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Sunday, March 19, 2006

WEEK 3

HARD GAY

Is this really just good fun?


Staff writer

You couldn't miss him if you tried: The guy in the skintight black vest and hotpants is popping up wherever you look in Japan these days, thrusting his pelvis on television, striking his signature "Y" pose on magazine covers and boasting about his beefy workouts in subway ads.

News photo
POSE FOR THOUGHT -- Hard Gay's 2005 book "Razor Ramon HG."

Razor Ramon HG -- or "Hard Gay," as he's known -- is a 30-year-old, 185-cm "amateur-pro-wrestler"-turned-comic whose shamelessly public hip-pumping has shot him to fame both in Japan and, thanks to video clips on the Web, worldwide as well.

In a sense, Hard Gay (real name Masaki Sumitani) is just like Japan's countless other tarento (talents), who keep the TV-glued masses entertained with ham acting, mind-numbing banter and slapstick.

What is provocatively different about Hard Gay, of course, is that he parodies a social minority -- homosexuals -- with erotically charged antics, the most outrageous being his trademark koshifuri (pelvic thrust) that makes him look like a squirrel in heat.

Many find him hilarious. Most find him outrageous. But is he offensive?

Even Hard Gay himself seems to wonder how far he can push it. During one recent TV appearance, while gesturing at his crotch in mid-thrust, he mysteriously blurted out, "Is this wrong?"

Good question. How right can it be to satirize people who are so marginalized in Japanese society that they have effectively no freedom to respond?

An official at Yoshimoto Kogyo Co., Hard Gay's promotion company, said neither the comedian nor the company intend to insult anyone.

Still, the logical thing seemed to be to ask some Japanese homosexuals what they think of Hard Gay -- whose handlers, by the way, say that he is straight and has a girlfriend.

"When I first saw him, I thought he was gay and making an appeal for other homosexuals," said Maru, a gay man who runs a shop in Shinjuku 2-chome, Tokyo's main gay hotspot. "But then I was hurt when I realized he isn't gay. It looks like he was just making fun of us. Now I can see it as just a silly gag, but he's only got one trick and I've grown bored of it."

News photo
HG in the form of a shouting and blinking plastic key holder.

Other gays felt pretty much the same, he said. "We don't really talk about him much."

Across the street was a gay-lesbian video shop with an ad for Hard Gay's book, "Razor Ramon HG," at the entrance. "Sales," said the man behind the counter, "are lukewarm."

Phone calls to gay organizations, though, revealed that while some gays may brush Hard Gay off, it doesn't mean everybody's ignoring him. Indeed, Hokkaido Sexual Minority Association Sapporo Meeting, a support group for gay, lesbian and transgender people, has even formed a study group to discuss the issue.

Opinions within the study group varied, but apparently most were surprisingly positive. A spokesperson, who asked to remain anonymous, said several members had called Hard Gay "funny" and "gay-friendly."

One member said that Hard Gay garners support from many gays because -- unlike cross-dressers or the rare "out" homosexual seen on television -- he exhibits none of the feminine traits despised by some homosexual men.

In fact, Hard Gay is as macho as they come. Take, for instance, the time he spontaneously offered to help a deliveryman stack cases of beer into a truck. (What better way to show off muscles?) Or when he came to the (unsolicited) defense of a woman being pursued down the street by a sleazeball. "What do you think you're doing?" he bellowed at the man in a theatrical basso. "This lady isn't the type!"

The chivalry bit apparently wins people over.

"By acting so masculine, Razor Ramon HG helps dispel the notion that 'gay equals feminine,' " said the Sapporo-group member. Yet he also worried about a downside. "Looking at it the other way around, such thoughts are evidence of strong homophobia and misogyny in the [gay] people thinking them."

That seemed to put many others' comments into a new perspective.

Surely some people out there are laughing at Hard Gay in earnest. But if gay Japanese men do live in such fear of being labeled feminine, then how genuine can that laughter really be?

The Hokkaido group's spokesperson, who described himself as transgender rather than gay, said, "Hard Gay's acceptance by the Japanese public shows me that there is a strong tendency here to see homosexuality as something to be laughed at. That is sad."

Perhaps, as Shinjuku shopkeeper Maru suggested, many would rather ignore the comedian than face up to deeper issues.

"Gays in Japan have no say," Maru had bemoaned. "We're not acknowledged in a way that would allow us to accomplish things by raising our voices," he said -- adding by way of illustration that children who come out are often shunned by their parents, and workers who do so frequently lose their jobs.

"It's not that we aren't angry," he continued. "Most of us in this world are bullied. We are called sissies. So we basically think we just have to put up with it."

Hard to laugh at that -- whether you're gay or not.



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