Found  /  Discovery

UC Berkeley Student Brings to Light Stories of LGBTQ+ Japanese Americans Incarcerated During WWII

A UC Berkeley student’s award-winning research shines a light on LGBTQ+ life in Japanese American concentration camps during World War II.

“I shall remember that day that I was evacuated for the rest of my life,” Stanley Hayami, 17 years old at the time, writes on May 14, 1943, at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming, reflecting on his first year of incarceration. “I shall remember the barbed wire, the armed guards, the towers, the dust, the visitors, the food, the long lines, the typhoid shots.”

But one passage in particular, written in stark all-cap block letters, caught the eye of Ryan Gottschalk ’25, who studies history at UC Berkeley.

“I don’t tell this to anyone because they’ll figure that I’m a queer (maybe I am),” Hayami writes in an entry dated June 27, 1943, threading together feelings of alienation and an aching desire for solitude.

“It took me right back to my own years of teenage angst, thinking about coming out and struggling with my sexuality,” Gottschalk says. “It’s really amazing that, you know, somebody existing in the 1940s, who in many ways is so separated from us today, had such similar feelings.”

In his Library Prize-winning project, “Erased: An Exploration of Queer Japanese Americans’ Experience During the Internment Period,” Gottschalk provides a sensitive, nuanced reading of firsthand accounts, revealing clues into the presence of LGBTQ+ prisoners in the concentration camps. Through that work, along with the close examination of other sources, including records held by The Bancroft Library, Gottschalk adds brushstrokes to the harrowing portrait of Japanese American life during World War II, raising visibility, challenging assumptions, and pulling to the surface themes from the past that linger today. 

Out of the shadows

With a decree in hand — Executive Order 9066, signed Feb. 19, 1942, by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — the United States government rounded up more than 120,000 Japanese Americans, pushing them out of their homes and into concentration camps, euphemistically dubbed “relocation centers.” Scattered across the desolate, rugged landscapes of the country’s interior, the new arrivals were choked off from any semblance of normal life.

This large-scale displacement disrupted the family structure, a theme Gottschalk and his classmates explored in “Images of History,” a College Writing course that examines the incarceration of Japanese Americans and culminates in a research project. Because activities were often communal and organized by age group, young incarcerees often found themselves with more independence, out of the watchful eye of their elders.

“Hearing that made me reflect on my own experience growing up gay,” Gottschalk says. “Being able to separate yourself from your parents allows you to have a lot more space in exploring your own identity.”

Curiosity piqued, Gottschalk decided to explore queerness in Japanese American concentration camps for his class project.