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Lesbian Bar in Tokyo Hit By Transgender Controversy

SNA (Tokyo) — Bar Gold Finger in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Nichome has stood as a notable hub for Japan’s LGBT community for decades, but a late April incident has subjected the bar and its owner, Chiga Ogawa, to accusations that it discriminates against transgender people.

For the most part, there are few disagreements about the actual course of events on the evening of Saturday, April 20. A transgender woman named Elin McCready showed up at the door of an event hosted by Bar Gold Finger desiring admission to the bar’s monthly Women Only party. However, the bouncer at the door, seconded by a staff member, denied her entry to the event.

McCready was invited by a her friend who was performing as a guest DJ that evening, and when she was denied entry the guest DJ became very angry at the owner, Ogawa, before storming out of the event in solidarity with her friend. As there were other, more regular DJs scheduled to perform that night, the event was able to continue.

The matter might have ended right there as just another Saturday night drama that any major city experiences on a regular basis, but this one was followed by a social media campaign, and then major media coverage, that raised the stakes.

The Accusations Against Chiga Ogawa

The next day Elin McCready took to her Twitter account to describe her experience and to frame the issue as one of transgender discrimination:

Wow drama! My friend was djing in the ordinarily transphobic lesbian party and I was on the list and went, then they wouldn’t let me in (bc gross old school transphobia) and my friend refused to dj and gotnin a screaming match with the organizer… And let me also call out Chiga by name, the owner of Goldfinger, maybe the main Tokyo lesbian venue, as the bad actor. I pushed down that trauma until I was alone and I didn’t even realize how much it was. I wasn’t going to show my pain to her. happy to be home now where I can cry in peace.

Ogawa did not respond publicly to McCready’s social media posts, but McCready continued to keep her followers informed as she attempted to engage Ogawa in a dialogue via a chat app.

If your policy is to have a space for only cis women, and not let women like me in, why doesn’t it say so outside? Why doesn’t your website say so? Why do you say: “women only”? Why don’t you say: “cis women only”? If you said that no trans woman would go to your party to face humiliation and pain like I did… Maybe there will be consequences if you write openly that you exclude trans women; maybe you will lose business, maybe you will be criticized. But if you don’t want that, you should change your policy. Regardless, you should be honest about it.

(“Cis women” is a term that denotes women whose gender identity matches their birth gender. Essentially, “cisgender” is the opposite of “transgender.”)

McCready’s campaign against Ogawa and Bar Gold Finger gained traction among her friends and others who were alarmed by the possibility that transgender discrimination was being endorsed by one of the pillars of Tokyo’s LGBT community.

In late May, for its latest Women Only party, there was a direct response to McCready’s campaign on the part of Bar Gold Finger. At the bottom of the poster for the event it was written: WOMEN (cisgender) ONLY.

For many observers, this was taken as evidence that Ogawa was openly embracing discrimination against transgender women, and the controversy blew up to new heights.

Ana Arriola, for example, called for a boycott against Bar Gold Finger on her Twitter account, adding, “Chiga Ogawa the proprietor of this +20 year establishment is a TERF. Chiga has been hiding their CIS bias, their hatred toward #womxn, trans, nonbinary, gender non-conforming folx for years. Now it’s out in the public.”

As in this tweet, the epithet “TERF” began to be hurled at Ogawa. TERF means “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist,” and it refers to a certain school of thought among feminists that rejects trans-women as being women.

One of the most passionate responses came from Jessica Gordon of the From Kentucky to Tokyo blog, who wrote and extended post on the issue and later followed it up with a thirty-minute video posted on YouTube. Among her responses:

I feel personally betrayed and hurt. Bar Goldfinger is one of the few standing lesbian bards in Nichome, Shinjuku. If you didn’t know, lesbian bars are kind of dying off, and I liked to visit for karaoke nights with friends. It was a frequent stop to bar hop on my way through on a Friday and Saturday night. So when I heard that the owners were transphobic pieces of human trash that broke my heart… Trans women are women… they are women who deserve a space to go be around other women.

Finally, by the end of May, the Bar Gold Finger controversy had hit the pages of PinkNews, the UK-based LGBT newsletter with a major international following. This mainstream article recounted the events from the perspective of McCready and her supporters. It was noted by PinkNews that Ogawa did not respond to an interview request.

