Kumi Yokoyama drives LGBTQ conversation in Japan as he elevates the game on the field

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In a year with the Tokyo Olympics, the resignation of the legendary Yokozuna Hakuho and a long-awaited Japan Series title for Tokyo Yakult Swallows, one of the greatest stories in Japanese sport was that of former Nadeshiko Japan striker Kumi Yokoyama.

News of the 28-year-old’s decision to come out as transgender – through a YouTube video co-hosted by longtime friend and Japanese teammate Yuki Nagasato – went viral and was seen by the LGBTQ community as an encouraging sign of a growing transgender acceptance touted worldwide and particularly in Japan.

“It exceeded my expectations,” Yokoyama, who uses the pronouns “they / them” and “he / him,” told the Japan Times in November. “I should say I didn’t expect a reaction; I didn’t think it would be that big. “

Yokoyama and defensive end Carl Nassib of the Las Vegas Raiders – who became the NFL’s first openly gay player just two days after Yokoyama came out – were even praised by US President Joe Biden, who tweeted, “I’m so proud of yours Courage. Thanks to you, countless children all over the world see themselves in a new light. “

It has not escaped Yokoyama that no similar comment was made by then Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, while then Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato only issued a standard statement confirming that the government “recognizes that diversity is important and that the dignity of all is”. and human rights should be respected. “

“I think it’s normal for Suga not to say anything. In a way, it was a miracle for Biden to write what he did, ”said Yokoyama.

“I think a lot of Japanese people have become more aware of LGBTQ issues because of what Biden tweeted. I felt that Japan was lagging behind the rest of the world … but I’m glad that Japanese society is making progress, however that happens. “

Yokoyama acknowledges that such advances will be gradual. Japan’s ruling party failed to pass a promised law to promote LGBTQ understanding ahead of the Tokyo Olympics – a huge defeat for activists already disappointed by the lack of a stronger language that bans discrimination.

“I think it takes a long time to get started in each country,” they said. “Because it is a sign of progress that there is even a debate.”

Spirit striker Kumi Yokoyama warms up before a game against the Red Stars at Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky on November 20. | USA TODAY / ABOUT REUTERS

For Yokoyama’s Washington Spirit, the 2021 season was one of turmoil off the pitch. The team won the NWSL Championship 2-1 on November 20 against the Chicago Red Stars under interim head coach Kris Ward, who replaced previous head coach Richie Burke after the Englishman was fired for verbally abusive behavior towards his players.

A Washington Post investigation into Burke’s behavior revealed a toxic culture within the Spirit organization that led both players and fans to demands that owner Steve Baldwin sell his stake in the club to minority owner Michele Kang.

Burke’s dismissal sparked an explosive series of similar revelations across the NWSL, leading to the sacking of North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley for sexually assaulting players at his previous clubs, a round of play in response to player protests and the resignation of League Commissioner Lisa Baird was canceled for her handling of the crisis.

“Between the pandemic and everything we’ve faced this year, not much good has happened since I came to the US,” Yokoyama said. “But I think everything that happened off the pitch brought us closer together as a team.

“It’s incredible that everyone is working so hard to change the league. When someone says something, everyone brings their opinion and works to reach consensus. I have the feeling that we don’t have that in Japan. “

Yokoyama believes a “different approach to professionalism” is what sets the NWSL apart from Japan’s new WE League, which launched in September but struggled to attract consistently large audiences.

“Everyone celebrates in the NWSL, regardless of who scores a goal. It’s more cautious in Japan and there are a lot of players who don’t really let those emotions arise, ”said Yokoyama.

“I think it makes the people watching it feel good, it makes me feel good as a player and it creates a great atmosphere.”

Even more crucial to Yokoyama’s improvement was the chance to play alongside US internationals – including veteran defender Kelley O’Hara, who competed in the Tokyo Olympics. The creation of such an environment in the WE League is an important step to raise the level of competition.

“I feel like I want to be more like the US players,” said Yokoyama. “Seeing Carli Lloyd’s farewell games practically sell out showed me how popular they are and being able to play with these players has helped me improve.

“For the WE League to improve, it has to become a league that attracts more foreign players. I hope it will be a league that foreign players will see and think, ‘I want to play there.’ “

Another advantage of playing in the NWSL is the parity of the league – something that Yokoyama did not always experience during his time at German and Japanese clubs.

“In (Germany and Japan) you have a pretty good idea of ​​which team is stronger and which team is weaker. But in the NWSL we were in the final this year, but last year the champions were a different team.

“The top two teams in the table don’t always make it to the finals (due to the playoff format) so you feel like your performance is being rewarded.”

Kumi Yokoyama (left) poses with her wife Nami after she registered their marriage in Virginia in November.  |  KYODO
Kumi Yokoyama (left) poses with her wife Nami after she registered their marriage in Virginia in November. | KYODO

Yokoyama found time to focus on his private life and made a suggestion on the pitch to his girlfriend Nami at Audi Field, where the Spirit and her MLS counterpart DC United play. The two married shortly after the NWSL season ended in Virginia.

“If I hadn’t come out, we wouldn’t have been able to get engaged,” said Yokoyama. “It really felt like I ripped off my shell, so I was able to propose.”

After the season ends, Yokoyama hopes to return to Japan this winter, where they will meet many of their family members in person for the first time since coming out publicly.

“Judging from the reaction around me, what my friends and family have said … I have to meet them in person, but coming out was a big step for me,” said Yokoyama.

“I’m glad I did.”

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