Finding models of healthy masculinity in BL manga

By: Max November 2, 20220 Comments
Sasaki and Miyano smiling at each other

The first time I came out, initially as genderfluid, it was because of a cosplay based on a character from my favorite M/M ship. It was 2017. I was going to dress as Hanamura Yosuke from the game Persona 4, and I needed a binder in order for the cosplay to be “accurate”. Nervously, I asked my mom, and when she said yes, I followed up with my coming out. I was very lucky, and my mother and the rest of my family were incredibly accepting, working on using the correct pronouns and helping me find more binders and masculine clothing.

When it comes to BL, the Persona 4 fandom served as my introduction. I was a big fan of the “Souyo” pairing of the protagonist, Souji (as he was known in the game’s manga adaptation), and his best friend and “partner”, Yosuke. I became very invested in the ship, and would often project my own fears and insecurities onto Yosuke when I wrote fanfic. In retrospect, I recognize that as something that let me safely imagine myself as a boy in a relationship with another boy. That desire to find media that would let me project myself into the positions of these male characters was what led me to discover BL.

The protagonist hugging Yosuke. "Idiot...that's for girls..."
Persona 4

The more invested in the pairing I became, the more media I looked for featuring them. This included zines and long-form comics by English-speaking fans that resembled doujinshi. One particular fic was an Alternate Universe based on the 2007 BL manga Seven Days. After enjoying the story, I was curious about the original work, and quickly discovered fan translations. Enjoying what I read, I continued down the rabbit-hole.

I was 15 years old and not sure where to start. Many of the most popular, easily accessible, and non-explicit titles available in English still featured harmful tropes like harassment and sexual coercion; it was often easier to turn to fan translations of unlicensed stories. There was one particular manga that was available, though,  that I found sweet and charming: Go For It, Nakamura!

At the time Nakamura was announced for an English license, the most popular BL that I would commonly see in bookstores was Ten Count, an adult series about a man with mysophobia whose doctor pursues him sexually in the name of “therapy”. As a teenager that struggled with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, it didn’t send me a great message. I had already felt ashamed of my OCD because of bullying from my peers, and Ten Count made me feel as if I would only be wanted by someone who would objectify my mental health condition.

Hirose looks at Nakamura qustionality. Nakamura blushes and thinks "that was the first time I looked him in the eye. He's so cute!"
Go for It, Nakamura!

Nakamura, on the other hand, was a teen-friendly rom-com featuring a shy boy who is simply trying to befriend his crush Hirose—not as a Nice Guy move toward eventually dating him, but because he really wants to get to know him. Instead of making Nakamura “straight with an exception,” he is explicitly described as gay. He’s not a predatory stereotype, either; he’s a nice, introverted kid who cares about Hirose’s feelings.

This portrayal of men and boys in BL as gentle, caring individuals, often drawn as more pretty and feminine—like the fluffy haired bishounen of Seven Days, or the thoughtful and friendly Noshiro of That Blue Sky Feeling—were different from the toxically hypermasculine male characters I was familiar with from popular culture. None of those men were allowed to cry or express their feelings. This was true of God of War’s Kratos, who was only ever stoic or angry; and the muscular heroes of shounen anime and manga like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and Dragon Ball, who solved every problem with a combination of shouting and punching. 

There were also my male peers at school, who frequently bullied me. I was never really shown alternative portrayals of male characters until later in my life, and since my appearance and interests didn’t contrast with my idea of being a girl, I assumed I was one for a long amount of time. Despite the faults I found in some of the adult series, BL offered me an alternate look at masculinity that was positive, healthy, and not afraid to bend gender norms. This version of masculinity resonated more with me, and gave me the courage and confidence to explore my gender identity more.

Nakamura overcome at the potential of becoming friends with his crush

At this point, I came out again, this time as nonbinary, and used exclusively they/them pronouns. Later, I started to use he/him as well, and started using the word transmasculine to describe myself. At first, I was nervous to describe myself as “masculine,” what with my typically feminine interests and appearance. Would people take me seriously? Should I dress more masculine, bind my chest more often, act more aggressively? I knew I was bisexual and mainly attracted to guys, but would I have to present differently so people wouldn’t see me as a girl? Even if that wasn’t true to who I was, it could save me from ridicule.

