This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of the Connect magazine. For more information about Connect and their engaging articles written by and for the ex-pat community in Japan, please visit their website.
“Closeted – Adjective / klɒzɪtɪd / Keeping something secret, especially the fact of being homosexual.”
If you have ever been (or indeed still are) closeted, you can agree it is no bed of roses. Having to conceal your sexuality and a part of your identity from family, friends, colleagues, and peers can leave you feeling isolated, confined, and frustrated.
There is a reason why the term “closeted” is used with regard to those who are keeping their sexuality a secret from those around them. It is dark. It is restrictive. It is suffocating.
My time spent in the closet was awash with confusion and anguish, on both a mental and emotional level, as I tried my best to circumnavigate across the spectrum of my own sexuality. Even now when I reflect on my experiences being in the closet, I cannot help but grimace.
Flashback to my high school days. I am sitting with my female friends in the canteen, engrossed in enjoyable conversation. “Mate, are you, like, a faggot or something?” one of the popular, athletic types suddenly probes. Silence. Those around stare. Silence is soon replaced with sniggers and slurs. My words fail me as I desperately try to salvage a fragment of my crumbling heterosexual façade. Deeper into my closet I withdraw.
This was just one of the day-to-day experiences that I encountered during my youth which made me feel like I would never be able to escape the dark solitude of my closet.
Fortunately, however, my closet was only a temporary abode. I was able to step out of the darkness into a warm and accepting welcome from all of my family and friends, to which I am extremely grateful. The positive reaction from those around me left me wondering what it was that had made me so fearful to come out during my younger years. The world outside the closet was bright. Liberating. I could breathe, finally; I had cast off my shackles and bid adieu to the isolation of my closet for once and for all. Or so I had thought.
Before leaving for Japan on the JET Programme, my sexuality was the last thing on my mind. During Pre-Departure Orientation, lecturers kindly gave speeches discussing the difficulties that incoming JETs can face after arriving in Japan — mainly culture shock. Given the geographical distance between Britain and Japan, I tried to mentally prepare myself as best as possible for the impending culture shock which awaited me in the land of the rising sun.
Much time was spent considering the challenges that await foreigners in Japan. However, topics which were never discussed were the challenges which lay in wait for me as a homosexual male.
With Tokyo Orientation over all too soon, I suddenly found myself behind my desk at work on the first day of my new job. An uncomfortable mixture of nerves and jet lag, matched with the stifling heat of the Japanese summer, meant my once freshly-cleaned shirt was drenched in perspiration as I began to make my rounds greeting different people within city hall. After many introductions and an excessive amount of bowing, one particular gentlemen mentions my big gaijin nose and compliments my physical attributes. This was met with laughter from my new supervisor. “Relax! He’s not a homo. Don’t worry!”
My throat ran dry.
My words failed me.
I decided to smile graciously and let the comment slide as playful office banter.
After a long first day at work, I was quickly ushered to a local izakaya which was filled with the faces of my new work colleagues. It’s my welcome party. The smell of cigarette smoke and sake filled my nostrils as I took my seat within the venue. After a few words of greeting, a couple cans of Kirin Ichiban, the conversation turned to relationships.
“Nick, do you have a girlfriend?”
“Nick, what is your type?”
“Nick, what do you think of Japanese girls?”
The barrage of questions was quick and relentless. In that moment, I was offered two choices: tell the truth or lie.
I regrettably chose the latter.
Like a repeat offender, I find myself being frog-marched back into my closet once again. Though many years have passed, my closet remains unchanged and the familiar darkness greets me like an old friend. Only this time, my closet feels smaller and more cramped than I remember. I awkwardly contort my body, trying to squeeze into the same space which my 14-year-old self would have had no problem fitting into. My brief spell outside of the closet had enabled me to grow in many more ways than I could have imagined.
I had once naïvely thought that stepping out of the closet would be one of the hardest challenges I would face in my life. However, admittedly, stepping out of the closet, enjoying the taste of liberation, and then being forced back into the same closet is undeniably even more challenging.
