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When Tokyo last hosted the Olympics, in 1964, Itsuo Masuda was deeply depressed, struggling with his sexuality. This year he watched openly gay and transgender athletes compete with pride.

The 2020 Tokyo Games have been described as the most diverse Olympics yet in terms of participation by sexual minorities, with OutSports reporting a record 179 out LGBTQ athletes having taken part.

It’s a world away from Masuda’s recollection of Tokyo’s first Games.

Being LGBTQ “was a big taboo, absolutely,” he said “It had to be a secret. I am sure there were LGBTQ people around, but no one talked about it.”

Now 73, Masuda is now an out gay man and owner of gay bar “Kusuo,” a well-known spot in the city’s Shinjuku Ni-chome LGBTQ district where he once hosted Freddie Mercury, but he had a difficult time as a teenager.

“I admired men, but I didn’t even know that it was about my sexuality. I was so troubled by it,” said Masuda, who was 16 at the time of the 1964 Games. “I would often write to my mother that I wanted to die, which just made her cry all the time.”

A coronavirus state of emergency means Masuda’s bar is currently closed, and he watched the Games there alone.

But he was delighted to see how things have changed from his childhood, and even improved from the last Games. There were triple the number of out athletes participating in Tokyo than in Rio, according to OutSports, a US-based site.

“We live in a good world now. We can make choices,” Masuda said. “There’s nothing to feel ashamed about.”

While Japan has some protections for LGBTQ people, it remains the only G7 country that does not recognize same-sex unions, and many couples say they can struggle to rent apartments together and are barred from hospital visits.

In addition, transgender people who wish to change their official documents must meet strict criteria, including being designated as without reproductive capacity, which effectively requires most people to be sterilized to meet the standard.

Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand became the first transgender athlete to compete in the Olympics. | REUTERS
Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand became the first transgender athlete to compete in the Olympics. | REUTERS

Tokyo’s Games were the first to feature an openly transgender woman — New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard, who competed in the weightlifting.

The 43-year-old, who was born male and competed as a man before transitioning, faced a tsunami of negative social media commentary, and Masuda expressed sympathy as he watched her compete.

“The poor thing, facing such criticism,” he said. “She is only human.”

The Games have come at a time when many in Japan’s LGBTQ community are pushing for greater rights.

Ahead of the Olympics, campaigners said the country was at a “turning point” and that they hoped the Games would help galvanize support for an anti-discrimination bill.

Pride House, a center of the community that was also part of the official Olympic program, has said it hopes the Games’ momentum will bring changes both in Japanese sports and society.

Its head, Gon Matsunaka, said Hubbard’s participation in the Games sent a message of inclusivity but warned there was a long road ahead for LGBTQ people, both in Japan and abroad.

“They shouldn’t need to be courageous just because they are transgender,” he said. “We need to make a world in which those people who have long been left out of sports can enjoy taking part just like everyone else.”

Masuda said Hubbard’s presence would “pave the way for future generations.”

“We’ll remember this Tokyo Olympics decades from now and think ‘Oh, that’s how it used to be,'” he said.

“Eventually it will be natural to see it (LGBTQ participation) as normal,” he added. “We’ll just need to live a little longer so we can watch the fun.”

Athletes such as Tom Daley of Britain have helped to raise awareness of LGBTQ athletes at the Olympics. | REUTERS
Athletes such as Tom Daley of Britain have helped to raise awareness of LGBTQ athletes at the Olympics. | REUTERS

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