When university student Osamu Inoue, 19, came out openly in high school two years ago and admitted he was gay, he had hoped that at least his school would have adopted a more positive attitude toward sexual minorities.
That wasn’t the case, however.
“Nothing was done at the school to mend the situation in which sexual minorities were being discriminated against,” said Inoue (not his real name).
It is still difficult to talk freely about one’s sexuality, especially to teachers and other adults, he said.
Japan’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender sexual minorities, collectively known as LGBT, often face bullying at schools, feel out of place and are even suicidal, in part because society has limited awareness and understanding of the issues surrounding them, experts say.
According to an Internet survey conducted between October and December 2013 on 609 members of the LGBT community by a citizens’ group in Tokyo, almost 70 percent of the respondents said they had been the target of some form of violence or persecution — be it physical, sexual or verbal — or were neglected or felt left out of a group.
The respondents ranged in age from 10 to 35 and attended schools in the Kanto region, centering on Tokyo.
Acts of violence were especially conspicuous toward males with gender dysphoria, a condition in which a person feels their emotional and psychological gender identity to be opposite to their biological sex. Among those males, 82 percent said had been the target of bullying or other violence.
Asked whether they talked to anyone about their sexual orientation, half of the males and 30 percent of the females said they had no one to turn to.
Even among those who came out about their sexual orientation, 70 percent said they told their classmates, instead of adults, including parents or teachers.
“Only 10 percent said they have talked to teachers, which indicates that a lot of the teachers were unaware of the existence of LGBTs in their schools,” said a 27-year-old transgender activist who goes by the name Mameta Endo. He took part in drafting the survey.
On the other hand, in a survey carried out on teachers by Yasuharu Hidaka, a professor at Takarazuka University School of Nursing in Osaka, only 7.5 percent of almost 6,000 teachers from kindergarten through high school in six municipalities nationwide answered that they had past experience with gay or lesbian students, while about 12 percent said they had met students with a gender identity disorder.
A mere 7.5 percent said that they learned about gay and lesbian sexualities at teacher-training universities, and 8 percent said they learned about gender identity disorders, whereas 31 percent said they learned about bullying and 29 percent about school nonattendance.
Hidaka said that if the topic is not taught at the university level, it’s important that “teacher-training sessions on the LGBT issue be held at each municipality, so teachers can attain correct knowledge about LGBT people.”
“There needs to be an educational framework where not only teachers in charge of health care and health education, but all teachers can get proper training at least once about the LGBT topic,” he said.
“Some teachers tend to make wrong or improper remarks about LGBT people, without intending to offend. It happens because they don’t have correct knowledge of the topic. When teachers make fun of LGBT sexualities in the classroom, it makes it even more difficult for LGBT students to come out,” Hidaka said.
Inoue, who studies at the prestigious Tokyo Gakugei University, which specializes in training students to become teachers, said he felt different from others when he was about 8 or 9 years old and later realized he was gay.
When his family moved from the city to the countryside, he could not adapt to the new environment and was bullied at school. For six years between the fourth grade and the final year of junior high school, he was not able to attend, he recalled.
But he managed to go to a part-time high school, where he found it more comfortable to talk with people because the atmosphere was open and free.
Inoue said he joined an art club, where he managed to make friends. One day an older member of the club revealed that he was a gay. Inoue said this encouraged him to come out as well.
He admitted, however, that it was not as easy to talk about his sexual orientation to teachers.
Inoue, who was also a member of the school’s judo club, said a coach at the club told him the day after he came out that “if there were more homosexuals, that would be the destruction of humankind.” To his shock, the coach also told him that he was afraid to be seen sitting with Inoue because others might think he, too, was gay.
When it comes to transgender people, Endo, the activist, said their problems are quite widespread, from being bullied to feeling uncomfortable in school uniforms, feeling anxious about where to change, and which lavatories to use.
Endo said it was so unbearable wearing the uniform of a female, the gender he was born into, in the girls’ high school he attended that he decided to talk to the school nurse about his agony. However, he said the nurse didn’t take him seriously, and just commented that the agony was “just a phase that some girls go through” and that he would soon get over it.
“Until then, I thought I was no different than other girls. I thought that other students were feeling the same way as me, and were trying to bear wearing the uniform,” he said.
When the other girls talked about fashion and boys, Endo thought they were “making special efforts” in talking about these topics.
He believes transgender students tend to be truant because they don’t want to wear uniforms, like himself. Not wanting to wear uniforms is in fact cited as one reason for not going to school in a 2007 survey on transgender children conducted by Okayama University professor Mikiya Nakatsuka.
As the public has gradually become more aware of issues related to sexual minorities, some schools have started to take special measures for students with gender identity disorders.
In 2006, it was reported in Hyogo Prefecture that a 7-year-old boy was admitted entrance to a local elementary school as a girl. Saitama Prefecture followed in 2009, allowing an 8-year-old boy to attend school as a girl in the middle of the second year.
Also, in 2009, the city of Kagoshima allowed a 13-year-old junior high female student to attend school wearing a boy’s uniform, as she often felt sick when she wore a girl’s uniform.
Hidaka said the situation is getting better surrounding transgender students, as it is more and more talked about on TV and other media, and a lot of schools are starting to think of the topic as something that “needs to be dealt with.”
“But it’s hard for lesbian and gay students to come out, and even if they do, it’s difficult for schools to find specific ways to give special care to these students,” he said.