Studying Sexual Identity Issues in Japan

LGBT Americans today benefit from more than 45 years of a vigorous civil and human rights movement. While rear-guard attacks continue over anti- discrimination laws in areas like housing, employment and even bathroom access, the LGBT community has achieved what just a few years ago was unimaginable, most prominently with marriage equality.

Brian Richards Davis

Brian Richards Davis

But in Japan, things have played out differently. Religion, such a major factor in anti-gay attitudes in the United States, is far less of a force. More significant, says Brian Davis (City College, M.A., ’10; Ph.D. candidate in social psychology, CUNY Graduate Center), is the emphasis on social harmony. “In Japan, I’d ask gay men if they were out and they’d say, ‘No, because I’d upset my family.’ In Japan, there’s more at stake than one’s ability to claim a sexual identity.”

Davis, who previously spent five years in Japan, is writing his dissertation comparing attitudes toward LGBT people in the general population in the United States and Japan, as well as the effect of those attitudes in their lives.

To complement his doctoral research, he won a 2016 Fulbright grant that will underwrite 12 months of work in Japan. His Fulbright project will focus on his second research goal: learning how attitudes in Japan affect LGBT individuals’ mental health and access to community and health resources. Key questions concern differences in the experience of discrimination along lines of sexual and gender identity as well as socioeconomic level.

Davis explains that most evaluations of societal attitudes toward homosexuality were developed for use in one country and usually involve forced-answer multiple- choice questions; that limits their use in capturing the varied cultural dynamics at work in other countries. So he designed an approach in which he presents a short story featuring a main character’s attraction for another character. He asks participants to draw overlapping circles to represent the main character. Together with supplemental interviews, these “character maps” allow him to analyze attitudes quantitatively and qualitatively.

His hypothesis is that the complex associations underlying beliefs of what men and women are supposed to be like will differ substantially between the United States and Japan, with gender and sexuality uniquely interweaving in determining attitudes.

He will be based at Osaka Prefecture University and work with one of Japan’s foremost researchers in LGBT and, especially, transgender issues, Yuko Higashi. “Trans issues exploded in the ’90s over there and gained social inclusion much earlier than in the U.S.,” he says.