Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: British Literature, Gender/Sexuality Studies
Chuo University holds a week-long Anti-Harassment Campaign every autumn, with a short sketch performed by student volunteers from the Non Harassment Project (NHP). In 2016, another student group called “mimosa”, which aims to raise awareness about sexual and gender diversity on campus, joined the NHP to perform a sketch on the issues of alcohol-related harassment and harassment towards sexual minorities. In this article, I look back at the 2016 campaign to clarify its significance.
The two main themes of the 2016 campaign, alcohol-related harassment and LGBT issues, were chosen by the students of NHP and mimosa during the preparation for the event.
The acronym ‘LGBT’ has become fairly common in Japan, though some still may not know exactly what each letter signifies. L, G, and B are categories of sexual orientation: L and G stand for lesbian and gay respectively, describing women and men who are romantically/sexually interested in members of the same gender. B stands for bisexual, a term that identifies having romantic/sexual attractions to other genders in addition to their own. Finally, T stands for transgender, people whose gender identities do not correspond to the sexes assigned to them at birth. While social norms usually tell one to accept the gender assigned at birth and to have romantic/sexual feelings only for the opposite gender to oneself, LGBT is a collective term for a group of minority people who are more diverse in terms of their sexual orientations and their gender identities. Prior to the start of this year’s sketch, we distributed handouts providing this kind of basic information.
The setting of the sketch is a drinking party in a pub attended by members of a fictional student club. While older members use their seniority to force junior members to drink, one of the juniors gets too drunk and blurts out that a friend at the party is gay. Shocked by the sudden exposure, the student who was “outed” attempts to deflect the topic, but the senior students start asking inappropriate questions, and keep teasing him out of their curiosity.
After the main act, all the students remained on stage in character and fielded questions from the MC, this time revealing the characters’ inner thoughts to the audience, most of whom were also students. This made the audience realize the pain of the outed student when his sexuality was revealed, as well as the regret by the drunk friend and the thoughtlessness in the senior students’ reaction to the whole situation. This post-sketch Q&A session, along with the posters exhibited in the library during the campaign, was designed to highlight the issues raised in the sketch.
A situation like this, where someone reveals a person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity without their consent (particularly when this someone is a sexual minority), is called “outing”. “Coming out”, on the other hand, is used when the person themselves decides to reveal their own sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Both terms are to be understood in relation to the expression “being in the closet”, which describes the state of a person whose non-normative sexual orientation and/or gender identity is not made open. The person is “outed” when they are dragged out of “the closet”, and “comes out” when they leave “the closet” of their own accord.
But let us take a closer look at this concept of “being in the closet” itself. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where sexual/gender minorities face a social stigma: they can be branded as people with undesirable characteristics. The majority of people on the other hand simply assume that everyone feels zero discomfort with their normative gender/sexual roles. In other words, in most cases, people start with the presumption that the person in front of them is not a sexual/gender minority.
This mindset denies the existence of sexual minorities from the very outset, making them invisible. Going back to the closet metaphor, one may think that it is the decision of the person themselves whether or not to stay hidden in the closet or come out of it. However, in reality, it is the majority of people who put sexual/gender minorities in the closet and thereby write them off as those who do not exist. The state of someone’s “being in the closet” does not start out as a choice they themselves have made.
The problem with outing is the same. Some may say that we all have secrets we do not want others to know about. Thus discussions about outing sometimes claim that it doesn’t mean much to make a special point about people’s sexual orientation and/or gender identities—revealing secrets is simply wrong, so why do we need to discuss more specifically? Gradually, however, I think people have started to see that outing is of a different matter from exposing a regular secret: there is a systematic structure to keep a person in the closet—to make them invisible—and impose a false assumption about their identity (i.e., they are not a sexual/gender minority). The secret in the closet is created by society and given to the person in it. If they do not speak out about their identity, they are automatically burdened with secrets, but if they try to correct the false assumption, they face the risk of exposing the negative stigma.
One aim of the 2016 campaign was to highlight unequal power relationships as portrayed above. Rather than focusing exclusively on the outing as a single event, the sketch attempted to get the audience to understand the situation from a variety of perspectives—the process that led up to that moment, the human relationships underlying the scenario, and how each of the people involved felt about the outing once it had occurred. Choosing a drinking party in a pub as a setting—something familiar to university students—was another strategy that likely helped bring the situation closer to home. I hope it created a simulated experience, inspiring the audience to ask themselves what roles they might have played in the scene, and what they might have done in the same situation.
In this sense, the campaign and the sketch by the NHP and mimosa students were highly significant in that they gave us an opportunity to gain awareness of inequalities and the problems that arise from there. In the current climate, many sexual minorities have to carry a secret imposed on them as a heavy burden, and remain in fear of the secret being exposed. And unless we make visible the social frameworks that create the closet, it remains difficult to stop the majority of people from acting inappropriately to a coming-out and from casually outing people. The sketch, I believe, was an effective format to show a clearer picture of the structure, and thus provided us with the tools to work together towards solving the problems.