A former lawmaker who played a big role in making the Netherlands in 2001 the first country to legalize same-sex marriage has called on Japan to make more efforts to promote the human rights of sexual minorities.
“We would love to see Japan and the Japanese government become more vocal about LGBT rights, because Japan is already in a core group of LGBT-friendly countries,” Boris Dittrich, the Dutch advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender program, said in a recent interview.
The 57-year-old gay rights advocate, who visited Japan to take part in a series of events for Tokyo Rainbow Week during the Golden Week holidays to support the nation’s sexual minority community, said Japan has been in the forefront of countries that back lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights at the United Nations, cosponsoring programs to protect them.
“We would love to see Japan talk about this issue also in the Asia-Pacific region, for instance to stimulate countries like Vietnam or Thailand to become more open about this and change their laws,” Dittrich said.
Dittrich, who is one of the first openly gay Dutch parliamentarians and has been traveling around the world to promote LGBT rights, said that through his interaction with sexual minorities in Japan he sees a difference in the situation of its members from his first trip to the country in 2009.
At that time, the Japanese LGBT community was discussing measures to provide protection against discrimination in daily life, for instance to prevent its members from being fired at work because of sexual orientation, he said.
“But now in 2013, there are many LGBT people who come to me and say ‘We would like to see marriage equality also in Japan,’ ” Dittrich, who took part in a gay pride parade in Tokyo on April 28, said.
Referring to a lesbian couple who had a wedding ceremony at Tokyo DisneySea in March and a gay couple who plan to hold such a ceremony in November in Tokyo with support from their employer, IBM Corp., Dittrich said he believes legal same-sex marriage in Japan is not something “far away.”
“Although they are not allowed to get married in Japan, for them it’s a way to show that we’re ready for it and we want to start a public debate” on same-sex marriage in the nation, he said.
“I believe that if they organize very well and if they make connections to politicians in Japan, you know one day it might start. It might take years, but the start is happening now,” he added.
At present, 14 countries have legalized or are set to formally recognize same-sex marriage, with parliaments in Uruguay, New Zealand and France having recently passed relevant legislation. In the U.S., the Supreme Court is scheduled to hand down a ruling on gay marriage in June.
Dittrich, who is married to a man, said the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage has been gaining momentum across the globe because LGBT people “don’t want to be treated as a separate group” and are “entitled to have the same rights as everybody else.”
In France, supporters of same-sex marriage told him they were dissatisfied with the country’s PACS civil solidarity pact, a form of civil union for unmarried couples, as it does not give such couples full rights and they “don’t want to have apartheid in the law.”
He also said “a generational aspect” is contributing to the ongoing movement, with younger people becoming more tolerant of the idea of legalizing same-sex marriage as they get more information from the Internet than older generations.
Dittrich said he believes opposition to same-sex marriage in Japan is not so much related to religion but to people’s resistance to changing tradition.
Opponents say they are “not accustomed to” the idea of marriage between two men or two women, but “those arguments based on tradition do not hold up against the universality of human rights,” he said, stressing that universal rights “apply to everybody.”
Noting that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has also shown his support for the rights of LGBT people, Dittrich said, “Internationally agreed upon human rights are stronger than traditional arguments.
“So if in Japan, people say, ‘It’s not our tradition’ — that’s true. But it’s not an argument to stop introducing marriage equality,” he said. According to a survey carried out last year by major ad agency Dentsu Inc., 5.2 percent of about 70,000 Japanese polled said they belong to the LGBT community.
Dittrich stressed the importance of making LGBT people more visible.
“Of course that also creates some opposition because people are not used to it,” he said, “but that’s a phase which the society needs to go through in order to achieve more rights.”