Content Warnings: Discussion about transphobia and gender dysphoria.
Spoilers for Love Me for Who I Am – Volume 1.
Editor’s Note: This piece was written and edited before the English release of volume 2.
Love Me for Who I Am by Konayama Kata is making a splash with manga readers for its non-binary protagonist Mogumo. Personally, when I first found out about Love Me for Who I Am, I fell in love with the concept of a non-binary maid and the adorable cover art of Mogumo in a maid outfit. I pre-ordered it early and my non-binary heart sang when I received my copy on the last day of Pride during the height of COVID-19.
Now that it’s here, my genderfluid bi femme ass can confirm this manga isn’t the intersectional, inclusive seinen I was hoping for. Love Me for Who I Am is the first volume of a story that marks a milestone for enby manga readers, but the world still has a lot to learn about understanding and treating non-binary people with respect.
This manga is sadly an accurate reflection of how poorly non-binary people are treated on a daily basis. While it tries to be inclusive—and sometimes succeeds—it’s also harsh in how it portrays people interacting with non-binary people. While there are plenty of characters that try to understand Mogumo, it also depicts the difficult realities of being non-binary.
Mogumo wants to make friends, but their anxiety about being rejected due to their gender identity makes them shy and struggle with socializing. Even though Mogumo makes friends, they spend the entire manga navigating and challenging other people’s perceptions, feelings, and reactions to their gender identity. Since Mogumo primarily presents as femme they are often misgendered as a woman, which is really hurtful to them. I know from personal experience that it’s possible to present as femme but also go by they/them, so I relate to Mogumo in that way.
The fact that Mogumo gets to be a maid tickles my gender binary-busting fancy like no other and I’m thrilled they are being featured in a cute LGBTQ+ themed manga. The other characters in the maid cafe are also young people with various shades of LGBTQ identities. Suzumi “Suzu” Sou, is a closeted gay high school student who likes dressing cute and is dating a boy at his school; Ten is a maid who simply loves cosplay and dressing up; and Mei is a maid who identifies as a crossdressing boy at first, but later comes out as a trans woman and asks her maid coworkers to use she/her pronouns for her. All of the characters are in high school, so they’re in the early stages of discovering themselves, giving the manga a nostalgic feel to it.
While the premise of this story is earnest, the author Konayama (whose gender is not disclosed) confesses to only having discovered the concept of being non-binary while researching Mogumo as a character, which explains some of the more problematic aspects of this manga. There’s a lot of depiction of transphobia and Mogumo is constantly misgendered and misunderstood by everyone around them, which is disheartening. When Konayama depicts transphobia, they often follow it up with a teachable moment to help readers understand Mogumo better. It’s not always the case, but those teachable moments bring me relief as an enby reader.
When Mogumo’s classmate Iwaoka Tetsu reads their wish to make friends, he decides to help them by inviting them to work at a non-traditional maid cafe his family owns. The idea of wearing a maid uniform delights Mogumo, so they agree to give it a shot.
The cafe is called Question!, and all of its staff members are otokonoko, a Japanese word for men with feminine gender expression, including cross-dressing or crossplay. The idea that the cafe’s name refers to the staff’s genders being a “question”, struck me as transphobic and fetishizing, which left me feeling triggered. Still, Tetsu’s genuine desire to befriend Mogumo made me happy. He wanted them to feel included at the cafe, so he had a conversation with the other staff members about their feelings about the otokonoko label. It’s also worth noting that the cafe is a place where its employees can openly explore or “question” their gender, so in that light, the name is empowering.
While being trained by Mei at the maid cafe, Mogumo learns that it’s part of the greeting protocol to identify as otokonoko before seating the guests. Like other labels, otokonoko can either be fetishizing or empowering depending on its usage. Mogumo immediately expresses their discomfort with the label because it forces them into the gender binary. After Mogumo voices their concerns, everyone at the cafe had further discussions on how each person feels about identifying as otokonoko.
Before Mei came out as a trans woman, she embraced the otokonoko label because she wants to be transparent with customers and found freedom in the label. Afterwards, when Mogumo approaches Mei for a private conversation, Mogumo says they want to be Mei’s friend, but Mei simply asks if Mogumo is ready to be an otokonoko and clearly doesn’t understand them. After further conversation, Mei reveals that she wishes she was a girl and that she became jealous upon hearing Mogumo confidently speak their truth about their gender identity. It helps readers understand why Mei gets so defensive about the staff being called otokonoko and it’s the first time Mei indicates she’s a binary trans woman.
After communicating with each other, the staff decides to change the greeting protocol so that everyone can feel comfortable. The notion that transgender people have to disclose their gender, genitals, and other personal information to people they’ve just met is transphobic. We are so much more than what’s in our pants.
