Like many queer manga fans, I have a complex relationship with BL manga. Back when I was a young adult just discovering these new and exciting back-to-front comics in my local comic shop, the prospect of being able to read love stories about people like me was unimaginably gratifying. Instead of suffering through the repetitive and unrelatable boy-meets-girl unashamed romance that every other book and film and TV show delivered, I could find stories about actual gay and bi people! Stories about the stuff I’d always felt had to be kept private and hidden.
There was some illicit thrill in seeing drawings of men kissing – imagine how my shy queer mind was blown the first time I saw panels depicting actual gay sex! The straights had more than their fair share of love and relationship stories. At last, here was something made for me!
It took me quite a while to realise that, actually, those stories weren’t for me either. I don’t know exactly when or how I figured out that BL and yaoi were no more realistic portrayals of gay relationships than what was on UK television twenty years ago. In the late ’90s we had ‘Queer As Folk’ with its unashamed portrayals of cis-gay men, and a few soap opera coming-out stories, but that was about it. Lesbians were on TV to draw ratings, and bisexual characters were the romantic threats and the jokes. Anything gay was about gay sex – even QAF didn’t seem too keen on showing gay romance.
BL, as I eventually discovered, wasn’t realistic because it wasn’t by gay people (unlike QAF) and it wasn’t for gay people. It was soft-core porn for straight women. Romance stories about overcoming obstacles (and what bigger obstacle than the shame of being gay, am I right?) with no women to get in the way of the female reader’s fantasies.
Even worse, almost every story came with some combination of gay shame or panic, dub-con or rape, and unrealistic depictions of sex. Few characters were actually comfortable with their gayness – it was always ‘I only feel this way about you’ – and any man who was openly gay was also predatory, forcing themselves on the blushing uke until he realised his feelings and gave in.
There was rarely any domesticity – few stories gave us men cuddling, sharing chores, or making casual conversation. Relationships were about sex, and once the sex had happened (or once it happened with both participants actually consenting), that was the end of the story.
At the time, I don’t think I even questioned why I couldn’t buy similar stories about gay women. Back then, I was already well aware of my genderless identity, but internal misogyny had me leaning heavily towards the masculine end of the gender spectrum; I couldn’t relate to women in the way I could to men, and shied away from anything remotely coded as feminine. I wasn’t interested in reading stories about women because media in general gave me so few female characters I could identify with.
Now that I’m older, I still don’t feel any interest in yuri manga or anime. What little I’ve seen has focused on very young characters, and as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, being A Fan Of A Certain Age means I have less than no interest in reading or watching sexualised stories about characters much younger than me. (If anyone can point me in the direction of yuri manga or anime centred on characters over 25, please do!)
So for a long time, I bemoaned the lack of LGBTQIA characters in anime and manga. I wrote essays about the subject, participated in con panels about it, and desperately sought out even the tiniest bit of positive representation. I watched sports anime for its close male friendships, claimed Haruhi Fujioka as my favourite character, and clung to ‘Revolutionary Girl Utena’ like a life-belt in a sea of heteronormativity.
Then something happened. Maybe it was ‘Yuri On Ice’, and those twelve weeks that felt like the world was saved. Maybe something else – if anyone can tell me about life for LGBTQIA folk in Japan in recent years, I’d love to know.
It’s not like we suddenly had a gay tidal wave of positive representation. After all, it’s only a year since we got ‘Backstreet Girls’ – an anime about three yakuza who piss off their boss too many times and are forced to ‘travel to Thailand’ (anime euphemism for transitioning, apparently) in order to become a three-girl idol group. Season three of ‘Free!’ ramped up the queer-baiting but ignored the progress YOI had made by refusing to give any of its characters the relationships it kept hinting at. And ‘Sarazanmai’ still feels daring in its depictions of same-sex attraction and love.
But manga seems to be making progress. Last year, while browsing my local Waterstones, I picked up volume one of ‘That Blue Sky Feeling’. And my life was changed. Here, hiding among the shounen battle stories and the isekai and the moe romance, was the sweetest, most realistic depiction of teenage same-sex attraction I’d ever read.
If you haven’t come across this title, the story follows Noshiro, a boy with top-notch friend-making skills learned through a lifetime of constantly transferring schools. At his newest school, he spots Sanada, a loner ignored by his classmates due to rumours that he’s gay. Rather than freak out, Noshiro’s response is more along the lines of ‘I’m going to friend that boy so hard!’ He’s a sweet enough kid that he does win Sanada over, only to learn that the rumours are true. Furthermore, Sanada has a type, and it’s guys who look almost exactly like Noshiro. So far there are only two volumes in print, although I believe scanlations can be found online, and volume three is due out in November this year.
I was pleasantly surprised by how respectful and honest the story was about being a gay teen. It’s not entirely pure and innocent – it turns out Sanada does have some dating experience, but with older guys he’s met online using a fake identity. And Noshiro deals with a little discomfort at being friends with a gay guy, largely to due to ignorance about what being gay actually means.
But the discovery of this story led me to look around online at current BL releases, and it looks like a lot has changed in recent years.
Instead of the gay panic and dub-con of stories like ‘Junjou Romantica’, there are a number of titles that allow their characters to be open about their queerness, to be romantic and affectionate instead of simply going straight to the sex, and to have more depth to their stories than just ‘coming out and hooking up’.
Earlier this month I received a copy of ‘I Hear The Sunspot’, a surprisingly tender and heartfelt story about a college student with hearing difficulties who hires another young man as his note-taker and ends up falling for him. There were moments when I came close to crying at the sweetness, and how real the depictions of growing attraction and affection were. This week, I started reading ‘Escape Journey’, about two guys who dated in high school and meet up again in college. Not ‘fooled around in secret but succumbed to gay panic’, but dated and broke up. The flashback sequence leading up to their first kiss is so tender and real that I had to close the book because I was in danger of crying in the coffee shop where I was reading it. But you can bet I picked it up again the second I got home, where I could weep in private, before searching for similar titles to add to my reading list.
I’m not saying everything is suddenly perfect in the world of queer manga. Again, still not seeing much in the way of romance about adult women. And fujoshis and the fetishisation of gay men for straight women’s pleasure is still a problem. But perhaps things are looking up. Perhaps, at least, the days of dub-con and yaoi hands are in the past.
I know that there is manga created by and for gay men, with more focus on older characters and greater diversity in body type, but it’s not the type of stuff that gets picked up for distribution outside Japan, and right now I don’t have the money required to import it. But maybe in the future we’ll even get to see some of those works here. And in the meantime, this article gives some more insight into the changes in BL manga from the perspective of Japanese mangaka.
If anyone can point me in the direction of recent manga with good queer representation (especially of older characters), please do. And if you do read any of the titles I’ve mentioned here, let me know what you think of them.