Sexual minorities “would not go” to shelters during disasters InsightsEssays: Civil Society in Japan

Posted on June 22, 2023

Japan NPO Center (JNPOC) has a news & commentary site called NPO CROSS that discusses the role of NPOs/NGOs and civil society as well as social issues in Japan and abroad. We post articles contributed by various stakeholders, including NPOs, foundations, corporations, and volunteer writers.
For this JNPOC’s English site, we select some translated articles from NPO CROSS to introduce to our English-speaking readers.

Sexual minorities “would not go” to shelters during disasters


1. Sexual Minorities in times of disasters

On October 22, 2022, a human rights training and prefectural lecture on sexual minorities was held at Clover Plaza in Kasuga City, Fukuoka Prefecture.

The human rights training was organized by GID Link and was led by Representative Nobu Shiita and Vice Representative Miri Aritoh, who are also lecturers for the Fukuoka Prefecture Human Rights-Related Awareness Training Lecture Group. GID Link was established in 2016 as a support group “aiming to realize a society where people with gender dysphoria and sexual minorities can live as they are without discrimination or prejudice.” It conducts activities such as lectures, consultation services, employment support for trans people, and introductions of other related organizations.

The prefectural lecture was hosted by the Fukuoka Prefecture Human Rights Enlightenment Information Center. The lecturers were Miwako Kitamura, Assistant Professor at the International Research Institute of Disaster Science, Tohoku University, and Ellen Pearce-Davies, Master’s student at the Institute of Risk and Disaster Prevention, University of London. The two are conducting research to resolve difficulties faced by sexual minorities in times of disaster.

I, the author of this article, was shocked by the GID Link’s event flyer that read, “Sexual Minority People Say They Would ‘Rather Die at Home’ Than Go to a Shelter.” I am regularly involved in local disaster prevention activities through my university seminar. I participated in this event because I wanted to learn about the difficulties faced by sexual minorities in emergencies and apply this information to my activities.


2. Inhibiting voting, anguish of trans people as told by a trans man

Shiita san, the first lecturer of the human rights training, is a trans man. He spoke about the anguish of those who have gender dysphoria, including his own experiences.

The venue on the day of the training

Shiita san started his lecture with the difficulty caused by the discrepancy between the gender in life (self-identified gender) and the one in the family register. For me, the example regarding the election was illuminating. At many municipalities, voting postcards indicate the voter’s gender. Since the gender in the family register is the one in the resident record, the gender on the family register is printed on the voting postcard. Meanwhile, residents in the vicinity of the polling place are often involved with its administration. Therefore, when a trans person, whose family register does not align with their self-identified gender, goes to the polling place, there is a risk that neighbors would gossip about this. Especially when they have children, they may hesitate to vote fearing the possible impact on their children. Elections should be an important opportunity to express one’s will for a better way of life. I felt that we must make improvements so that people would not be deprived of this opportunity.

Next, Shiita san explained the hurdles that trans people face in obtaining medical assistance.

Due to historical discrimination and lack of understanding, people with discomfort with the gender assigned at birth had been classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as having “mental and behavioral disorders” under the name of “gender identity disorder.” However, in the latest edition from June 2018, the name was changed to “gender dysphoria” and removed from the “mental and behavioral disorders” classification. While it is not regarded as a disorder any more, a psychiatric diagnosis is still required in Japan as a prerequisite for legal gender designation change, name change, insurance coverage, and irreversible medical treatment for a trans person wishing such changes and procedures.

Shiita san recommends consulting with a trans people’s organization or seeing a medical specialist as the first step. Shiita san said, “I am aware that there are various opinions on visiting a doctor. Unfortunately, some doctors do not understand gender dysphoria as well as they should, so caution is necessary. However, I personally recommend that a trans person try to see a doctor to mitigate risks.”

Shiita san pointed to adolescent trans persons experiencing development of secondary sexual characteristics as an example of such risks. As their bodies begin to show features of the gender they do not identify with, they sometimes begin to have suicidal thoughts and depression. Shiita san stated that medical support was effective in preventing and treating such developments.

The lecturer added that a trans person does not need to seek medical help if physical or mental health assessments and treatments are not legally required and if they did not have particular issues.

Shiita san also discussed the difficulties faced by the trans people at various stages of their lives.

For example, the curriculum vitae generally has a section for writing one’s educational background. As a graduate of an all-girls high school, Shiita san has had to explain his situation to the employer in order to live with his gender identity and expression aligned. Shiita san could try to hide his situation to get a job, but he would feel great pain in not being able to live his life the way he wants to. Shiita san has lost his job on many occasions due to rumors filled with prejudice about his gender identity spread from somewhere, even when people around Shiita san began to appreciate his work performance.

According to Shiita san, with the realization that they have not enjoyed life when they were young, many matured trans people find life unbearable with the sense of lost opportunities and thoughts of growing old just as they have been; this can also lead to depression and other symptoms. Shiita san repeatedly stated, “School life, work, and even things that everyone takes for granted are often painful for the trans people.”


