As many of my readers know, I am maintaining two blogs: this one about personal interests (ranging oddly from flowers to pottery to male hair and female geeks), and another about a public policy research project sponsored by a prominent foundation and corporation. I have purposely not linked the two blogs, so as to provide more freedom for me to write candidly about my thoughts and interests in this blog.
Prior to moving to Tokyo, I have always been out. Youthful activism and a hostile academic environment shaped my professional career in unexpected ways. It is ironic that the elite academic department that blacklisted me is one that claims a dedication to cultural relativism and openness. I have no regrets, and have been able to reclaim and re-purpose my academic training into a career first in industry and now in public policy.
Creating a new life in Tokyo presents new challenges to a queer identity. With no threat of anti-gay violence in Japan, the flip side is a complete expectation of heterosexuality. And, for the first time, perhaps because of middle age, a new environment, a desire to “be harmonious,” and the sheer quantity of new people I meet every week, I feel an unfamiliar hesitation to challenge conceptions when I am asking new contacts for help and orientation.
This has led to some awkward situations for me. Since so many expats in Japan are only here for several years, at first I told business associates when I met them that I have a Japanese “spouse.” Legally untrue, except in common-law fashion. Still, I thought it would correctly project a permanence and rootedness. But after hearing so many questions about my (non-existent) wife, I have started to tell people that a (famous) university friend has offered me a place to stay here. From hetero husband to roommate, I am not sure which story is more unsettling and false.
I have been more direct with younger Japanese and expat business associates about having a male husband. Yet even then, I realize that our frame of references are so different. Like when I was talking to another expat recipient of the prestigious fellowship about my favorite expat-in-Japan author Donald Richie. What amazes me is his 60+ years in Tokyo, and his mix of movie star and celebrity high culture life with his decades of meeting working-class trade in parks and bathrooms. Said foundation recipient repeated that sentence back with complete incomprehension about “trade” and “how one meets people in public parks.” (For those interested, I highly recommend his early 1980s book Geisha, Gangster, Neighbor, Nun: Scenes from Japanese Lives and more recent Japan Journals: 1947-2004).
At other times, I laugh off the awkwardness. It helps that my in-laws are so open. Recently, a fortune-teller was visiting the ceramic studio, providing readings for one of the senseis and several students. He was youngish (early 30s) and possibly gay. Afterward, we were all chatting around the pottery studio when he asked who I was. My mother-in-law matter of factly said I am her son’s partner. The fortune teller was so uncomprehending that he asked her to repeat herself while his jaw kept dropping closer and closer to the floor. Apparently, even Japanese gay people are uncomfortable with spoken deviation from public heterosexuality.
My new professional interests are clearly related to my personal interests: including a love of gardening, an admiration of older ladies, and the liberating possibilities of public space for desire and the imagination. This blog in fact helped me formulate the proposal that led to the fellowship and the start of my third career. Even if I choose not to address sexuality directly in that other blog, I am certain that there will be ways to embed queer undertones in my professional research and writing.
Have any of my readers experienced shifts in public identity through age, relocation, or professional changes? Is there a balance between feeling comfortable with oneself, not unsettling new acquaintances, and living across the queer-straight divide? This is a topic that I am still trying to sort out for myself.
i agree – it’s a tricky balance and a narrow divide. in the past when i haven’t used my first name in some sort of online forum or list or chat, and i mention my wife, i’ve usually been assumed to be a guy until i clarify. when asked, in a chit-chatty-small-talk conference setting or business meeting setting if i’m married, i have just said yes and am then usually asked “what does your husband do?” and every once in a while i just say “software work” and fail to clarify wife instead of husband — using my radar to judge whether or not the person/group will be receptive to a correction from husband to wife. recently some friends mentioned they specifically answer the “are you married” question with “yes, and my husband/wife’s name is” or some other declarative answer to avoid and also steer any followup questions. in light of prop 8 and marriage becoming legal in several states, i’ve felt it necessary to be more specifically out and state things sooner rather than later in the hope that knowing me and also knowing i have a wife will inspire voting for (instead of against) equal rights for queers — though often it results in a similar jaw dropping reaction. my wife and my ex-husband were both at my grandma’s funeral recently and people assumed me and the ex were still married and the child i was holding belonged to me and him. i could see their brains trying to wrap around my response when they said “she looks just like you and him!” and i responded “i adopted her and she’s the biological daughter of my wife – over there – and a donor we selected”
thanks for sharing these amazing thoughts!
