Japan's gays come out of the closet and into the street

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TOKYO (Reuter) - Homosexuals wearing kimonos, wedding dresses, leather G-strings or just jeans and T-shirts marched through Tokyo yesterday in Japan's first-ever gay rally.

About 1,500 protesters marched from Shinjuku, home to Japan's thriving underground gay scene, to neighbouring Shibuya, carrying placards bemoaning harassment and proclaiming their homosexuality. 'Mother your son is gay,' said one. 'Even when I die, I'll be a lesbian,' said another.

Some passers-by were surprised at the motley procession but others waved back and took pictures. The 3-mile route took nearly three hours in scorching heat.

The ground-breaking rally was the climax of a weekend organised by gay groups and dominated by lesbians. 'There's already a big underground gay movement in Japan,' said Warren Singh-Bartlett, a British teacher living near Tokyo. 'The problem is getting people to come out.'

Shinjuku has up to 400 gay hang-outs and is a haven for gay Japanese men. Lesbians have fewer opportunities to meet, and their lives are harder - one reason more women turned up than men. 'I wanted to put on this event because I'm a lesbian,' said Akiyo Ohya, one of the event's organisers.

The march was aimed to increase awareness in a country where tolerance of homosexuals is the rule - as long as they stay quiet about their sexuality. Teishiro Minami, chairman of the parade commitee and publisher of gay literature, said he has been wanting to organise such a parade for 20 years, but had to wait until the time was right. 'Changes in our society have made it easier to be open about it,' Mr Minami said.

'People think we're strange,' said one marcher. 'Perhaps their thinking won't change immediately, but I hope ordinary people will gradually start to accept us.'

(Photograph omitted)