Wednesday 21 October 2020

Interview with Elin McCready

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Elin McCready, an American linguistics professor at Tokyo's Aoyama Gakuin University. Married for 20 years, she has three children with her Japanese wife Midori, but registering her female identity has endangered her marriage because Japan doesn't recognize gay marriage. Hello Elin!
Elin: Hi! Thank you so much for asking me to do this interview. It’s great to get the opportunity to raise awareness about our situation and about the general situation for LGBTQ+ people in Japan.
Monika: Your story hit the international headlines more than a year ago. Has anything changed since then?
Elin: We first started getting media attention when it became clear that the Japanese government was going to take a weird line on recognizing my transition. The situation in Japan is that, if you want to change the gender marker on your official documents, you must not be married or have minor children, and you must be sterilized, in addition to having a diagnosis saying that gender marker change is appropriate from a medical professional. Since I only satisfy the last condition, I would not have been able to change gender marker if I were Japanese; but since I’m not, I changed my marker in the US, which of course changes my Japanese paperwork. But since I’m married, allowing me to change the gender marker on all my documents would mean the de facto recognition of same-sex marriage, so the government didn’t want to do it.
What’s changed since those initial media reports is that the Japanese government has issued guidelines (not, as far as I know, via any kind of official press release, just via internal documents issued to the local government offices) that cases like mine should be left as they are; so my current status is their proposal for a permanent solution.

At the moment I am male on some documents and female on others. It’s interesting to be officially multi-gendered, but it is not anything I would have chosen, and it is (for my case at least) just not correct. Our only recourse is to sue the government to try to change the situation, and we have successfully crowdfunded the initial filing fees for a lawsuit as of a few weeks ago. Hopefully, the lawsuit can be filed soon, though the COVID-19 crisis may delay things a bit.
Monika: It seems that the legal battle might be very long. Did you try to get some support from local transgender organizations in Japan?
Elin: We have tried a bit, but this is only one fight among many for trans people in Japan (and of course the organizations that are there for them), and so we have mostly been mustering support from the broader LGBTQ+ community, both within Japan and internationally.
Monika: What will happen to you and your family if you lose the court case?
Elin: It depends very much on how we lose! If the government decides to keep things the same as they currently are, our situation will not change significantly (probably). But they could also decide to annul our marriage or to not recognize my gender transition at all. Either one of these decisions would be a disaster for us. So there are definitely risks associated with bringing the lawsuit, but we feel that they are worth taking, especially because (as far as I know) we're the only people in this position, and so the only ones who can.

Elin with her wife.

Monika: What is the attitude of Japanese society in general towards transwomen?
Elin: It seems different from, let's say, the UK or the US because, unlike there, in Japan, the issue of trans rights isn't really part of this big war between left and right (or however one would like to put it). Rather, trans people are very much not a topic of general discussion, which means that there is a lot of ignorance.
The upside is that people approach the question on a personal level instead of a political one and have fewer preconceptions, which in my case at least has meant that people feel more open to trying to understand what is going on, and tend to be very accepting in the end.
Monika: How about the Japanese media? Some transwomen have managed to be vocal and promote transgender rights, just to name: Aya Kamikawa, Ai Haruna, Ayana Tsubaki, Kayo Sato, Julia Yasuda, Rumiko Matsubara, or Shinnosuke Ikehata ...
Elin: There are many trans people who are vocal in the media and who have done good things around creating awareness and helping in the project of promoting trans rights. As for our own case, most major Japanese media outlets (newspapers, etc.) have not picked up our case, just independent outlets like Buzzfeed. 
Monika: By the way, how did you end up in Japan? Do you speak Japanese?
Elin: I was an exchange student there and ended up going back and teaching English there for a bit later, and then went back to school. After I finished, I got a job in Tokyo, and I've been there ever since.
Monika: How did your wife react to your transition?
Elin: She didn't expect it, so she was quite surprised and it took a while for her to make sense of it all, but we have gotten there. Our relationship has changed but we are best friends and happy living together.
Monika: You are a co-founder of Waifu, originally a group of five women: Midori Morita, Lauren Rose Kocher, Maiko Asami, Lisa Tani, and yourself that wish to make Tokyo’s entertainment scene more accessible to the city’s LGBTQ+ community. Is it true that the group was formed after you were kicked out from a lesbian party for being a trans woman?
Elin: Not quite! I wasn't even allowed in (lol). A friend was DJing the party and invited me down and put me on the guestlist, but at the door, I was turned away. My friend came out and had words with the bouncer and owner and refused to play but they still wouldn't let me in. We were sitting in a parking lot after drinking beers and decided to just start our own party. We had the first one less than 10 days after that incident and it was a huge success.

