Hi, my name’s Melissa, and I’m queer. I realized that I liked girls back in middle school, and I can partially thank anime for that understanding. What better way to realize you’re queer than over your confusing feelings about Ukyo from RANMA 1/2? And I’m not the only one. On the morning of November 17 at Anime NYC, I attended the panel “That’s Gay! Anime and Manga for the LGBT Audience.” And what anime comes up as being part of attendees’ queer awakenings? RANMA 1/2. I sat there thinking, “That’s me; that’s exactly what happened to me.” I shared that with plenty of other people in the room. LGBTQ characters in anime are important. If I learned something about myself from anime, and so did other people, current and future generations deserve the chance to do the same — under even better circumstances.

Anime NYC had two fantastic panels about LGBTQ people and anime. The first, hosted by David Wald and HIDIVE, was called “HIDIVE Presents: LGBTQ+ Representation in Anime.” It covered tropes in Western media and Japanese media, and the work that dubs do for the LGBTQ community. Then the aforementioned “That’s Gay” panel was hosted by Gay Breakfast Studio and discussed forms of LGBTQ representation in anime. Both panels gave great summaries on the nature of LGBTQ characters in anime and what they mean to the people who watch it.

Why Turn to Anime at all?

American LGBTQ characters tend to follow the same few tropes. David Wald recalled the flamboyant “gay clown,” the suffering “gay martyr,” and the “serial killer/psychopath.” Each has their identity used to further their trope. Ultimately, Hollywood is conservative when it comes to LGBTQ people. It’s not as important to them to reach out to the LGBTQ audience outside of movies about AIDS. When you’re growing up LGBTQ, this kind of representation can be damaging. Sure, we appreciate them out of desperation, but that doesn’t mean these stereotypes can’t affect the way LGBTQ people feel about themselves. “Martyr” characters can make people feel like they’re doomed to suffer. LGBTQ serial killers can remind us of how poorly the world sees us. We need media that we can look forward to.

A photo from the
It might be iconic, but RENT complies with a number of Western LGBTQ tropes. | Image: Amazon

Anime has its own tropes, but they’re slightly different from American ones. For instance, there’s usually less LGBTQ violence in anime than in American media. This reflects actual LGBTQ violence rates in Japan. Yaoi and yuri, romances between men women respectfully, often present worlds where homosexuality is normal. That fake, safe world can be an escape for LGBTQ people. However, that needed escape can remind us that things aren’t perfect. Gay marriage isn’t legal across Japan, and there are no housing or work protections for LGBTQ people. These politics reflect a cultural focus on conformity. Sadly, conformity involves LGBTQ people hiding who they are. So, while not perfect, anime offers a way for LGBTQ Americans to look for alternate forms of representation.

No piece of media is 100% perfect. Expecting anything to be free of issues only brings misery. As Gay Breakfast reminded panel attendees, it’s okay to like something if it makes you feel validated. That doesn’t mean we can’t still want improvement.

How Anime Treats Gay Men

Unfortunately, a number of gay stereotypes persist in Japanese media. Often, anime depicts gay men as feminine and stylish, hyper-sexualized, and predatory. Occasionally, media will contrast an out, vivacious gay with an extremely closeted gay. Here, we get the phrase “It’s okay if it’s you,” where a person who considers themselves straight makes an exception for the romantic interest.

Branching off from domination dynamics is the seme/uke trope. One of the most well-known features in yaoi manga. One partner is more “masculine” and dominant and the other is more “feminine” and submissive. The power dynamic is so popular because creators aim yaoi manga at heterosexual women. The uke acts as a self-insert for female readers. Creators also aim at female readers through use of heavy gay coding with zero follow-through. Studios like Kyoto Animation became  famous for this.

