Anime Fans Shouldn’t Have to Settle for Less in LGBTQ+ Pairings

Anime is meant to be an escape. It's meant to be fun, whether that's through epic battles, cute romcoms or shows where animals can talk. However, for many, anime can never be that escape, as there's no telling when the joke will land or the stereotype will pop up -- watching anime as a member of the LGBTQ+ community means knowing that at any time, what should have been a fun episode of a favorite show could ultimately be a reminder of the kind of prejudice and struggle already a part of daily life. As long as representation continues to stigmatize the LGBTQ+ community, it will never be a complete escape, and that should concern the anime fan community at large.

As each group in the LGBTQ+ community is unique, so are the problems facing them in representation. Unfortunately, aside from a few examples, transgender characters simply aren't common in anime, and the stereotype of the crossdressing man has made gender expression a delicate topic. Although anime such as Wandering Son exist, these are rare, making representation for transgender people nearly nonexistent. Bisexual characters are rare as well due to separate issues with gay and lesbian relationships. The representation of gay men and lesbians themselves, while present, has many problematic aspects that do no good LGBTQ+ community at large.

At this point, Japan is on the possible verge of huge political turnover when it comes to same-sex marriage, and public support for the LGBTQ+ community is growing. The way in which LGBTQ+ relationships are portrayed is becoming increasingly important to normalize the community within Japan's culture and begin portraying relationships that represent everyone.

Gay relationships in anime have a turbulent history, but seem to be largely improving in recent years after decades of poor treatment. Relationships between two men have existed in Japanese art for centuries, often depicting an older male and younger apprentice, which evolved into the more manga-style illustrations of the early 1900s. The term 'yaoi' came into existence when m/m relationships started to become highly sexualized in the 1970s with fanmade doujinshi mostly shared among women. This sexualization began to experience a pushback in the '90s, but is still prominent in fan communities today, in large part because the internet has made sharing content so easy.

Yaoi has been made into anime many times as a result, including all those problematic aspects that are often criticized, such as the prominence of dominant and submissive partners. Anime as recent as Junjo Romantica and Love Stage!! feature this dynamic, where one partner is often physically smaller and more traditionally feminine, even crossdressing on occasion, therefore creating a pairing that's more traditionally heterosexual while still heavily sexualized for being gay -- and which, more alarmingly, often features assault between the romantic leads.

The crossdressing is no help for transgender or gender-neutral representation either. Because men dressing as women and acting flamboyantly is a common gag in anime, it becomes easier to laugh at someone in real life who's trying to break out of gender norms, and positive examples of crossdressing men are rare.

Although there have been examples of gay and bisexual representation with men that avoided negative stereotypes, such as Yukito and Touya in Cardcaptor Sakura, these relationships between side characters don't provide the representation that the community deserves, and the fact that gay characters die in fictional narratives a disproportionate amount seems to slate gay characters for misery, such as in Banana Fish.

However, trends in recent gay pairings have been veering away from the dominant and submissive roles, giving m/m pairings the spotlight instead of shunting them aside as minor characters. The range of m/m relationships in Given is an excellent example. None of the relationships here have set dominant or submissive partners, and are shown to be just as confusing, heartbreaking, enjoyable and relatable as any other relationship in media.

The relationship between Ritsuka and Mafuyu is nuanced by the different levels of experience the two have, not because one is much older or physically larger, but because Mafuyu has had a boyfriend and been in love before whereas Ritsuka has not. They differ from the relationships between other anime characters by being high school students as opposed to college, living at home instead of their own apartments, and generally being younger men in love.

Given also features a bisexual character in Akihiko, who is shown to have interest in women but is in two different relationships with men during the story, without the need for either of his male partners to take on the 'feminine' role to maintain his dominance. As representation for gay men improves, so does the representation for bisexual men.

