International News – April 9 – 16, 2021

A street scene in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Jason Villemez)

Calls for LGBT equality in Japan

Activists submitted a petition with over 106,000 signatures to Japan’s ruling party April 1, calling for an LGBT equality law to be enacted before the Tokyo Games. Activists assert that as a host nation, Japan must meet the terms of the Olympic charter banning gender and sexual discrimination.

Focus on passing the law has risen due to Japan’s handling of gender equality, diversity and other human rights issues. Yuri Igarashi is director of the Japan Alliance for LGBT Legislation, one of several groups that organized the petition. At a press conference on April 1, Igarashi said, “Many LGBT people in Japan are still discriminated against. We need legislation to guarantee human rights and equality of LGBT people.”

Igarashi added, “It is a responsibility for a host nation to legalize the equality act.”

Igarashi said the groups submitted the signatures to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party as well as opposition lawmakers.

While there has been gradual awareness of LGBT+ issues in Japan, there are no legal protections for queer and trans people in the world’s third largest economy after the U.S. and China. Japan is the only country within the G7 to fail to recognize same-sex couples. In March 2021, Japan’s Sapporo district court ruled that the government’s non-recognition of same-sex marriage is unconstitutional and violates the right to equality under the law.

LGBT+ activists say pressure to conform still forces many queer and trans Japanese to remain closeted and hide their sexual identities. Fear of discrimination at school, work and within families is great. According to existing laws in Japan, trans individuals must have their reproductive organs removed before their gender can be changed on official documents. Such surgical intervention, which some trans people choose to forego, is a requirement to gender identity documentation that international medical experts and human rights groups consider inhumane.

The ruling party in Japan has promised to raise its awareness of LGBT issues and says it is working on legislation “to promote understanding,” but that effort, however vaguely stated, will face strong opposition from the conservatives in the party.

Fumino Sugiyama, a trans activist and former Olympian in fencing, said at the April 1 news conference that few Japanese LGBT athletes have come out because of fear of discrimination or disappointing their families, and they worry about hurting their future career and relationship with athletic organizations.

“I believe a change in the athletic community could be a driving force toward a social change,” Sugiyama said. “We call for the equality law so that we can achieve a society where not only LGBT+ people but everyone can live in a safe and secure environment.”

Attacks on gay men via Grindr

Belgian politicians have spoken out in condemnation of the brutal attack and murder of a gay man after David Polfliet was found beaten and stabbed to death in a park in the East Flemish city of Beveren, near Antwerp. Local media have reported that the murder was a homophobic hate crime.

The murder took place in a park in the East Flemish city of Beveren, near Antwerp, on March 29, where three teenagers are thought to have lured Polfliet under the pretense of a date arranged using the gay dating app Grindr. 

Each of the boys, two of whom are 17 years old and one of whom is 16, turned themselves into police the day after the murder, according to De Standaard.

The three are said to have admitted to the court their involvement in Polfliet’s death, saying they didn’t intend to kill him, but wanted to rob him. The victim was badly beaten and fatally stabbed. A cyclist found his body the following day and called the police.

The public prosecutor’s office of East Flanders has not provided an official motive, saying it will take into account all possibilities, but many have condemned the murder as a homophobic hate crime, including Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who took to Twitter to say he was “deeply shocked by the extreme homophobia in Beveren” and hung the rainbow flag from Rue de la Loi 16 as a symbol of solidarity with the LGBT+ community.

One of the alleged killers belongs to a homophobic group of “gay bashers” that use gay dating sites to ambush and then assault gay men, reports Belgium’s De Standaard newspaper.

De Croo wrote on Twitter, “I am deeply shocked by the extreme homophobia in Beveren. This is really awful. My deepest condolences to the family and friends of the victim. Justice must now do its job. But let one thing be clear: we will never accept this violence in our country.”

Belgian police and the local public prosecutors’ office have yet to confirm or deny if the killing was motivated by homophobia, but the case highlights the fact that for LGBT+ people dating apps are more dangerous than ever, as the pandemic has allowed more predators to troll the sites for victims.

There have been other recent cases. In Ireland, a teenager was put on probation after he admitted assaulting and attempting to rob a man he’d been chatting to on Grindr under false pretenses. 

On March 22, a Louisiana teen accused of trying to kill and dismember a man he met on a gay dating app was indicted on federal hate crime, kidnapping, and other charges for the gruesome attempted murder, as well as kidnapping charges involving at least two other male victims.

Chance Joseph Seneca, 19, of Lafayette, was charged as part of what prosecutors from the U.S. Department of Justice claim was “an overarching scheme to kidnap and murder gay men” by luring them through the use of the dating app Grindr.

Seneca faces six different charges stemming from three separate incidents in June 2020. According to prosecutors, Seneca successfully kidnapped two other men he met through using the app on June 19. A press release from the Justice Department provides few details about what happened in those two incidents.

Homophobic hate crimes are on the rise. According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA’s) Annual Review of LGBTQ+ rights in Europe, hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people in the Netherlands were reported by Dutch media almost every week in 2020. In France, SOS Homophobie’s annual report found that the number of hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people had increased for a fourth consecutive year in 2020.

Since lockdowns were imposed around the world when the pandemic took hold early last year, apps such as Grindr, Scruff and Her have have taken on a greater role in the LGBTQ+ community, as traditionally safe public LGBTQ+ spaces, such as gay bars, clubs and pubs were forced to close along with most businesses.

ILGA points out in its State-Sponsored Homophobia report that “Lockdowns meant the abrupt and complete interruption of activities, gatherings became impossible, events and Prides got suspended, and safe spaces dramatically shrunk overnight with extremely little to no notice.”

Grindr said it was “deeply saddened” by the murder of David Polfliet. “This is a tragic and disturbing reminder of the hatred and violence faced by all-too-many people in the LGBTQ+ community, despite the many advances across the world. We stand ready to assist local authorities with their investigation of this matter,” the company said in a statement.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.