OPINION: The WHO says I don’t have a mental disorder, but in Japan my government says I do

by Fumino Sugiyama | Tokyo Rainbow Pride
Tuesday, 28 May 2019 09:47 GMT

A man holds a Christian cross in the rainbow colours during the Tokyo Rainbow Pride parade celebrating lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) culture in Tokyo, Japan, May 8, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Japan trans people have to be single, not have children under the age of 20 and be surgically sterilised before we can be recognised before the law

Fumino Sugiyama is the co-chair of Tokyo Rainbow Pride

On Monday, the World Health Assembly voted to approve the 11th version of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), a global manual of diagnostic codes for doctors. Among other changes, this version of the ICD removes the diagnosis of “Gender Identity Disorder (GID)”, meaning transgender people like me are officially no longer regarded as having a mental illness just because our gender identity doesn’t align with the sex we were assigned at birth. 

One of the 194 member states that voted to approve it was my country of Japan – this makes me proud. But the truth of the matter is that Japan still retains the GID diagnosis. In fact, we have a law called the “GID Special Cases Act” that not only says trans people need to receive a GID diagnosis, but also that we have to be single, not have children under the age of 20 and be surgically sterilized – all before we can be recognised before the law. 

I am a proud, out trans man. I am co-chair of Tokyo Rainbow Pride and I have owned successful businesses. I underwent a mastectomy in 2009 because I wanted the surgery to affirm my identity and shape how my body felt. But like many other trans people I know, I don’t want to be sterilised. Removing my ovaries would mean another expensive, invasive and irreversible surgery. It would also require me to be on hormone replacement therapy for the rest of my life. 

So, despite my appearance and my identity, I am still legally recognised as female in Japan. This means my documents get extra scrutiny whenever officials inspect them. I was once denied entry to a country because my female passport did not match my male appearance. As Human Rights Watch documented in a report published in March, I am not alone in these experiences – the current Japanese law is a formidable barrier to many trans people in the country.

But perhaps the most painful thing for me to grapple with is that I am not a legal guardian of my infant child. My girlfriend gave birth to the child last year, and we are raising the kid in our house. But it doesn’t matter how many times I change diapers or feed the baby, I have no legal rights – legally I’m just a “roommate” helping out. 

Japan’s “GID Special Cases Act” has been around since 2004. At that time, it was revolutionary for the government to acknowledge the existence of transgender people and give us a pathway to recognition of our identities. But the law is now fundamentally outdated – and a barrier to us enjoying equal rights. The fact that the World Health Organization has now nullified the GID diagnosis means it’s time for Japan to reform.

In January of this year, Japan’s Supreme Court unfortunately decided the currently law doesn’t violate our constitution. But two of the four justices who heard the case expressed deep doubts about the current law – and said it encroached on trans people’s bodily integrity. 

Indeed it does. Forcing us to pursue a diagnosis of a now non-existent disease is confusing and discriminatory. Forcing us to undergo surgeries that many of us don’t want causes deep harm to the community.

Last year, the government of Japan told the United Nations it would take steps to end discrimination on the basis of gender identity. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government also passed its own law against LGBT+ discrimination in anticipation of hosting the 2020 Olympics. 

I’m proud of my government’s support for ending discrimination against my community. However a very tangible step now needs to be taken immediately: the GID Special Cases Act must be revised urgently. For the very name of the law refers to a diagnosis that now officially no longer exists. And the law stands in the way of people like me being equal citizens—and lawful parents of our children. 

I am convinced that the society we are treated equally will be a more equitable and fair society for all Japanese people.