By Theresa Tyree
Queer content was hard to find when I was a kid. None of the characters ever outright called themselves gay or a lesbian, or (heaven forbid) bisexual in the media I was exposed to. The closest thing to a canon same-sex romance I was aware of was the relationship between Xena, the Warrior Princess, and her trusty partner, Gabrielle.
Even with as explicitly queer as that relationship felt, I can still watch that show with my mother and always hear her say without fail, “Aww, they’re such good friends.”
No, Mom! They’re sexually and romantically independent women who kiss each other on the lips and continually choose each other over any other partners, male, female, or otherwise, that they find on their travels! They even reincarnate together! If that doesn’t SCREAM queer, then I don’t know what does!
But because it wasn’t explicit—because it wasn’t specific and confirmed by the writers in the events of the show—I was never allowed to have it. Claiming it as representation in mixed company (by which I mean queer individuals and non-queer individuals) was like pulling teeth. I had to be ready to defend it. I had to be ready to go through every episode, tear it apart for every shred of evidence, and insist time and time again that just because Xena and Gabrielle experienced attraction for men, that didn’t invalidate their feelings for each other.
But all of that changed when I ran into a Boys Love manga from Japan called Fake.
For those of you unfamiliar with Boys Love manga, it’s a genre of manga that centers around same-sex male couples. The genre is often shortened to “BL” and is aimed exclusively at a female demographic. Because of that, some of the portrayals can fall a little far from representing an actual relationship between two men. Some of them are better than others.
Fake was the first BL title I encountered as a young woman that actually treated both of the main characters, Ryo and Dee, as equals. Both men were tall, both men were capable; both men were hardboiled detectives working to clean up the streets of New York. They both “wore the pants” in the relationship, and they were both “the man in the relationship.” Because there were two men in the relationship!
Dee’s characterization was the cherry on top. Usually, men in BL manga either insist that they’re not gay and it’s only the other protagonist that they’re gay for (this is usually the more “masculinely” coded partner), or they’re a trumped up ode to the stereotype of gay men. But Dee… Dee was bisexual. And he knew it, and he was comfortable in it, and he never hesitated to correct anyone who called him gay, or assumed he was straight. He corrects different members of the police force over and over. He even goes so far as to correct someone that he and Ryo have cornered at the end of a long stakeout.
Dee was bulletproof. Not literally (he does get shot a few times in the comic), but he was unstoppable. Unafraid. Unashamed. Comfortable with the word “bisexual.”
You can imagine what that meant to a fourteen-year-old-girl who believed love was love and wanted to read about relationships that transcended the boundaries people kept trying to enforce on her.
You can imagine what it meant to her as she grew, and realized there was still a lot of fighting to be done before people like that could love their partners in peace. You can imagine what it meant to the adult woman who came back to those books, years after discovering that she herself was bisexual.
When I found out who I was, I didn’t need to search for the words. Dee had already given them to me all those years ago, when I was a scrawny teenager with big ideas and a lot to learn. I was bi—and, in the words of my role model, a “firm believer in equal opportunity.”
That’s why a lot of media today really turns my stomach. Shows, books, audio dramas, you name it; faking out their audiences, skirting the line between representation and plot hole. Yes, this character is queer, but no, we don’t want to be specific about how. Yes, this character is trans, but we don’t want to hire a trans actor to play them. Sure, this character is gender fluid, but only because it’s relevant for plot reasons and we want to make them dress two very specifically gender-coded ways.
Then there are the open-world, self-insert video games that allow you date anyone you please. Your lover of choice won’t care about your gender, no, not at all. You only get to be a man or a woman since video games have yet to catch up to having a gender-neutral option, and every romanceable character is “bisexual” tofu. Using bisexual as a blanket term for anyone attracted to multiple genders instead of taking a stance and exploring the multitude of sexual identities out there is harmful to everyone. But most of all, me.
My sexuality is not a catch-all term for poor programing and a lack of character building. I want openly bisexual characters who deal with the feelings and problems I do every day because of my sexuality. I shouldn’t have to fight with my pan compatriots for representation just because a company is too cowardly to commit to a character’s identity. Specify if your character is attracted to people of the same and of different genders, or if they’re attracted to people regardless of gender! It makes a difference! It affects their behavior! It affects who they pursue! It affects how they interact with potential lovers, how they interact with the world, and (most importantly) how they interact with themselves.
My sexual identity was a journey, and the only reason I got so far with it was because I had the words and an idea of what it looked like. Dee’s struggles were my struggles. His behaviors were my behaviors. When I figured it out, it was less as if everything about me had changed, and more that I finally understood who I was—like a duckling that’s no good at being a duck figuring out she’s a swan that’s attracted to both swans of her own, and of other genders.
The whole thing is a process. It’s going from a surly teenager with no idea what the world has in store for her, to not giving a fuck what society thinks of me and correcting people when they use my partner to code me or project their expectations onto me. It’s going from thinking that settling for heavy homoerotic undertones is the most I can expect, to demanding better representation and watching the hell out of every new Steven Universe episode.
It’s going from the girl who only read about people who knew who they were, to being one.
Just like Dee.
Theresa Tyree holds an MA in book publishing, and is a freelance writer, editor, and overall book guru. Check out her blog post about Dee and Ryo at noodlesfromtomorrow.blogspot.com.