Victor lifting Yuri's chin to his own in YURI ON ICE!!!
Victor (right) making advances on Yuri (left) in YURI ON ICE!!! | Image: IMDb

Despite all these issues, there are anime and manga working to subvert the tropes. YURI ON ICE!!! gained a lot of recognition for its central romance focusing on a gay couple. Especially so considering that it teased at some of the common gay tropes and later subverted them. WHAT DID YOU EAT YESTERDAY has a realistic depiction of a gay couple who are adults rather than high school or college students. It tackles gay issues while still maintaining a leisurely, slice-of-life pace. Notably, MY BROTHER’S HUSBAND deals with homophobia within the family. It’s one of the only manga with a gay couple created by an openly gay man, famed mangaka Gengoroh Tagame.

How Anime Treats Lesbian Women

Gay women face many of the same problems that gay men face in media, but with the added difficulty of being women in a patriarchal society. For example, anime tends to depict lesbians as predatory, often to the same extent as the “serial killer” trope in American media. Gay subtext that never amounts to anything also plagues lesbian-based media. This stems from its intended audience: men who find sexual pleasure in the idea of women loving women. So, we can end up seeing another gender dichotomy like seme/uke, with the lesbian otokoyaku and musumeyaku. Japanese versions of butch and femme respectively, these words come from the all-female Takarazuka theater and maintain a heteronormative balance.

When not depicted as predatory, many lesbians come across as immature in Japanese media. This comes from the concept of “Class S relationships.” These are temporary junior/high school relationships between two girls meant to give girls a “practice romance” before they settle down with a man. As such, people associate lesbian romances with childishness and consider them to be fake relationships or phases. Often, yuri manga will take place during the school years.

REVOLUTIONARY GIRL UTENA's Utena cradling Anthy, her romantic interest.
REVOLUTIONARY GIRL UTENA’s Utena cradling Anthy, her romantic interest. | Image: IMDb

Still, lesbian romances have been making history in manga for ages. One of the most famous magical girl stories in the world, REVOLUTIONARY GIRL UTENA, had extremely gay themes and a happy ending. It was directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara, who worked on famous anime couple Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune in the SAILOR MOON anime. One of his other projects, YURIKUMA ARASHI, even involved a lot more women in the production with the intention of making it even more accurate to the experience.

How Anime Treats Trans People

Shuichi Nitori and Yoshino Takatsuki of WANDERING SON.
Shuichi Nitori and Yoshino Takatsuki, the transgender main characters from WANDERING SON. | Image: Crunchyroll

Unlike yaoi/yuri, there is no anime genre focused on trans people. In general, most creators don’t think there’s an audience for it. As such, trans and non-binary people are usually side characters in other anime and full of stereotypes. Most often, people in anime are trans because of some kind of trauma. Additionally, the process of healing often “fixes” them over the course of the show. Creators treat trans or non-binary characters’ identities as personality quirks, which opens those traits to change or use as comedy. These biases are often present in the fan community as well, like in the case of the transphobic “trap” meme.

Still, anime has one advantage over Western media for non-binary characters: the Japanese language. In Japanese, pronouns for another person are typically gender-neutral. Pronouns only have gender when referring to oneself. Even there is leeway, since people can use certain pronouns reasonably for either gender. For example, both young men and girls can use the word boku. Thus, Japanese makes it easier to leave a character’s gender ambiguous, or for the character themselves to determine their own pronouns.

Certain anime will use this ambiguity to aid their storytelling. In KINO NO TABU, for example, the main character was assigned female at birth, but adopted the identity of a man who helped them. MADE IN ABYSS features some canonically non-binary side characters, where the creator refuses to assign them a binary gender. Contrasting this is WANDERING SON, an anime focused on the stories of two trans characters. Rather than utilizing ambiguity, the characters are unquestionably trans. The series takes them, and their experiences, seriously.

The Forgotten Letters

When it comes to other parts of the LGBTQ community, anime doesn’t always have much. For example, anime rarely mentions bi or pansexuality. Though there are characters who identify as such, they often rely on stereotypes. They even tend to overlap with the previously stated “It’s okay if it’s you” trope. In anime, you’re more likely to find someone whose sexual preference is unstated but exhibits attraction toward the same sex. This may be because bisexuality is more difficult for some to understand because it involves a gray area. That lack of understanding causes writers to depend on tropes. Still, as general media mentions bisexuality more frequently, new content will hopefully arrive soon.