During this period, I turned to BL again, this time the anime Yuri!!! on ICE. In particular, I found comfort in the way Victor presented when he was younger, with long hair and glittery costumes. Something about that resonated with me. I was always drawn to pretty things, be it the gowns of Disney Princesses as a child or the big, sparkly eyes of the heroines of shojo manga and otome games as a teen. If Victor was allowed to be a pretty boy, why couldn’t I?

Victor helped me realize that my masculinity did not have to be like the tough, angry bodybuilder types I saw in most Western video games, or cruel like my former bullies. I could be kind, thoughtful, and cute like the boys in BL anime and manga. Maybe some people wouldn’t understand, but I’d always have BL to reassure me that there was nothing wrong with me, and that it was okay to be myself.

Tasuku running happily through a blank space, surrounded by bubbles that show the rest of the cast having warm moments at christmas
Our Dreams at Dusk: Shimanami Tasogare

Around this time, I also learned of more BL manga releasing in English. Series like Doukyusei and I Hear the Sunspot, which I eagerly read through, alongside general LGBTQ+ manga, like Love Me For Who I Am, Our Dreams at Dusk, and the works of Nagata Kabi. These series often covered real life issues that the queer community faced and sensitively portrayed disabilities and mental illness.

I never got to have that high school romance with another guy, but the intergenerational, diverse LGBTQ+ community in Our Dreams at Dusk and Nagata Kabi’s struggles with depression and anxiety rang true to me, a 17 year old trying to find my place in the world while dealing with my own mental health issues. I started moving more towards these grounded types of manga because I found them more relatable, and I was starting to take an interest in LGBTQ+ activism. As an artist and storyteller myself, I would like to be able to one day also create works that both help queer and trans readers find comfort and solace, and inform straight and cis readers of what it’s like to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

That being said, I still found value in less grounded BL, like the mermaids and aliens of the This Boy… OVAs, or the fantastical adventures penned by danmei author Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. Just like the more realistic BL, or the way my journey started with a non-canonical (or at least axed) relationship in Persona 4, they can be safe avenues to explore gender and romantic dynamics with different characters.

Cover of Heaven Official's Blessing

As time has gone on, I’ve realized I tend to identify with the more typically “feminine” love interests in BL, like Miyano of Sasaki and Miyano and Mafuyu of given. These characters may look more feminine in appearance, or perhaps they have personality traits that are typically associated with female characters (like being gentle, shy, or interested in “girly” hobbies). Despite this, they are still seen as boys—in Miyano’s case, he’s even reassured that Sasaki still thinks of him as a guy despite his “girly” good looks. This helped me see that regardless of how I present myself, my masculine gender identity is no less valid.

At this time, transmedicalism was beginning to be denounced in transmasculine communities. The once popular belief that gender dysphoria and medical transitioning were necessary was being criticized. People like Brennen Beckwith, a transmasculine YouTuber, were speaking up about their experiences of being harassed by transmedicalists, and embracing their gender identities. It was very different than when I realized I was trans just a few years earlier. After seeing so many brave individuals come out and be themselves, I finally had the courage to come out myself and identify as a demiboy, without the fear of being shunned as a “transtrender” or “faking it.”

Victor Nikiforov wearing a flower crown
Yuri!!! On ICE

Currently, I am working on socially transitioning, by using the pronouns I am most comfortable with in public spaces. This can be difficult, as I live in a fairly conservative town. I’m still pretty gender non-conforming when it comes to how I dress, and that can lead to the fear of never truly passing. This fear is often worsened by the fact that I am often misgendered, and am too fearful to speak up and say anything. Oftentimes, I think about how different I am from most representations of transmasculine individuals. I haven’t gone through any medical procedures, and I don’t plan on hormone replacement therapy like they have. This can aggravate my dysphoria, and makes me feel quite alone.

Despite this, I find comfort in the feminine men of BL. When Miyano’s boyfriend Sasaki listens to him talk about his love for BL, a hobby typically associated with feminine individuals, or Arima of Boy Meets Maria is loved by Taiga no matter how he presents, I’m reminded: If they can be themselves, and find love and happiness just the way they are, then so can I.

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