Back home in Michigan I can legally get married and the next day be fired for it. That terrifying thought is why I have the fear of coming out at work. I could lose my job. But when I asked my wife, Natsuko, why Japanese have the fear of coming out at work, the answer was quite different. She said that it isn’t the fear of losing ones job but the fear of making those around you uncomfortable. Fear that they will treat you differently and you will lose your good relationships with your coworkers. I was stunned by her answer.
Natsuko came out at work and her relationships haven’t changed at all with her coworkers. She came out when she announced she was getting married and asked for time off for the wedding in Guam. The reaction is always the same, a little surprised then a congratulations. But no one ever made her feel uncomfortable about it. It could be the people she works with but I believe it is because Natsuko is always her most honest self and does not change how she is with others so they don’t change how they are with her. In other words, she doesn’t make it out to be anything unusual. Additionally, Natsuko requested to receive the company provided benefits for employees that get married. The company has marriage benefits such as paid leave time for the wedding and a gift of money for the couple. When Natsuko announced her wedding, I was added on her work forms as her wife and Natsuko received the marriage benefits just like everyone else when she asked for it. If Natsuko treated herself differently and did not ask for those benefits, it is possible they would have treated her differently and not have thought about giving her those benefits. It did not matter that same-sex marriage is not yet legal in Japan, this company made the choice that it was the right thing to do. In the past Natsuko would say things like “they probably don’t offer it because it’s not legal here in Japan”, but now I am very proud of Natsuko for believing in herself, it was a brave thing to do and I believe it will help LGBT also working there to find the strength to come out and see it is safe to do so. I am also proud of that company, they could have easily used the current laws of the government as an excuse to deny Natsuko the same benefits even though those laws don’t have anything to do with the choices companies make for their employees. Every company can choose to give the same benefits to same-sex couples, it is important to not forget this key point.
The situation can become a little tricky as a teacher. You have the people you work with in the office, but you also have the students and their parents. In Japan, I am out to the teaching staff and office workers. No one treats me different for it. I’m treated the same as everyone else. I was never asked to keep it a secret but I hide it with my students. When personal questions come up I feel like I’m lying by avoiding using words like he/she or him/her. I have not met any Japanese parents that would make me feel scared of coming out in fear of losing my job. My Japanese friends with kids do not think anything about it. Their kids have seen my wife and I kiss before and they also think nothing about it. Also if you are a foreigner here, they are probably less likely to care, they chalk it up to “just another strange foreign culture thing” and think of it as interesting as watching an American tv drama. These types are normally completely unaware of the large Japanese LGBT population surrounding them. I have very little concern that if a teacher does come out that it would cause them to lose their job. However, I do still have a great fear of coming out to my students. But the fear I have is purely coming from me. A fear that their parents will think I am no longer fit to teach them, a fear that I will lose those students and cause problems for the company I work for. So I hide the truth despite how much it hurts me. But I believe these are unnecessary feelings for me to have. I am doing it to myself. I need to treat myself equal and let this fear go. A fear that many LGBT teachers here in Japan share with me. Can I take my own advice? When the cute grandma of my student asks about my new “husband” should I hold back and answer her question avoiding words like she and her? Or do I correct her and say “wife”. I want to correct her, I want to be honest when my students or their parents ask about me. I thought before that it wasn’t worth the trouble. But actually it is exhausting trying to avoid using wife, her and she. It’s uncomfortable and very difficult.
I have said before in my previous article, “equality”, that we must treat ourselves equally so others can treat us equally. I still believe in those words. I try to live by those words. My wife has changed because of those words and lives a life of equality at work and at home. From now on, if it comes up, I will respond naturally without avoiding the word “wife” or the pronouns “her” and “she”.
Since I wrote this article I have come out to one of my adult students. The reaction was good and it has not affected my lessons in anyway. She asked to see my wedding pictures and as I showed them to her she could see how beautiful and happy we are. My student responded by telling me about the amazing pride parade she watched in New York City. I plan to tell another student of mine soon.