lgbtq tokyo gay and lesbian

Gay and Lesbian Tokyo: A Brief Guide

This is an overview LGBTQ post for travellers and people living in Tokyo from abroad. Admittedly, most of the information is for gay and lesbian Tokyo (i.e. Shinjuku’s night life), but I’ve included gender-related information that I’m aware of for trans and non-binary friends. 

  1. How LGBTQ-friendly is Tokyo?
  2. What’s the community and scene like?
  3. Tokyo’s LGBTQ community groups
  4. Are there LGBTQ events to attend in Tokyo?
  5. Shinjuku’s gay and lesbian bars
  6. What’s it like living here?
  7. What’s some good Japanese LGBTQ content to check out?

1. How LGBTQ-friendly is Tokyo?

The answer is, it depends. Packed into everyone who identifies as LGBTQ+ is a host of other factors that can affect reception, such as your perceived ethnicity, language ability, perceived gender, and social circles, to name a few factors. LGBTQ-friendliness can be separated into at least three categories: locals, foreigners who live in Japan, and foreign travellers. Even for foreigners, the experience of Tokyo based on Japanese language ability can vary widely. For this post, most of the information is geared towards travellers, but is true for foreigners living in Japan as well.

To cover the most basic consideration, there’s virtually no public discrimination against same-sex couples or gender ambiguity. In general, public violence is not commonplace nor condoned. From visible foreign travellers to locals alike, one is likely not going to be called slurs or in danger of getting assaulted. This is partially due to lack of awareness (people don’t realise you’re gay or lesbian), partially to Tokyo’s range of subcultures (i.e. you may just register as someone with eccentric fashion), partially that visible foreigners have a gaijin pass, meaning they’re given exceptions.

PDA has a different standard for women and men. No-one would bat a lash at women holding hands, since it’s commonplace from grade school right into adulthood. Men, unfortunately, don’t have the same luxury.

For travellers, one other logistical consideration may be booking hotels or filling in anything where you have a spouse or travelling with family. If you’re travelling as a couple, I personally don’t see any issue with just filling out the usual booking forms for a shared room. Generally, hospitality in Japan dictates that the front desk would give everyone a proper, professional greeting. Officially, Japan recognizes the marriage certificates of any issuing country.

For trans and non-binary people, the washrooms are usually the biggest concern. In Tokyo, accessible toilets, or “Toilets-for-everyone” are everywhere, from train stations to department stores. They are a great option. Otherwise, go to the washroom of the gender you identify as. I’m often mistaken for a boy, and the most I’ll get is a gentle comment about how the men’s room is the other way. For onsen, the easiest solution is to have your own private room onsen (which can be pricey). Since everyone must go in nude, it will be expected that you physically match the stereotypes of cis-male and cis-female bodies.

Are there exceptions to what I’ve described? Definitely. For example, I haven’t discussed bullying in schools, how discrimination manifests in ways other than violence, late-nighty rowdiness, or yakuza fights.

2. What’s the community and scene like?

My information is mostly second-hand, as I didn’t get into the community while I lived there. Queer friends made up a significant part of my social circle, but many I had met outside Japan or through local friend introductions.

Shinjuku Nichome is Tokyo’s equivalent to New York’s Greenwhich Village, San Fran’s Castro, London’s Soho, Toronto’s Church St, etc. In short, it is where the queer community is visible and active, but mostly in the way of bars, clubs, and sex clubs. Tokyo’s unique spin is that this massive collection of social spaces is squeezed into a few small blocks, in even tinier venues. Nichome is of the same stock as Shinjuku’s nearby tourist attractions: Golden Gai and Omoideyokocho (Yakitori Alley). Nichome is the place you go to from 8pm through until 8am the next day, hopping from bar to bar, and eventually returning to your favourites.

The local and foreign communities don’t mix too much because language remains a huge barrier, but check out my section below on Tokyo’s LGBTQ community groups. For gay men, there are Japanese men who only “specialise” in dating foreign men — and from what I’ve been told, fetishes are pretty common.

Many people, especially locals, are not entirely out. To them, going to Tokyo Rainbow Pride once a year or hanging out in Shinjuku may be their main community event. Or, they may have a private LINE group with a group of friends that they hang out with. This socialising tends to be organic and introduction-based rather than advertising a community group online. If you befriend a local, please be mindful of their situation and check in to see how out they are to their various social circles.

LGBTQ rights and events are growing in number. In the past few years, Tokyo’s Rainbow Pride has picked up steam(since Rainbow Tokyo and Tokyo Pride finally joined forces) and attracts a fun crowd in the parade through Shibuya to Yoyogi Park. Try to meet people there!

LGBTQ things pop up in random places, such as otaku-related areas. On the plus side, Japanese culture has anachronisms that seem liberal elsewhere. This eclectic mix can all fall under “weird” Japan to the outside world and that means that you might find vintage pornography magazines in second-hand bookshops or cosplayers in the high-end Ginza shops. Be on the lookout for LGBTQ related things, such as yaoi in the anime mecha of Nakano Broadway.

3. Tokyo’s LGBTQ Community Groups

Up until a few years ago, Tokyo’s gay and lesbian community posted events on Mixi, sort of Japan’s version of MySpace. Unfortunately, that seems to have collapsed with the rise of mobile, and there isn’t a consolidated place to get information. For those who know a bit of Japanese, Twitter is a good source of information, as Japanese are heavy users.

Apart from knowing a few queer friends in Tokyo, I typically met people through Meetup.com going for movies, coffees, and book clubs. I also just tagged along with friends to meet their friends, especially around dates like Tokyo Rainbow Pride (late April to May).

