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Why Do Guys In Yaoi Claim To Be Straight?

by Justin Sevakis,

Quinn asks:

Recently I stumbled upon "Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi - World's Greatest First Love" and all though I didn't know it was a yaoi title when I first started watching the show I did enjoy its story. However, one thing kept nagging at me: Why do many, if not all, of the male characters use phrases like, "I love him, but he's a man," and, "Why do I feel this way when we're both men?" when ever there's sexual attraction, kissing, etc. going on between them? I know that in the USA there is quite a bit of support for persons of the LGBTQ community; more so than many other places elsewhere in the world. Which makes me wonder just what is the acceptance level of homosexuality in Japan? Or are the aforementioned phrases in this, and similar shows, a sort of "pass" which allows the eroticism of a yaoi relationship to be deemed "acceptable" behavior in a way?

One thing that you have to remember about yaoi manga and anime is that as a subgenre, it's produced almost entirely by women and for women. The eroticism is geared towards the female gaze, the characters act largely in a way that female readers would relate to, and the entire scenario is basically intended to be a fantasy for straight women, in largely the same way that lesbian characters appear in material aimed at guys.

As yaoi, slash and other ways for women to fantasize about hot man-on-man action have become quite prominent in the internet age, a lot of ink has been spilled about why it's a thing. One of the prevailing theories is that it's a safe way for women to think about love and sex without having to deal with any of the baggage that can happen with a heterosexual arrangement -- making yourself vulnerable to a guy can be kind of scary to women, after all. To go with that theory, the fantasy of a straight guy ending up making himself vulnerable to another guy is the ultimate in approachability for a female viewer: still potentially interested in someone like them, but having this dalliance with another guy right now and therefore the reader is not on the radar. It can also be fun for women to see a male figure -- who is traditionally physically dominant and perhaps a little intimidating -- getting to play a more submissive role.

Another theory is that having the guy be "straight" is a way to keep the character normal and ordinary -- something to relate to a boy next door, or some other real person that might be the object of fantasy. Attraction to "straight-acting" guys are a controversial topic within the gay world, since almost all of us have fallen into hopeless love with a straight friend at one point or another, and many of us still idealize that "normal" form of masculinity. Others tend to view that idealization as a form of gay self-loathing.

There are quite a few younger gay, bi and questioning guys who enjoy yaoi -- I, myself, went through a brief yaoi phase while I was in college. But once the initial novelty wears off, it becomes pretty clear that the characters do not realistically act like men, straight or otherwise. After a while, all the protesting and melodrama and such just come off as silly. There are a few exceptions to this that I can still enjoy, but for the most part I find yaoi pretty hard to take seriously. (Bara manga, which is actually written with a gay male audience in mind, is far more realistic, but frankly a lot of it is pretty extreme, and almost all of it is outright porn.)

Japan, and indeed Asia in general, is not the best place in the world to be LGBT, but it's far from the worst place, and generally improving as time goes by. Modern Japanese society has a lot of red tape and is very slow to change, but people also aren't as in-your-face about their personal beliefs -- so the end result is a place where there's simply no provision for anything like gay marriage, but there are also barely any hate crimes. (Also, more conservative Christian churches, who are a major force in anti-gay propaganda in the West, are not so prominent in Japan.) Asian societies tend to emphasize putting the needs of society ahead of your own needs, and dealing with your own issues in private. This makes the whole idea of "coming out" much more difficult, since there's often a lot of guilt involved in what's perceived to be to shirking your own responsibilities as a member of society and having a "normal" family.

And since people don't come out very often and people don't talk about their private lives as openly, awareness of LGBT issues has long been a problem. Many older Japanese are simply unaware that actual gay people are a thing. A lot of people also tend to think same-sex attractions are just a youthful phase that people grow out of. But perhaps the huge amount of gay-sympethetic media in Japan has had an effect, because many gay people have reported that others have been pretty welcoming of them, once they're openly telling the truth about themselves.

Obviously, I'm not Japanese or living in Japan, so this is an impression I've gotten from people who are. As with every country, people's experiences vary quite a bit. I found this man-on-the-street interview taken at last year's Tokyo Rainbow Pride event to be quite enlightening.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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