Neither fame nor status matters much when you’re in front of Leslie Kee’s lens. Still, the Singaporean photographer has shot a number of celebrities, including Beyonce, Madonna and Lady Gaga.

In recent years, though, Kee has swapped glitz for grit in a project called “Out in Japan,” which documents stories of sexual minorities in Japan.

Speaking at his office in Tokyo’s leafy Daikanyama neighborhood, Kee says he is mindful of the stories behind every person in the project he has photographed.

“To me they’re all stars of who they are,” Kee says. “They’re not just stars, they’re heroes of their community.”

“Out in Japan” was launched by nonprofit organization Good Aging Yells in 2015, with Kee working as the project’s chief photographer since its inception.

Transgender model Ivan was the first person to be featured in the
Transgender model Ivan was the first person to be featured in the ‘Out in Japan’ project | LESLIE KEE

Inspired by a 1994 photo collection of sexual minorities in the U.S. called “Out in America,” the project was launched in Japan with a portrait of transgender model Ivan and has since featured more than 1,200 people who identify as a sexual minority.

Good Aging Yells founder Gon Matsunaka says the project offers the LGBTQ community plenty of inspiration.

“The effect of just one individual coming out is extremely powerful,” Matsunaka says. “If even a single person comes out to another, it helps generate a far deeper feeling of understanding.”

Media attention

According to a survey of 70,000 people conducted by Dentsu Diversity Lab in 2015, 7.6 percent of respondents identified as a sexual minority, a figure that roughly equates to 1 in 13 people nationwide.

Academics generally agree that LGBTQ issues have only started to attract widespread attention in recent years.

In March 2015, Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward became the first municipality to recognize same-sex partnerships. Another six municipalities have since recognized same-sex partnerships, most recently the city of Fukuoka.

Companies have added their weight to the conversation, introducing measures to promote a better LGBTQ-friendly corporate environment through diversity and inclusion programs.

By photographing the portraits for “Out in Japan,” Kee believes he’s doing his part by shedding light on the personal stories of each individual that is featured.

Speaking at his office, Kee explains why he decided to shoot portraits of each person in the project with their eyes open and closed. Pointing to images of same-sex couples he has taken for a separate project, Kee says the first thing people notice when looking at a couple photographed with their eyes closed is not their sexual orientation but love.

Leslie Kee
Leslie Kee | ELLE HARRIS

“When you look into a person’s eyes, you immediately judge that person’s identity,” Kee says. “Eyes are one of the most important elements when you are shooting a person’s portrait.”

“Out in Japan” has also become Kee’s lifework. The photographer says he can relate to his subjects because he has also identified as a minority all of his life. Kee recalls his childhood in Singapore, where he and his younger sister were raised in poverty. His mother raised the two of them on her own, working as a prostitute in order to make ends meet for her family.

Two months before his mother’s death from cancer, she bought Kee, who was 13 at the time, his first camera. Kee had always wanted a camera, because he had no photographs of himself as a child. He recalls how jealous he was of classmates who would bring photos of their families to school. “I can’t go back into my past to take a photo of me and my mom,” Kee says. “I wanted a camera because I wanted to photograph my sister so that she would have photographs of herself when she was young.”

Personal choice

“Out in Japan” wants to compile portraits of 10,000 people by 2020. Matsunaka, however, says that the aim of the project is not to force people to come out as a sexual minority. “It’s an individual’s choice to come out,” Matsunaka says. “It’s not something people must do. … We want to create a society in which people can come out if and when they want to.”

Good Aging Yells founder Gon Matsunaka
Good Aging Yells founder Gon Matsunaka | LESLIE KEE

Matsunaka, 42, was raised in Kanazawa and is the middle child of three boys.

Like many sexual minorities of his generation, homosexuality was not something that was discussed when he was young. He was confused about why he was attracted to other boys but felt he should keep his feelings to himself.

Matsunaka confirmed he was gay after seeing an offensive stereotype of a gay man called “Homoo Homooda,” played by comedian Takaaki Ishibashi, portrayed on television in the 1980s.

