CONTENT WARNING for discussions of racism, homophobia, suicidal thoughts, sexual assault.
SPOILERS for The Heart of Thomas.
I am a 295-pound, 6-foot-2, brown-skinned, cisgender queer male who fears telling you his weight because I’m afraid you will call me “fat.” I hesitate to tell you my skin tone and to use the word “queer” because somewhere in the world, those descriptors will be replaced with “n*****” and “f*****.”
My shoulders, the sides of my stomach, and my back are splintered with stretch marks, and yet, as uncomfortable as it is to say these things aloud, I also feel empowered. Sometimes positivity wins, and other times society wins. On my winning days, I like to look back on the moments that made me feel beautiful. And on this particular day, that applies to Moto Hagio’s The Heart of Thomas.
Prior to the early 1970s, Japanese manga culture was dominated by shounen manga. Scholar Rachel Thorn sets the scene well in The Heart of Thomas’ introduction: In May of 1967, a round table discussion about the state of shoujo publication was published by “godfather of manga” Osamu Tezuka’s magazine COM.
Thorn describes the round table as “primarily of a 39-year-old male literary critic telling nine teenage girls and three teenage boys that [shoujo] manga was drivel, with some of the girls making half-hearted attempts to defend the genre.” The problem, Thorn implies, was that shoujo manga in its earlier days was stuck telling “orthodox narratives,” ones in which female protagonists were sexually repressed and complacent.
All that changed as more female manga artists were published. Romantic narratives were no longer a taboo subject in shoujo manga, and the social revolution of the 1960s influenced Japanese culture as a whole. Four years after the previous discussion was published, in 1971, COM released another one.
This time, the discussion included not merely fans but four authors who revolutionized shoujo manga forever: Keiko Takemiya, Jun Morita, Yukari Ichijo, and Moto Hagio. Shoujo manga, Thorn writes, “were putting [shounen] manga to shame.” These four women are known historically as “The Magnificent Forty-Niners,” so-called because they were all born around 1949.
Part of the “sexual revolution” in shoujo manga expanded after the Forty-Niners began exploring their fascinations with queer narratives in their works. Keiko Takemiya’s short work “In the Sunroom” was the first work to include a same-sex kiss, making her the mother of what is now known as BL. Her influence, including the publication of her magnum opus The Song of Wind and Trees (1976-1984), paved the way for Moto Hagio’s The Heart of Thomas in 1980.
I picked up The Heart of Thomas in 2012 after my Japanese studies class spent the week reading academic articles and small snippets about the influence of gender-bending and queerness in Japanese pop culture. It was the first time I was academically introduced to feminism and gender studies. The concepts were complicated, and even now I struggle with Judith Butler’s discussions of gender performativity, but exploring ideas about the fluidity of gender through pop culture made it a lot easier.
I became obsessed with figuring out why I felt so empowered and hungry for more and more BL narratives. Although there was a much slimmer library of queer literature in 2012 compared to now, there was still enough that my appetite could be satiated elsewhere. The western pop culture canon was full of them, but nothing seemed to click with me quite like BL stories. The reason, I learned later, was because BL goes beyond gay. It transcended into queerness.
I’ve been asked many times why I identify as a queer male instead of just “being gay.” Gay, especially by western standards, still has a strong sense of male masculinity to it. Like the lingering scent of a cologne, gay clings to me, making me feel like I still have to perform the act of being a man.
I am reminded of the times in which I was asked on a dating app if I was “a fem.” I’d lie and say I wasn’t. I’d deepen my voice in preparation of first dates. I’d brace myself for the inevitable “wow, you’re one of the most feminine big Black dudes I’ve ever met.”
Queerness opened up a new world, one in which male and female were no longer black-and-white concepts. Gender became this beautiful shade of gray that I didn’t want nor need to be boxed into. The gateway for this freedom was in the queer bodies of Thomas.
The narrative starts with a dramatic, bittersweet scene: Thomas commits suicide by hurling himself off a bridge. He leaves a letter for Juli, the object of his affection, confessing his love. No one knows that Thomas’s death was a suicide except for Juli and Oskar, Juli’s roommate and the spitting image (and diametric opposite) of Thomas. The letter creates the central mystery of the complex story—what happened between Juli and Thomas—and unravels into a philosophical revelation for both Juli and the reader.
Taking place in a German boarding school for boys, the story features a mostly male ensemble. When asked about why she chose to tell the story through male characters, Hagio pointed out that writing it with a female cast (as she did try at one point), applied a pressure for the story to be “realistic,” meaning the female protagonists, alongside the plot, would be forced to play by societal rules.
The protagonists of Thomas are boys in name but queer in their gender. They’re not bound by the rules of “being male.” Thomas and some of the other boys are addressed with “fraulein,” a Germanic honorific very similar to “Miss.” It’s as if Hagio has carved out a queer utopia for readers. In my mind, her world was not bogged down by complexities of gender and sexuality.
In 2012, I wasn’t ready to dive into the political nuances that queer literature explores, or the conversations around BL as a genre. I needed the open-endedness of Hagio’s work to plant the proverbial seed. In time, it would grow and I would frolick, harvest, and thrive in the queer canon. It flowers, and I would become a published queer author in my own right.
Toward the end of the narrative, it’s revealed that Juli was sexually assaulted by an upperclassmen. Hagio alludes to the incident instead of directly stating it. Juli tells Thomas’s doppelganger that the upperclassmen “was in the library often,” so they crossed paths a lot.
One time, while returning an overdue book, he brushed up against Juli and complimented his “lovely black hair.” During the week-long Easter vacation, Juli “remained in school.” Using the book as an excuse to get closer to Juli, the upperclassmen said: “I’d love to hear your thoughts when you’ve read [the book]. We’ll discuss it!”
