Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Shinjuku Boys

Yesterday was the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO). Friends and comrades of mine in Australia marked the day by taking part in speak-outs and rallies building the campaign for same-sex marriage. The Anglican Church in Sydney is trying to stop an important rally for LGBTI rights taking place this weekend, so this lead-up week must have a particular political and emotional force and charge. There were events in New Zealand too, and around the world.

One of the nice things about living in New Zealand again is being within a social formation where the movement has won a certain, enduring, space for lesbian and gay lives, and being able to enjoy the great benefits that brings to all of us. Particularly around where I live in Newtown, for reasons which aren’t clear to me (I fit here the cliche of the straight man for whom obvious social signals are a mystery), there are plenty of gay and lesbian couples living visible lives: as I walk to work each morning I pass a man kissing his boyfriend goodbye for the day, a gesture touching in its (I think calculated) combination of workaday normality and understated but significant physical bravery. This isn’t a tale of lives divorced from the working class, either, as one currently popular narrative in Labour Party circles would have it; these guys look like they’re on a budget, and their shoes show all the signs of regular use. There’s more to win – full marriage rights, for one – and nothing is permanent. Still, seeing two men kissing each morning is a nice, and educational, start to the day: plenty of heterosexual men (myself included) would struggle with that kind of relaxed emotional expressiveness, whatever the wider questions of sexuality. It hasn’t always been this way, of course, and it took a mass movement to win what freedoms there are. The activists in that movement took risks: as Bill Logan has written, “it was no rose garden, but it wasn’t a mistake.”

It’s the transphobia part of the international day I’ve been thinking about recently, though. I’ve learnt a lot, as I suspect plenty of others have too, from the issues that have been raised by the same-sex marriage rights campaigns in Australia and the United States, in particular around the struggles within these movements for the voices of trans people to be heard, and how their contribution to the struggle has strengthened its reach and energy. Sherry Wolf’s essay “To Riki, with respect” moved me, and set other thoughts in motion.


I’ve written before about “this path”, the life of “this world” that is Queer Japan. Reading contributions around IDAHO yesterday, I remembered Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams’ excellent documentary Shinjuku Boys (1996).

Shinjuku Boys follows the lives of a group of onnabe working in The New Marilyn nightclub in Tokyo. The term Onnabe – the pun here plays on 女 – woman – and 鍋 – nabe, those lovely hot pots that make Japanese winters such fun and which demand a good deal of stirring and mixing – refers to women dressing and/or living as men and working in a “host” bar catering to women clients. Some are transitioning to new physical identities. The clientele are, in the main, heterosexual women, although many form ongoing emotionally and sexually intimate relationships with hosts they meet at the bar. The documentary, in allowing these people to speak openly and freely about their lives, is an intensely moving, educational, and inspirational work.

That last paragraph was difficult to write, and doesn’t communicate particularly well, because each of the terms I’ve looked to ends up proving as inadequate as the one it replaced. This difficulty mirrors the limitations in my political vision the film helped expose. First time around, with well-meaning bafflement, I spent most of my time trying to fix in place precisely what couldn’t, and shouldn’t, be fixed: who were the men? Who were the women? Were any – or all – of the people interviewed lesbians? Which people lived as women? Which wanted to be men?

This line of questioning, apart from being a particularly rude and unpleasant way of talking about other people, is politically unhelpful, and Shinjuku Boys helped me see why. That the labels of sexuality, gender, and, oftentimes, sex itself didn’t fit for many lives was, for the interviewees, a given: things became difficult when other people (and, through them, social forces) tried to make them fit, with sometimes tragic results. Some onnabe were happy, others unhappy, much like the rest of the world: what they shared in common, though, was a determination to live the kind of life they wanted to live. A good aim and, if the social fixations, expectations and clothing- and genital-attractions of each of the sexes didn’t fit so well, bad news for those expectations.

Shinjuku Boys, in giving its commentary over to the subjects of the documentary themselves, forced me to confront complexity. These people’s frankness about identity, sex and sexuality was also a reminder of the importance of respect and privacy, of the sorts of conditions necessary to make political conversation possible: you can’t learn about other people’s lives or needs by demanding easy affiliations from them. The power of unity in struggle is, among many other things, the power of being different. That’s difficult, and needs working at, but I’m sure it’s essential too.

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
And ev'n devotion!

The struggle continues: I was very pleased to see the first openly gay candidate win public office in Japan earlier this year. Socialist Ishikawa Taiga marches on May Day, campaigns for AIDS awareness, writes thoughtfully on gay life and has opinions on US bases. (The hint here, again following right-wing commentary on the state of the NZ labour movement: it’s possible to multi-task).

Here in Wellington next month we’re going to march to “Queer the Night”, a sign of LGBTI pride, and against homophobic violence and threats.

So, let's rock society!


Most of the best political and social websites coming out of the Japanese lesbian community start with pages asking men not to view or enter them. Fair enough. I’ve respected those requests and won’t read or link to them, but want to record their absence here. If you’re a woman reading this you might like to explore further.

In keeping with the international day being about action and education, I'd like to acknowledge the extraordinary education in sexual politics and LGBTI history and struggle through my time in Socialist Alternative when I lived in Melbourne.


  1. Thank you! Thoughtful, sensitive and enlightening.

  2. Thanks for the supportive comment, Kay!

  3. This isn’t a tale of lives divorced from the working class, either, as one currently popular narrative in Labour Party circles would have it; these guys look like they’re on a budget, and their shoes show all the signs of regular use

    Er, can I just say that when I was at the Labour Party Conference over the weekend, the popular narrative was not one of `lives divorced from the working class' but rather one of everyone's emancipation is everyone's problem. I really don't see that narrative in Labour Party circles; mind you, maybe I just hang out with the gaggle unrepresentatively much.

  4. Fair comment, Keir: I should have been more careful in how I phrased that. I should have written in "some circles" or "around the Labour Party" - I was meaning as much some media/blogging speculation about where Labour's going wrong as the O'Connor nonsense.