Japan: Azusa Yamashita
Co-secretary of the International Lesbian & Gay Association (ILGA). Ms. Yamashita is also co-director of Gay Japan News, Japan’s online LGBTI news source and advocacy group.
[In Japan] different LGBTI people have different experiences. Some LGBTI [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Inclusive] people are happy about who they are and have what they want – a partner, family, house, job, money, education (except legal protection and recognition.)
Other LGBTI people have difficulty accepting themselves and don’t have what they want.
Being LGBTI in Japan is to fight against stigmatization, invisibility, discrimination, violence, and isolation. In Japan, there is a law that allows some transgender people to change their genders on a legal identity card. Equal Employment Opportunity Law bans sexual harassment at work, including harassment against LGBTI workers. Other than these laws, Japanese LGBTI people aren’t legally protected from violence and discrimination or guaranteed basic rights. We have no anti-discrimination law inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity. Gender-change law requires sterilization. Anti-domestic violence law is exclusive of same-sex partner violence.
In Japanese culture, “harmony” is respected. “Harmony” means not to stand out or not to “bother others.” If you are different from the majority, it’s likely that people would think you’re “not normal” or “bothering other people” and can be isolated in a group (group can be your family, classmates, colleagues or neighbours). In schools, we’re taught to respect this harmony instead of being taught about diversities of sexualities. In the media, while queer figures are popular in many TV programs, you see them mocked or laughed at. So, generally speaking, it is still hard in Japan for LGBTI people to get positive messages that it’s okay or safe to be LGBTI.
In 2004-05, I lived in Edmonton as an exchange student for a year. I could have picked China, Germany, or Britain but I chose Canada because I knew Canada was moving toward legalization of same-sex marriage at that time. I wanted to feel the atmosphere around the discussion. I was fascinated by how tolerant, open and equal Canada has become towards people of differences.
Iceland: Johanna Sigurdardottir
Elected in 2009, the former prime minister of Iceland was the world’s first openly gay female head of government.
In the late 1970s, Icelandic society was radically different from the way it is today. Only a handful of Icelanders had come out of the closet and many of them had subsequently moved abroad, as it was very difficult to be “different” in our small society. Thus, most people did not know anyone who was openly homosexual and, therefore, honestly thought that there were hardly any queer people in our country. There were no laws to protect the human rights of LGBT people – indeed, nobody had even heard the term transgender in those days.
Through relentless work and great self-sacrifice [LGBT leaders] along with some progressively thinking heterosexuals, managed to inform people about LGBT issues and change the attitude of a whole society. And gradually more and more homosexual, bisexual and transgender Icelanders started to come out.
Today it would be hard to find an Icelander who doesn’t have an LGBT person in their family, in their circle of friends or as a colleague at work. And as prejudice thrives on the unknown, it tends to evaporate when you get to know someone from a group you had preconceptions and perhaps some misgivings about.
That is how Icelandic society had evolved when I became prime minister in 2009, and the fact that I have a same-sex partner was absolutely no issue here.
I think it is the duty of progressive countries such as Canada and Iceland, along with other Western societies, to try to inform people around the globe about LGBT issues. It is difficult to stand by and do nothing while queer people in many countries are punished or even executed, simply for having been born with feelings that ignorant, brutal leaders deem “wrong.” Information is the key to opening people’s eyes and changing attitudes, as we have seen so clearly in Iceland.
China: Dana Zhang