As we commemorate the 35th anniversary of the assassination of Harvey Milk, our recent trip to Japan to speak about marriage equality made clear how Harvey's call to come out is just as important as ever.
Significantly fewer LGBT Japanese have come out than their American counterparts, and LGBT Japanese are a much less visible part of society and the media than in the U.S. The Japanese people we met gave us insight into how coming out in Japan is similar to, and different from, America.
One Japanese activist told us that he came out to his parents in high school after his first date with a boy, because he did not want to keep a secret within himself and wanted his parents to know him as he really was. His parents were very accepting. But another activist described how 20 years ago, his father and brother beat him when he came out and threw him out of the house. He found his way to the office of a Tokyo LGBT activist organization that let him sleep on their floor until he could get on his feet. He has now worked for that organization for over 10 years and is a leading advocate for people with HIV/AIDS in Japan.
We met a bisexual student who wants to design LGBT manga cartoons to support the movement, but was afraid to come out to her father. We encouraged her to come out if it was safe, so that she could lead a life that was true to who she was and contribute her creativity and talent to help others.
Coming out appears to be particularly difficult for many Japanese LGBT people because of the importance of social conformity in Japan. Many college students told us that they had known perhaps only one openly LGBT person in their entire lives. We were the first openly LGBT people some had ever met. Activists told us that the pressure for conformity can lead to greater internalized homophobia, and that coming out can lead to significant social isolation and loneliness.
However, our speaking about Harvey Milk's call to come out -- both for one's personal well being and for the benefit of the movement -- seemed to resonate everywhere we went. Activists believed that more Japanese LGBT people coming out was critical to advancing legal, social and political change, including marriage equality.
After hearing our marriage and coming stories, one student decided it was time for him to come out, too -- but not as LGBT (he was straight) but as a Japanese person of Korean ethnicity, a group that faces significant discrimination. When he came out as Korean-Japanese and told his personal story of exclusion and discrimination, he received enormous support from his classmates. In so doing, we hope he made his own life better and, at the same time, took an important step to help the movement for human dignity and equality for all -- an act with which we believe Harvey would have been very pleased.
Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis, together 26 years, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. They are leaders in the nationwide grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA.
This piece was originally published in the San Francisco Bay Times.