When the bride and groom cut the wedding cake, the 60 or so guests applauded, not only to celebrate the couple’s happy day but also out of respect for what they have endured.Their hardships were symbolized by the absence at the wedding in Tokyo of four important guests—their parents.
“We waited to have a wedding party until we passed the age 30, but it was not long enough to make ourselves understood (to our parents),” Jin, the groom, said. Jin, 35, and the bride, 36-year-old Natsu, are lesbians who say they simply want to be treated like “ordinary” people. They asked not to give their real names.
Japan's civil rights laws do not specify protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation. And same-sex marriages are not allowed under the family registration law. However, the government enacted a law in 2004 that allows people with gender identity disorders to change their sex in family registers.
And some local governments have adopted ordinances to protect gay and transgender people, including the Tokyo metropolitan government, which bans discrimination in employment based on sexual identity.
But the going has been slow for social acceptance of sexual minorities. Groups supporting the gay community also know that changes in perceptions in Japanese society will not happen overnight.
“We would rather open ourselves to the community, casually and gradually, than lock ourselves into a shell,” said Gon Matsunaka, 36, who heads Good Aging Yells, a nonprofit organization that promotes healthy lifestyles and awareness of sexual minorities.
Natsu and Jin said their married life is peaceful, but they regret that they may never be socially recognized as partners. Perhaps more hurtful to them is that many people they know refuse to accept them because of their sexual preference. Natsu, a part-time government employee, and Jin, a welfare worker, met on an Internet site and dated for eight years before their wedding in December 2010. When Jin faced a problem with work, Natsu offered encouragement.
“I thought she would be my only partner in life,” Jin recalled.
Discrimination followed them before the wedding. Even after they made a deposit under a provisional agreement, a wedding hall operator refused their request after learning that they were gay. It took a month to persuade the hall officials to hold the wedding. And then there was the issue with their parents.
Before the wedding, Jin told her mother that she was gay. Her mother accepted the fact, saying, “You have been suffering so much.” However, she said she could not attend the wedding. “Since we can’t tell your conservative father about this, I can’t possibly go to celebrate the marriage by myself,” the mother said. Natsu informed her mother of her sexual orientation at the age of 18 and also told her about her relationship with Jin. Again, it was the father who was the problem.
Whenever Natsu tried to tell her father about the wedding, he said, “I don’t want to hear about it.” Natsu’s sister attended the wedding ceremony, but Jin was not invited to the wedding party when the sister got married. Both Natsu and Jin say their parents seem to want to distance themselves from their daughters. Instead of their family members, Jin and Natsu use each other’s names as contacts for emergencies.
“Sexual orientation is not a choice (and cannot be changed). I want people to know it is natural orientation,” Jin said. Natsu said, “Just think that one of your close friends could be gay.”
There are places trying to spread awareness about sexual minorities in Japan. Colorful Cafe, which is operated by Good Aging Yells and promotes exchanges between residents and gay, bisexuals and transgender people in Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture, operated for the summer season for a second year.
Matsunaka of Good Aging Yells says he wants customers to lose their prejudices, look at items on display and meet with people with sexual-identity disorders at the cafe. In spring this year, the cafe started its Welcome Cafe Project and was joined by 15 restaurants and cafes in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Yamanashi and Kyoto prefectures. The project's goal is to increase the number of gathering places for sexual minorities and others across the country.
One of them is Good Morning Café in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward (www.goodagingyells.net/). “We have had gay and lesbian customers for a long time,” said the café’s operator, Satoru Baba. “I always liked them because of their pleasant characters, and I hope their presence will become nothing special.”
The Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, the largest of its kind in Asia, was held at the Spiral Hall in Minato Ward through Sept. 17. The festival, now in its 21st year, aims to promote awareness of sexual minorities by showing movies that can be enjoyed by people unfamiliar with such issues. “I hope viewers will enjoy the atmosphere of the festival, which attracts a variety of people, including those who are not sexual minorities,” said Hideki Miyazawa, a representative of the organizing committee. The lineup includes “Gayby,” a U.S. comedy, “Cloudburst,” a U.S.-Canadian joint production featuring a lesbian couple in their 70s, and short films from Japan and other Asian countries.