit and had his skull fractured. We had a big wooden cross and we were doing a religious ceremony on the Tuesday night. Wednesday night I was at the Conrad Hilton. It was just very crowded. Conrad Hilton Hotel was surrounded by machine guns on tripods. I don't know who they were going to kill, but they had these jeeps that were outfitted with barbed wire frameworks. And they were crowd movers. They would line up jeeps and it would be like a moving barbed wire fence. First they went after the camera crews of the T.V. crews. They were standing on the tops of the vans. And they would knock the camera equipment down and club the camera crews. They also went after delegates. They broke through the plate glass window at the corner bar at Conrad Hilton. They were chasing people inside the Conrad Hilton Hotel. In the meantime, someone must have dribbled utiric acid on the carpets in the Conrad Hilton Hotel. So we couldn't eat in any of the restaurants. They were stink bombs, basically. And it smelled terrible. People would walk in the hotel and look at the bottoms of their shoes. But police followed people up the elevators, up to, well, the various floors of the hotel. So the Democratic Convention in Chicago was really a nightmare. It changed the course of that election.

MS: Right.

KK: Let's see, during this period of time there were a lot of things. Underground press was having conferences. I described the conference near Milwaukee, where we actually had foxholes, had people armed with weapons, protecting the conference.

MS: And in Philly, did that include Distant Drummer, the Free Press, and Plain Dealer?

KK: Not Distant Drummer.

MS: And Yerostocks?

KK: Philadelphia Free Press. We were about to publish a gay paper in Philadelphia, but right when Yerostocks, I think, was in formation, we had a meeting in my living room. We decided we would wait. We also decided to wait when Don DeMaio came in from Pittsburgh and had his own project. We weren't into competing with any other community efforts.

MS: It seems like for a brief period there were multiple alternative papers here.

KK: Yes. The underground press was, to me, primarily Plain Dealer. Philadelphia Free Press, I don't remember all the details. Was that Temple people?

MS: That was the one that Rizzo then went after. There was a Temple Free Press, too, but that's separate.

KK: O.K. Philadelphia Free Press. O.K., sure. I know that Temple Free Press, they were old communists, old W. E. B Dubois Club people, including Jim Quinn, who were doing this. Jim Quinn became a food critic for and restaurant reviewer for Philadelphia Inquirer and later for Washington Post. And I gave him his first job with Collegiate Guide as a restaurant reviewer.

MS: Is that right?

KK: Yeah, back in '68. Let's see, I'm not sure about Philadelphia Free Press.

MS: O.K.

KK: I was very familiar and I'm just trying to separate it out.

MS: I have a microfilm of underground newspapers, but not every issue. And I pretty systematically went through Drummer, the Free Press, and the Plain Dealer as much as I could. In fact, I think you had stories in the Free Press.

KK: Oh yeah. Or maybe Temple Free Press. One of those papers, it may be Philadelphia Free Press, had this double-page spread, maybe six columns, a long story after Martin Luther King's funeral--I was in Atlanta--describing going over Washington. Washington was all burning. There was a bomb scare. We had to land in Washington. They went through all my luggage on the airplane ramp. We went to Atlanta. Department stores, you could see armed guards marching with automatic weapons inside the doorways. I took care of Dexter and Marty Junior--Dexter was seven and Marty Junior was nine at the time--at the King house during the week, just during the week of the funeral, just after the assassination. And so it described the details of what was happening that week. I'm not sure if that's the article you're referring to.

MS: That's not the one I'm thinking of. Were there any other major actions or demonstrations that you were involved with in the '60s before your GLF years. And then also, as I said, if there's anything else that you want to talk about that I didn't ask about.

KK: O.K., well you reminded me of one thing. Currently I'm a medical marijuana activist. I operate a cannabis buyer's club here. I have maybe forty clients, including not only persons with AIDS wasting syndrome, but three clients with multiple sclerosis, two with reflex ampithetic dystrophy. No available medications help them with their conditions and the marijuana helps very well. One person with recent brain surgery that has constant headaches can't sleep and this helps him also. I have about forty clients. But the first smoke-in in Philadelphia was called Alice's unbirthday party. It took place in the park behind Independence Hall. The night before, a number of people, including Ira Einhorn, were at my place on 27th Street. We had a pound and a half of marijuana. We rolled maybe 1500 joints. I guess we smoked a little, too.

MS: When was this?