3. Toward the realization of a society in which sexual minorities can live comfortably

Aritoh san, the Vice Representative of GID Link, said that through their activities, she learned that many trans persons are enduring and suffering much. As a way for alleviating their pain, Aritoh san places importance on acting as an interpreter: “For the trans people, interpreting what their parents feel,” “For the parents of the trans people, interpreting what their children feel,” and “For the majority in society, interpreting what the minorities feel.”

According to Aritoh san, when the parents of a trans person feel, “I am sorry I didn’t give birth to you properly,” or “We made a mistake in raising our child,” the trans person tends to blame themselves in response, saying, “I’m sorry I was born,” or “I wish I had never been born,” even though the parents do not necessarily mean to cause such reactions. Further, even if the parents want to be close to the trans child and ask various questions, the child may not explain clearly, thinking, “You are the parent, so you should understand this without my having to explain it.” In some cases, the parents themselves are at odds with each other over their views on how the child should live, and this can lead to their divorce, which could make the trans person feel even more guilty.

Through their lectures, I have become aware of the importance of connecting the trans people with those around them, and that making these connections was the goal of GID Link’s activities, such as through lectures and exchange meetings.

At the end of the human rights training, two things were stressed that the audience should remember: “Do not out anyone” and “Do not force anyone to come out.” In other words, we must not engage in outing someone, including “seeking out a trans person” and having them come out without their consent, or telling a third party without their permission and spreading the word. It is important to create an environment in which a trans person can consult with others comfortably at any time.

Shiita san also said that it was important for the audience not to feel obligated to “understand” the trans people, but rather to start with “not denying” who the trans people are. It is difficult to understand something that one has never experienced just by hearing about it. That is why the attitude of “not denying” is so important for Shiita san.


4. LGBTQ+ people who “cannot go” to shelters

In Japan, research on LGBTQ+ persons during disasters has not yet progressed much. Kitamura san and Ellen san, the speakers for the prefectural lecture, have conducted a survey of LGBTQ+ people, support groups, and local governments through GID Link with the aim of resolving difficulties faced by LGBTQ+ persons during disasters.

Kitamura san (left) and Ellen san (right)

The following are some of the difficulties that LGBTQ+ communities face in shelters according to their research.

In the case of same-sex partners, it is difficult to confirm their safety and treat them as family members because they cannot legally marry in Japan. As for trans persons, they often find it difficult to access toilets and gender-specific products, such as sanitary products, underwear, razors, and other supplies. In addition, because of the fear of discrimination, it is difficult for them to obtain information or consult with others regarding medical facilities for hormone treatment, etc., which may cause them to discontinue treatment, leading to poor health conditions and life-or-death problems.

In shelters, neighbors need to cooperate with each other and live very closely. Therefore, many members of LGBTQ+ communities are concerned that they will be outed there and may not be able to continue living in the area or lose their jobs in the future. Even if a support system exists for survivors of the disasters, LGBTQ+ persons do not always have access to it. As a result, they might conclude that they would rather “choose to die at home” than go to a shelter, as mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Currently, volunteer support groups play a central role in listening to and supporting the needs of those affected. However, although each organization collects information on the people concerned, this information is not fully shared among the organizations and the local authorities.

The local authorities might be willing to do something to resolve the difficulties of the LGBTQ+ communities. However, the municipalities surveyed indicated that they have not been sought consultation from the LGBTQ+ people during disasters. On the other hand, their support groups in those areas involved have been sought for advice regarding disasters. This might indicate that the LGBTQ+ people are unwilling to consult with the local authorities. Even if the voices of the communities had been conveyed to the local governments, however, it could have taken a considerable amount of time to reach a solution because of the limited funds and staffing available to work toward a solution.

Throughout the lecture, the two speakers repeatedly said, “LGBTQ+ people are not inherently vulnerable. They are made socially vulnerable because of their social exclusion.”

In order to break out of this situation, the two are conducting research so that they can offer solutions as researchers. One such solution they propose is asset mapping. Asset mapping is the process of putting information on resources and services in an area into a map. By compiling information on evacuation centers, counseling services, and other services that parties can safely use in the event of a disaster into a map, it makes it easier to access assistance.

Globally, asset maps have been created to show information on LGBTQ+ friendly restaurants, hotels, etc., but apparently disaster-specific mapping has not been tried, and the speakers plan to continue their research and implement asset mapping based on it.


5. What we can do now

After the event, Shiita san said, “I think it is very meaningful that researchers inform the local governments about the current situation of LGBTQ+ people in times of disaster and they propose solutions for these issues. We at GID Link continue to cooperate with their research to help the members of LGBTQ+ communities live without discrimination and prejudice.”

By participating in this event, I learned how sexual minorities were excluded from the general support system during emergencies.

It should be possible to make the existing support system more inclusive of more people, both in normal times and in emergencies, with a little ingenuity. I will use this realization in my future activities and hope that more people will be aware of the current situation.

Original text by Wayu Yasuoka (JNPOC’s volunteer writer) originally posted on February 6, 2023; translated by JNPOC.