Chiga Ogawa Reveals Her Side of the Story

Ogawa maintained her public silence throughout the month and a half of the intensifying campaign against her. She was wary of stepping into the media spotlight and wished to avoid pouring oil onto the fires of the controversy. But her silence was not having the effect that she had hoped, and so she was very reluctantly persuaded by a friend that there was a media outlet where she could get a fair hearing—the Shingetsu News Agency.

In her exclusive interview, Ogawa explained that Bar Gold Finger does not have a policy of excluding transgender people. Six nights a week all members of the LGBT community are welcome to patronize the bar, and they have transgender customers.

Moreover, Bar Gold Finger has held specifically transgender-themed events, even in earlier times when the acceptance of LGBT people was not as wide as it is today. Ogawa herself has offered various kinds of personal support to her transgender friends.

The recent notion, therefore, that she is a “TERF” simply doesn’t accord with the decades-long record of Ogawa’s personal behavior and the policies and patronage of Bar Gold Finger.

The controversy relates specifically to the monthly Women Only party that Ogawa has been hosting since 1991 and bar’s Saturday Women Only nights. Ogawa explained that in her younger days she travelled to London and experienced women’s only events for lesbians which had an atmosphere that she admired and began to replicate when she returned to Japan. The idea was to create a safe and comfortable space for women to meet and socialize with one another, free of the sometimes threatening presence of men.

Her Women Only events in Tokyo have been a success for decades and she has built a wide circle of patrons, friends, and admirers, many of whom come to her for advice or when they are in trouble.

Ogawa has been very reluctant to discuss the McCready case in public because she doesn’t want to insult her or to make a spectacle of divisions or tensions within the LGBT community, which already has its share of difficulties in Japan in its overall struggle for equal rights.

Nevertheless, Ogawa indicates that McCready was not allowed entry to the Women Only party because she and her staff felt that her presence was likely to be disruptive to other patrons, and that she didn’t have an entirely feminine presence about her in dress and demeanor.

Ogawa also noted that decades of operating a bar in Nichome has taught her to be careful. Not all individuals who are born male and wearing female clothes are genuinely transgender. In her own experience she has seen cases of heterosexual men cruising Nichome in drag with the intention of picking up women, as part of their own sexual fetishes.

Ogawa accepts the principle that transgender women are women. But running a bar in Nichome encompasses practical judgments as well as ideological ones. That means not all patrons will be given a welcome. Sometimes individuals will be turned away if there’s a sense that they may disturb the other patrons. Rightly or wrongly, McCready was judged to fall into this category in the context of the long-established Women Only event.

Still, Ogawa owns up to the fact that putting the “WOMEN (cisgender) ONLY” message on the May event poster was “a big mistake” on her part. It was a ham-handed attempt to settle the controversy which only made things much worse, and didn’t truly reflect her own feelings or the bar’s policies.

As for the question of why Ogawa has worked so long in what she admits is an unusual industry, she says that her goal has always been to provide a safe space for Tokyo’s lesbian community and to bring smiles to people’s faces.

Update: June 8, 2019

Bar Gold Finger apologizes for not allowing some transgender women into its Women Only events, and states clearly that transgender women are now welcome. Bar Gold Finger owner Chiga Ogawa also apologizes personally to Elin McCready for not allowing her into the April 20 Women Only party. Full statement below:

Our monthly women only event ‘Gold Finger’ was started in 1991. We acknowledge that it was a mistake to add “cis-gendered only” as a requirement for entry to our homepage for two weeks, for the first time in 28 years. Please accept our sincerest apologies for the inconvenience and distress caused by our careless remarks. I started this event to create a much-needed respite for women to fully relax, be themselves, and mix with other like-minded women in a safe environment, and it has been my responsibility to manage and operate this event. It is not the purpose of the event to discriminate against a certain gender identity or sexual orientation. The Bar Gold Finger originally started as a women only bar for lesbians 11 years ago. As the years go by, I strongly started to feel that it was important to also create a space where all LGBTQ+ guests can communicate and unite together. The Bar Gold Finger welcomes everyone from around the world, regardless of gender or sexuality, from Sunday to Friday. In addition, every Monday, and the Sunday following the GF Party event, Bar Gold Finger becomes “FTM Bois Bar,” catering to trans women and trans men, as well as all other allies. FTM Bois Bar is operated by the trans staff of Bar Gold Finger. The fact is, we do not discriminate against any person based on gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation. In the future, we will not refuse entry to trans women at the women only events or to Bar Gold Finger, based on being transgender. Again, we sincerely apologize for any distress that resulted from our actions. Our efforts to create a safe and enjoyable environment for our guests will continue, and we kindly ask for your understanding and support.

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