Al and Jane Nakatani

Two parents
learn from pain

It took the loss of three sons
for a couple to learn the
harm of systematic hate

'The Laramie Project'

"From Laramie to Honolulu: An Evening of Tolerance," a benefit for the Life Foundation with speakers Al & Jane Nakatani, founders of Honor Thy Children; and "The Laramie Project" preview

Where: Manoa Valley Theatre, 2833 East Manoa Road
When: 5:30 p.m. today
Tickets: $40, with 100 percent going to Life Foundation
Call: 521-2437
Also: "The Laramie Project" performances run 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays tomorrow through Aug. 3. Tickets are $25, with a $5 discount available for seniors and military; $10 for 25 years and under. Call 988-6131.

What could be worse for a parent: three sons dead before age 30, two from AIDS-related illnesses, one from a gunshot wound or the feeling that you contributed to their passing?

In 1976, when Al Nakatani's eldest son, Glen, then 15, left their middle-class San Jose, Calif., home, the incensed father announced to the other two fearful boys and his wife that "I have no son." He proceeded to remove all Glen's pictures and other traces of his existence from their home.

"It closed the door on any possible communication with my two other boys from there on," Nakatani said in an interview from his Maui home. "They made a vow to never do or say anything that would shame (their parents). So we never knew the pain they went through later."

Nakatani, a retired social worker, and his wife Jane, a retired elementary school teacher, will take part in the Manoa Valley Theatre's 5:30 p.m. benefit tonight for the Life Foundation.

"From Laramie to Honolulu: An Evening of Tolerance" includes a light supper and wine on the theater lanai, a presentation by the Nakatanis who established the Honor Thy Children organization, and a preview performance of "The Laramie Project" which begins a three-week run tomorrow. The drama is based on interviews with citizens of Laramie, Wyo., in the aftermath of the hate-crime murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998.

Most parents admit there were times when they could have done better, but few have done so in such a public manner as the Nakatanis. Their journey the last decade has been to make sense of the senseless and take any responsibility for their role in the deaths of all three sons. They hope to spare other parents the same tragedy of surviving their children.

Before their sons' deaths, the Nakatanis led a middle-class existence that was also characterized by homophobia and denial.

"It's taken me more than 10 years to realize that my family's problems were a microcosm of society's troubles and to accept that we were not providing safe passage for our children from childhood into adulthood," Al Nakatani said.

The couple's middle son, Greg, died in 1986 at age 23 after being shot in a dispute over a car. Glen, 29, died four years later from an AIDS-related illness; Guy, 26, died of similar causes in 1994.

"But their spirits (Glen and Guy) were being damaged long before the physical effects of AIDS damaged their bodies," Nakatani said. "They didn't have the support of their peers, this homophobic society, or us."

Part of the problem was their Japanese culture which, Nakatani says, places a major importance on not shaming the family and remaining silent in the face of problems.

"We found out Glen's sexual orientation when he was 17 after he moved out but he had kept silent about it since a young boy," Nakatani said. "He wanted to keep the family's honor intact."

The elder Nakatanis were born and raised in Hawaii moving to the mainland to attend college then joining the military. They moved to Maui in 1997 to live in the home once owned by Jane's parents, a house that overlooks the cemetery where Glen, Greg and Guy are buried.

"Our home did not embrace open communication," Nakatani said. "The boys were pretty much raised in that tradition of stoicism and where success was measured in part by the honor brought to the family by self-directed children.

"Looking back it's very evident that I left no room for the possibility that life might diverge from the traditional path that my wife and I took for granted."

In 1986, Jane discovered her youngest son, Guy, with another man. When Guy admitted to being gay, Nakatani told his son, "Maybe you're not gay, Guy. Lots of young people experiment."

Nakatani believed for a time that he even may have contributed to son Greg's death in an argument over a dented car. "Did I teach him too well to be righteous and strong?" he said.

The couple also believed that because their sons were "extremely bright" they wouldn't put themselves at risk. "That was truly a fatal flaw in us, and total denial of the situation," he said.

TWO YEARS AFTER Greg was killed, Glen returned home to spend his last months with his parents.

"We couldn't deny what was happening in any longer," Nakatani said. "So we joined Guy's plan to educate young people about AIDS and prejudice."

Nakatani accompanied his son to school assemblies. In the three years before he died, Guy spoke to more than 40,000 students and parents nationwide. During this time, Al also learned that Guy hated his Japanese heritage and being gay, "hated himself."

"What had happened to him was that the denigration that had been hurled at him from the outside, he internalized and ended up believing," Nakatani said.

The Nakatanis now continue Guy's work, making about a dozen appearances annually.

"The nature of the issues we discuss are very difficult," Nakatani said. "Homosexuality, AIDS, and parental culpability with always the question 'What could we have done better?'"

The couple's emotional outlook softened when Glen was dying. They started to show the love they had always felt for their sons but never expressed.

"Unless parents nurture an environment of trust and communication, you may never know if (your child) is troubled," Nakatani said. "Worse, you may contribute to the destruction of (a child's) spirit without even knowing it."

In a heartbreaking revelation in the couple's book "Honor Thy Children," Glen says "If only someone had said it ... That it's okay to be gay. That I could live my life and find love and be successful, even though I'm gay."

Said Nakatani, "My family's story is not about AIDS or homosexuality, but about what happens to all of us when a child is denigrated, whether it be because of race, gender, sexual orientation, size, or shape -- the reason doesn't matter, but the damage is the same. Anything that wounds the self-esteem of a child is the enemy we should all be fighting."

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