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    A Simple Matter of Dignity

    By John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney–

    On July 11, 2023, a five-judge panel of the Japanese Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in favor of a transgender government employee who had for years been denied the right to use the work bathroom that matched her true gender. The decision signaled an important step forward for trans rights in this island nation that lags far behind fellow G-7 nations in enactment of LGBTIQ rights.

    But it was much too little, much too late for the popular gender nonconforming Japanese singer, television personality, and LGBTIQ advocate Ryuchell. The effervescent and influential celebrity, whom we saw perform vibrantly on stage at Tokyo Rainbow Pride just three months ago, was found dead from apparent suicide in her agency’s office the day after the decision was issued. For years, Ryuchell had been mercilessly attacked on social media ever since they dared step out of the traditional gender binary that had so constrained them in their life.

    The juxtapose of these two major news events underscores the urgency of protecting transgender rights and dignity not only in Japan, but also in the U.S. and around the world.

    The landmark lawsuit before the Japanese Supreme Court was brought by a transgender woman who is a long-term employee of Japan’s Economy and Trade Ministry. According to published news reports, the employee after her gender transition in 2010 requested that her employer permit her to use the work bathroom that aligned with her true gender. 

    The ministry refused to allow her to do so on the floor where she worked because some of her co-workers said that they would be uncomfortable with her doing this. Instead, the ministry permitted her to use women’s rooms located at least two floors away, presumably on the assumption that no co-workers who knew her would use those restrooms.

    The plaintiff complied, but in 2013 petitioned the National Personnel Authority to lift the burdensome and harmful restriction. The authority declined, and she filed suit. In all, it appears the plaintiff was forced to endure this indignity for over 12 years.

    In all those years, not a single fellow employee complained about her using the women’s restroom. Indeed, her fellow employees on different floors likely did not even know that she was transgender. If they did, they obviously didn’t care. The ministry’s position was particularly inconsistent because by allowing her to use the women’s restroom on a floor other than her own, they conceded that she posed no actual threat to anyone. It was merely a matter of giving in to her co-workers’ apparent discomfort.

    he Supreme Court panel lambasted the government for “excessively emphasizing consideration for co-workers and unjustly making light of the disadvantages suffered” by the plaintiff, according to The Mainichi newspaper. They said that the personnel authority’s rejection of her request was “grossly lacking in legitimacy.”

    The court’s rejection of the argument that the plaintiff’s fellow employees’ subjective comfort, based on fear, unfamiliarity, or ignorance and not on fact, should prevail over the LGBTIQ’s person’s actual needs is particularly significant. The spurious claim that protecting the rights of LGBTIQ people and respecting their dignity somehow imposes an unfair burden on the majority population has been a dangerous trope that has permeated anti-LGBITQ rhetoric and political strategy for decades, going back to Anita Bryant’s “Save the Children” campaigns of the 1970s.

    This falsehood pervades the current wave of anti-LGBTIQ legislation and litigation in the U.S. supported by conservative Republican and Christian forces today. And when the Japanese Parliament controlled by the conservative Jiminto Party (LDP) passed legislation last month purportedly intended to promote LGBTIQ understanding, it slipped in language at the last minute that conditioned the ability of schools and governments to undertake measures to increase such understanding on all citizens’ feeling “peace of mind.”

    The Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported one other detail of the case that we found particularly disturbing: the plaintiff at some point as part of the case had apparently needed to obtain a medical diagnosis that she had “a low possibility of committing sexual violence based on sexual urges.” Presumably, this diagnosis was used to substantiate that she posed no threat to other women in the women’s restroom.

    We, like billions of other people, have used the bathroom countless times with countless other people. Undoubtedly, billions of people have never even considered the possibility that they would be forbidden from using the bathroom that matches their gender, much less have to prove through formal medical diagnosis that their using the bathroom posed no threat to others. The fact that the plaintiff for whatever reason needed to obtain such a diagnosis is in itself a profound afront to her human dignity.

    The Japanese Supreme Court declared that the ability of a person to live their life in accord with their true gender was a “compelling benefit” that was “legally protected.” We hope this month’s decision is a harbinger of things to come on both sides of the Pacific. We all need to do everything we can to stand up for transgender and gender nonconforming people—to honor the life of Ryuchell and those of far too many others who have died too young, and to enable everyone to live as their true selves today.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

    6/26 and Beyond
    Published on July 27, 2023