Gay and Lesbian Meetup groups:

For women, there is a local Japanese group called Kakurez (隠れズ) that supports lesbians who are mostly not out.

Are there LGBTQ to attend in Tokyo?

gay lesbian tokyo event shinjuku

Shinjuku’s Rainbow Matsuri in August had lots of kids! — Photo by Athena Lam

In addition to the clubs and Meetup.com events, there are some annual events to check out.

Shinjuku’s gay and lesbian bars

shinjuku tokyo nightlife

Wandering Shinjuku’s small alleys — Photo by Athena Lam

Most of the night life is in Shinjuku Nichome for both men and women. The area is affectionately called Nichome and I would recommend walking over from the Tokyo Metro Shinjuku Sanchome Station because the station is a more manageable size.

Bar Culture & how to meet people

  • Totally okay to go on your own.
  • It’s a custom to treat a bartender. You say ippai douzo (一杯どうぞ) and let the bartender choose their own drink.
  • The bartenders help introduce you to a place. By treating the bartender, they will help initiate conversations to include you. Of course, look for the more chatty ones.
  • Barhopping is common practice. It is called hashigo. Bartenders will usually say itterashai when you go, and welcome you back with okaeri when you return later.
  • If you like a place, consider having a “bottle keep”. You buy a full bottle and you can likely paint or label the bottle as you like. That will be your bottle every time you come in, which is a great way to get into the community.

Shinjuku bars for gay men

For the guys, there is stuff going on.  Places are small, but also numerous. Places gay men can be categorized from bars, clubs, massage parlours, and sex clubs.

Please double check that the places are still open, as they may either have moved or closed. Shinjuku’s rents are quite high and there are some yakuza associations, so bar owners are often under high pressure.

Some of the popular ones I’ve heard of are:

24 Kaikan Hotel and Sauna Shinjuku 7-story sauna with communal and private rooms, baths, steam rooms, glory-hole room, cafe. ¥2,600 for 13 hours. Open 24 hours, 365 days. Foreigner friendly, but limited English. This article explains navigating 24 Kaikan.

AiiRO Cafe is a hole in the wall with an English-speaking proprietor.

Aisotope Lounge is a two-level gay bar and club with quite a packed party schedule.

Arty Farty has enough space for a dance floor, and unlimited drinks with the cover during happy hour.

DNA is a good place for a chat and open daily.

Dragon Men is a streetside bar (in contrast to some of the upstairs spaces) and is one of the more spacious options. Daily happy hour is from 6pm-9pm.

Fuji has kareoke and is for more mature foreign guys and Japanese guys into them.

Kinsmen is a well-established place with friendly bar staff and no cover charge.

Leo Lounge, where I’ve heard the staff are friendly.

Tac’s Knot is a small space that also features gay artists’ work as it’s run by a local artist.

All of these places are within the same 200-metre radius. Note that many are not on the first floor, so double check the address when you click on the link to the Google map location. You can check the Japan Visitor list complete with a sectional map. There’s also a Japanese “boy’s map” for Japan: Otoko-machi Map (男街マップ).

Apparently, the Shinbashi area is also another location that attracts 30+ office crowds. It’s also more local, so go with someone who speaks Japanese. Town House Tokyo and Bravo! are two places that are more foreigner-friendly. This is more an office area, so check the opening hours — some places are closed on Sundays.

Tokyo lesbian bars

Adezakura (艶櫻) Is a recommendation from a friend who says it’s popular amongst locals and foreigners.

Agit アジト A lesbian-owned bar with kareoke. Has a cover charge.

Bar Goldfinger is probably Shinjuku’s most famous lesbian bar.

Hug Closed (according to Google).

Kins Womyn Closed.

Diamondholic – A local friend says the staff try to connect people and get everyone chatting to each other. My friend has had introductions to English-speaking people.

Dorobune – Teppanyaki restaurant and lesbian bar-in-one

FIVE is a local friend’s recommendation. She says it’s popular among foreigners too.

絆 Kizuna is for an older crowd and has kareoke

Motel #203 (?) Not sure. I think it might have been folded into Goldfinger now, as the website is down and I can’t search information even in Japanese.

Peach (1F Shinjuku 2-15-8, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo) — Might be closed. Open Tues – Sat 11pm-7am. Peach mark in a brick building beside ‘Hug’.

Tamago is a women-only bar. A friend told me was mainly FTM and that they can rip off customers (¥2000 cover and ¥1000 drinks).

Chestnut and Squirrel in Shibuya is closed.

What’s it like living here?

I’ve realised this deserves another post, so I’ll leave this as a placeholder. I put some general comments on how LGBTQ-friendly is Tokyo and what the community is like in the above sections.

Just two contacts in case you are new to Tokyo:

Tokyo English Life Line 03 5774 0992 (9am-4pm, 7pm-11pm)

HIV & Human Rights Info for English speakers 03 5259 0256 (Saturdays only, noon-3pm)

What’s some good Japanese LGBTQ content to check out?

This list is no particular order!

Have any tips to share with the community? Please leave a comment and I’ll credit you in my edits!

If you liked this post, check out my guide to LGBTQ Hong Kong.

You’ve just come to Tokyo, you’re passing through Tokyo, you’ve just come out in Tokyo, you’re “curious” in Tokyo—whatever it is, there’s Shinjuku Ni-Chome (knee-cho-may: “Shinjuku block no.2”).

Not even 10 minutes walk from the east side of Shinjuku station, 2-Chome is as unremarkable from the outside as any Japanese street block or, for that matter, any 175cm Japanese boy in trainers, flak jacket, T-shirt, denim and sharp hair.