Monika: Could you say a few words about these women?
Elin: The current team is actually a bit different than those who started it: Lisa has left and Mayuko Hiramatsu and Chloe Juliette have joined. I won't go on about myself or Midori anymore as our situation is what we've been talking about here, but, for the others, Lauren is a businesswoman who started a company doing e-ticketing around the music and entertainment industries, Asami-san is a jewelry designer and queer activist, Mayuko does activism around feminist issues including sex work, and Chloe is a DJ who regularly plays Waifu parties and works in fashion and journalism as well.
We are all committed to making a space in Tokyo where queer people, especially femmes, can be comfortable and safe, and one which is open to other kinds of people as well, so that bridges can be built, conversations can happen, and all kinds of people can come to understand and appreciate each other more.
Monika: How do you want to change Tokyo’s entertainment scene?
Elin: The Tokyo scene is really nice -- there are lots of small clubs and the music and content is quite diverse. I have been around in Tokyo since the mid-90s in various kinds of spaces and it's been really comfortable and friendly most (though not all) of the time, at least in the spaces where I've regularly spent time. But the LGBTQ+ scene there has been historically mostly confined to one area -- Shinjuku 2-chome -- which is mostly populated by cis gay men. A lot of women I know have experienced harassment there, and by no stretch of the imagination is it trans-friendly in any sense.
The other club spaces too can often be unwelcoming to cis women. Lisa (one of the original Waifu team) was involved in publicizing one incident that happened in one of these spaces where a woman was harassed and the security staff wouldn't do anything about it. Our goal is to help make a more inclusive scene where lots of people can be comfortable and enjoy a night out and music without having to feel unsafe, not just at our party but more generally. Our event and its policies -- we have a strict policy against harassment -- have already had some influence on the scene, and we are really happy about this.
Monika: I read in one of the articles about this project that it will promote feminism. What does it mean to be a feminist in Japan? Is the concept similar to its Western perception? 
Elin: I think there are similarities and differences, as one would expect: here I would recommend the work of Akiko Shimizu, who has considered this subject in detail. For us, or at least for me, true feminism requires that all people are free, seen, safe, and equal, for without that it is impossible to eliminate oppression and treatment according to stereotypical norms. Thus, feminist practice is part of a larger practice that enables the lives and rights of all people, and as such also involves antiracist action and work against structural problems in social institutions.

At work.

Monika: Have you ever tried wearing a kimono?
Elin: No. It hasn't been something I have really considered.
Monika: When you started the transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Elin: Not really, not at that time. Of course, I read about many different people, their writings, and about what they had done and what they were doing, but I wouldn’t say I had anyone who directly served as a role model for me.
Monika: I wish I could have transitioned earlier myself. Do you have the same regrets?
Elin: I do of course, but not as much as I once did. The life I lived made me who I am and the experiences I had before transition, including the struggle to decide to transition, were part of that. It’s hard to regret making the best choices I could with the resources that were available to me then. I do often wonder how my life would have been if I’d transitioned sooner, but I am happy and that’s what matters.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Elin: The thought has crossed my mind, mostly because writing is my profession anyway. But when does one write one's memoirs? It seems like something to do when all the events are over -- but I feel that in my own case I'm still very much in the middle of things. So yes: I might do something like this, or write a novel, but it doesn't feel like the moment now.
Monika: What would you recommend to all trans women struggling with gender dysphoria? 
Elin: This is hard because everyone's experiences, needs, and ways of self-care are different. For me, when I feel especially dysphoric the things that help are sleep and exercise. I tend to go to bed very early on those days and sleep long, and when I wake up I usually feel better after I've eaten something. More globally, one cause of dysphoric feelings in my case was the sense of being stuck and going in a direction in my body I didn't want, in every moment of time: the cure for this was transition.
Monika: Elin, thank you very much for sharing your story.

All the photos: courtesy of Elin McCready.
© 2020 - Monika Kowalska

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