Threadbear: remembering Martin Kazu Hiraga

When a friend called in October to tell me that Martin Hiraga had died, I wasn’t as upset as I’d always thought I would be, and I couldn’t figure out why.  After reading the three obituary pieces I found online, I had the answer:  I’d been expecting that call for more than 20 years.

I met Martin Kazu Hiraga in 1987 or ’88, when I was the 25-year-old editor of the Empty Closet, Rochester, New York’s lesbian and gay newspaper, and he was a 32-year-old sign language interpreter at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).  Martin was one of many GLBTQ interpreters in the city, which has a large Deaf population – then, as now, queer folk seemed to abound in interpreting circles.  But as far as I knew, he was the only multi-lingual, hard-of-hearing, Asian American, HIV-positive, radical, activist, ex-Mormon, ex-Catholic, adopted Sansei child of Nisei parents, trauma survivor who’d grown up in South America speaking Spanish who was living in Rochester in the late ’80s.  I may have kidded him once about being a walking affirmative action committee, or I may have decided that he’d think I was being racist/ableist/homophobic/etc. and skipped it.

Martin was a bundle of contradictions – as are most interesting human beings.  He founded Rochester’s ACT UP chapter and was instrumental in keeping it going for a year or two – no mean feat in a city of 250,000 with a stubborn conservative streak in its mainstream and its gay and lesbian populations.  He was a tireless activist with chronic fatigue syndrome; a sharply intelligent, mature educator who carried teddy bears around with him and often spoke through a hand puppet; a generous, caring, difficult, sometimes tortured individual.

He told me he’d grown up in Bolivia, the adopted Sansei (third-generation Japanese American) son of Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) Catholic missionary parents, and the first language he’d learned was Spanish.  That alone seemed fantastic to me, a white lower-middle-class child of the Rochester suburbs, but when he began to detail how his parents had abused him, I wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not.  I was familiar with parental emotional abuse, but I’d never heard of the variations he mentioned to me.  It was clear that Martin was working out a lot of past and present trauma.  At one point he said he’d joined a support group and a mutual gay acquaintance of ours who was in 12-Step programs had helped him on an awful night when Martin had cried non-stop for hours.  Around this time, Martin split up with his white partner after discovering that Boyfriend had been perusing stroke mags full of photos of cute, young Asian men.  I wasn’t that swift on the uptake when I was in my mid-20s, but Martin didn’t have to spell it out that he felt fetishized.  I was taken aback; I naïvely assumed that those in serious relationships loved each for who they were, not what they were.

Before they split up, Martin and Boyfriend used to joke about their social/support group for “fomo homo Momos” – gay and lesbian ex-Mormons.  I never asked Martin how he’d become a Latter Day Saint, figuring it was none of my business, but eventually he told me he’d converted as a young man because he wanted to rebel against his Catholic upbringing:  “If I was going to deal with Victorian discipline, it had to be my own style of Victorian discipline!”

Martin was also out to me – and the rest of the world – about being HIV-positive.  I was never sure exactly what all of his health problems were, but he’d been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, and he often used to nap at the offices of the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley, the community organization that published the Empty Closet.  He’d arrive at the EC office after a day at work usually followed by hours of unpaid political organizing of some sort, and offer to help with the newspaper.  But he’d be so exhausted, I’d try to send him home, he’d refuse, and we’d compromise on a nap.  While I worked on the paper, he’d curl up on one of the couches in the GAGV “lounge” – or on the carpet if a group was meeting in the lounge area – and after an hour or so, return to my office to paste up a page or proofread or simply talk with me while I did some chore.  Sometimes I thought his fatigue was caused not by illness, but by the incredible amount of work he was trying to do.  Those were years when the work was more than urgent.

People are still dying, but the urgency seems a thing of the past.  After I read the polite eulogy for Martin on the National Asian Deaf Congress website, I felt hollow – it didn’t sound like the person I’d known back in the late ’80s.  I checked out the only other online comment I could find, Elouise Oyzon’s weezBlog, (http://weez.oyzon.com/index.php?/weezblogtemplates/2010/09).  “That’s my Martin!” I said after reading her recollections; Oyzon had been his co-worker at RIT and friend around the same time I had, and she remained his friend long after I lost touch with him.  Karen Wilson, author of the NADC eulogy (http://www.nadc-usa.org/component/content/article/71.html), wrote about the mature, professional Martin I also knew, the bridge-builder between different worlds, the patient educator.  “Martin had a special gift for languages and cultural ethics,” Wilson writes.

