National / Social Issues

Schools in Japan to let transgender students use whichever locker room they prefer

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

The education ministry issued a landmark notice on Thursday, urging local education boards to ensure that schools do more to cater to children who believe they were born the wrong gender.

The move, which comes amid rising sensitivity toward sexual minorities by Japanese society and officialdom, will oblige schools to pay greater attention to the needs of transgender students. The measures include, for example, allowing them to come to school with uniforms of whichever gender they prefer or letting them use a bathroom or locker room as they choose so as to pay heed to students’ gender identity as much as possible.

It also says other sexual minority students — gays, lesbians, and bisexuals — deserve greater accommodation, the first such notice of its kind.

Some schools have allowed transgender children to wear the uniform of the gender they identify as, but the latest ministry notice will encourage all schools to do so — from elementary level to high school.

“It’s a very important step,” said Mameta Endo, a transgender male who suffered discrimination at school, which recognized him as a girl, his gender at birth.

Endo, 28, welcomed the ministry’s move to protect the rights of children of all backgrounds to an education, and spoke of cases he has witnessed in which sexual minorities were pressured to leave the school system.

“I have seen many friends who had no choice but to drop out of school. . . . Hopefully, this measure will help decrease the number of such students,” he said.

Because Endo was biologically female, high school teachers required him to wear a skirt.

“Ten years ago, when I came out, teachers didn’t take it seriously” he said. The teachers would tell him it was confusion caused by watching television.

He said he hopes the ministry’s move will eventually alter the mindset toward sexual minorities, starting with the teachers.

In a 2012 document, the ministry urged schools to care for transgender students but stopped short of spelling out what measures to take. Moreover, it omitted any mention of other sexual minorities.

“I praise the fact that they included (all) sexual minorities for the first time,” Endo said, adding that the latest move would help to provide a more secure environment for them.

The education ministry revealed in June 2014 that schools nationwide had recognized 606 students as transgender. But it noted the actual number might be much higher, as sexual minorities often have difficulty coming out.

The move comes amid growing awareness of sexual minorities in Japan.

Last month, in the first such move by a municipality, Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward adopted an ordinance recognizing same-sex unions as “equivalent to marriage.” Ward officials are now offering such couples an official but nonbinding certificate guaranteeing identical rights, including the ability to rent apartments jointly and visit the other partner in hospital.

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