But
– from Shinjuku-dori, turn left at Shinjuku 2-Chome intersection (at the big Sekaido art and crafts store), or
-from Yasukuni-dori, turn right at Shinjuku 5-Chome Higashi intersection (look for the police box and the adjacent Nobunaga slot parlor), or
-from Shinjuku Station, go all the way along the underground Metro Promenade to Exit C8
and bang just as with that Japanese boy, you’re going to be surprised at how much you didn’t count on seeing – or feeling!

Veer left here off Shinjuku-dori.

Shinjuku Ni-Chome is the gay center of Tokyo, which is the world’s largest urban agglomeration, with over 34 million people. That alone makes Shinjuku Ni-Chome something to write home about (or at least text your besty). Compared with the gay quarters of major Western cities, it stands out in two ways: first for its small-scale profuseness.

You are not going to find any big establishments with a capacity of any more than a few dozen people. Tokyo does have major gay and lesbian club nights (see, for example Gay/Lesbian What’s On), but not in Ni-Chome.

Everything is tiny, but it’s there in great abundance. Shinjuku Ni-Chome also stands out for its multifariousness. We all know gay and lesbian. We all know the scenes’ as well. Well, we think we know them.

But until you come to Japan—with maybe the exception of the leather scene, which is well developed all over the gay world—you are unlikely to have seen just what a scene can be in a way that is as concrete, organized, established, and taken for granted as it is in that focus of gay Japan: Ni-Chome.

The abundance of bars in Shinjuku Ni-Chome is something easily verified by a ten-minute stroll around its narrow precincts. Glance into the foyers of buildings and up at their sides for confirmation. The whole area is a crazy checker board of lit-up bar signs. The colors, shapes, sizes, fonts all talk about being gay. But each speaks the dialect of a particular scene. The names themselves form a delightfully diverse vocabulary possible only in Japan where English is still foreign enough to treat entirely as you please and whose meanings and associations have a Japanese-shaped history of their own. To map these dialects out would take a decade and superhuman catholicity of taste.

At any one time, most of the bars represented by these signs each hold no more than about 15 people – max! In a space this small, the “master” (“master-san”—or “mama-san”—to the customers) defines who comes. Those who come are generally regulars, and generally subscribe to a particular scene, or, in Japanese, sen: short for senmon: “specialty,” area of expertise’. With individual bar space at a premium, there is little room for diversity. The hapless foreigner who wanders innocently in off the street via close echoing staircases or a clanking old elevator may actually find himself lucky, at least for a time. Foreignness adds a patina to any taste, and if you’re a fatty who has happened to squeeze into a debu-sen bar, a twiggy clone who has slipped into a gari-sen bar, an old codger who has stumbled upon a fuke-sen bar, or a stocky, hairy number who has heaved into a kuma (“bear”)-sen bar well, congratulations! However, if you’re an innocent to the language and the culture, such serendipity can be rare. If you find yourself in the wrong place, you may be oh-so-politely tolerated, perhaps ignored, or – in the very worst case, refused service and asked to leave (yes, it sometimes happens). It’s best to stick to the beaten track at first, which is where we will point you to here.

Uoya-Itcho: Shinjuku Ni-Chome's gay friendly restaurant.

If you haven’t eaten, and its still early evening, why not make a complete gay night of it and head to Ni-Chome for dinner? The Bygs Building (on block ‘C’ of the gay Shinjuku map) has an excellent izakaya (Japanese-style restaurant) called ‘Uoya Itcho’ on the B1 basement floor. Uoya Itcho is big enough to never have to wait long, it’s cheap enough to eat and drink your fill for under 3,000 yen, the food is good enough to be memorable, and Uoya Itcho is chock-a-block with gay guys: counters and tables of them. There’s still enough of a straight presence (10% perhaps?) to keep things on a somewhat even keel, and that 10% includes the waiting staff. The menu at Uoya Itcho is extensive, running from the hale and hearty: fat unpeeled potato fries with cheese sauce, to the exquisitely otherworldly: a whole skewered and sashimi-ed fish, still vainly arching its back, wide-eyed and gaping at its own garnishings.

You’re feeling rotund and satisfied, and those three draft beers with dinner (finished off, was it, with a cup of warm sake?) have warmed you up; so let’s move up a gear. Go out of the restaurant, up the escalator, left out of the Bygs Building and then immediately left again. One block after the Bygs Building, just past Rainbow World bookshop, and you’re on Ni-Chome’s main drag, Nakadori, running left-right. Go left down Nakadori and after a few paces you’ll come to AiiRO Cafe, previously Advocate’s bar, just on your left, on the corner of the block.

Veer right here off Yasukuni-dori.

AiiRO Cafe (previously Advocate’s cafe) is the smaller of Ni-Chome’s two open-air bars. Like the other much bigger one, Dragon Men, its openness gives the crowd there the kind of fluidity that few other Ni-Chome places have. AiiRO is cruisy, the ultimate in easy-come easy-go: a great place to get chatting to strangers. Especially when the weather’s warm, the crowd at AiiRO spills way out into the street, giving it something like the feel of a block party. There are flyers at both AiiRO and Dragon for other bars and events, and, if you really need to know something, the staff of both bars speaks adequate English.

After perhaps a nice white wine or a couple of G&Ts at AiiRO, how about something a little cosier? Retrace your steps in the direction of the Bygs Building. You’ll notice how many gay video, magazine and book shops there are brightly lit as convenience stores and strangely sterile-looking for all the horniness they’re peddling. Take the first on your left after Nakadori and on the second block you come to, on the left, you’ll see the entrance to Bar GB downstairs.

