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How Injustice Led to Asian America's Early Support for Same-Sex Marriage

Historical discrimination led to Asian American groups' early support for same-sex marriage rights, decades before other groups.

When the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on same-sex marriage was announced, it was a moment of vindication for many Asian Americans—especially members of the Japanese American Citizens League.

“It affirms a position we took all those years ago,” William Yoshino, the Midwest director for the JACL, told NBC News.

In 1994, the organization leadership engaged in a spirited debate well before same-sex marriage was more widely discussed.

Yoshino said it wasn’t a unanimous decision, but JACL - which dates back to 1929 - did become the first non-LGBT national civil rights organization after the ACLU to support marriage equality for same sex couples.

Yoshino said because of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, there was a sensitivity when others’ civil rights are abrogated.

“I think we see it as a special obligation to always support the rights of other groups and individuals,” Yoshino. “We have to draw lessons from our own experiences. If you look at the history of Asian Americans I think you can point to a history of being marginalized in many ways.”

Related: Landmark: Supreme Court Rules Same-Sex Marriage Legal Nationwide

Even before the WWII incarceration, historical examples of Asian American discrimination go back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including laws limiting immigration, citizenship, and anti-miscegenation laws that prevented Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos from intermarrying with whites.

Indeed, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion made reference to the Loving case--the 1967 ruling that lifted all bans on inter-racial marriage--as a principal basis for his decision.

Wrote Kennedy: “A first premise of the Court’s relevant precedents is that the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy. This abiding connection between marriage and liberty is why Loving invalidated interracial marriage bans under the Due Process Clause.”

The decision resonated with other Asian American civil rights groups.

“No members of our community, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and immigration status, should be denied equal protection of the laws,” said a group from the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium in a statement.

JACL has estimated that thousands of Asian Pacific Islanders are in same-sex marriages, many raising children. Asian Pacific Islander couples were also lead plaintiffs in equality litigation in California, Hawaii, and across the country.

Image: Supreme Court Declares Marriage Equality
The crowd celebrates outside of the Supreme Court in Washington on June 26 after the court declared that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the US.Jacquelyn Martin / AP