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For some, the struggle continues even after success

Liera Manuel Ivan is a transgender model in Japan.

TOKYO   Building a successful television career and cracking jokes with audiences; leading Japan's LGBT movement as one of the country's most influential activists -- these are the kinds of achievements that most people would chalk up as "success stories." But it's all too easy to forget that before the success -- and in many cases, even after -- came struggle.

     The Nikkei Asian Review talked with two LGBT individuals about both sides of their story, the bright as well as the dark.

SENSE OF SELF   Ivan, who is of mixed Japanese and Spanish and Mexican descent, began her career as a male model before becoming a popular Japanese television personality.

     Walking down the runway as one of the world's top models at Paris Fashion Week, appearing on TV shows and magazine covers, being lavished with attention from female fans -- success seemed to come easy for Ivan. But for her, life was built on a fragile foundation that could "crumble at any moment."

     Ivan recalls how she would walk confidently down the runway dressed in men's clothing, all the while feeling "more humiliated than if I had been naked."

     It was women's clothing that she felt she belonged in, but how would people react? There was only one way to find out.

     With support from family, friends and her talent agency, Ivan decided to come out on a TV show in 2013 when she was living publicly as a man. Her announcement that she was a transgender person came as a surprise to most fans, and also as encouragement to some.

     Coming out on TV, she said, taught her "not to fear anything in my pursuit of who I am, in my [choice of] clothing, my body, and how I live."

     After the announcement, Ivan went out in public in women's clothing for the first time, and found that nobody stared at her. That's when she realized: "My worst enemy was myself, being overly concerned with what others would think of me."

     Today, Ivan is working to establish her own fashion brand featuring clothes that anyone can wear. 

Maki Muraki is one of the most powerful equal right activists in Japan.

PROFESSIONAL VS. PRIVATE   Maki Muraki, a founder of Osaka-based Nijiiro ("rainbow-colored") Diversity, is one of the most influential activists in Japan today. She has appeared as a guest speaker in front of the public, government officials and business leaders across Japan.

     Though Muraki has been aware that she was a lesbian since she was a high school student, she didn't realize until much later how it was affecting her working life.

     Switching jobs is still relatively rare in Japan, where lifelong employment remains prevalent, yet Muraki did it five times. For some reason, she never felt like she fit in at any of the companies she worked for.

     "I thought I was just the type of person who couldn't stay in one place for too long," she said.

     To protect themselves and avoid the complications of being "outed," many LGBT individuals unintentionally put up a wall between themselves and their co-workers. Muraki was no exception.

     This type of self-protection is especially common when the company is not an LGBT-friendly environment. Even if there is no overt discrimination, even unintentional comments or actions can alienate employees who identify as LGBT, causing them to lose trust in the company as a whole. For example, a co-worker joking about sexual minorities and no one is saying anything about it.

     It was a conversation with one of her LGBT friends that made Muraki realize that her tendency to switch jobs might stem from a difficulty in building trust. A survey she conducted among the LGBT community in 2013 bore this conclusion out. Many respondents said that without a relationship of trust, they were unable to open up to their colleagues when they faced difficulties at work, and this often led them to change jobs.

     LGBT individuals also often force themselves to feel OK when they encounter an uncomfortable situation, according to Muraki. "But I've seen that at some point -- usually in their 40s -- they reach their limit, and it often comes out as depression and fatigue."

     Today, more companies realize the need to change, yet are not sure where to start. Muraki suggests that as a first step, companies set up a support system, including a doctor's hotline, for any of their sexual-minority employees who are suffering right now. An LGBT-friendly company, she added, is friendly to any group.

     Today, Muraki sees rapid change in Japan, and much of the driving force has come from LGBT allies -- heterosexual or cisgender people who support equal rights for the community.

     "Japanese are very flexible in changing their personal views. If businesses and regulations become LGBT-friendly, then people will follow without much objection."

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