Portraying LGBTQ+ characters outside of strictly queer narratives is also a step forward. Although Banana Fish ended with the 'bury your gays' trope, the relationship between the two main characters was an example of m/m love in a more shounen-style series -- something also portrayed in No.6., proving that gay relationships can fit into any kind of story. Yuri!!! on Ice likewise featured a couple in a more shounen-friendly sports anime, although that show is also an example of how m/m relationships are still being censored, with the kiss in Episode 7 obviously a kiss but blocked from the audience by an arm, this is the only kiss for the couple in the entire series.

Overall, despite continued censorship and problematic tropes, there has been great progress for gay relationships in anime, even in the last five years. However, the sexualization that occurs in doujinshi and in the female viewer base is highly inappropriate. That in itself is an issue that viewers themselves need to decide to shut down -- it's not a problem created by anime studios but rather the other way around.

The relationship between lesbianism and the anime industry is a complex one. Relationships between two girls are referred to as 'yuri', meaning 'lily.' The history of broad yuri publications goes back to Nobuki Yoshiya, who became a prolific writer in 1916 and continued writing into the 1960s. Manga and anime such as The Rose of Versailles were massive hits with the women's rights movement and women across the country in the 1970s, and more yuri pairings began to appear from then on.

However, this does not mean that Japan is more accepting of lesbian relationships. Rather, interest in yuri is a 'fantasy' world that young girls are almost expected to experience and even adults are able to partake in -- as long as they can leave that fantasy world as soon as needed. Japan is very different from Western audiences in that yuri pairings are not seen as a fetish, but rather a natural stage for young girls to go through. Yuri is popular because "true love" between women is often considered to not exist outside of this medium. The anime can be paused. The manga can be put away.

Flip Flappers

Due to the fantasy status of yuri, anime is now filled with examples of yuri-baiting, using innocent girls' relationships to draw in an audience while not promising anything in return. Because it's fantasy, yuri-baiting can go as far as it wishes to as long as it pulls back from becoming a real relationship. What ends up occurring are relationships between girls that show every sign of being a real romance, no fantasy involved, but are rescinded at the last moment. These relationships are almost always between young girls; it's rare to find yuri characters older than high school age because that takes it out of the realm of fantasy.

There have been some arguments that fans should be content with the feelings being there -- that not every relationship needs explicit proof of being real. It would be fantastic if this were the case, but when The Legend of Korra decided to make Korra and Asami a couple, people were in denial until the creators explicitly verified that the girls were in a relationship. Clearly, feelings are not enough, and since girls are shown to hold hands and hug all the time in a way that would otherwise verify an m/m or m/f relationship, if there's no kiss or heartfelt love confession that goes beyond the constrictions of school-aged yuri, those feelings will be considered fantasy.

Sound!Euphonium even manages to have a confession of love without the girls in question ever becoming a couple, and classic yuri anime such as Strawberry Panic has kisses between girls that, due to their age range, mean nothing. Yuri-bait is on the rise, and audiences continue to allow it as girls go further and further into the realm of a relationship as long as it's actually considered fantasy.

Until this yuri-baiting stops and women of all ages are portrayed entering into f/f relationships, lesbianism will continue to a be fantasy that's nothing more than a phase. Because relationships between women in anime aren't real, it becomes almost impossible for women to be bisexual, as their only "true" feelings can be for men.

Sound!Euphonium kumirei

For years, people who identify as LGBTQ+ have been the butt of the joke, been sexualized, been ignored and been made into a fantasy within anime, and it's time to begin pressing for better representation. Media influences the masses, and it's okay to expect more from media. It's time for transgender characters to be seen on screen, for gay men to be complicated characters free of stereotypical gender roles, for women to exist as lesbians without being trapped in the yuri fantasy, and for bisexual people to be allowed to simply exist without needing to pick a 'side.'

The entirety of the LGBTQ+ community deserves better than it has gotten in anime, and with Japan's legislation possibly set to change and societal acceptance in Japan at an incredibly high percentage, the anime industry has the ability to change minds and further acceptance. By expecting more out of anime studios and the stories they share, the LGBTQ+ community no longer needs to settle for mere crumbs of representation.

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