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“The gays will not go away”

On a Sunday afternoon in Tokyo, nothing beats a little subcultural voyeurism. In Yoyogi Park, Japanese rockabillies jive sombrely while a sugar-dusted scurry of Harajuku girls patter on to Takeshita Street. But in a country where dressing up is something of a national pastime, some costumes still unsettle: gay Pokémon outfits, for example, worn by some of the revellers at the Rainbow Pride Parade on 29 April where 2,500 participants marched through the Shibuya District before partying in Yoyogi Park to celebrate and raise awareness of the LGBT community.

Bar a period in the 19th century, when missionaries briefly became more influential, the Japanese have had no problem with gay sex, unburdened as they are by the Judaeo-Christian shadow of sodomitic “sin”. But to celebrate sexuality publicly, irrespective of orientation, is simply not the national way. A Japanese aphorism, loosely translated as “the nail that sticks out will be hammered flat”, encapsulates the overriding preference for harmony or homogeny, depending on your perspective.

This year’s first ever Tokyo Rainbow Pride, with its mission to celebrate “diversity and individuality”, was a bold move. Despite the capital’s cosmopolitan credentials and flamboyant gay party scene, Tokyo has hosted only small-scale LGBT celebrations in the past two decades.

Rainbow Pride, however, takes inspiration from a very western model of LGBT activism, in which the right to difference rules. As the radio presenter and blogger Chiki Ogiue told me, “Things that stand out will invite conflict. But if we aren’t seen, it is as if we don’t exist.”

Attending the parade with his husband, the US consul general of Osaka, Patrick Linehan, quoted Hillary Clinton’s recent “human rights are gay rights, gay rights are human rights” proclamation in his post-parade speech. But how the Japanese LGBT community goes about asking for those rights in a society with little anti-sexual discrimination protection and no civil partnership must now be worked out.

Campaigners need legislative champions. The presence of Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the Social Democratic Party, and Japan’s two openly gay MPs at the march suggests that LGBT rights are finally on the political agenda. A government committee currently tackling Japan’s suicide rate (estimated at roughly 30,000 deaths a year) will be forced to confront the disproportionate number of LGBT individuals who constitute that figure.

As one reveller put it, “The gays will not go away.”

Group hug

Despite Tokyo Rainbow Pride’s call to individualism, what resonated above all else was the sense of the collective. Typically cited social divisions – queer v straight, older v younger, Japanese v non-Japanese-speaking – were, for at least one day, absent at a party that could have been taking place in San Francisco or Sydney, gay Pokémon outfits aside.

Perhaps Japan’s “nails” no longer need hammering quite so flat for harmony to prevail.

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Halal: Britain’s most feared food

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Must I unremember the day I wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man?

At that time we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

The misremembering of history interrupts these tales of my own squalid past. Very often I find myself wishing my memories were wrong, or that I’d forgotten more than I have. This would certainly be the case were I to be a politician, albeit a small-time one in big-time government. In the era of renunciations and sincere apologies, I would have to say sorry most of the time.

But I can’t. I can’t get past that clear day in May 1981, when the tangy cold spring air of a New York day got right inside me. Ambling home from another long, messy night in the Village, I was near 52nd when I saw people carrying a coffin.

“It’s not him, of course. It’s a fake coffin,” said a woman who saw the shock on my face. Maybe I was already crying. I knew and didn’t know but asked anyway.

“Yes. Bobby.”

Bobby Sands had died. Crowds were gathering with banners about Smashing Long Kesh and Smashing Thatcher.

The shock of it has never left me and God knows “martyrs” come two a penny now. Yet the idea that someone can starve themselves slowly to death for an idea is shocking. The idea that someone can let them do it, either “for” a United Ireland or “for” a United Kingdom, remains profoundly disturbing to me.

I need no lectures about what vile and murderous bastards the IRA were, or the numbers of innocents they killed. Nor about the smeary sentimentality of martyrdom itself. All I can say is that I had little idea of what “we” did in Ireland as long as I lived in England. A boy at school had run off to join the IRA. My mum said, “Well, he’s always been tapped, that one.”

We were kept ignorant. For some stupid reason, I did not think that Thatcher would let the hunger strikers die.

Their demands, remember, were the right not to wear prison uniform or to do prison work, rights to free association and education within the prison, one visit, one parcel, one letter a week. They wanted to be treated as political prisoners. Thatcher said Sands had no mandate. He was actually an MP, with more votes than she ever won in Finchley.

In New York that day, when we got to Third Avenue, there was anger and then solemnity. There were mumblings about what a death like that entailed . . . Mandela then instigated a hunger strike on Robben Island. There were protests in Milan and Ghent. French towns would name streets after Sands.

At that time, though, yes, we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

So, must I unremember that day when I sat down on the pavement and wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man? Let me know how to uncry all those tears shed for that terrible, terrible waste.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide