since some people said they’d be interested in hearing about my experience at a “lesbian night” event at a local gay bar this past weekend…. here’s a tl;dr word vomit post about the night that can pretty much be summarized as:
i had a good time, but awkwardness was awkward and culture shock was shocking, as always in Japanese LGBT spaces.
i got to the bar early, so waited outside for my friend (M). while waiting, i looked over the chalkboard sign that sat on the sidewalk. displayed prominently on the top of the sign was “21:00~ Bian* Night! Women Only!” written in English.** of course i knew it was a women-only party to begin with, but seeing that written there still made me feel some kinda way and i questioned once again whether having caved and finally agreed to come with my friend after a year + of resistance was the right decision. but wait! that’s not even the icing on the cake.
i caught a glimpse of the back of the sign which faced a wall, away from the sidewalk. on the back of the sign was a sign for another bar (or so i thought)… it was the sign for a lesbian bar that i’d seen periodic posts from online. i’m sure i’ve ranted about the contents of said posts somewhere, but basically every time i saw posts promoting an event at this lesbian bar the posts always explicitly said that trans women were not welcome……… so to find out that that bar / event had some kind of obvious connection with the bar / event i was about to go to made me even more anxious before i’d even entered the place. it wasn’t until later that i found out that the gay bar that i was at occasionally rents itself out and that’s why the lesbian bar that i’d heard about online shared a sign with the gay bar, because they used the gay bar as their venue.
[cw: genital mention]
anyway, M finally arrived and we went in. the atmosphere was friendly and the place itself was larger than places i’d be to in Tokyo. that said, this club had something in common with every other gay space i’ve been in in Japan thus far: statues of penises liberally decorating the place along with copious posters of ikanimo / イカニモ men*** in only bulging underwear on the walls. seriously, the second i walked into the door i was met with a penis as tall as i am. i’m genuinely curious to know if this–
the whole penis-as-decoration-in-gay-spaces– is a Japanese thing. i don’t know if it’s just because i’m ace or what, but bars and clubs automatically feel more sex-charged with such posters and statues everywhere… i can only imagine that that kind of thing would make such spaces inaccessible to people who happen to be sex / genital repulsed or dysphoric…
when we got there the place wasn’t especially busy. M and i got our first drink of two (which was included in the entrance fee) and sat at a little table off to the side. somehow or another i ended up mentioning my YouTube channel, which i apparently have never mentioned to her before. the absolute bewilderment on her face as i attempted to explain to her what a vlog even is let alone that i vlog was absolutely priceless lmao. she finds it utterly incomprehensible that anyone would talk about their personal life in such a public manner and when i told her that it’s actually a really common thing that people do (outside of Japan, apparently) she literally kept looking at me like i’d just said that people abroad eat cats or something lmao. it was in the middle of this conversation, with M making all kinds of facial expressions that i’ve never seen outside of a movie, that three women approached us and joined us at our table.
one thing that always throws me off / annoys me about being in Japanese LGBT spaces is how candid people are about treating events as an opportunity to search for a partner. don’t get me wrong, i’m sure that that is not a uniquely Japanese thing. furthermore, it’s totally understandable that LGBT spaces in Japan especially would serve as The Opportunity to meet people. really it’s just the frankness of it that shocks me because Japanese people are otherwise so indirect, but suddenly when you’re in an LGBT space they’ll ask you personal questions as if they’re asking you your A/S/L. after asking my name and where i’m from, the next thing anyone wants to know is whether or not i’m single (actually, since i was with M they asked me this the second they came to the table), what my “type” is and when i say “eh”, the next question is “well, what were your previous girlfriends like?” and i’m left frantically deciding how open / frank i want to be with them, all while trying to frantically figure out whether or not they’re just asking out of custom or whether they actually want to know for personal reasons– i can never read people!!
i settled on saying something like “iono, people like me i guess? whatever the hell that even means.”
everyone laughed, but more importantly it wasn’t a lie! although i know they all took it in a way that isn’t necessarily what i meant, but whatever. they can use their imaginations.
anyway, interesting convos were had that i’m not going to regurgitate. one thing of interest to me was that two of the women who joined our table were a couple and it was really interesting to watch the dynamics between them……… i wish i could describe it, because it felt very uniquely Japanese and particularly mindboogling to me……………….. suffice it to say that what feels to me like hyper-femininity in Japan, not just in terms of appearance but also in terms of mannerisms and behavior, always leaves me feeling like whaaaaaa…? one of the two people, R, felt like a really extreme example of what Japanese bians refer to as a neko / ネコ. that is, for lack of better words, someone who’s usually effeminate and “passive” in the relationship and in the bedroom. don’t get me wrong, i have nothing against nekos or R, but i do have to admit that i always find any extreme of masculinity / femininity, passive / aggressive rather…. offputting, to put it mildly. so i couldn’t help but watch
the exchanges between R and her partner Y in quiet shock and awe. the whole thing kinda gave me an epiphany about my own feelings regarding some things tbh.