However, this is of course not just limited to myself. I imagine that many members from the LGBTQIA living in Japan are faced with similar situations on a regular basis. Living in Japan for any minority can be a stressful and at times frustrating experience. However, members of the queer community are statistically more likely to be faced with additional anguish and strife. Unfortunately, this mental and emotional burden can often lead to low self-esteem, alcohol/drug abuse, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
Finding solace and refuge within a queer space can be an excellent way to reduce the stress and anguish of everyday life. From an outside perspective, the bars, clubs, discotheques, and other queer spaces as found in Shinjuku Ni-chome and Kita-ku might appear to be nothing more than a place where gay men drink vodka and twerk to the likes of Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj on a superficial level. However, these queer spaces are much more than this. These queer spaces offer sanctuary. Safety. Family. Home. It is a place to step out of the proverbial closet and present the most authentic and honest version of yourself.
Unfortunately, for those who do not reside in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, queer spaces and communities are seldom found. From my experience, this can heighten one’s sense of isolation and solitude while living in the inaka of Japan. Though you can surround yourself with many close friends within the local community and among fellow JETs and alumni, the lack of a queer space to retreat to can leave you with an unshakeable feeling of loneliness. My incarceration within the closet seems perpetual.
However, the worst was yet to come.
On June 12, 2016, an assailant walked into Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, armed with an SIG Sauer MCX semi-automatic rifle and a 9mm Glock 17 semi-automatic pistol. Opening fire, the gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a heinous hate crime. This was both the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman and the worst attack against the LGBTQIA in United States history.
Pulse was a gay nightclub. It was a queer space. A place which people retreat to in search of acceptance, unity, and love, had in that instance been desecrated into somewhere of discrimination, stigma, and hate.
The LGBTQIA community worldwide was in mourning.
My alarm sounds at 7 a.m. on a seemingly ordinary dreaded Monday. I stir. I yawn. I stretch. I reach for my iPhone and begin scrolling through Facebook as I steal a couple of extra minutes in bed. Expecting the usual stream of selfies and memes, I pause. Stunned. I frantically read through article after article feeling a surge of different emotions, even a world away.
My clock now reads 07:32 a.m. Work beckons me. It is in that instant that I realize that similar to my sexuality, my emotions too must be left firmly sealed within my closet.
As with any other Monday, I routinely pull out my trousers, shirt, tie, and jacket from my closet and begin to get dressed. I apply cologne, style my hair, and put on my watch. My last accessory to apply is the most important — my mask of heterosexuality. With a heavy heart, I cower behind this mask.
Wanting to grieve but not being permitted to because of societal values and norms has been my toughest challenge to date. Forcing a smile, I try to feign normality. It was in this instance that I felt my closet was at its darkest. However, to quote a well-known proverb, “the darkest hour comes just before the dawn.”
As I sit pondering my desolation inside my closet, a faint voice calls out from the darkness: “You are not alone.”
Like music to my ears, my heart leaps as my eyes scan my closet trying to distinguish who had called out to me from the shadows. My search is in vain as I see nothing but darkness: “It gets better.”
A different voice calls out from another corner of my closet, only louder: “We are here for you.”
A chorus of encouragement erupts from within my closet. Suddenly, a light switches on and I see that I am not alone. Faces smile at me and I recognize these people as my comrades of the LGBTQIA cause. These are of course the faces of Stonewall Japan and other allies. Comment after comment fills the page from people offering support and love for those in need. My anger is replaced with determination. My loneliness replaced with togetherness. My sorrow replaced with pride.
I realise as I sit in my apartment amongst the Japanese rice fields, that to escape the darkness of my closet, all I had to do was remember to turn on the light.
Nick Lavin is a 3rd year CIR and the AJET Vice Chair located in Takaoka City, Toyama Prefecture. He majored in Japanese Studies at the University of Manchester, and has an interest in linguistics and queer culture. He wrote his thesis regarding queer identity through the medium of the Japanese language. Nick likes to spend his weekends drinking good coffee, hanging out with friends, and endlessly watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. Also, food. Lots of it.