GB is where the picking up hots up – and where the sparkle of aboveground fun shares eyes with the more careful business of sizing up, glancing, holding it there, moving on over or looking away. GB is dominated by the big central square bar, around which the customers sit and stand. The staff at GB is welcoming and friendly. The drinks at GB are generous, and GB is rarely less than full. The light is dim, and it’s cruisy without being sleazy: Bar GB is a great place for hatching plans and hooking up for later action. People are fully engaged with each other at GB, and no one is a stranger for long.

Once it’s heading for midnight, you might feel like a more all out dose of fun. Take another look at the flyers you picked up. Like the bars for the Japanese, the club nights are also strictly segregated. It might 30s-only night at ArcH or diva night at the Annex. There might even be something gay on that evening at one of the big places off Ni-Chome like Ageha or the Warehouse.

Arty Farty is often a good place to start. Go left out of GB and take the first street on your right. You’ll see the red sign for Arty Farty out on the pavement on the left side of the street. Arty Farty is a second floor dance club with as diverse a crowd as you’ll find anywhere on Ni-Chome. Like anything gay in Japan, however, it is generally young, with few over-40s, but whoever turns up is not going to feel out of place.

No matter how quiet things might seem on the street, Arty Farty is routinely jam packed. On walking in you line up at the bar. Even at its most packed it doesn’t take more than five minutes to get served. Unlike the other clubs, entrance is free, but buying a drink – upon which you get a stamp on your hand – is obligatory before you can enter the dance floor, a step or two down from the bar. The place is usually thronged, with generally two-thirds to three-quarters of the crowd on the dancefloor. The decor is, as the name suggests, whackier than it is conventional, but not very noticeable when it’s crowded.

Dancing in Shinjuku 2-chome, Tokyo.

Arty Farty is good solid gay clubbing – not exactly cutting edge, but done in a very crowdpleasing way. (From 9pm to midnight you can make requests.) Don’t expect the DJ to mix. The atmosphere is fun and it’s the vibes that the punters are there for. Arty Farty is packed close enough to feel the heat, there are sofas if you feel like a break, attitude doesn’t get the vaguest look in – and it’s easy to hook up. Party on!

Saturdays are busiest at ArtyFarty. Fridays, while very well patronized, are not as jam-packed and clubbers can enjoy a more idiosyncratic, freer, even slightly freakier gay atmosphere than they can on Saturdays.

Arty Farty has a sister club known simply as the Annex. It is quite a different space from Arty Farty in that, while still small, it has way more headroom – to the point of incorporating a mezzanine floor. Club Annex attracts a somewhat less sweaty and frenetic crowd on Saturday nights than Arty Farty. Annex is recommended for those who want to drink and dance without feeling like they’re commuting on a crowded Tokyo train.

ArcH (formerly Ace) is real institution. If you want to see drag queens and/or boys with their shirts off (again, depending on the night), ArcH is a fairly trusty place to head for. The sound system at ArcH is more than adequate, ArcH doesn’t get quite as packed as Arty Farty, meaning there’s more room to maneuver, and the DJs at ArcH really know their stuff. The scene at ArcH changes quite dramatically according to the event, so, as usual, choose your night. But expect a warm, real’ gay crotch-grinding, feelgood evening, arms up and smiling at ArcH.

Whatever time you stumble back out into faintly lightening air, Ni-Chome will still be peopled. if you’re hungry, there’s a raamen (Chinese noodle shop) across the road from the Bygs Building, or the 24-hour Shinjuku-Gyoen branch of Freshness Burger (the more gay-friendly option) on the other side of Shinjuku-dori avenue across from Block V. The rest of Shinjuku is cleaning up and getting ready for 24 hours of it all over again. Taxis are passing, perhaps the subway’s started running. If you’ve got lucky, there are love hotels galore to crash in, there’s your hotel room, your bedroom, the next two weeks, two years … maybe the rest of your life!

Not tonight? well, take a stroll towards the park, wearing the right vibe, or, if you’re carrying the right sized wallet try a sauna, sex club, or boy bar (“King of College” is right next door to ArcH). Whatever, there are plenty more nights, bars, men and surprises left in Shinjuku Ni-Chome.

Click here for links to foreigner-friendly gay and lesbian bars and clubs in Japan, as well as useful Japan-related gay/lesbian web links.

Read more: http://www.japanvisitor.com/gay-japan/nichome#ixzz43JtxynLr

lgbtq travel
HK rainbow pride apple watch

Observations on Gay and Lesbian Hong Kong

HK rainbow pride apple watch

Friend got a rainbow Apple Watch strap at SFO’s Pride

This post is a complimentary one to my first on things I love about being gay in East Asia. The contents are based on my own personal experiences, and not meant to be exhaustive or define any ‘East Asian’ cultural traits. I’ve started writing about LGBTQ topics is to create more accessible English information on the nuance and diversity in East Asia.

This isn’t a post about how things are, but rather challenges we can think about. Many of them are shared with other LGBTQ communities around the world. Also, as caveating my perspective as a queer, cis-female, gender ambiguous, Cantonese-speaking, Chinese Canadian.

This piece is a work in progress, so would love your thoughts! If you’re travelling to Hong Kong, here’s a brief guide to LGBTQ Hong Kong.

Names. Labels. Gender roles.

Gay and lesbian are still the easiest terms to search up, or their Chinese equivalents.

LGBT…Q? Cultural appropriation? Intersectionality?! I’ve given up on the conversations I loved most in Toronto in the queer community thinking about the complexities of identities, negotiations, power relations, marginalisation, and what doing justice means. I have, however, been introducing cis / trans into many of my dinner table conversations. 🙂 Baby-steps.

