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Jan. 2002, Vol. 27 No. 1
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Social Justice: Eric Yamamoto creates a framework for conciliation

Eric Yamamoto portrait in ofice

Anger and confusion about race has been called America’s number one problem. University of Hawai'i Law School professor Eric Yamamoto thinks so. He’s seen some Americans retaliate against fellow citizens of Arabic heritage in their anger over the September terrorist attack on the United States. He fears that strict national security measures could trample on civil liberties. He knows it’s happened before—to Japanese Americans during World War II.

For 15 months during the early ’80s, Yamamoto volunteered on the legal team attempting to overturn the wartime internment conviction of Fred Korematsu. The team succeeded, and that decision along with a 1987 case swept out the legal foundation of the WWII Supreme Court decision that justified internment as military necessity. As a result, Congress passed the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, which called for a presidential apology and reparations for Japanese Americans who had been interned. Yamamoto received the Korematsu Civil Rights Award for his efforts. The lesson: “We must not scapegoat other people. Both U.S. citizens and our courts need to be vigilant about protecting civil liberties while addressing genuine threats to national security.”

Yamamoto addresses that topic in his books, Race, Rights and Reparation: Law and the Japanese-American Internment and Interracial Justice: Conflict and Reconciliation in Post-Civil Rights America. The latter, named one of the top 10 books on human rights, social justiceand civil rights published in North America, deals with interracial discrimination—one group using social, economic or political structures to subordinate another. The wounds such discrimination inflicts—interracial justice grievances, Yamamoto calls them—are being overlooked in the courts’ fervor to outlaw race consciousness.

“The majority of the justices say that to analyze historical and current racial differences can actually damage the nation’s interest in racial harmony,” he says. “The court is mistaken. We are seeing more, not less, interracial tension across America.” The anger it generates exists in areas like housing, education, business and law. Because the courts turn a blind eye, old wounds remain open.

“Racial discrimination isn’t motivated purely by racial dislike, but more by self-interest and past actions,” Yamamoto explains. “We have to find out what justice grievances lie beneath the surface of the immediate conflict and set about healing the wounds.”

To do that, Yamamoto proposes a four-point framework of racial conciliation—recognition, responsibility, reconstruction and reparations. “It’s not a magic formula. It’s a method and a language for asking questions and moving the process forward. People have to learn how to do this. It’s going to take some disciplined and serious work.” The courts should encourage discussions about racial justice grievances, but the law itself is too narrow, so most of the process must take place outside a legal context, he says.

Surprising words from a lawyer, but Yamamoto didn’t plan to enter law when he majored in humanistic studies in UH’s experimental ’70s New College. The turbulent times—Vietnam war protests, the breakdown of communities, stirrings of the Native Hawaiian movement—and discussions with his father, a UH professor who taught race relations, profoundly influenced the thoughtful young man immersed in Nietzsche and Zen Buddhism. He decided to study law at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall to “shape how communities would be.” After the Korematsu case, Yamamoto joined a Hawai‘i law firm. He also served on the boards of the Legal Aid Society of Hawai‘i and the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation and was counsel to Alu Like and the Women’s Health Center. In 1985, he joined the UH law school faculty. He’s assisted Native Hawaiian Homelands trust beneficiaries, sovereignty activists and the Spark M. Matsunaga Institute for Peace. He’s received the UH Presidential Citation for Excellence in Teaching twice and been named Outstanding Professor of Law three times. This spring, he will hold the Haywood Burns Chair for Civil Rights at the City University of New York.

Yamamoto prefers to remain in the background. “Sometimes having less of a profile makes it easier to help people accomplish their goals,” he says. Still, he hopes his framework will get people talking to each other about racial justice. “It can only make our country stronger,” he says.


Medical Change: Milton Diamond challenges gender reassignment

Milton Diamond portrait in ofice

As a University of Hawai‘i professor of anatomy and reproductive biology, Milton Diamond teaches neuroanatomy and sexology. But his international notoriety resulted from what he calls a simple search for evidence.

people think there has to be something strange about me to study sex,” says Diamond, who directs the medical school’s Pacific Center for Sex and Society and lectures worldwide. “Personally, I wonder why more people aren’t studying sex. It’s so intrinsic to so many aspects of our lives.”

