The Olympics gave hope to LGBTQ activists in Japan. But old prejudices die hard.


TOKYO – When Fumino Sugiyama, then a Japanese women’s national team fencer, decided to introduce himself to one of his coaches as a transgender man, he wasn’t sure what to expect.

What followed shocked him with his brutality.

“You’ve never had sex with a real man,” the coach replied, then offered to do the act himself, according to a letter Mr. Sugiyama wrote to Thomas last fall. Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee.

Mr. Sugiyama, 39, now an activist, wanted to give Mr. Bach an unvarnished picture of the deep-rooted discrimination in Japan, especially in the rigid world of sport. He also hoped Mr Bach would pressure the Japanese government over a bill protecting gay and transgender rights. This, Mr Sugiyama wrote, could protect “the next generation of athletes from what I have been through.”

But now, less than two months away from the Tokyo Olympics, hopes for the bill are running out. As a bipartisan committee put forward a draft measure, even its modest goal of calling discrimination “unacceptable” has proved too important to conservative lawmakers, who have blocked the bill from being considered by the government. whole Parliament.

What was supposed to be a first step towards equality instead revealed once again the strong opposition to LGBTQ rights on the part of the mainstream politicians of the family values ​​of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. One member, when discussing the measure, said that homosexuals and transgendered people “go against the preservation of the species”. Another said it was “absurd” for transgender women to “demand” to use a women’s washroom or win track and field medals.

The reaction shows how far Japan must go to respect one of the principles of the Olympic Charter: that all discrimination must be eliminated.

Japan ranks penultimate in gay and transgender rights among nearly 40 rich countries within the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. He is the only member of the Group of 7 Industrial Powers that has not legalized same-sex unions. And no athlete scheduled to compete for Japan at the Games has become gay or transgender, choosing instead to stay locked up, advocates say, for fear of a backlash from fans or sponsors.

“It’s very embarrassing,” said Kyoko Raita, executive board member of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee and professor of sports history at Chukyo University.

The ruling party’s sponsor of the bill, Tomomi Inada, a former defense minister, said in a video posted on Twitter which she would not give up before the end of the current parliamentary session in mid-June.

“With this Olympic opportunity, let’s try to create this law,” Ms. Inada said in an interview. “If we miss this opportunity, it will be difficult. “

Even if passed, some activists say, the bill is too watered down to have much effect. The measure does not go so far as to completely ban prejudice in a society where homosexuals and transgender people are often afraid to reveal their sexuality or gender identity.

“I really don’t think the bill makes any sense,” said Shiho Shimoyamada, one of the few elite athletes in Japan who has publicly declared himself as gay.

“If people say, ‘I understand what it means to be LGTBQ but it’s a problem for the team’, there is no one who can judge these discriminatory practices” as illegal, “Ms. Shimoyamada said,” 26-year-old club footballer who played professionally in Germany for two years.

She said the Japanese sports community was particularly inflexible and intolerant, hampered by traditional expectations of femininity and masculinity. According to a survey by the Japan Sport Association, more than 40% of athletes who identify as gay, bisexual or transgender said they heard someone make discriminatory remarks.

Airi Murakami, 31, a former member of the women’s national rugby team who turned out to be gay in April, said she was bullied as a high school basketball player for attending a teammate. For years she struggled with feelings of guilt and shame.

“Expressing that you are part of the LGBTQ community” is difficult, said Ms. Murakami.

As difficult as it is to be openly gay in Japanese conformist society, in some ways public attitudes have evolved faster than those of the country’s political leaders.

Almost two-thirds of those polled by researchers at Hiroshima Shudo University in 2019 were in favor of marriage equality, up from just over half four years earlier. Almost 90 percent supported laws prohibiting discrimination against gay and transgender people.

In some ways, Japan has long had a fluid conception of gender and sexual orientation. Gay social life thrives in a large nightlife district of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, and Japan has a famous tradition of transgender performing arts like Takarazuka, Noh, and Kabuki.

But such cultural acceptance does not always translate into political support for equal rights.

“Insisting on a politicized gender identity is grating in the ears of more conservative people,” said Jennifer Robertson, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Michigan who grew up in Japan. “They can have a friend who has sex with a same-sex partner, but they don’t want them to be integrated.”

Olympic officials explicitly banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation shortly after Tokyo won its Olympic bid seven years ago, in response to an anti-gay law passed in Russia ahead of the Winter Games from 2014 in Sochi.

Critics say the IOC acted too late – the clause was only added after the Sochi Games – and doubt the visibility of the Olympics will be of much help to Japan either.

“It is a false hope that the Olympics will bring more equality to the host country,” said Satoko Itani, associate professor of sports, gender and sexuality at Kansai University. (Like in Japan, conservatives in South Korea, which hosted the 2018 Winter Olympics, blocked legislation to protect sexual minorities.)

In Japan, Olympic organizers have offered only moderate support for gay and transgender rights.

In one of Seiko Hashimoto’s first acts after becoming chair of the Tokyo organizing committee, she visited Pride house in Tokyo, a center set up to support the gay and transgender community during the Olympics and beyond. (His predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, never came.)

Organizers admit their efforts for gay and transgender rights are modest and said they could not pressure the government on the pending bill. “In terms of sexual minorities, understanding has not progressed as far as it has in the West,” said Nobuyuki Sugimoto, who handles human rights issues for the committee.

Mr Sugimoto said the designers of the Olympic volunteers’ uniforms had incorporated advice for making the clothing unisex, although photos of uniforms for the medal presenters revealed last week showed men in pants and women in skirts. He said he did not know any of the thousands of organizing committee employees who had come out publicly. (Mr. Sugimoto seemed unaware that the spokesperson for the committee who interviewed him was declared bisexual.)

A more concerted push can come from the business community. A group of global businesses have signed a letter supporting the gay and transgender rights bill, including Olympic marketing partners like Coca-Cola and Intel.

Moriaki Kida, managing director of consultancy firm EY Japan, said that even if the current bill did not extend LGBTQ rights enough, it would be a good start. Just seeing the ruling party in Japan discussing gender diversity, he added, is something “I never imagined 10 years ago.”

Mr. Sugiyama, the retired fencer, said he too would accept gradual steps. In his response to Mr. Sugiyama’s letter, Mr. Bach, an Olympic gold medalist in fencing, did not address Japan’s bill. He said the IOC was developing a voluntary non-discrimination framework which was “a work in progress”.

“I am happy that he is promoting inclusion in sport,” Mr. Sugiyama said. ” I am realistic. If we are aiming for 120%, I would still settle for 80%, even 20%, because that would still be a step forward. “

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