And something I lump into this is the archaic binary roles. People here are still pretty butch/femme, tomboy/princess. Good luck if you don’t fit. 😦

As long as it’s not my child.

taipei pride lgbtq

Image cc coolloud via Flickr

This has never happened to me, since I don’t have immediate family in Hong Kong, but this is a reality many expats don’t fully appreciate about their local counterparts, who often still live with family. The indifference on the street coexists cozily with the stubborn lack of acceptance if it were in your own home. I feel more safe in Hong Kong on the street than Canada (where I spent the first 20 years of my life) or London, where I studied. But within homes, there’s an implicit silence, awkwardness, and genuine smothering concern (at best) how difficult life is and (at worst) your salvation. It’s unlikely you’ll cause an argument at a family friend’s dinner because of your crew cut (as a cis-female) because…you’re not their daughter. At the same time, people can live all their lives in the closet from their parents who are still trying to set them up in their 40s.

The Churches.

I do think the churches and their generally conservative and vocal stances are a problem. The churches, as institutions, have a huge influence in Hong Kong. I repeat, as institutions, because I not only respect, but admire, those who have faiths, be it of the Judeo-Christian tradition or otherwise. Last year, the church called voters to take into account representatives‘ stance on same-sex marriage, a point of contention between the Church and activists in 2015. The Catholic church reportedly has 581,000 followers though the 2016 census seems to report 480,000 Protestants and 379,000 Catholics. The Catholic church has also been vocal about its views on same-sex relationships. This is not to say other religious institutions around the world have not used their weight to influence government or legislature — just that it’s an equal problem for any place that has it. The reason I make special mention of it is because the churches are well funded and resourced and not only own land, but run many social programs and social events (so their influence is far greater than their official worshiper numbers). In addition, Hong Kong’s schools were largely founded by missionaries and one only has to pull up school list in the city to find that over 50% have Catholic or Protestant roots. Needless to say, resources are devoted to people who try to cure themselves of same-sex preferences or gender dysphoria. The result is that early on, the strong social networks that surround and individual send implicitly unsupportive signals (exceptions exist, of course).

Race matters.

Actually, it matters everywhere. This was a common topic of conversation in Canada, too, and it sucks just as much in Hong Kong. The privileges that are afforded the expat community especifically living in Hong Kong include that they don’t have to deal with family at their front door. I am Chinese ethnically, but I don’t have to deal with anyone who tells me I will go to hell for having a same-sex partner. However, many people don’t have a choice — their family, extended family, family friends, and in some cases even schools, may be reminding them of this fact.

But let me parse out my veiw of Hong Kong’s real hierarchy:

  • White
  • Chinese with an expat accent: i.e. British / North American / Australian, New Zealand, South African (because people can’t tell the difference)
  • Anyone with the above accents
  • Local Hong Kong
  • Mainland Chinese
  • South Asian, Filipino, Indonesian
  • The rest: Black, Middle-Eastern, anyone they can’t identify

I asked some local friends for feedback. Other versions of the list include White, Cantonese, Taiwanese and everyone else (no distinction). Some people put Koreans above Chinese. Some people didn’t even think other people of colour (PoC) were a factor…

Like many other things in Hong Kong, by visibly being white, you are exempt from a string of expectations — including the need to be straight. If you are brown, Filipino, or Indonesian, and do not have an expat accent, you’re going to have a lot of trouble dating.

If you don’t speak Cantonese, I would not bet on trying to get to know the local scene. It’s unfortunate, and of course give it a try, but I think you will quickly get a sense of what I mean.

Closed Bars.

Unfortunately, the lists for lesbian bars isn’t very updated. Many of the popular places open, close, and re-open again somewhere else. The best thing to do is to get connected with a local friend who likes nightlife and ask where the newest haunts are. Your best bet is to use the local lesbian app Butterfly or Grinder, Jack’d and Hornet for the guys.

Trans…what?

The trans struggle is just picking up speed around the world recently, and I would say Hong Kong is keeping up proportional pace. Hong Kong has a wonderful advocate named Joanne Leung and Hong Kong’s trans support group. This year during Pride, there was a trans art exhibition, which is progress.

But is it anywhere near liveable levels for our trans friends? No.

I don’t know to what level gender violence in washrooms hits, as it’s not as discussed nor as contentious as an issue here. I do have gender ambiguous and trans friends here and I find it difficult to summarise or compare their experiences. For example, for the people who live abroad or choose to stay abroad, they have found supportive communities. However, Hong Kong is also a city of 7 million people, compared to entire countries where people can move to more LGBTQ-friendly areas like the Bay Area or New York. Does Hong Kong have as visible, active, and large a community as either area? No, or not yet.

Corporates lead the way, while legislature lags behind

True to typical Hong Kong fashion, the private sector is much more up to speed. International firms have generally seen the benefits of inclusive programs and retaining talent, so of course it’s somewhat easier for colleagues in Hong Kong to bring such initiatives over.

Since Community Business did its first LGBTQ Diversity and Inclusion survey, Hong Kong’s come leaps and bounds. There’s GALA for the legal profession, CBRE + LGBTQ has just launched, etc.

The snag is in legalities for things such as spousal visas and taxes (especially for non-married partners). For those coming from international firms, some things are covered by the firm, like spousal benefits, but you need to be clear on exactly what you’re entitled to or protected by.

There’s no village.

In Toronto, it’s Church Street. In New York, it’s Greenwhich Village. In Vancouver it’s Commercial Drive and Davie Street. In London it’s…sort of (not really) Soho.

In a city that struggles to keep even its lesbian bars alive, it’s impossible to think of a community. The gay bars in Lan Kwai Fong (the Financial District) are entirely unaffordable for majority of the population.

