Whenever Shigeyoshi Suzuki, 39, a public elementary school teacher in Tokyo, sees children voicing anti-gay slurs or taunts, he will always put a stop to it and make them aware of the harms of such discrimination.
“If your teacher explains (the issues surrounding the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community), consider yourself lucky,” Suzuki told The Japan Times in a recent interview.
As advocate for LGBT rights and an openly gay man, Suzuki believes Japan lags behind in gender equality education and calls for a greater support for LGBT-inclusive sex education.
“Discussions about sexuality are uncommon, as the topic remains taboo in Japanese society, being mostly associated with sexual acts,” Suzuki said. “And since no one talks about it, children turn to YouTube channels and find information in sexually explicit videos for adults.
“Sex education should be compulsory in junior high and high schools,” he said. “Children should be able to think and engage in discussions concerning their sexuality. Informing them and giving them a chance (to be part of the debate) is the first step to improving understanding in the society.”
In March, the education ministry adopted new curriculum guidelines that serve as standards for what should be taught at elementary, junior high and high schools. They also serve as guidelines for school textbooks and are revised every 10 years.
Suzuki points out that the guidelines do not introduce LGBT issues into the school curricula.
“This means, for the next 10 years, children won’t have the chance to learn about LGBT issues (in school),” Suzuki said, adding that the ministry made the decision based on the premise that including such information would meet with disapproval, particularly from parents.
According to an internet survey conducted by marketing company Dentsu Inc. in 2015, 7.6 percent, or 1 in 13 people, of about 70,000 Japanese men and women aged 20 to 59 identified as LGBT.
Suzuki’s awareness of his own sexuality began at the age 6, and was offended by his friends’ distressing comments, including a derogatory term for gay men.
Based upon his own experience and as an educator, Suzuki said teaching children about such issues at an early stage could mitigate the struggle for LGBT children and help them gain understanding.
He said that children tend to hide these anxieties from their parents and seek help at school, but most teachers are ill-prepared to handle such issues because the issue isn’t part of the training for prospective teachers.
He also said most LGBT teachers hide their own sexuality from employers out of fear of rejection or discrimination.
Suzuki came out as gay to his family in December 2011. At the time, he taught a class of sixth-graders Tokyo’s Adachi Ward. After his coming out, he quit his job at a school, unhappy that he was unable to talk about LGBT issues in school.
He now works with children with developmental disabilities as a part-time lecturer in Tokyo and his employer is aware of Suzuki’s sexual orientation.
Suzuki wants to establish a community in Tokyo promoting diversity and LGBT rights, and create a space where people could engage and learn about different lifestyles.
A member of ReBit, a Tokyo-based nonprofit LGBT support group, said that silence on the issue in schools causes children to doubt their sexual orientation or struggle with gender identity — and this in turn causes isolation or avoidance of school.
“Nearly 70 percent of LGBT children are believed to have been bullied and about 60 percent of transgender students have contemplated suicide — of which 30 percent have already tried to take their own life,” said Kanako, 23, who requested her last name be withheld. “I believe this should be addressed through education.”
She explained that some teachers introduce LGBT issues in health or ethics classes, but most textbooks used during such lessons uniformly show the traditional family model of a man, a woman and children.
She suggested schools should revise their practices of dividing students into female and male groups, a binary choice that forces transgender children to identify according to their physical appearance.
Schools should also increase the number of multipurpose restrooms and allow students to choose school uniforms according to their gender identity, she added.
ReBit, which now has about 400 members with 80 percent identifying themselves as LGBT, dispatches lecturers to schools nationwide to speak about the struggles of gender identity and sexuality, as well as equal rights. The group has so far conducted about 500 lectures addressing close to 40,000 students and teachers.
“While most requests come from high schools or universities, the number of requests from elementary and junior high schools have been increasing,” she said.
In April, the group released a classroom toolkit intended for junior high school teachers.
The Ally Teacher’s Tool Kit contains videos, worksheets and questionnaires, and can be downloaded for free from ReBit’s website.