17 July 2012

Coming Out Story (カミングアウトストーリー, 2011)

And in the journal you kept by the side of your bed.  .  . 
Confessing childhood secrets of dressing up in women's clothes
Compulsions you never knew the reasons to
“Searching for a Former Clarity”, Against Me!, 2005

Although there are many manga and anime that feature positive transgender characters, the reality of coming out as transgender in Japan is pretty harsh.  The social pressure to fit into the expectations of the community is so enormous, that most transgender people keep their struggle with their identity a secret for years.  Sex change operations did not even become available in Japan until the late 1990s, and it was only in 2004 that laws changed so that some transsexuals (unmarried, childless) could change their officially registered gender (learn more).

These small, but significant changes are thanks to the hard work of activists fighting for recognition and acceptance of transgender people in their communities.  Kei Umezawa’s award-winning documentary Coming Out Story (2011) follows the story of one such activist: Itsuki Dohi.  Dohi is a middle-aged high school math teacher born a boy in the 1960s who has been slowly making the transition to living as a woman for more than a decade.  Dohi always knew that she wanted to be a woman, but as a child there was no one to whom she could speak to about her feelings and so she kept them hidden until well into adulthood.  It wasn't until a co-worker came out to her as gay and lent her a book that mentioned transsexuality, that she even had a word for the deep truths that she felt about herself.  Before that, she feared that she was "hentai" (a pervert).  Now, aged 49, she is finally ready to go through with gender reassignment surgery.

Umezawa’s documentary is remarkable for its ordinariness.  There are no flashy camera movements or artsy shots.  The focus is simply on telling the story of Dohi, her friends, her community, the other transgender people whose lives she has touched, and her efforts to bring awareness to the human rights concerns of those of varying sexualities/genders.  Many films about transgender people focus on outlandish transvestites or people who have been the victims of hate crimes.  The transgendered in this film are shown to be just regular folks who are active members of their community.  Dohi teaches math and runs a broadcasting club, one of the young people she is mentoring is an out and proud young trans man working in a care home for the elderly, while others are students just barely out of puberty who are just embarking on the path of coming to terms with their true identities.

It is an understatement to say that the journey these transgender people are on is a challenging one.  One of the more poignant moments in the film comes when a friend Dohi has tried to mentor loses his/her grip on reality, dresses as a woman and tries to rob a store.  The resulting newspaper headlines lead Dohi to feel that she could have done more to save her friend.  Although many of Dohi’s friends – mostly women and other transgender people – testify about their experience with her, it struck me that there were no interviews with family members of the transgendered featured in this doc.  Their absence spoke volumes as to the difficulties transgender people face in coming out to their family and friends.  The greatest fear of all is rejection by the people and communities they care so much about.  Films like Coming Out Story are crucial to educating people to love and accept all members of their community without prejudice.

Another great little film about growing up transgender in Japan: the short fiction film Jellyfish Boy

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012