I met Martin at a time when an unbelievable amount of education needed to be done: about a decade into the AIDS crisis, the end of Ronald Reagan’s two terms as president, when it was still unclear which bodily fluids exchanged could transmit the virus and whether the federal government would ever give a damn whether every gay man in the country dropped dead.  Much was still unknown about AIDS, and the gay and lesbian media and activists scrambled to get the word out about how to practice safe sex and prevent transmission.  Meanwhile, in heterolandia, HIV-positive people were treated like pariahs; many heterosexuals still thought the virus could be transmitted through casual contact with gay men.  (My own mother, formerly a registered nurse, once asked me in those years if I wasn’t worried about contracting HIV by working with Martin on the newspaper.  I was dumbfounded – did she think we were using the X-Acto knives to cut our fingers and exchange bodily fluids, ala childhood blood brothers and sisters?)

The grassroots, direct-action activist group ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, had been founded in New York City in spring 1987, and Martin traveled to the group’s meetings in the city, a 6-plus-hour drive from Rochester, fairly frequently.  He related tales of amazing organizing and enormous, well-orchestrated demonstrations, and began an ACT UP chapter in Rochester.  It remained small and some of the members timid in their protests, and it was clear that Martin would always be the leader and cutting edge, in and outside of the group.  He was arrested one night for placing fliers on the windshields of cars parked outside one of the city’s larger gay bars.  In New York, he got involved in the national organizing for one of the most incredible demonstrations I’ve ever seen – and I’ve been in a number of Left movements in the past 27 years and have seen a lot of demos for many causes.  This was the ACT NOW – the national network of local ACT UP chapters – protest in October 1988 that shut down for a day the federal Food and Drug Administration headquarters in Rockville, Maryland.  More than a thousand activists demonstrated for hours and 175 were arrested for civil disobedience in a protest against the slow pace of the HIV drug approval process.  Several dozen affinity groups consisting mostly of gay men, many of them HIV-positive, created outside the FDA edifice a fantastic, determined chaos borne of the desperation of those days.  Words still fail me when I attempt to describe this enormous political action, but “well-orchestrated pandemonium” probably works best.

In addition to his AIDS activism, Martin worked constantly to educate those with whom we volunteered at the Gay Alliance – always an uphill battle.  I remember him telling me one day that he’d just finished a conversation with Horace Lethbridge, the president of the GAGV board at one point during the late ’80s.  Lethbridge had complained about the organization having to pay sign language interpreters whenever meetings and events with Deaf participants were held.  “I’m a therapist, and I volunteer a lot of my time!” Horace had told him.  Martin patiently explained that interpreters were at high risk for repetitive motion injuries, including carpal tunnel, if they worked more than about 20 hours a week, and therefore had to be paid for their services in order to make a living.  I also recall Martin stopping into the Empty Closet office one evening after taking part in the videotaping of a bilingual program for hearing and Deaf audiences on the topic of safer sex practices.  It was “very culturally appropriate,” he told me – the hearing presenters’ talk of “intercourse” was rendered as “fucking” in American Sign Language.

My friend could be quirky and amusing, too.  For at least a couple of years, he carried with him a stuffed hand puppet he called Mrs. Handy Bear.  She seemed to utter all the impolite, juvenile thoughts that Martin could not.  “Womit!” she often said, commenting on the latest racist remark or unpalatable meal with which Martin had had to deal.  Her other favorite phrase was, “I took a bath!” – Martin dragged her around so much, her acrylic fur became soiled, so he ran her through the washing machine.  I kidded him that he should change her name to Threadbear after she’d been through the rinse cycle a few too many times and half her fur came out in patches.  Martin was not amused.  For years after, whenever I was feeling particularly child-like and tired of dealing with people’s foibles, I’d think, “Womit!” in Mrs. Handy Bear’s strange, high-pitched child voice, and I’d smile briefly.

I loved Martin in his silly and his serious moods, and for a time I was infatuated with him – not the first time I had been or would be crushed out on a gay man, but perhaps one of my most enjoyable queer crushes.  I got the feeling he had so many friends who cared about him, I was just one of the herd, and I was glad, for he seemed to need a large group looking after him.  Had he been bi and attracted to me, I would’ve had to deal with the possibility of a relationship, but because he was gay, it felt as if a safe distance remained between us, and I’d have to deal with his trauma and his HIV status only as his friend.