I especially miss the Toronto queer community because Church Street is a space and a place for LGBTQA+-folk to gather and support each other. A community is more than a meat market and dating pool. The community means literally a community centre like the 519 on Church Street, and its own theatre (Buddy’s in Bad Times), ACAS (Asian Community AIDS Services) and QAY (Queer Asian Youth), and many more to cater to to the diverse needs and interests of the people who also happen to be LGBTTIQQ2SAA+ (did I get them all?). The Toronto community isn’t perfect, and it has just as many problems with marginalization (hence, the need for Black Lives Matter), but it exists. Of course, this list is the only way I can show what Hong Kong doesn’t have.

I recently met the organizer who started the first LGBTQ tour of Hong Kong, so you should check that out to get a sense of what’s around in understated corners.

So why am I still here?

Despite all my critiques, Hong Kong has been a welcoming place for a bilingual expat like me. (I don’t want to be an expat, but I cannot shed the privilege loaded into my English accent, nor my degree, nor my luxury to just buy a ticket out of the city whenever I like.)

I’ve lived with locals for most of my 7 or so years here, so I can relate to the need to tone down at home. I’m not out to the family friends I live with, though I have always had a pretty tomboyish/masculine presentation. I don’t know how they would react if I just dropped this identity on them, but at the same time, they’ve already basically accepted everything that I present as — and, thinking along a similar vein to my local friends — isn’t that enough?

I’ve also flatshared and lived on my own in Hong Kong before. I can afford to, am willing to, and am allowed to move out (something that parents really may not allow their 30-year old kids to do). Most of my local friends are missing one, if not all three, of those factors. This choice makes life much more livable — I’m not trapped at home, or even in Hong Kong for that matter.

Which means I can be picky about who I choose to work and hang out with here. My friends from both the English and Cantonese-speaking circles are open and supportive.

I make no secret of my social leanings nor preferences on social media, so I assume that anyone in Hong Kong who has added me either knows or is clueless enough to be a friend.

After my first workplace, I have always been out. This doesn’t mean I announce it to my boss at the interview before accepting an offer. It just means I dress as I like to the interview and assume that if they’ve hired me with shirt, tie and all, they got the message. My sexual preferences aren’t really an issue for me here, but it’s a testament to progress in general; I feel more comfortable in Hong Kong in 2017 than I did in Toronto in 2008 because the world has changed in the past decade.

So that is Hong Kong for me in a nutshell. Some other posts I’ve written on this topic are:

If you liked this, would love a share! Thank you!

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LGBTQ Asian Gay Pride Parade 安比小姐

Gay and Lesbian Resources in East Asia

A working list of LGBTQ information and resources for China, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong from a gay / lesbian / bisexual Chinese Canadian.

If you have any tips, information, and directories, please send them over!

Preference is for sites with English, or are relatively easy to navigate even if not. Some great non-English resources are included to get people started.

LGBTQ Asian Gay Pride Parade 安比小姐

同志大遊行 from Flickr cc 安比小姐

LGBTQ / Pride Events

Some places wait once a year for that awesome crowd at Pride in June or August, but it’s about time to come join the parties here in Asia. Pride is relatively new to Asia compared to the Stonewall Days, but they’re not too shabby for size.

Best of all, the Asian parties are spread throughout the year. Groups (mostly the guys) will also travel to annual events that aren’t explicitly LGBTQ just to have a good time too!

All the Gaycation options:

 

Places to Go / Groups:

Asian governments may seem pretty cold to same-sex issues, but in general, they also have a hands-off policy. This means that many places have a decent or even outright vibrant underground scene. Below are some tips:

Queer Culture:

For a seemingly conservative place, East Asia has a lot of queer content. Much of it is in mainstream media such as movies with sex-changing kungfu heroes, tabloids reporting on billionaire’s gay daughters, and Mainland Chinese media creating bromances for straight actors.

In Japan, Yaoi (boy’s love) and yuri (girl’s love) are major genres in Japanese pop culture often written and consumed by straight people.

Check the media content from:

 

LGBTQ Media & Event Sites:

Japan:

Taiwan:

China:

Search Douban 豆瓣, Sina 微博 for groups

Join Weixin 微信 public channels and groups

Hong Kong:

 

The Lingo and Labels:

Taku and Rei have an excellent Glossary of Japanese Gay terms.

Chinese Pinyin English
同志 Tóng zhì homosexual
同性戀 tóng xìng liàn same sex love
同性愛  Dōseiai same-sex love (Japanese)
同性 tóng xìng same sex
誇性別 kuā xìng bié Transgender
拉拉 lā lā lesbian
1 号 yī hào top
0.5 号 líng diǎn wu hào versatile
0 号 líng hào bottom
T Tomboy lesbian
P Wife / princess (femme) lesbian
member member* (Hong Kong)
G吧 g BAR gay bar
同性浴室 tóng xìng yù shì same-sex bathhouse
出柜 chū guì out of the closet
弯男 wān nán gay
卖的 mài de male escort
xióng bears
狒狒 fèi fèi people who like bears
猴子 hóu zi Twink (monkey)
同妻 tóng qi Gay husband

Adapted from Wikipedia Article “Homosexuality in China“.

 

Gay and Lesbian Dating Apps:

If you have any tips to share, please send them over!

If you are visiting Hong Kong, check out my post on LGBTQ Hong Kong.

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LGBTQ Taiwan 2011 Gay Pride Parade

10 Best Things about Being Gay and Lesbian in East Asia

Notes on LGBTQ life in China, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong from a gay / lesbian / bisexual Chinese Canadian to demystify stereotypes of queer life in East Asia. If you just want information, check out my working LGBTQ resource list covering Japan, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

The Backstory and Disclaimers

Totoro Plushie at Koyasan Souvenir

Using Totoro’s cute-powers to gain your sympathy. Photo by Athena Lam

Disclaimers: I must start off with all the disclaimers (there can never be too many these days) lest anyone take me too seriously.