Upon looking up the word “homosexual” in the dictionary, one of the definitions listed used the term “abnormal sexuality” — a phrase that has since been deleted.

“I saw the word ‘abnormal’ and was in shock,” Matsunaka says. “I knew I couldn’t tell anyone. I tried to be as cheerful as I could with my family but I couldn’t tell the truth about myself to anyone and I felt like I was not living my own life.”

Matsunaka moved from Kanazawa to Tokyo to attend university. However, a stay in Melbourne, Australia, on a student foreign exchange program really opened his eyes as he found himself in more tolerant surroundings. The college he attended had a “queer room” in which he could talk about his life more freely.

“Hiding the fact I was gay became the norm and, while that was difficult, I learned to protect myself by lying and avoiding conversation,” Matsunaka says. “(In Melbourne, however), I was struck by this sense of freedom. For the first time in my life, I realized how difficult it had been to hide my sexuality.”

Returning to Japan, Matsunaka found a job at advertising giant Dentsu Corp., where he continued to work until June 2017. It was during his time at Dentsu in 2011 that he came out to his colleagues at work after deciding to launch Good Aging Wells.

Municipal recognition

Ryutaro Nagata, head of Shibuya Ward
Ryutaro Nagata, head of Shibuya Ward’s gender equality and diversity promotion division | LESLIE KEE

Ryutaro Nagata, head of Shibuya Ward’s gender equality and diversity promotion division, also played a key role in the early stages of “Out in Japan.”

Nagata, 43, had been working at Gap Inc. and helped Matsunaka get the project off the ground by having the U.S. clothing company provide garments for the people featured in the portraits. He also coordinated an exhibition of Kee’s portraits at Gap’s flagship store in Tokyo’s Harajuku district.

At the exhibition, Nagata met Shibuya Mayor Ken Hasebe. Hasebe has been a vocal supporter of LGTBQ issues over the past few years, calling for the recognition of same-sex partnerships, which led to the enacting of an ordinance that publicizes the names of companies and organizations that discriminate against same-sex couples.

“It’s an ordinance that rejects any sort of discrimination based on gender and sexuality,” Nagata says. “It is significant because the ordinance was passed through the will of Shibuya’s residents.”

Nagata left Gap and began a three-year term in Shibuya’s Ward Office in September 2016. He says the above ordinance on discrimination is just the beginning, adding that it is his job to make sure it’s enforced. This, however, is easier said than done.

“The dots have all been created,” Nagata says. “It’s now time to connect them. LGBT issues touch on questions of gender diversity and, therefore, they concern everyone. I think we ultimately need to make this connection.”

Raised in Fukuoka, Nagata also grew up hiding his true self from family and friends. Living in a rigidly patriarchal society, Nagata says he realized he would always struggle as a sexual minority, and so he studied hard to get into the University of Tokyo — his ticket out of his hometown.

“It was Todai (University of Tokyo) or die,” he says, only half-jokingly. “To be honest, if I couldn’t get out of Kyushu, I might not be alive today.”

Family matters

It’s not easy to come out to a loved one, and it can also be difficult for family members of those who do.

Yuichiro Kono, a 57-year-old executive at a major corporation, knew very little about LGBTQ issues before his child, Mizuho, told him that he identified as male. It was June 2016, and Mizuho was finishing college.

At the time, Kono meant to tell Mizuho that he would always be his child no matter what, but in the moment said, “You will always be my daughter.”

“It’s hard to respond to something if you don’t understand the issue,” Kono says. “But what I knew immediately that he was my child and all we can do is face the issue together.”

To understand what Mizuho was going through, Kono spent as much time as he could speaking with Mizuho about identifying as a transgender male.

“My child was courageous enough to come out and, as his parent, it didn’t feel right to hide the truth,” Kono says. “By speaking about LGBT issues myself, I hope to correct any misunderstanding anyone might have. I try and talk about such issues whenever the opportunity arises.”

More recently, Mizuho has expressed a desire to physically transition to match his identity, a key factor required should he wish to legally get married in Japan. In 2003, the government enacted a law that enabled those with “gender identity disorders” to change their sex so long as they weren’t married or had any children who were still minors.

