With more LGBTQ athletes than ever, Games puts emphasis on Japan

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The Olympic rings can be seen in front of the skyline during sunset, one night before the official opening of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, July 22, 2021. (REUTERS)

TOKYO – More than 160 openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer athletes will compete in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, making this year’s Games the most inclusive ever.

That has focused on host nation Japan, which activists say is out of step with much of the rest of the world because it hasn’t seen the same profound social change that has made same-sex marriage and greater inclusion a reality in many countries. .

Fumino Sugiyama, a 39-year-old former fencer for the Japanese national team and a transgender activist, said he was delighted to see progress in diversity at the Games. Sports was very different when he was younger, he said, and discriminatory language was common.

Sugiyama started fencing at the age of 10, climbed through the ranks and eventually competed internationally on the Japanese women’s team. Felt conflicted with identifying as a woman in competitions, he retired at the age of 25.

“I loved fencing, I didn’t feel like I could find a place for myself,” he said.

Although Japan is known for its strong civil society and democracy, human rights activists say it still has a long way to go in tackling lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gay (LGBTQ) people.

The Olympic charter prohibits discrimination and while Tokyo passed an anti-discrimination law three years ago, much of the rest of the country doesn’t have the same legal protections.

Rights activists hope to use the Games as an opportunity to raise awareness and public support for LGBTQ issues.

“I think a lot of people in the world think that Japan is the human rights defender, but it’s the opposite, because we don’t have marriage equality, we don’t have a law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Gon Matsunaka, founder of Pride House, the first LGBTQ center in Japan.

Foreign teams are also bringing the message to Japan.

Germany women’s hockey team captain, Nike Lorenz, will wear a rainbow-colored captain’s armband at all her matches to show solidarity with LGBTQ communities, according to the German Olympic Sports Federation.

It said the International Olympic Committee had approved its request to allow Lorenz to put on the bracelet, just as Germany’s national football team captain Manuel Neuer did at Euro 2020 last month.

“We are pleased to have found a common path that will allow the hockey team to make a socio-political statement,” said Alfons Hoermann, the president of the confederation.

Sugiyama, who also hosts the city’s annual pride march, became the first transgender to be appointed to the Japanese Olympic Committee.

“Being excluded from the sporting world is the same as being excluded from society, so I think it’s important to seize this opportunity to firmly lead to positive discussions,” he said.

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