Tuesday, July 22, 2008

LGBT Youth Exchange Project

In the midst of the constant activity of the festival at Omote-Sando’s Spiral Hall was a table bedecked in rainbow flags, brochures and information, and staffed by bright-eyed young people working hard to make a difference for queer youth. As you’ll recall, at the request of director Thomas Gustafson, and with the help of an anonymous donor, a group of 16 queer youth were invited to attend our opening night screening of Gustafson’s ‘Were the World Mine’ free of charge. So where did these youth come from? And what sort of queer youth organizations or programs exist in Japan?

I finally had a chance to find out on Saturday, when I spoke with Inoue Yuko-san of the Center for Gender Studies at Tokyo’s International Christian University (http://subsite.icu.ac.jp/cgs/). They are working together with people from an initiative called Peer Friends on the LGBT Youth Exchange Project. This is the first year of the project, and it will bring a group of queer youth from Bristol, England to Japan this summer, for a ground-breaking exchange program. It will culminate in a public event on August 24th, when people like you and I can go to the Yoyogi Olympic Centre and find out what these inspiring young people have been doing during the exchange. (For more information, please visit: http://www.delta-g.org/youth/ Or send an email to: young_lgbt@yahoo.co.jp)

Yuko-san is a truly unique soul. Her father is a Presbyterian pastor at a church here in Japan, and although she is not gay, she is committed to fighting homophobia both in the Christian community and in Japan generally. She speaks excellent English; she even has a bit of a Southern twang. So I couldn’t help but wonder why. She explained that spent one year on exchange in Arkansas, and that her parents are bilingual, so she grew up using both Japanese and English.

Guy: So tell me how the project works? Who is running it? How long will it go on?

Yuko-san: Our project will run for two weeks this coming August. Taiga Ishikawa of Peer Friends has contacts in Toshimaku, where the group will have a kind of retreat. They will also spend 3 days travelling to Kyoto and Nara. And then they will report back on their activities at the big event in Yoyogi on the 24th.

Guy: Has anything like this been done before in Japan?

Yuko-san: No, this is the first exchange of its kind. Previously, Japanese LGBT youth had no opportunity to get together with foreign youth to discuss issues of homophobia and coming out. The U.K. is a frontrunner in this area.

Guy: So who is paying to bring these kids to Japan?

Yuko-san: The city council of Bristol. They have an office called Youth and Play Services, and they spend 20 million yen annually [about 200,000 US dollars] on programs that address LGBT issues. It involves teachers and senior government officials, so it is a very well-established program.

Guy: Really? That is quite surprising. Bristol is maybe not such a big city, is it?

Yuko-san: Actually, it is the 6th largest in the U.K. But, still, these programs are quite unique.

Guy: So how many people will be coming?

Yuko-san: Seven students and three staff. The students are all between 16 and 21 years of age. They will attend five different workshops, on issues such as overcoming homophobia, accepting yourself, and coming out to your parents, as well as learning about queer history, etc.

I volunteered the fact that there is a great organization in Toronto called S.O.Y. -- Supporting Our Youth -- that creates programming for queer youth and helps foster healthy interactions between younger and older queer people. They might be a good partner for future Youth Exchange Projects in Japan, and will be of interest to anyone doing work around youth and sexuality. (For more information on S.O.Y. please visit: http://www.soytoronto.org/)

Yuko-san had the good manners and the curiosity to ask what had brought me to Japan, and I explained that I had always wanted to live abroad, and that several friends of mine (gay men and women) had come to Japan to teach English and had good experiences here. That led to some comparison of our experiences living abroad. In response to my question about racism, she said that the community she lived in Arkansas was definitely very segregated. At her school, "the black kids sat on one side and the white kids on the other," she said, "with the Asian kids making a kind of border down the middle!" I offered that a lot of foreigners complain about being treated like outsiders in Japan and never being truly accepted, but to that for me -- as a gay person -- I have never expected the world to just embrace me with open arms. As long as you don’t run into open hostility, you count yourself lucky. In that sense, being gay is a good preparation for being the kind of minority you are when you choose to come and live in a foreign country. However, it has to be said, that being a white foreigner in Japan makes you a kind of privileged minority, quite different I am sure from the experience of other Asians or Africans in Japan, or the experience of Asians in North America.

Guy: Why do you think the level of homophobic violence in Japan is so relatively low?

Yuko-san: I think it has to do with the lack of Christianity.

Guy: This from a pastor's daughter!

Yuko-san: Yeah, really! But while it’s true that homophobic violence is quite rare in Japan, we have had cases of gay people being attacked and even murdered because they are gay. About 9 years ago, there was something called the Shin-Kiba incident, in which a man was attacked and killed by a group of teenagers. They later told the police that they didn’t think he mattered as a human being because he was gay.