at one point people were talking about when they were leaving, how they were getting home, etc and R + Y, who apparently drove 2 hours to be there that night, said that they’d brought a big futon and were going to spend the night in their car. another person, Ri, who had also come from afar had a reservation at a local hotel. she said she’d opted to spend the night in a hotel because she’d lied to her parents (who she still lived with) about where she was going since she’s not out to them. Ri offered to share her hotel room floor with R & Y, but then commented that they might get caught… which caught my attention. chances are high that i misunderstood her. maybe Ri was just talking about being caught with more people in the room than the max number of guests for the hotel reservation, but it still kind of took me aback because it was said jokingly (”lol as if they’d catch us!”) but still with a hint of seriousness that sounded more serious than hotel staff getting angry over extra occupants. i didn’t dare ask what she meant.
at some point during the night M and i were talking to Ri about random stuff and i found out that Ri is actually the one who’s been posting the transphobic event posts on Mixi that i’ve ranted about……… talk about AWKWARD. really, really awkward.
i automatically felt the need to keep my guard up even more around her, but in the end she seemed like a nice person. we even ended up exchanging LINE contact information and she’s invited me to another event this coming Friday, but yeah……. it’s still awkward. awkward.
actually, to continue the awkwardness: apparently Ri happens to know a (gaijin) friend of mine who’s also non-binary + ace and who lives in the same prefecture as me. what a small fkin world lol. anyway, the way that i found this out was awkward because Ri started talking about a gaijin friend that she has but used ‘she’ a couple times to refer to this person before actually saying that person’s name and then i was like “wait, what’s your friend’s name? i know your friend lolwtf” after which she kept referring to that person by name instead of using ‘she’ or ‘he’, which felt better to me since she obviously knew this person is non-binary. that said, her referring to that person by name probably wasn’t actual effort to not misgender them so much as just doing what Japanese people do, ie. not use pronouns in general.
eventually, with the help of utter exhaustion and a few Cassis Orange (alcohol), i casually threw into the conversation that i’m a bi ace and that i go to non-binary stuff with aforementioned friend of Ri. i’ve gotten pretty good at casually coming out to people– it’s my method of choice these days to the point of me possibly being a bit reckless with it– but the reaction that i got from Ri and the others at the table…. don’t even know what to make of it, honestly. Japanese people are especially hard to read! but i did notice that M seemed to be as attentive to people’s reaction as i was.
Ri: oh, you’re asexual?
me: yeah, i’m a bi ace. i’m actually hosting the ace meetup that i just mentioned.
Ri: wow! *turns to the others at the table and says in a “The More You Know” type voice* there sure are a lot of sexualities, huh? (へぇ、いろんなセクシャリティがありますよねぇ～)
everyone else at the table: *tired / drunk* ……… シーーーン (*silence*)
….mmm, not a negative response, but a confusing one. Ri already knows what asexuality is, presumably from the friend that we have in common, but eh. if you’re familiar with how Japanese people often respond with “empty” responses that don’t actually reveal or reflect anything that they’re actually thinking, you can probably imagine how i felt upon receiving that response to coming out. it very much felt like a non-response, but whatever. the topic didn’t come up again, other than to wish me luck hosting the meetup.
something that really irked me that night was an exchange between the bartenders and the reactions to it by those at the bar.
when M and i went up to the bar to get another drink, one of the bartenders asked me where i was from. after telling her, she turned to her fellow bartender and jokingly asked where he was from because one could say that he looked like he could be of mixed race. he promptly responded that he is “100% born and raised in the rice fields of middle-of-nowhere Ibaraki– can you imagine! an okama / オカマ (effeminate gay man or trans woman)**** born to parents who don’t even know how the fuck they ended up having me!” to which the other bartender responds in an amazed voice “ wooow, okama / オカマ are literally everywhere! (who knew!)” and everyone at the bar laughs as if what was just said was the funniest thing. meanwhile i’m standing there doing a terrible job of looking amused and i think the bartender noticed because next thing i know, caught up in shock as i was, she quickly asked me what i’d like to order.
oh god, this post is so long. who’s going to read this far? no one. and i don’t blame you! anyway, everyone at the bar was very nice and i had a good time overall, but yeah. there were some really awkward moments and a lot of culture shock, the extent of which i can’t even accurately convey here. being in Japanese LGBT spaces can be exhausting for more than just linguistic reasons…. でも、頑張る。
* bian / ビアン is common slang for lesbian / レズビアン within the lesbian community in Japan.
** i can’t help but wonder if the decision to write that part (and only that part) of the sign in English was an intentional one to keep random people on the street from understanding it.
*** ikanimo / イカニモ is slang for a type of gay man who is the protype / stereotypical gay man within the Japanese gay community. from what i can gather, that means that they have a muscular build, short hair and facial hair– basically the image of “masculinity”? minus the hyper-masculinity found in, say, America.
**** okama / オカマ is hard to translate because its usage in Japanese society is the product of the conflation of sexuality and gender. it’s a word used indiscriminately to refer to any AMAB person who doesn’t fit Japanese social norms of manhood, who is then presumed to be gay, who is then presumed to want to be a woman. the word is all kinds of problematic and i personally consider it to be a slur, but many gay and trans people in Japan embrace the term, to my bewilderment and dismay….