As complicated as the relations between Korea and Japan are over historical disputes, the two neighboring countries also share extensive similarities, one of them being their conservative societies that largely frown upon the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
That is why Japan’s first openly gay politician, Taiga Ishikawa, 40, traveled to Korea in early June to provide support for the local LGBT movement and participate in its annual queer festival. The Korea Queer Culture Festival’s street parade ― slated for June 28 ― was nearly canceled by Seoul police, but is back on track after a court ruled the ban unjust.
“I was shocked to hear that the parade was blocked by the state forces. It saddened me,” said Ishikawa in an interview with The Korea Herald earlier this month.
“Then it hit me; there isn’t an openly LGBT lawmaker in Korea yet.”
Ishikawa was elected a member of the Toshima Assembly, a special ward in Tokyo, in 2011 as the first openly gay candidate.
He said having a sexual minority in politics is important because it allows the LGBT community to have a greater voice.
While Japan now has three sexual minorities as elected politicians in the country, the conservative administration of Shinzo Abe still does not make the job easy for them, he said.
“Policymaking in Japan as a whole is conducted as if sexual minorities do not exist. I wish to be an advocate of LGBTs, as I am one myself,” he said. “In that sense, I hope there was an LGBT politician in Korea as well.”
Korea, dominated by traditional Confucian values and a powerful Christian community, seemed to come close in 2008, when lesbian politician Choi Hyun-sook ran for a parliamentary seat. Her attempt, while praised by local activists, came to no avail as she went home defeated with only 1.6 percent of the vote.
Ishikawa said he understood how it feels to be alone and cut off from those once regarded as friends because of one’s sexual orientation.
“I realized that I was gay in the fifth grade. Many LGBT people realize their sexual orientation in the early stages of their life, whether it be in kindergarten or in middle school,” he said. “It is important to tell them that they’re not weird and that they are not alone.”
He said the LGBT parade is important because it is a way of telling these people that they are not alone or isolated, which was how he often felt up to his 20s.
“I could not obtain proper information about LGBT at home or school, anywhere. Until I ran into other LGBT people, I was left in utter isolation,” Ishikawa said. “People start to drift apart, while less people understand how I feel.
“Statistics show that gay (and) bisexual teens in Japan are six times more likely to commit suicide than those who are heterosexuals. It is important to deliver the accurate information to teenagers.”
According to Ishikawa, 62 percent of gay and bisexual teenage boys in Japan have felt the urge to commit suicide, with 14 percent actually having attempted it. Of the entire LGBT teen population, 70 percent were bullied at schools.
“The important message is to show that it is not the LGBT people that are evil, but the society that persecutes them,” said Ishikawa.
In 1999, when Ishikawa started to interact with other LGBT community members, he realized he wasn’t alone. That gave him the courage to start working as an activist for LGBT rights, he said.
He also published the memoir “Where is My Boyfriend?” about his experience growing up as a young gay man in modern-day Japan.
Despite the obstacles faced by sexual minorities, Ishikawa said Japan has made considerable progress in the past 10 years, a claim perhaps best backed by his election.
He said an increasing number of sexual minorities are revealing their names and faces when appearing in public, such as in media interviews.
“When you look at countries that allow gay marriage, (the concept) is widely understood by the ordinary public,” he said. “The trend has been about activists coming out of the closet, but anyone should be able to do so. The hurdle to coming out should be lower.”
As a gay member of parliament, Ishikawa said his proudest accomplishment is making Toshima more “LGBT-friendly.” He recently pushed to add a section on LGBT people to the suicide prevention manual of Toshima’s civil servants.
Lack of recognition is considered one of the main difficulties faced by sexual minorities, he said. Korea has been no exception. Earlier this year, the Education Ministry was criticized by activists within and outside the country for not adding a section about LGBT in the national sex education guidelines for schools.
“The thing that hurt me the most was not being able to convey a feeling to other people that I am attracted to men. Everyone else just assumed I was heterosexual,” he said. “Building a relationship in that situation made me feel as if I did not exist. That I was not being accepted for who I was.”
By Yoon Min-sik (firstname.lastname@example.org)