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    Harnessing “Double Gender” Power in the New Year

    By John Lewis —

    Happy New Year 2023! In Japan, that means marking the beginning of the Year of the Rabbit with celebrations, gatherings of family and friends, and traditions lasting for days. On New Year’s Eve, the temple bell is rung a symbolic 108 times based on Buddhist custom, with the final stroke occurring at the moment of midnight to usher in the new year. Hatsumode or first temple visits ensue on the initial days of January in the hope of well-being and good fortune for the year to come. These traditions have been observed for over a thousand years and remain relevant for many people today.

    Indeed, Japan has a long history dating back many centuries, and queerness has been part of Japanese culture from the first time Japan’s myths, legends, and history were recorded in writing in the year 712 in the Kojiki or “Records of Ancient Matters.” The Kojiki recounts the story of a Prince Ousu, who later became known as Yamato Takeru, donning female clothing in order to infiltrate the mansion of two brothers who were his enemies, thus enabling him to slay them both. Junko Mitsuhashi, the modern transgender writer and researcher on the social history of sexuality, describes the power that Prince Ousu acquired by defying gender norms and wearing female clothing to defeat his enemy as “sublime” and “extraordinary.”  Mitsuhashi proclaims it “Double-Gender power.”

    Over 1,300 years later as we celebrate the new year, we see young queer Japanese demonstrating their own fearless versions and visions of sublime queer power in the name of love. Mitsuhashi explains that the name Takeru, which Prince Ousu later became known as, means “the brave.” For young queer Japanese, courage does not mean murdering one’s enemies by sword but prevailing through authenticity and joy.

    At a recent LGBTIQ event in Tokyo called “Colorful Blankets,” I had the opportunity to meet young activists who are making change. One of them was a delightful trio of transmen, Asahi, O-Chan, and Masa, known as Mutant Wave. All three are former players in the Nadeshiko Japanese women’s national soccer league, and together as Mutant Wave are educators on LGBTIQ diversity at schools and corporations and in the Japanese media, as well as YouTube personalities. Their message is bright, positive, and full of hope, and their mode of communication imaginative and creative. Mutant Wave’s message is also not confined to LGBTIQ understanding but a broader message embracing everyone’s inherent self-worth no matter how they may be perceived as different.

    Another pair of young activists are Kane and Kotfe, a dynamic gay couple together for 11 years, who speak with authenticity and candor about the struggles they have faced as gay people and whose love for each other and care for others is palpable when you are in their presence. Kane was an Osaka firefighter for 11 years, and Kotfe was a Kyoto police officer for 16 years. They both quit their jobs because of how difficult and exhausting it was for them to be who they were as gay men in their professions.

    They now devote their lives to educating people about the lives of LGBTIQ people by intimately sharing their personal lives through YouTube and social media and in the Japanese national media. They are prominent advocates for marriage equality. Last year, Kane told the Huffington Post, “I want a society where people don’t have to suffer because they are gay, forcibly hide it, or quit their jobs.” He explained further that through their revealing the truth of their lives, he and Kotfe “want to try to see what would happen if we lived freely as we are.” He hoped others would be able to do the same.

    At Japanese new year, many of the traditional osechi-ryori or new year foods hold symbolic meaning of hope for the future: black beans for good health, kelp for happiness, prawns for long life, and herring roe for healthy offspring. A favorite of ours is the lotus root with its many tubular holes through which one can see, symbolizing moving forward gracefully in the new year unhampered by obstacles. The lotus indeed is a central image in Buddhism because from the muddy waters in which its roots lie, a beautiful and radiant flower emerges above the water.

    This year, our new year’s wishes are for the health and happiness of LGBTIQ people around the world — for the long life of the life of the LGBTIQ community itself and the well-being of queer youth and the children of LGBTIQ people. When we peer through the lotus root, we know that obstacles to equality, dignity, and freedom remain, but with young vibrant activists like Mutant Wave and Kane & Kotfe, we know that the future will be filled with radiance.

    Junko Mitsuhashi quotation from “Mystique and Might: Why We Love Cross-Dressing,” in The Power of Clothing:  History of Cross-Dressing in Japan (Shito Museum of Art, 2022).

    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 January 12, 2023