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When you identify with a minority group, whether it’s from birth or further along in your life journey, the road ahead will have its twists and turns. There are the obvious stresses with job opportunities, societal acceptance, and relationships. After all, being in the minority literally means you’re outnumbered.
But does that mean you have an obligation to jump into social activism? Or can you find a way to make a positive impact on and for your community in your own time?
Olivier Fabre’s career would indicate the latter.
After coming out as gay, Fabre didn’t feel the pull to get involved with LGBTQ+ social activism or community efforts at first. But slowly, through his work in the UK, Singapore, and Japan, he began to see cracks in equality—and feel the pull to do something about it.
Today, Fabre works as a diversity and inclusion (D&I) and media consultant. At Pride House Tokyo Legacy, among other organizations, he joins NPOs, corporations, embassies, and activists to help build a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community in a country slow to change.
We spoke to him about how the changes he’s seen over time and the ways corporations, in particular, still need to step up for better diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Community Involvement, Step by Step
Insights: You didn’t get involved in social activism—or even the LGBTQ+ community—right away after coming out. So what was the catalyst?
Fabre: My involvement started when a colleague from New York came over to Japan with his partner and my boss asked me what to do about the partner’s visa. I had no idea (the most I knew was that some gay couples used what was called a “butler visa,” and that wouldn’t work!), but we eventually found a solution. When that colleague’s partner came over, we became really good friends. He suggested starting up a pride network at work.
In retrospect, I wish I’d gotten more involved. But I did witness a lot of the legal issues that couple faced while they were here. And I began to realize the company really needed to support us more. That made me want to learn about how some other private networks were operating.
Insights: When you did start branching out to these networks, were you looking to be a part of community activities, or were you working toward a goal?
Fabre: At first, it was pride parades and discussing LGBTQ+ issues in the company. But my ultimate goal was to change HR policies and make them more same-sex-partner friendly. You know—paternity leave, care leave for sick parents, etc. I thought they should be equal. So I pushed for that. But it wasn’t easy.
Insights: Social activism rarely is. What was the hardest part of getting those initiatives off the ground?
Fabre: HR tends to be horribly busy. They weren’t against these policies. It just wasn’t a priority—at all.
But once I got involved with the Pride at Work network, I started getting sent to conventions in the US. Out & Equal was quite a big one, for example. And once I was there, I got to meet others. There were all these really fascinating workshops on different issues, such as bisexuality.
Insights: What made you decide to take on this kind of work full time?
Fabre: By the time I started getting involved in LGBTQ+ community activities, I was working as a manager in Reuters. But I was looking to expand my interests beyond my immediate expertise. That’s how I started to meet people in the Japanese LGBTQ+ community and eventually got involved with Pride House, which was just starting. So when I left Reuters, I went to help out Pride House for the World Rugby Cup.
An LGBTQ+ Legacy of Social Activism in Tokyo
Insights: Before there was Pride House Tokyo, there were other Pride Houses. How did they start?
Fabre: Pride House started with the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Things have changed a lot since 2010, but in those days, you come out as an athlete, you lose all your sponsors. You might lose your fans, and you’re definitely sidelined. The Olympics wanted a safe place for athletes, fans, and families to gather. So just like how there’s a Canada House or a US House during the Olympics, they started a Pride House. And now they’ve had one since for every Olympics—except the Sochi Olympics in Russia.
Insights: How did Pride House Tokyo work with the Tokyo Olympics?
Fabre: When Tokyo was chosen to host the Olympics, it was an opportunity for Pride House to push LGBTQ+ issues for the media. We were one of the first Pride Houses to be officially recognized by the Olympic committee, meaning they supported us by mentioning us to the media, the athletes, and whatnot. We also worked with sponsors—Coca-Cola, Panasonic, Cisco, and others.
Insights: Pride House Tokyo supported the Rugby World Cup, the Olympics, and the Paralympics. Now it’s become a permanent center as Pride House Tokyo Legacy, is it branching out from sporting events going forward?
Fabre: Oh, yes. Now that the Olympics are over, Pride House Tokyo Legacy has become a fulltime LGBTQ+ center. We have counseling services available for the community, including one in English, as well as a suicide prevention network. We don’t give medical advice, but we do provide someone to talk to. And we have people come through who just say, “I’m not sure if I’m bisexual” or “Who can I talk to about being trans?”
We’ve also got lawyers helping us out for anyone who’s been harassed at work or in need of legal advice because they’ve been kicked out of their house, etc.
Insights: Do you think companies should start having counseling services like that in house?
Fabre: Actually, an outside counselor is often better. At one of the media companies I worked for, a member of our staff was killed in Bangkok. He was sent there to cover a protest, and the protest turned violent. And it was terrible for everyone, obviously, but the company offered counseling services, and nobody took it up.
I think a lot of people want to vent about their company to counselors, so having a corporate counselor is just too close. And it’s also not always a good fit. That’s why you need an outside person.
What the company should do is raise awareness.
The Role of Companies in LGBTQ+ Issues
Insights: Companies are hardly a model for social activism—at least not yet. What issues remain for corporate LGBTQ+ efforts?
Fabre: It’s still very HR driven, especially in Japan. Word hasn’t reached the bottom rung of managers.
There’s also a problem with understanding diversity. It’s not just a couple of pride parades and rainbow clothes for a week. That’s not diversity. Diversity goes beyond just tolerating people that have different outlooks, backgrounds, experiences, and whatnot. And it’s not just LGBTQ+—ageism, for example, still hasn’t been tackled.
Japan, in particular, is still afraid of diversity. They look at the States, they see immigration, they see all the divisions in Western society, and I think a lot of them see that as bad for business.
Insights: How do we overcome that? Will it take aggressive social activism, or is there a softer approach?
Fabre: Well, one thing that we do a lot with Pride House is human stories. We work with corporate clients and share LGBTQ stories, foreigner stories, etc. The goal is to get people to see something different than their own path. I’ve shared my story about five times.
Now, does it work? I don’t know yet. But talking to corporations and working with them is a step.
Activism: A Matter of Timing?
Insights: You took some time to explore your own identity before getting involved with the LGBTQ+ community. Do you think it would have been different if people had pushed you into the movement with social activism?
Fabre: I don’t think there was much of a movement in Japan when I made that change. There wasn’t much excitement or understanding. Unless you were a real visionary and you could see that LGBTQ+ was going to be a big issue, you end up doing what everyone else is doing—the same goes for how companies react to change.
I do think it would have been nice to have had some top-down push from the company to make things available. There was no guidance whatsoever in Asia at the time. It was all Western influence. Even now, I think big global companies are afraid of imposing Western culture on locals. But they should at least give people the option.
Insights: Finally, what’s your advice for people who feel torn about joining in on social activism?
Fabre: Generally speaking, here in Japan, I do think we need to see a bit more action. It’s still a very small group pushing change. “Activism” is still a bad word here.
But on an individual level, it should be your choice. Perhaps we should not see these activities as “activism,” but simply a way to expand our understanding of ourselves, our friends, our community, or our colleagues. As a manager, or even someone interested in becoming a manager, that understanding is also essential in order to better lead and motivate people.