KK: I'm not certain about the date. It was '67 or '68. It's probably in the Inquirer archives because we arrived there, we distributed it as evenly as we could and as quickly as we could in the crowd. And the police spotted a professor from Temple University and they arrested him. They didn't arrest anyone else, but twenty-six of us sat down around the police cars so they couldn't move out with him and decorated the police car with flowers and cigarette papers and things. But that was a very early kind of flower child kind of demonstration, but with import for things that would happen later. I think several hundred people were arrested in Greenwich Village in early May in a medical marijuana march this year. Of course I don't charge anything for marijuana so I'm very different from any of the cannabis buyer's clubs in California, where they did pass the law. I can't afford marijuana at their prices, but it was harder and harder to get it, so we had to go to European sources for ours, which is donated. And we've been operating for three and a half years. In terms of mass demonstrations, I remember very well the fact that after the sit-ins on Route 40 in Maryland we had a march and a rally in Baltimore, Maryland, along the rowhouse lined streets of Baltimore. And we ended up in a church. We were all singing gospel and it really set the tone for all the decades afterwards. I mean it was real people in their own neighborhood and it wasn't orchestrated the way you need a million dollar budget to do anything larger than a gathering of a hundred people anymore. And there were many other antiwar demonstrations involving large contingents of gay people in Washington. The day we tried to stop the war in Vietnam by closing down Washington, the gays were staying in a church in Georgetown and we were assigned P Street, P Street Bridge, and P Street Beach. And we took logs and trash barrels and park benches and moved them down onto the Rock Creek Parkway, the main thoroughfare into the city. And we successfully blocked it. When the police went after us, we, we would line up and do line dances. And they had no idea, 'cause it's really hard to kick at people's feet as they're kicking at shoulder height.

MS: Especially if they're kicking high.

KK: Yeah, high kicks. But they had these big plastic shields and stuff. And they certainly saw enough of their police cars destroyed with bricks and things. But a few years later, at an AIDS demonstration, I guess I was arrested at the White House. It was either the White House or the Capitol. Those were on contiguous days. Capitol building first, then the White House. I'm in the police van with Alden McCain, who died about three years ago. We were both arrested. We were in the back of a police paddywagon on the way to jail from the White House. And they had plastic handcuffs on people behind their backs. Someone's circulation was cut off and they couldn't get out and I'm pretty good at getting out of stuff like that. In the van they quickly called me Houdini because I said, "Oh, are you having problems?" I got out of my handcuffs and got someone's nail clippers and clipped everybody's plastic handcuffs so that their hands wouldn't go to sleep or turn blue. And Alden, who's sitting next to me and is a long time activist, he runs, usually, the ACT UP media centers at international AIDS conferences, and he says, "You look like you have quite a bit of experience doing that." And so I said, "Yeah." And I said, "I remember the day they arrested twelve thousand people in Washington." And he said, "Yeah, I was arrested." And it's not that frequent that you find people who were involved in the civil rights or antiwar movement that are also AIDS activists. Not a whole lot, but it was a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, Alden died early in '94. Wasn't able to make the Yokahama AIDS conference. We floated a wreath in Yokahama Harbor for him. But Alden was there. He says, "Yes, we were arrested that day. Twelve thousand people arrested. They kept us in JFK Stadium. They had this huge canvas tarp on the field and we also found poles. We also had some drugs, some psychedelic drugs, I think. We hoisted the poles and we made a whole tent city. Well first we did these big fancy dances for the helicopters that were over us with their floodlights, looking down on us. But we made this whole underground city or tent city there. It was partly the atmosphere of a civil rights or antiwar rally. It was the early enthusiasm of ACT UP demos that we were to see a decade and a half later. Or a decade later. But it was lively, clever, fun. Everybody seemed to be having a good time. And it was serious politics, but there was no need to be morose about it. We were there with good companionship and I suspect there were other people besides Alden and myself that were gay among those twelve thousand people there. Including our large gay contingent, because I believe that was the demo where we tried to block off Rock Creek Parkway. We were a highly organized unit that day. And some people were dressed pretty outrageously and other people were dressed in army gear, out for a battle. But that was interesting, being in the police van and running into Alden.

MS: Well is there anything else? Any other things you want to say?

KK: Not that I can think of.

MS: We've covered a lot of ground.

KK: Sure.

MS: I have to say that what strikes me, listening to you talk, almost more than anything, and I hope it doesn't sound trite, is that you seem proud to be an activist and to be gay in ways that seem not just a performance for some outside audience, but genuinely proud of both of those things.

KK: Yeah. And let me say this, as something I said recently, as a matter of fact, at Bread and Roses's ceremony recently. I'm a twenty-year metastatic lung cancer survivor and a fifteen-year AIDS survivor. And I really believe that activism is therapeutic.

MS: It makes sense to me. Well thank you.

KK: Sure. Thank you.