When I first arrived in Hong Kong in 2009, I was pretty sad to discover the pre-Cambrian state of LGBTQ life. Whether it was pervasive casual homophobic jokes, the small size of a march, or the seemingly non-existent community, it seemed to fit the stereotypes of Asia. Yet, little by little, I’d stumble on small gay nuggets. Someone at work mentioned their date; friends began introducing me to friends, events, upstairs bars, and underground circles; I went from being mostly quiet about my sexuality, to mostly out about it. Somewhere, the scales tipped, and I found myself thinking that I quite like the scene here.

This is the list of things I’ve grown to enjoy about being gay in East Asia, which may or may not be found in other places in the world. 

East Asia encompasses China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan. This article doesn’t cover Korea, where my knowledge ends at the Wikipedia LGBT History in South Korea article, the Frozen video that went viral, and their cultural penchant for beautification.

I will refer to people in the above region as ‘Asians’. This normally includes South Asians, South East Asians, Pacific Islanders, Middle Easterners, the people of the Steppes and the ‘Europeans’ in ex-Soviet states. That list should be retitled ‘most of the world’.

Also, this article is skewed towards gay, lesbian and bisexual experiences and doesn’t cover the entire LGBTQA+ / LGBTTIQQ2SAA spectrum. Those require other posts.

Finally, ‘queer’ isn’t common in Asia because English word reclaimations are for English-language countries; I’m going to stick to the word everyone understands: gay.

I’ll add links for further information on each section as I go. This is meant as an overview descriptive piece.

Alright. Here we go.

The List

1. Asian Gays Make Up the World’s 9th Most Populous Country.

LGBTQ Asian Gay Pride Parade Pink Dot

Taiwan Pride crowds Flickr cc coolloud

If we were all ejected out of our respective countries and carved a piece of land, we wouldn’t be too lonely.

China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea have over 50 cities at 1 million people each. Over 11 out of 35 mega-cities (10+ million people) are in East Asia. These 4 countries combined have 1.596 billion people. If the 10% gay standard is applied, it means we are 159.6 million strong. That’s comfortably 10 million more than Russia, the current #9. Anyhow, these four countries have a lot of people for me to choose from. And to the rest of the world: Beware, the horde!

2. Party Workaholic Asian-Style

LGBTQ 2009 Taiwan Gay Pride Drag Queens

Drag Queens at Taiwan Pride from Flickr cc ddio

Some places wait once a year for that awesome crowd at Pride. Crowds are the norm in Asia. Pride here is the best of both worlds with Asian-sized parties coupled with early community-style casualness. These celebrations (yes, not just protests) are mostly about people showing up. Want a photo with a drag queen? Find her chilling at a food truck after the show rather than ushered into a limo to some exclusive corporate-sponsored, invite-only after-party

Also, for the people who follow the June and August Prides, every year can be a renewed crisis of which one to attend. Toronto, New York, San Fran, or London? Vancouver or Montreal? On this side of the Pacific, we don’t wait to party and we’re not rigid about dates. Pride in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo are all in different months. Pride alone might not be enough for some party animals, so check out the other massive events that that we gays crash and and co-opt annually.

Asian life can be a merry-go-round of gaycations.

3. Closets are home.

Closet Photo from Flickr by Jose Camões Silva

From Flickr cc Jose Camões Silva

The Asians are experts in the unspoken, code, secrets, and covert operations. If you’re still single by 30, rest assured you are the staple topic of many conversations. There’ll be a growing collection of chatter and secret schemes on your behalf. Perhaps you’ll be introduced to all the family friends’ kids around your age and then asked the next day what you thought of them. Your elders will quietly file away your rejects and continue conspiring.

Naturally, full closets sometimes explode. Keep a straight face if some relative (probably your parents) blurt out, ‘After I went out of my way to do that for you xx years ago! This is how you repay me!’ Of course, they’d made a point not to tell you; you were supposed to figure it out. You were expected to follow the trail of breadcrumb clues to that closet. You can retort with self-righteous incredulity, ‘How could you not have figured it out?!’ and point to all the Facebook photos when your relatives are shocked. How could their years of experience fail to find this closet?!

4. If it’s a boy, it’s okay.

LGBTQ Asian Gay Pride Parade 安比小姐

Asians look much younger than they are from Flickr cc 安比小姐

I’m referring to a historical practice in Japan (shudo, wakashu) where members of the clergy and warrior classes took pupils as male lovers until they came of age. Oaths were sworn, papers signed. Same-sex sex was so common the Japanese government abolished a law on anal sex 7 years after they first introduced it in 1872. The Japanese loved their boys as much as the Greeks did, and another masterpiece Odyssey would have been inevitable if they had only met.

For that matter, the Chinese scholarly elite loved their bromance too. Chinese poems littered with scholarly men pining for friends or dreaming of their drinking binges in a mountain hovel with their lovers. In some Chinese provinces, there were even male marriages. No wonder we can be apolitical about these things. The litigations were already dealt with centuries ago.

5. Everyone’s a Little Gay in Asia.

HOCC Denise Ho 何韻詩 Cantopop

Out musician and LGBTQ supporter Denise Ho 何韻詩 (stage name HOCC) From Flickr cc Elsie Lin

Sadly, a cis-gender homophobe can’t go a day without gay media harassment these days. LGBT content manifests in sex-changing kungfu heroes and heroinesgossip tabloids on millionaire’s gay daughters, and media and actors playing up nonexistent bromances. The straight friends made all this. Yaoi (boy’s love) and yuri (girl’s love) is basically straight people writing for other straight people in Japan. We just sit back, relax, and enjoy the feast.