But as friends often do, we drifted apart.  Martin moved to Washington, D.C.; I visited with him once for a few hours when I was there in the early ’90s.  We ran a few errands in his new Volvo; he told me his father had died recently and he’d used his inheritance money to buy himself a sturdy vehicle.  When I replied that I was sorry to hear that his dad had died, he made a dismissive sound and said, more or less, that the car was better than his relationship with his abusive parents had been.  He was having problems with his feet; they were swaddled in bandages and thick white cotton socks inside Birkenstock sandals, and he moved slowly.  Martin talked about his interpreting work with groups at the LDS temple, and mentioned that some of the Mormon women were quite concerned about his HIV status.  They were rather clueless about people with AIDS, he said, but were caring and meant well, so he educated them gently.  When they said, “Oh, but you’re going to die!”, he replied in his polite tone, “We’re all going to die sometime.”

He seemed content, if not exactly happy; it may have struck me then that Martin never seemed truly happy, and I wondered about his moving so often.  A few years later, in 12-Step meetings, I heard the phrase, “Wherever you go, there you are.”  I didn’t think of this aphorism in connection with Martin, but it applied.

Not long after I saw him in DC, I moved, at 28, to attend graduate school in Boulder, Colorado.  I was immediately embraced by the small community of young, radical queer activists, and within a couple of months I’d developed a crush on a new friend, Jim.  My new group of buddies quickly became a community under siege.  I’d been in Colorado less than six months when the state’s right-wing religious fundamentalist forces put on the November ballot an anti-GLB law (trans folks weren’t included in these things in the early ’90s) and cranked up their anti-queer propaganda machine.

By this time, Martin had gone to work for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force as a grassroots organizer (he was later to work for the organization’s anti-violence project) and NGLTF sent him to hot spots around the country to assist with local fights against anti-gay ballot measures (Oregon’s right wing had put a similar measure on that state’s ballot in 1992).  When I heard that Martin was coming to Boulder, I was thrilled – Jim and Martin reminded me of each other in a number of respects, and I was excited that I’d have the chance to introduce one of my favorite queers from Rochester activism to my new Boulder crowd.  I even harbored a vague secret fantasy that Jim and Martin would hit it off and I could take credit for instigating a fabulous new romance.

But the Boulder queers loathed Martin.  Apparently he’d been instructed to teach local organizers the basics on dealing with media, creating campaigns, and the like.  The Boulder crew was sophisticated in such tactics, and in fact probably had a hell of a lot more experience with such grassroots activism than anyone I’d known in Rochester except Martin.  I joined a meeting in a local diner and thought it went OK, but Jim and my other friends left furious that Martin had treated them like rubes in the boondocks who didn’t even know how to craft a sound bite.  Thus ended my matchmaking career.

The last time I saw Martin was, again, not a happy occasion.  I’d settled back in Rochester after almost six years in Colorado and New Mexico, and he was in town for a visit to a lesbian couple with whom he’d been close.  By the end of our meal together, he’d called my favorite lesbian-feminist-collective vegetarian café an anachronism and insulted my hometown, and I’d insinuated that his white friends’ choice to adopt two African American children was politically correct chic.  I think Martin and I walked away feeling disappointed and annoyed with each other, if not downright angry.  I decided that we’d grown apart for good reason, and I never tried to contact him again.

I miss our youth together, even though we were both severely troubled.  Martin Hiraga was sweet and funny, quirky and bright and never, ever dull.  He was a rollercoaster of a person, and I enjoyed that trait when I was in my 20s.  Martin always surprised me.  Karen Wilson writes that he earned a doctorate in pastoral counseling in 2004.  It sounds as if he found some peace toward the end of his life, and was able to continue doing the education and coalition building he was so good at.

About springbyker

See more at: springbyker.wordpress.com. Feminist QBLTG Left activist grammarian & general crank. Love grassroots political movements, literature, independent film, travel in Latin America, bicycling, & good vegetarian food. I plan to write about all of these, plus being a recovering clutterer, writing, and saving the planet from suburban sprawl.
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11 Responses to Threadbear: remembering Martin Kazu Hiraga

  1. Kat says:

    Hey Michele- thanks for posting this. I hadn’t heard he had died. Your post brought back memories of a time & place of great significance to me. Your writing here is insightful, honest, loving, unflinching & wise. I appreciate that.

  2. springbyker says:

    Thank you, Kat. Martin was such a wonderful and complex person, and I’m sorry I didn’t think of getting back in touch with him via Facebook.

  3. Ron Linville says:

    I didn’t know him nearly as well as you, of course, but your recollections ring true. The world is one grace less.
    Thanks for reminding me of Mrs Handy Bear.