Now 23, Mizuho has already undergone breast removal surgery and is currently taking male hormones. He now wishes to have his reproductive organs removed but Kono has reservations over the invasive surgical procedure.

Legal impediment

Hiroko Masuhara, representative director of Trois Couleurs (Three Colors)
Hiroko Masuhara, representative director of Trois Couleurs (Three Colors) | COURTESY OF HIROKO MASUHARA

Hiroko Masuhara, representative director of Trois Couleurs (Three Colors), an organization that provides consultation services and training on LGBTQ issues, says the World Health Organization has called for the abolishment of legislation requiring reproductive organs to be removed for transgender people to be recognized as their preferred gender.

“People are starting to think that such laws are a violation of human rights,” Masuhara says, calling for domestic legislation to be amended as soon as possible.

No legislation currently prohibits homosexuality in Japan, but the Constitution specifies that marriages must involve a man and a woman.

However, examples of legislation protecting or recognizing the rights of those in the LGBTQ community can be found overseas. According to latest figures released by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, 85 countries and territories worldwide offer some form of protection through legislation, while 47 countries and territories recognize same-sex marriages or partnerships.

The Japan Alliance for Legislation to Remove Social Barriers based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity is calling on the government to pass legislation prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“I believe rules need to be put in place to prevent harassment, bullying, discrimination and suicide,” says Masuhara, who is also a member of the alliance. “What’s more, we want the government to explicitly say that it’s wrong to discriminate (against sexual minorities). It’s obvious but necessary.”

An only child, Masuhara became aware of her sexuality when she was around 10 years old, but even then felt a need to hide her interest in women.

While she was in graduate school, Masuhara spent a year in Paris on an exchange program. Like Matsunaka in Melbourne, she encountered a tolerance in France she hadn’t witnessed back home.

However, her newfound bubble of acceptance didn’t last very long. Masuhara’s mother visited the French capital to confront her daughter about her sexuality, and spent much of the time feeling sorry for her daughter because she believed Masuhara could never be happy and couldn’t accept that her daughter would never live the life she had envisioned for her.

“I was trying to live my own life, but I realized that this was making my parents sad,” Masuhara says. “I had just reached a point where I was ready to move forward, finally feeling positive about my life and the fact that I’m gay.”

For almost a decade, Masuhara avoided bringing up the issue of her sexuality with other members of her family.

Over time, however, she decided she wanted to help raise awareness of sexual minorities in Japan, and so told her parents that she wished to come out publicly.

To Masuhara’s surprise, her parents offered their full support. She later found out that her parents had spent the past 10 years or so reading and learning about sexual minorities.

“I was genuinely happy that they supported me,” Masuhara says. “It’s a shame that so many people feel a need to keep their sexual orientation to themselves. People can’t be true to themselves. I want to change this.”

Seizing an identity

The stories of Matsunaka, Nagata, Kono and Masuhara are stories that Kee wishes to help share. In the same way Masuhara’s parents accepted their daughter’s sexuality, the more people hear their stories, the better their situations will be.

A local ordinance in Setagaya Ward took effect earlier this month, prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ and foreign residents. In Kunitachi, an ordinance banning the public outing of sexual minorities also took effect this month.

Matsunaka and Kee say “Out in Japan” is also making progress, featuring portraits of prominent personalities who support gay issues alongside members of the LGBTQ community.

Starting Monday, the photo project will also hit the streets of Shibuya, thanks to a partnership with department store Marui. Two hundred and fifty of those portraits will be hung on street lights as flags on Koen Street in the lead-up to Tokyo Rainbow Pride week, which runs from April 28 to May 6.

Kee is excited about the display, saying he wants the portraits to be viewed by as many young passers-by as possible in order for them to continue sharing their stories and making it easier for subsequent generations.

“I just want people to accept each other for who they are,” Kee says. “It’s beautiful to see people as who they really are. It’s their pride, their identity, their lives. They’re priceless.”

This is the first installment of a two-part series on LGBTQ issues. The second installment will be published on April 29, focusing on more personal stories.

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