> Youthful activism and a hostile academic environment shaped my professional career in unexpected ways.
— let me say i am so happy that you had that “hostile academic environment”! we’re a luckier place because of what it made you.
i however wholly respect the divide you now feel. it sounds like a profound transformation! i can’t wait to hear more about how it evolves for you.
ironically, my transition has been into the opposite, more open direction (mostly via leanne’s example) — but we also owe much indebtedness here to the current profound social change going on in the USA. we have a national dialog right now like never before.
let’s see what happens within the next few weeks as the CA supreme court decision on prop 8 comes down. either way, the genie is out of the bottle.
Thanks, Moya and Leanne, for your comments. I agree with you that our equality and freedom requires us to be out, even if we occasionally surprise people or create awkward situations.
Sometimes being out is harder in a different language and context. Sometimes I don’t want my sexuality to be the first thing someone thinks about me. Sometimes I wonder how it affects my economic position.
Still, even a few brief experiences make it clear that living a lie is not a viable option for me. Having supportive friends and family– in Japan, the US, online– makes it easier to be true to myself and to request of others a little more openness and freedom.
Good luck with the marriage campaign in the US. What will take longer in Japan, gay marriage or decriminalization of herbal recreation? With a negative birth rate, my guess is that Japan would only allow gay marriage if we all promised to create Japanese children 😉
Man, that seems really tough. You’ve apparently been out for quite some time in the US so you have a solid personal foundation of “outness” that you naturally rely on, but living in Japan changes all that. I don’t want to base everything on presuppositions, but I see in your response to people that the cultural change is leaving you without that foundation. Which makes sense cause no one can go into another culture and use their own cultural understanding and “mechanical responses” 100% effectively. It’s interesting to think that at middle age, you’re having to reformulate a part of your identity you seem to have settled in the US. ^^ I’m sorry if this is completely wrong, I’m just thinking of things as I can see them. 🙂
I wish you good luck in your journey of finding the right balance of professionalism/outedness etc. At least your in-laws make it easier for that to happen.
Thanks, Marius. You are truly perceptive and mature beyond your years. I appreciate your online friendship.
I have it easy here: I don’t feel such a divide in the Philippines where, though there are still occasions of prejudice, the widespread opinion is positive. Some people shrug it off as an openness that comes from being learned, and shortly ridicule conservatives for their naivete and backwardness.
But I attribute it mostly to the local entertainment business that exploits the stereotype of the gay comedian. Though untrue, most local movies paint the picture for the masses that we’re harmless yet passionate, a trusted confidant and, of course, always the life of the party.
But it bothers me that prop 8 didn’t get as much mileage here in the Philippines. It disturbs me deeply, here in our bubble of rainbows and butterflies, where I only found out about the disappointing results as I read Leanne’s comment. Thanks, Leanne.
I know how you feel about stereotypes opening some doors while also presenting false images. Change happens, sometimes slowly and sometimes unexpectedly. My pals Moya and Leanne worked hard to repeal Prop 8 in California, and everyone was disappointed that the campaign did not succeed. Now, with Iowa and the Northeast legalizing gay marriage, it seems the tide is turning. For the first time, I can imagine federal marriage equality in the next several years. State marriage has never offered the protections and benefits of federal marriage: including immigration, taxation, retirement and other rights. It is interesting that some of our less cosmopolitan states are leading the way towards national change. We are all waiting for Obama to gain some courage on this issue and speak out for equality.
When you asked if any one of your readers has seen a change in their personal identity, it got me thinking. I live in a city that is over 70%liberal, and rated as the fourth best city in the U.S. for youth and people in the LGBT community. I didn’t use to think about it as much because I have so much freedom where I live.
But now I am always ready and willing to push the fact I am bisexual, since the best way to get people to understand is to be frank. And I see there are a lot more people like me out there when I do that. That’s a good thing for self-esteem. 🙂
that’s great you are so open. we must be out to change peoples’ minds and broaden their imaginations. i am open to almost everyone here, and could not imagine living a lie.