  4. Stephen says:

    Thanks for your post. Thanks a lot. I was briefly involved with Martin in the mid 1990s. I was also totally crushed out on him. I was 12 years younger than him and living about 100 miles away from his DuPont Circle/DC one room apartment. The feet problems, the sleep apnea (which led him to crash that sturdy Volvo), the hearing aids, the dyslexia… the HIV was the least of it. I often went from feeling unworthy of him to screaming at him about how he could blow thousands of dollars on a telephone psychic. I was studying sign language at the time, and was quite terrible at it (especially receptively), and he enjoyed pointing out how awful I was. We went to the University of the District of Columbia and heard Noam Chomsky speak, which I thought would be an aphrodesiac of lefties like us, but turned out to be an opportunity to hear him critique the performance of the (poor, exhausted) ASL interpreters. In return, I was the most un-PC person imaginable: for example, I said – being part Italian and talking with my hands all the time, I should be a natural at sign language because ASL was just Italian with the sound turned off. Later, he asked me if I fetishized Asian men, and I said, of course not, just Black men. But I was simply in awe of him much of the time, when I wasn’t doubting his self-reported zany life story – and being the country bumpkin I was probably amused him slightly more than offended him. Like you, we had a couple of bad episodes, capped with a rotten falling out and no reconnection. When I heard he passed just recently, I felt like a spirit had left… luckily, my boyfriend just bought me my first teddy bear. The universe can be strangely beautiful sometimes.

    • springbyker says:

      Thank you, Stephen. When I read your comment, I had to agree with you about the universe! For the first time since I heard about his death, I felt as if Martin’s spirit was out there, laughing at us. 😉

  5. Shirley says:

    I was thinking of Martin last night and decided to Google his name. That’s how I found out that he had passed away. I “met” Martin in 1997 in an LDS chatroom that we both frequented. For some reason, I was drawn to him and I IMed him a few times. He was always polite, but I decided he had no interest in talking with me so I gave up. Then my mother died that May and Martin reached out to me. We were friends for the next 11 years, “talking” almost every day.
    Martin could be very frustrating, often writing though the voice of a little bear named Fossil who was always being washed. Often an IM would pop up with, “Herro, I’m dirty.” Once he sent me my own Fossil bear. I still have it sitting on a shelf in my sewing room. He sent another bear once but it went to a child in the hospital.
    I also know Martin lied a lot! I called him on it a few times, but usually just went along with his stories. He talked about a twin brother who had died of AIDS. Do you know if he really had a brother, or was he talking more about himself? He told me of his abusive parents. He talked about work and Cuba, but not to much about his private life. He definately made me think!
    Maybe it was amusing to Martin to talk with a conservative LDS woman so often. I don’t know. I do know he was there when I needed him – when my mother died and then when my father committed suicide a few years later. He mourned with me then. He celebrated with me at the births of my grandchildren.
    Martin called once when he was in town but I wasn’t home so he talked with my husband for awhile. I was so sad I didn’t get to meet him, but maybe it was better that way. Maybe that would have taken something away from our friendship.
    We didn’t talk as much after he went to Hawaii. I assumed he had just gotten on with his life. I guess, in a way, he has. God be with you till we meet again, dear friend. Now, I have a little bear who needs to be hugged.

    • springbyker says:

      Hi Shirley,

      This is what I love about the web, and blogging on it — anyone can read my writing, and I hear from people I’d never meet without the web.

      My first reaction is, “Martin was so complicated!” As far as I know, he didn’t have a twin brother; I believe he has two sisters who live in Hawai’i, and I can verify that with a friend from years back who returned to Honolulu. I’m also pretty sure the stories about his abusive parents were true.

      I wouldn’t say he was amused by talking with LDS women; I got the sense over the years that he truly appreciated LDS women’s concern for his health and his overall person. I wonder now if he was looking for mother figures. He certainly was always searching, learning, and educating.

      Thank you for writing. It seems that many of us found Martin frustrating at times, and loved him deeply.

      Michele

  6. Your entire article, “Threadbear: remembering Martin Kazu Hiraga | The Daily Springbyker”
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  7. Keith says:

    In the final months of his life, before moving to hospice, Martin lived in my home in Hawaii and was cared for by my mother. I’d known him for several years, but I hardly knew anything about him. I found your post after doing a Google search of his name on a whim. It’s very interesting for me to learn about the people who knew him and the things that he did. I always thought he was a very strange individual. I do know that the stories about his brother were lies, for his brother did not exist. After he died, my family inherited his large collection of electronics.

    • springbyker says:

      Hi, Keith. It’s interesting to me that, several years after Martin’s death, I’m still hearing from people who met him or knew him. It’s as if his life was a sort of puzzle I’m still piecing together. I suppose he was a strange individual, but he was a loving one. I had some great times with him back in the late ’80s, and occasionally I miss those days.

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