With more LGBTQ athletes than ever, Games put focus on Japan

The Olympic Rings are seen in front of the skyline during sunset one night ahead of the official opening of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, July 22, 2021. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

By Pak Yiu and Andrew Bibee

More than 160 openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer athletes are due to participate in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, making this year’s Games the most inclusive ever.

That has put a focus on host nation Japan, which activists say is out of step with much of the rest of the world, having not seen the same sweeping social change that made same-sex marriage and greater inclusion a reality in many countries.

Fumino Sugiyama, a 39-year-old former fencer for the Japan national team and a transgender activist, said he was delighted to see the progress in diversity at the Games. Sports were very different when he was younger, he said, and discriminatory language was common.

Sugiyama began fencing at the age of 10, rising through the ranks and eventually competing internationally for the Japanese women’s team. He felt conflicted identifying as a woman in competitions and retired at 25.

“I loved the sport of fencing, I didn’t feel I could find a place for myself,” he said.

While Japan is known for its strong civil society and democracy, rights activists say it has a long way to go on addressing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) issues.

The Olympic charter bans discrimination and while Tokyo passed an anti-discrimination law three years ago, there are not the same legal protections for much of the rest of the country.

Rights activists hope to use the Games as an opportunity to raise awareness and public support for LGBTQ issues.

“I think lots of people in the world think that Japan is the human rights defender, but it’s opposite, because we don’t have any marriage equality, we don’t have any law to ban discrimination on sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Gon Matsunaka, founder of Japan’s first LGBTQ centre, Pride House.

Foreign teams are also bringing the message to Japan.

The captain of the German women’s hockey team, Nike Lorenz, will wear a captain’s armband in rainbow colours to show solidarity with LGBTQ communities at all of her matches, the German Olympic Sports Confederation said.

It said the International Olympic Committee had approved its request to allow Lorenz to don the armband, just like Germany’s Manuel Neuer, the captain of the national soccer team, did at Euro 2020 last month.

“We are happy that we have found a common path that makes it possible for the hockey team to make a socio-political statement,” Alfons Hoermann, the president of the confederation, said.

Sugiyama, who also organises the city’s annual pride march, became the first transgender person to be appointed to the Japanese Olympic Committee.

“Being excluded from the sports world is the same as being excluded from society, so I think it is important to take this opportunity to firmly lead to having positive discussions,” he said.


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