Saturday, May 25, 2013

An LGBT Epiphany?

Or am I just late to the conversation? And is it sufficiently explanatory?

I’m having lunch with a couple of foreign correspondents, one of who wonders why Japanese women play such a small role in the public sphere and yet complain so little. I wonder too; it’s as if the feminist movement of the sixties and seventies came went here with minimal effect. I don’t have a good answer, so I broaden the scope of gender-related issues and bring up LGBT in Japan. Specifically, I wager that you can go into most any normal workplace and chances are almost nil that you will find someone who knows a co-worker to be gay. Again, what pressure there has been from the LGBT community has been too little and too few to make a difference. And it’s really an East Asia thing, if you look at the male near-monopoly on political leadership roles in China and the Koreas, or the dearth of LGBTs with public profiles there. (Someone brought up Park Geun-hye on a different occasion. But she’s the daughter of a dead president and only entered public life in her forties. That’s not even Hillary Clinton, that’s the story of every political dynasty in South Asia.)

But then I think I’ve come up with something: your great AIDS epidemic of the seventies and eighties. Suddenly, people around you, your family, friends, colleagues, get sick and died, people that you thought were “normal”, you realize aren’t actually “normal”… which forces you to reconsider the meaning of “normal.” And the outcome, most people who are reading this will surely agree, has been a positive one, if one still in progress.

Of course, that never happened in Japan. We did not have that debate here, because we did not have that great AIDS epidemic here. (We didn’t give women birth control pills, but we didn’t say no either. We have perforce been great consumers of condoms.) It was talked about, but mainly as something that happened “over there,” while the domestic headlines were dominated by a slew of infections by blood transfusion. No family, friends, or colleagues involuntarily outed by HIV; no personal rethinking.

Sounds plausible, doesn’t it? But am I satisfied? No. I prefer overarching solutions, so I’m still left wondering whether there is a significant connection between the ways that the two gender-related issues that took center stage of public discourse in their respective decades over there yet failed to properly materialize here.


kamo said...

Getting dangerously close to 'the Gay Plague' here Jun. I'd advise stepping carefully. Not that thinking out loud can't be useful, of course.

If I follow your thinking, then AIDS forcibly outed people in a way that gave their relatives and associates little choice but to reassess their measures of 'normal' (which the disassociating quote marks make no less problematic).

You're also saying that Japan never had an AIDS epidemic because the Pill never took off, so everyone uses condoms instead? I'm not sure how this relates to the gay community; birth control is pretty much moot, barring some fairly spectacular biological outliers.

So people who caught AIDs were not 'normal', because only (or even just mainly) gay people got AIDS. But AIDS never hit Japan in the same way because of all the Japanese heterosexuals using condoms. So how does that make AIDS a 'gay' disease? I realise that you're ascribing these perceptions to the wider public and may not share them yourself, but you see how this thinking is, at best, confused and contradictory?

I applaud your search for an understanding of Japan's relative lack of understanding regarding issues of gender and identity, but I think you're really barking up the wrong tree here, to the extent that you're failing to see the woods all around you.

Anonymous said...

kamo, I'd say you're putting words in Jun's mouth.

First he's not linking the lack Pill and AIDS, I'd say he's suggesting that because the condom was made so readily available, it gave Japanese women the veneer of "reproductive control" without the large public struggle that women in the West engaged in to get access to a form birth control in which they could take the lead. In turn, the lack of said public struggle didn't spark the demand for greater say in the work place.

And of the AIDS epidemic, the majority of it's sufferers in the early 80s in North America were gay men, were they not. And wasn't it then that some gay men who were not known by their co-workers to be gay were "outed" by illness, and some people made the mental calculus that "gay =/= deviant," and that, especially in light of the suffering people afflicted with AIDS, middle class acceptance of gay man (and then later, other LGBT people) began to grow? And again, because this did not occur on a similar scale in Japan, there was no reassessment of attitudes. That's why the most high profile LGBT people in Japan are 'o-nee' characters on TV who get treated like freaks, and average LGBTs have to remain fairly closeted.

That's the message that was immediately apparent in the blog post; think things through before rushing to judge,

kamo said...

Yeah, maybe that came across a little preachy. Oops. As I tried to make clear in my first and last paragraphs, it's good and laudable to try to think this stuff through.

I still feel the thinking here is confused, though. You've split the two issues (birth control availability, AIDS 'outings') in a way that's perhaps clearer than the manner in which Jun threw them together. I note you don't even try to link the availability of birth-control in the straight population to sexual health in the gay community.

I still think as explanations go they're a little too pat and simplistic. Wikipedia is a dodgy source, but I was always of the impression that, while gay men were over represented and a proportion of the population, the majority (i.e. more than 50%) of AIDS sufferers self-identified as straight. Likewise, I'm not sure I buy the line that condoms give women the ability to greater control their reproduction to any great effect. I'd also note that abortions seem far more socially acceptable in Japan.

As I said, I think the thinking here is confused. However, the act of thinking itself is worthwhile, and I hope this reply is closer to the spirit of encouraging closer examination that I was aiming for in my first comment but so obviously missed. Jun, Anon, keep up the good work.