A graduate of Bronx High School of Science and college ROTC, Diamond pursued anatomy, endocrinology and experimental psychology at the University of Kansas. In 1967 colleagues asked him to help start UH’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. Diamond and his wife thought the islands would be a good place to raise their four daughters. He found it a good place to work—writing several books, developing PBS’s award-winning “Human Sexuality” series and contributing to the American Medical Association’s handbook on sexual problems.

A few years ago, Diamond’s investigation of what he calls the “John/Joan case” thrust him into the limelight. The 1960s case involved a 7-month-old twin whose penis was severely burned by the electrocautery instrument used during circumcision. The boy’s parents contacted psychologist John Money, a leader in the field of gender identity at Johns Hopkins University, who counseled them to raise their son as a girl. Money believed a child’s sexual identity is determined by the appearance of the genitals and the child’s upbringing. “It’s the nature/nurture debate,” says Diamond. “Nurture advocates believe that if you’re raised (figuratively) in a blue room you become a boy and in a pink room, a girl. The only problem is, that theory doesn’t work.”

The child underwent surgery to remove his testes and fashion female genitals. His parents were instructed to raise him unambiguously as a girl. In journal articles and a book, Money described behavior “so normally that of an active little girl and so clearly different by contrast from the boyish ways of her twin brother.” Time magazine reported the experiment “has apparently succeeded.” Skeptical, Diamond called for evidence in various publications.

The medical establishment embraced Money’s conclusions. Surgical reassignment of sex for a variety of reasons, including cases where the penis was considered too small (less than 2.5 centimeters), became standard medical practice. Diamond kept digging. In 1994 he contacted British Columbia psychiatrist Keith Sigmundson, in charge of John/Joan’s treatment under Money’s direction. Sigmundson knew the sex conversion hadn’t worked. Unaware of her history, Joan had refused to wear dresses, hated make-up and fought like a boy. She was banned from the girl’s restroom for standing to urinate. At 14, she decided to live as a male. Sigmundson hadn’t challenged Johns Hopkins. “He thought that if it wasn’t working, it was his fault,” Diamond says.

Sigmundson put Diamond in touch with John/Joan, by then a married man struggling with psychological scars. In 1997 they presented their evidence in an article on implications of sex reassignment in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. This time the medical establishment listened. Diamond addressed the American Academy of Pediatrics. “I expected them to throw rocks at me because I was basically telling them that what they’d been doing for the past 40 years was wrong,” he says. Instead, 30 seconds of stunned silence gave way to applause.

“If you change someone’s gender as an infant, you’re doing something fundamental to them. As they grow up they’re living with incongruities that don’t make any sense to them, and they have no way of dealing with their feelings.” Many contemplate suicide. Diamond says as many as 200 pediatric sex reassignments were taking place annually in the United States due to damaged or ambiguous genitals. About 1 child in every 2,000 is born with enough ambiguity that it’s externally noticeable. One in every 100 has hidden ambiguity—XXY or other sets of chromosomes or combinations of ovaries and testes. “Gonads produce hormones that affect the brain, and it’s our brains that tell us whether we’re male or female,” he says. “In most cases, there’s a physical reason why individuals might be unsure about their sex.”

Yet doctors must classify a child’s gender at birth. Diamond offers three guidelines—don’t do surgery based only on genital appearance; do follow-up studies on the success of sex-reassignment; eliminate secrecy. “Yes, it’s disturbing for someone to find out they have male chromosomes along with a vagina, but keeping them in the dark is disturbing, too. People could deal with the truth if told in the proper way and provided with counseling.”

Since exposing the failure of the John/Joan case, Diamond has received numerous international honors and been interviewed on national TV. He served as president of the International Academy of Sex Research, which encompasses physicians, psychologists, sociologists and other scientists. “You work for 40 years then you’re an overnight success,” he quips.