Mogumo never outright identifies with a specific non-binary identity. Instead, they simply deny being a boy or girl, which is why they left the gender box blank on the job application for the maid position. Despite wanting to make friends, Mogumo is wary of connecting with others because like so many other enbies, they’re afraid of whether or not people will accept them. Many enbies feel anxious in the early stages of any relationship because we’re just learning about a person’s attitudes towards non-binary individuals. This anxiety makes us fear that our vulnerability will have negative consequences, such as rejection, loneliness, or even violence. Often, we find out about their perceptions gradually rather than all at once, but it’s stressful the entire time. I don’t blame Mogumo for feeling shy and wary being in a cis-heteronormative environment that often alienates us.
My biggest criticism of this manga is its treatment of Mogumo. Mogumo is the definition of moe—just looking at them makes me want to protect them, so it hurts to see them suffer from mistreatment. They are so stylish and brave, yet they constantly deal with so many misunderstandings and transphobia, even from their friends. Their best friend, the cis girl Mizunoe Kotone, misgenders Mogumo behind their back while pretending to be supportive of them. Towards the end of this first volume, she says homophobic stuff to Tetsu and confronts him after Mogumo confides in her that they think everyone would be happier if they were a girl instead. Although villainizing the transphobic best friend instead of the trans person is a refreshing change of pace that offers its own lessons, Mogumo still deserves better treatment as a non-binary character in a manga that focuses on LGBTQ+ issues.
Although this manga clearly depicts Kotone as the villain for misgendering Mogumo, the misgendering = bad, concept isn’t entirely consistent throughout its duration. The series also explores attraction through Tetsu, a cis man whose compassion for Mogumo makes him stand out. Despite being portrayed as an ally, he refers to his trans sister, Sacchan as his “brother”, misgendering her. This is not only inconsistent with a misgendering friend being the villain, but also the manga’s theme of inclusion. Meanwhile, knowing Sacchan is supposedly what motivates him to be an ally. After all, that’s what prompted Tetsu to approach Mogumo in the first place. It’s hard to tell whether the inconsistent attitude toward misgendering is a deliberate portrayal of well-meaning allies like Tetsu committing microaggressions, or a mistake on the author’s part.
As Tetsu connects with Mogumo more, he becomes more attracted to them. Their relationship illustrates how it’s possible to overcome the limited perspective that the gender binary imposes upon us. I like how Tetsu’s attraction to Mogumo isn’t fetishistic, but respectful and authentic as he works through his internal biases. At first, he is wary of his attraction to Mogumo, and even asks Sacchan when she first knew she was attracted to guys… which is clearly misgendering Mogumo.
His nervous, misgendering reaction to being near a topless Mogumo communicates his discomfort and nervousness surrounding his perception of Mogumo’s gender. As the two connect more, his flirting progresses to feeding Mogumo with his own chopsticks, indicating he’s comfortable with sharing personal space with Mogumo. Their attraction to each other becomes part of the major storyline when Mizunoe confronts Tetsu about it at the end of the first volume. We won’t find out what happens with Mizunoe until the second volume.
Still, I appreciate how Konayama emphasizes how terrible transphobia is by showing its damaging effects on Mogumo. When Mogumo is undressing in front of Tetsu, Mogumo asks him if he thinks of them as a girl and Tetsu thinks to himself that Mogumo has a “boy” body, but squirms to correct his thoughts afterward. While I appreciate that Tetsu is questioning the gender binary, that’s still a lot for Mogumo to endure, especially from the people closest to them. If anything, I hope this manga teaches cis people how not to treat a non-binary person by at least following the transphobia up with touching teachable moments.
Love Me for Who I Am isn’t perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction. Mogumo is a protagonist that enbies like myself can somewhat relate to. I’m also hoping cisgender/straight people can grow and become more understanding of non-binary people and other LGBTQ+ community members after reading this manga.
The treatment of Mogumo and depictions of transphobia triggered me. I like knowing that Mogumo has friends on their side, but seeing Mogumo grapple with people’s lack of understanding and acceptance brought back familiar feelings of alienation and insecurity. So many enbies relate to the experience of having well-intentioned friends who still miss the mark on our identities. It’s a lonely experience. If I read this manga in the wrong mood, I could see it triggering a depressive episode and gender dysphoria. Keep in mind that this is an ongoing series, so this is only my reaction to the first volume.
Nonetheless, I am glad I read it and recommend it to others who like the idea of a non-binary maid character being a protagonist. At the very least, “non-binary maid manga” is a genius concept that better flourish into a category of its own or I’ll die unfulfilled. I’m not holding my breath, but an enby can dream, right?