“You’re not alone” – LGBT Youths Address Students at School Visits

“I was uncomfortable taking baths with everyone, and I didn’t attend school trips or excursions.”

Yamashita Subaru (25) reflects on his middle school days. “At that time, I didn’t know who I was. Now, I recognize that I’m attracted to men and that there’s no need to hide it.”

LGBT is an acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, and is used to refer to sexual minorities. According to a survey conducted by Dentsu Research in 2015, The population of LGBT individuals in Japan is estimated to be about 7.6%. If this ratio is applied to schools, it can be deduced that around 1~2 students per class falls into this category.

On April 1st 2016, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) announced guidelines for elementary, middle and high school teaching staff on how to support LGBT children. Now, many schools have begun searching for a way to provide education about sexual minorities. We pursued the latest information about how schools are providing education about the LGBT community.

Young People Coming Out at Coming-of-Age Ceremonies

On January 16, 2016, approximately 180 young people gathered in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward to attend an “LGBT Coming-of-Age Ceremony”. All of the participants were LGBT.

Hirao Shunka (27, Researcher) identified herself as transgender and pansexual. She was born male and raised as a boy, but identifies as female. She has now changed her name, lives as a female, and is attracted to anyone, regardless of sex or gender identity. “When I was a child, there weren’t any places where I could speak about myself. “When I attended my coming-of-age ceremony at 20, I attended as a male. Being able to attend this coming-of-age ceremony wearing a furisode as I always longed for is like a dream come true.”

The “LGBT Coming-of-Age Ceremony” is sponsored by the NPO group “ReBit”. Created in 2009 by LGBT students at Waseda University, the group now has over 300 members conducting activities.

The coming-of-age ceremony was created in 2011, and started as 10 students gathering to celebrate their welcoming of adulthood. Now in its fifth year, the event has expanded to 11 locations across Japan, such as Hokkaido, Osaka, and Nagasaki, and has welcomed 900 participants.

Yamashita had this to say of the event: “We wanted to create a place where those who had hidden the fact that they are LGBT could become adults as their true selves.”

The Day I Told to my Friend, “I like men.”

Yamashita himself came out as gay when he was a university student.

It had been difficult for him to hide his true self from his close friends during his high school and university days.

“Coming out was a process. When my friends came over to hang out, and everyone began to go home, I waited until I was alone with one of my male friends, and explained it to him. After that, I began telling my other friends one by one.” Although he sounds confident as he recounts these experiences, “at the time, I couldn’t stop sweating, my heart was thumping, and it was a struggle to get the words out.”

His friends had various reactions. Warding off jokes such as “It’s fine, but don’t fall in love with me”, with a lighthearted “don’t worry, I wont”, was particularly difficult and hurtful. “Now, I feel thankful even for those reactions, but at the time, I felt really stressed, and I wished that they would have properly heard me out.”

The best reaction was that of the fourth person he told. When Yamashita mentioned how others told him “don’t fall in love with me”, his friend gave the following response: “I don’t know whether or not I could return your feelings, but it’s okay if you come to have feelings for me.” Yamashita felt as if these words saved him. While it couldn’t exactly ease the struggle of coming out, it was the first time he discovered the reaction that he had been always been seeking.

However, he still not out to everyone, and still has family and friends who do not know his true nature.

“Normal” hurts LGBT Children

In December of 2015, Yodogawa, Abeno, and Miyakojima wards in Osaka City created a handbook for school faculty.

“Gender is a Spectrum” Handbook cover

“We were forced to wear skirts.”
“If you’re a boy, they force you to cut your hair.”
“It’s hard to talk to your friends about who you like, so you lie.”

These are some experiences gathered from LGBT graduates from schools in the three wards. In addition,

“the colour of randoseru” (gradeschool kid’s backpacks)
“adding ‘-kun’ and ‘-chan’ to the end of our names”
“school excursions” (students often have to bathe communally on these trips)
“swimming class”

and so on, the fact that these common scenes of school life are factors that can cause harm to LGBT people is warned in the handbook.

“I’ve considered suicide.” – Survey Results Telling 

According to the the results of a survey conducted in 2005 by Yasuhara Hidaka of Takurazuka University’s nursing science department, the rate of gay and bisexual men who have considered suicide is over 65%, and 14% have actually attempted suicide. The risk of gay and bisexual men attempting suicide is six times that of straight men.

“Though it has come to light that the suicide rate amongst LGBT individuals is high, it hasn’t caused schools to change anything.” explained Watanabe Daisuke, associate professor at Saitama University. In 2012, on a report outlining suicide prevention measures published by the government , “sexual minority” was listed for the first time as an example of a “primary factor of suicide”.

A Lack of Understanding Forces Children into Isolation

Schools have a long history of being indifferent towards LGBT individuals. According to Professor Hidaka, according to an opinion survey conducted between 2011-2013 of over 6000 educators, 62.8% responded stating that they believe that teaching about homosexuality is important in schools. In addition, a mere 13.7% reported presently providing such education. It has become apparent that, as of now, educators hardly have the knowledge or training to teach such a subject. Professor Watanabe stresses that “being homosexual or transgender is something people are born as”, and it is not something that one can decide. However, according to the aforementioned survey, 7 out of 10 teachers mistakenly believe that “sexual orientation is something that can be decided.”

Addressing Students at School Visits

ReBit began planning school visits to elementary and middle schools six years ago. At first, the primary goal was to convey to lonely children in the same situation they were in that “you are not alone”.

Over time, the visits have gradually evolved to spread LGBT awareness amongst non-LGBT students and educators as well. At the start, they would call schools to gauge interest, but we were often refused and told “we don’t have any students like that here”.

After reaching out to local boards of education, the opportunities increased little by little. The organization now visits elementary, middle and high schools one after another, sometimes as often as ten times a month, and has conducted classes 350 times for upwards of 20,000 students. They believe they are making steady progress in increasing LGBT awareness in schools.

Students who had never heard the term “LGBT” have reacted to ReBit member’s coming out stories with surprise and confusion, and have deepened their understanding. We followed one of their classes for 3rd and 4th grade elementary school students.

At the class, the LGBT youths and students sat in a circle and spoke while facing one-another. Professor Watanabe believes these classes are valuable, stating “Having various LGBT individuals visiting schools is extremely meaningful”. He says that conveying LGBT diversity is difficult if the students only hear of one person’s experience, and if various LGBT individuals conduct these classes together, they can create a deeper level of understanding.

“No one ever told me about these kinds of things, but the truth is, I think I also like boys.” After classes, its not uncommon to hear these kinds of comments from children just realizing their own sexuality. At the same time, there are also complications, however. There are concerns from within the organization that “the classes may cause LGBT kids to become bullied”, or “after hearing about the experiences of their older peers, LGBT children may become pessimistic about their futures.” They continue their activity while considering the impact that the classes may have.

Textbooks and Classes Have Begun to Change

In 2015, Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward garnered attention for being the first in the nation to declare recognition of same-sex couple’s right to marry. 2017 will be the first time that high school home economics textbooks will refer to LGBT.

Professor Watanabe believes that it is possible that all subject could provide some consideration for LGBT individuals. Physical education classes could incorporate things that males and females could do together (such as jumping rope, yoga, and so on). In history and social studies classes, as well as in biology classes, there are opportunities to refer to LGBT. “It would be good if many schools established gender-free toilets as well. However, we’re still at the point where teachers are just learning the language to express understanding of LGBT people.”

※“Gender is a Spectrum” Handbook cover courtesy of http://www.city.osaka.lg.jp/miyakojima/page/0000334761.html

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