Guy: I think it’s the case that because queer visibility is low in Japan, violence is also low. But it may be the case that as queer visibility increases, so too -- unfortunately -- will certain kinds of attacks on gay people. At least that seems to have been the pattern in North America.

Yuko-san: What about lesbian visibility in Canada? In Japan, it is even lower than the visibility of the gay male community. You know, gay men give money and organize events and spend money at those events, but lesbians are quite invisible, even within the gay community.

Guy: I think in Canada there is probably a similar disparity -- gay men’s events and programs attract more attention and money. But in terms of visibility, I would say lesbians are definitely not invisible, either in the general society or the gay community. They are quite well organized and vocal, like gay men.

So going back to the gender and sexuality program at ICS [International Christian University], it seems quite unique. Are there many other programs like this in Japan?

Yuko-san: No, it’s the only one of its kind here. There is no capacity to do research, but you can graduate with a concentration in Gender or Sexuality, or a combination of the two. Right now, it is an undergraduate program, but in the future of course we hope to be able to offer graduate degrees as well.

Guy: How were the young Brits that will participate in this exchange selected?

Yuko-san: The city of Bristol organizes something called ‘Freedom Youth’ -- a weekly group that meets to allow queer youth to socialize and also learn about things they don’t teach in schools, about queer history, etc. Many of these kids are interested in Japanese culture, though maybe they only have a stereotyped image of what that is -- you know, cartoons and that sort of thing. So the Bristol city officers decided they would fund several of them to come to Japan. Seven students said they were interested in going, so they started preparing. They’ve been studying Japanese and learning more in depth about Japanese culture for about seven months know. We’re really excited for them to arrive!

Guy: So the exchange is not about these kids coming over and ‘teaching’ their Japanese peers about being out or something?

Yuko-san: No, no, of course not. At this point in history, it would be pretty ridiculous to bring them over here for that purpose. No, this will be a true exchange of equals. The British kids have a lot of supports, so in that way it has become very safe for them to be gay. Whereas in Japan, the Japanese kids really have to fend for themselves. So both groups have a lot to learn from each other.

Guy: The event on the 24th sounds really great. I am looking forward to attending.

Yuko-san: Yeah, we would like to attract as many teachers and people who work with youth as possible.

Yuko-san spoke of the desire of her and her colleagues to see more teachers come out at school, to help make it easier and safer for students to come out. I was not happy to have to report that even in Canada, which has a reputation as a kind of paradise for queer people (or at least for queer rights), most gay teachers are not out at school, at least not to their students. It is a sad contradiction that although teacher’s college is typically a hot-bed of leftish idealism, where everyone becomes sensitized to issues of race, class, gender and sexuality, at the same time the message when you enter the workforce as a teacher is, ‘Keep your head down. Don’t rock the boat. Wait until you are in a secure position, and then maybe you can begin to try to come out at work.’ I’ve even heard of cases of student teachers being encouraged in teacher’s college to incorporate queer issues into their lessons, who have then gone ahead and done so during their teaching practicums, got into trouble with their host schools, and then were denied graduation as a teacher (from the university that encouraged them to do this in the first place) because they failed to complete their practicum successfully!

One of the reason for this hesitance of teachers to come out is that there is a widely held fear, in the predominantly Christian West, that gay people are a threat to children, and as recently as 15 years ago, a gay teacher in Toronto was murdered by students from his school. That led to the creation of Toronto’s Triangle Program (http://schools.tdsb.on.ca/triangle/), a special alternative school for queer youth. It is a single-classroom program that can accommodate about 18 students at a time housed in the basement of a church that is well-integrated into Toronto’s gay community (indeed, the pastor, Reverend Brent Hawkes, is himself gay and conducted some of Canada’s first gay weddings).

As Yuko-san and her colleagues know, however, nothing will change if we are forever keeping our heads down for fear of provoking hostile reactions. Events like the Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (and countless other queer film festivals around the world), programs like the Youth Exchange Project here, GLSEN (http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/home/index.html) and the Gay-Straight Alliances it has fostered in U.S. and Canadian schools, and the Triangle Program and S.O.Y. in Toronto show that gay people in general -- and isolated queer youth in particular -- have a tremendous hunger for images of queer life that they can identify with, and opportunities to meet, socialize and learn from each other outside of the usual adult venues of gay life. We look forward to hearing a lot more about the great work people like Yuko-san are doing to create those opportunities here in Japan. Otsukarasama desu! (Thanks for your hard work!)

For more information on the LGBT Youth Exchange Project, please visit: http://www.delta-g.org/youth/ Or send an email to: young_lgbt@yahoo.co.jp

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