A photo from a group shot of the Sailor Scouts in SAILOR MOON, cropped and centered on Sailor Mars.
Rei Hino, or Sailor Mars, an asexual character from SAILOR MOON. | Image: VIZ Media

Aromantic or asexual characters have a complicated history in anime. Some characters never express sexual or romantic interest, but creators never explicitly describe them as aromantic or asexual either. Certain media will even force romantic stories onto otherwise asexual characters. One example is Rei Hino, or Sailor Mars, from SAILOR MOON. If you grew up watching the anime, you might remember Rei as being mildly boy crazy. But in the original manga, Rei doesn’t care for boys and has a distaste for romance. Later, the manga reveals that Rei made a vow of chastity to Princess Serenity long ago, cementing her identity against self-doubt.

In a rare change of pace, the anime BLOOM INTO YOU features a confirmed asexual character. The character, Maki, makes clear his desire to never be a part of a romance himself, but enjoys watching other peoples’ drama from the sidelines. His character brings new representation for asexuality in anime.

What are we Aiming for?

Right now, most LGBTQ people want stories to be about life. No one wants to see only struggles or only wish-fulfillment fantasies for non-LGBTQ people. Real life doesn’t work that way. As they are now, stories have good intentions. But to reach their full potential, they need input from people who understand the LGBTQ experience.

A shot of Asaya and Kensuke playing games with Shigeo from HITORIJIME MY HERO.
Shigeo (far left), Asaya (center), and Kensuke (right) from HITORIJIME MY HERO. | Image: Amazon

Reaching this point isn’t such a far-off dream. Sentai Filmworks dedicates themselves to diversifying the anime we receive in the US. One of the ways they do that is by digging into LGBTQ content. Voice actor and director David Wald directs some of Sentai’s dubs through streaming company HIDIVE. Understanding what anime can mean to LGBTQ people, Wald does his LGBTQ anime dubs for the community. This contrasts the previously mentioned Japanese intended audience. Through his adaptations, he can explain problematic parts of anime so it works better for the LGBTQ community.

One of the best examples of this kind of work is HITORIJIME MY HERO. The anime features four gay main characters and focuses strongly on platonic gay friendships rather than romance. When casting the dub, Wald chose actors who could, to some degree, understand where the characters came from. This includes featuring gay actors and having them interact to maintain realism. Rather than taking place in a gay fantasy world, HITORIJIME MY HERO has to deal with real issues in the gay community. Employing people who understand those issues makes it more applicable to the LGBTQ community.

Rainbow Bridge to the Future

LGBTQ people have a history in Japan. Much like Ancient Greece, Old Japan had pederasty in the warrior class. The concept of Class S relationships dates back to the 1920s. But as Japan opened its borders, it found societal pressure to conform to Western ideals. One of those was condemnation of LGBTQ people. After all this time, that culture of conformity is improving for LGBTQ people in Japan.

As younger generations see LGBTQ people in media, they become more accepting of LGBTQ people in real life. So as much as anime reflects reality, it’s also changing reality. This is why efforts calling for increased LGBTQ representation are important. It can help improve our real-life culture. So look into some of these new anime! Find your favorites, look for more, and make them big. Every time you help to increase visibility, you help to change the world a little.

You can find a lot of the Sentai Filmworks media on the HIDIVE website, or on VRV. BLOOM INTO YOU and HITORIJIME MY HERO are airing their English dub currently on HIDIVE. You can also watch HITORIJIME on Amazon Prime. One big upcoming project is the English dub for yaoi LOVE STAGE, which can currently be found on Crunchyroll. WANDERING SON is also available on Crunchyroll. And of course, look into the panel leaders. Find David Wald on Twitter, and check out Gay Breakfast on Tumblr or their Patreon.

Which LGBTQ anime characters are important to you? Let us know in the comments!

Featured image courtesy of Amazon

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