We Asian gays devote our time to playing beautifully dirty. We don’t bother rationalising with haters. Heck, they make our content. We reciprocate by making great content for them too. A homophobe can be protesting against gay marriage while looping Leslie Cheung‘s songs. Protest all you want as long as you keep loving our stuff. We love yours. By the way, are you sure you’re not gay?

Further information on Hong Kong LGBTQ Media and Culture and East Asian LGBTQ Information.

6. Asia’s Golden Coming Out Middle Ground

Asian Family dinner

Japanese dinner party from Flickr cc Takuro Iwabuchi

First, there was out, and not. Then, people realised there was out to close family and friends, some people, and everyone. In Asia, this applies to everyone. Closets aren’t discriminatory here. Heaven forbid that your parents find out about your sister’s Black date.

As for you, you’ve introduced your plus-one to your friends already. Maybe you just didn’t tell them. The really big meeting is with the family. Of course, you don’t tell your family this is a meal filled with significance; they’re supposed to figure it out. Plus, there are always the relatives on Facebook who will like every photo (with said plus-one) and show your parents. At some point, your plus-one will be such a fixture that someone is bound to ask if they aren’t around. Don’t be too judgemental if people are a bit slow. Some people may genuinely think they’re your best friend for a decade. As I mentioned in point #3, picking reading signs is a skill that takes a lifetime to master.

7. Smartphones Brought the Gays.

Asian smartphone addiction

Phone addiction & Phubbing from Flickr cc michael davis-burchat

Asia’s LGBTQ visibility rides in tandem with increasing affluence and mobile penetration. However, the smartphone in someone’s hand is more consequential than your gay existence. Your gayness does not help them pass their university entrance exams nor relieve them of their overtime hours. People are too busy with their lives to bother with yours unless you are literally in their way. The only time people are dependably hostile is if you crushed their phone and during rush hours. In Asia, people don’t need to pick on the flaming gays to vent their frustrations or excess energy. Everyone in the urban centres satisfies their daily violence quota by shoving, squishing, and suffocating others in the trains.

Check out online groups in Taiwan, Japan, China, and Hong Kong.

8. The Right Label is the Best Sounding Label.

Tokyo LGBTQ Pride 2016

Tokyo Rainbow Pride 2016 by Athena Lam

LGBTTIQQ2SAA is English. In other words, it’s a transplant in a region that speaks hundreds of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean dialects (+ indigenous languages).

Asia skipped the name muddling and bungling. We may be jealous lovers, but we’re not hung up over reclaiming words. Of course, we realised we needed terms for the times. We went for 同志, 同性戀 and 同性愛 (in Japan) for same-sex love. They’re self-explanatory. Then, we just went back to what really matters: what’s easy to say and what sounds good. Hence, you have terms like 拉拉 (lala) for lesbian, “les”, and trusty old “gay”. In fact, English is pretty useful to us. We use it for groups, events, apps, etc. We go with whatever sounds best to our non-English ears and accommodates flying rainbow squirrels.

9. Boxes are the Most Efficient.

Boxes by Jesse Orrico from Unsplash

Adapted photo from Unsplash by Jesse Orrico

Boxes work, damn it. Why doesn’t the rest of the world see this? We’re gay. A successful gay life is attained when we procure our same-sex partner. In order to achieve this goal, we need compartments. Type A and B find each other best if they get into their respective boxes and look in the other one. Below are some example starter labels.

For guys: Bottom (0) / Top (1) / Both Ways (0.5)
For girls: Tomboy (T) / Princess (P) / Tomboy Girl (TBG)

In Japan, tell someone what type of guy you’re into within the first few minutes. Be as specific and thorough in your description as possible, otherwise no one can help you in this grand orchestration of match-making!

We are talking about dating logistics. We are being respectful of people’s time and trying to match up these 150 million gays (from point #1). Also, when we decide boxes aren’t useful for finding the love of our lives, we’ll change the system. There won’t be an existential crisis. It’s called Doing What Works and Moving On.

Get a list of gay and lesbian dating apps here.

10. Brace Yourself for Cyber Apocalypse.

Smartphone From Unsplash by Gilles Lambert

Smartphone from Unsplash by Gilles Lambert

Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell are alive and well in Asia. The neon lights of Tokyo and flashing signboards of Hong Kong from the 70s and 80s have evolved into ubiquitous iPhone 6’s.

Asians invented the selfie stick. Media and image are of paramount importance. We homos are no slackers in creating our digital identities and reaching out to people with vlogs (video blogs), chat rooms, or apps. This is full-on propaganda and gay-conversion.

Our country governments have been invaluable in pushing telecommunications. Korea has the fastest internet in the world, and Japan and Hong Kong are not far behind. Be grateful we prefer our own scripts (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) because they’re more concise even though many of us know English. When we decide to flip the English switch, we may overload your bandwidth. But hey, you’re probably dying for our content. We’ll oblige soon.

LGBTQ Taiwan 2011 Gay Pride Parade

Taiwan Gay Swag from Flickr cc coolloud

There’s a lot more to love, but this list is pretty close.

What I like about Asia’s LGBTQ culture is how it is just one part of a person’s personal and social identity. It doesn’t always have to be about the loaded identity politics that dominate some global discourses.

I also love that Asia’s picked up LGBTQ things as fast as they pick up the latest technology. Asia basically compressed North America’s Stonewall-’til-now timespan into a decade. This young chapter of LGBTQ activism has given me the opportunity to see how a community grows. East Asia is known for its breakneck speed, and in this case, I think we’re in the right direction.

You can also check out my working LGBTQ resource list covering Japan, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

If you are visiting Hong Kong, check out my post on LGBTQ Hong Kong.

Yes, Asia has its share of problems too. Look out for an upcoming post on that!

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