His room, Juli recalls, was at the end of the second floor. When asked why he went to the room, Juli says that “there is a good seed and a bad seed in my heart. The good was drawn to Thomas. The bad was drawn to [the upperclassmen],” who ”gave off a smell of cruelty.” Using a teacher’s cane, the upperclassmen beat Juli into submission. “All men are fallen angels,” the upperclassmen said to him.
“He proved it, using me,” Juli said. He inflicted pain upon Juli, demanding “Just one word. You love me, don’t you?” Juli submitted. He “got on [his] knees and kissed his feet as [his] Lord’s.”
Hagio relies on symbolism and metaphors. In these moments, Juli is described as a fallen angel, which emphasizes his purity and innocence prior to the incident. His wings, in the metaphor, are ripped away and taken from him. As an extension of his body, his sense of self, his identity, is taken. He’s to believe that he’s a fallen angel and that he’s not worth loving. His body is no longer his own. He considers himself tainted and sinful.
BL is known for stories that fantasize rape and sexual assault. In many cases, the narrative arc of “uke” (the “bottom”) is submission. They succumb to their assaulter’s wishes, invoking a sexified Stockholm Syndrome. But Juli’s experience is traumatic and something he fights to move away from, not toward.
The subtlety with which Hagio describes the incident made it easier for me to stomach, but it still hit too close to my own experience. I blocked it out.
Looking back, I’d forgotten that aspect of the story when I had initially read it. All I remembered was that Juli’s circumstance hit me in a personal space. Later on, as I was rereading The Heart of Thomas, I wondered how I could forget a key part of the story so easily. But it makes sense. I repressed it alongside the memory that I was only brave enough to reveal three years ago.
As a queer man, it is hard to say that I was sexually assaulted. I’m a big guy. I have dark skin. Am I not the perfect symbol of what is considered threatening in society? It’s not I who should be afraid of other people, but other people who should be afraid of me. Those are “truths” that have been forced upon my body.
The truth is, identifying as queer, my body (and the rest of me) comfortably sits in the gray area of the gender binary. I am more than masculine overtones. I am beautiful shades of feminine. I am more than anyone will ever understand. I will spend my lifetime defining and redefining what my queer body is, and I choose to embrace its constantly shifting ambiguity.
My assaulter was an older white man. His profile picture wasn’t recent, but I didn’t mention this when I met him. I have always been too polite, putting other people’s feelings above my own.
I was about 25 years old, manic, with low self-esteem. It was a blessing, I’d convinced myself, that this man even wanted my body. I thought of my body as a horrid collection of tainted flesh and bone. In my broken-heartedness, I’d slept with so many men that I’d lost count. In this older man, I thought I’d found a way to redeem myself. He was older, so surely he’d love me and fix me.
It will be me who fixes me, but I won’t learn that until I turn 30.
I was later asked: why did I get in the car? Why didn’t I push him off me? How could I let an older and smaller man take control of me? If we were in a fight, I would have won. But again, I look at my queer body, and I know that I am not the big aggressive Black man everyone else sees. I am strong, but I am also fragile in some ways; and my assaulter, I believe, knew this.
I remember the heavy scent of Stetson’s Men’s cologne dripping from his body onto mine. The smell was so strong, so masculine, so overpowering. I could no longer smell the citrus-scented body spray I always wore. His scent lingered on my skin even after I took a shower later that night.
Worst of all, he assaulted me without a condom. Previous to that experience, I’d slept with many men without condoms, in hopes of putting a death sentence on my body to punish a loved one who had hurt me. My early twenties were a time in which I was experiencing heartbreak for the first time, as well as processing my mother’s mental illness. “Look what you’ve done to me,” I thought my actions would say.
I was lucky, because after I was no longer in a manic state I got tested, and my HIV status was negative. I swore after that I would be more careful. I was on the road to redemption, but this man, who I really didn’t even know, ruined that. He took my wings and ripped them off my back.
By the end of Heart of Thomas, Juli realizes that Thomas truly did love him and, in his death, Juli was given Thomas’s wings. Juli is invited to the popular upperclassmen’s room for tea, the same place he was assaulted. His experience of the room now is “bright” and there’s “no sign left of fallen feathers.” He proclaims to one of the upperclassmen that “God loves us no matter what we’re like.”
Juli truly was happy when Thomas loved him. Thomas’s love validated him, and Juli decides it’s time to leave the school. He loved Thomas, and reflects that “before the words would break from his lips, he had already spoken them with his eyes.” Thomas becomes a symbol of Juli’s reclamation of his heart, and by extension his body.
In some ways, I resent Juli. He sits content on the train leaving all the pain and memories behind. He clings to Thomas’s last will and smiles somberly. The ending is left open for interpretation, and can be read as Juli taking up a life of celibacy, thus saving himself for Thomas in the afterlife.
Even as a fictional character, I wonder about him from time to time. I wonder if he struggles with nightmares about his assaulter the way I sometimes do. I wonder if he flinches when someone touches him and accidentally conjures up a body memory. As the author, I wonder if Moto Hagio knows just how resonant The Heart of Thomas is and how important it’s been in my acceptance of this queer body.
There is no train for me to ride away on. I must live in society, in reality. The reality is that I can’t educate every single person who will judge my body before getting to know me. I can’t keep them from having preconceived notions about how much of a “man” I’m really not.
But I can, and I choose, to fight for acceptance for this big, black queer body. It’s a challenge not to flinch when I see my naked body in the mirror—all the stretch marks, the roundness of my belly, the way the fat jiggles on my inner thighs, the way I have a double chin when I look at things below eye level. I just have to remind myself each day that in this queer body beats a heart worth loving.