Best LGBTQ+ Characters of 2019by Michelle Liu,
LGBT representation in 2019 anime was a bit sporadic. There was a BL series, a few more that might as well be BL, a handful of not-quite-yuri shows, and the final season of Symphogear. Fruits Basket brought back a few dated tropes; Carole and Tuesday tried its best to be inclusive, to mixed results. The same year, Fushigi Yugi creator Yuu Watase came out as X-Gender, coming-of-age manga Our Dreams at Dusk finally got an English release, and anime put the spotlight on a number of nonbinary characters. For queer anime viewers, there was a good bit to be happy about, even as lousy stereotypes persist both on screen and in the world.
While all the girls in Mari Okada's teen comedy have awkward sexual awakenings, Momoko's is especially messy: bewildered by heterosexual courtship, she stumbles into a date with a boy entirely unawares, totally misinterpreting his advances as friendly gestures. Meanwhile, she's increasingly frustrated by her friends' developing interest in boys, upset by their insistence that friends don't have sex with each other. It all leads to one doozy of a revelation: she's a lesbian, Harold.
Momoko's complicated search for her identity might be familiar to any queer kid who grew up without the vocabulary to describe what they were feeling, stumbling through life until things clicked. It certainly spoke to me, drudging up memories of the time I accidentally dated a guy and didn't realize it until much later. Momoko's emotional storm might hurt in the short run, but in a few years it'll make a hell of a story to tell her girlfriend after a few drinks. I, for one, fully stand behind whatever disaster lesbian decisions she makes.
Hot-blooded firefighting action sequences were the initial draw for this hit movie from Studio Trigger, promising the energy of Hiroyuki Imaishi and Kazuki Nakashima's previous projects together. While the film did deliver spectacle in spades, audiences came away talking about another explosive duo: Lio and Galo, the two leads of the movie and boyfriends extraordinaire. Lio and Galo have undeniable chemistry from the first moment they're on screen together, going from enemies to allies to co-pilots of a single giant robot, the most intimate relationship a pair of anime characters can have. When Lio's on the verge of death, Galo's the one to smooch him awake like a fairytale princess, albeit with a flimsy excuse of life energy transfer or some such. That kiss is also the <i>only</i> kiss in the movie, since Aina and Galo are stopped short before they ever make lip-to-lip contact. In any case, the sheer volume of Lio/Galo fanart I've seen on Twitter and pixiv speaks to the impression they made on audiences both domestic and international, whether intentionally or not. Now there's only the question of who's on top: is the robot Lio de Galón or Galo de Lión?
As a boys' love manga, it was a given that Given would feature boys kissing. Less universal in the genre, however, is any discussion of identity or what it means to be queer in a heteronormative society. When drummer Akihiko confronts teenage guitar prodigy Ritsuka about his blossoming crush on their band's new vocalist, he follows up with a blunt admission of his own bisexuality, acknowledging that sexuality itself can be confusing and frighteningly ambiguous, especially when it runs contrary to societal norms. Though questions of identity aren't exactly uncommon in modern BL, Akihiko's conversation with Ritsuka is still a refreshingly frank dialogue between an adult who's been around the block and a teenager still figuring out how feelings work.
On the other hand, Akihiko's also a jerk who'd be awful to have bumming around your apartment. He's crass, flippant, and shameless, nowhere near the type of role model any kid should have. But that's precisely why he's my favorite in Given; despite his devil-may-care facade, he's a deeply passionate, deeply wounded person addicted to making bad life decisions. I have a fondness for hot messes like him, and he stands among the most disastrous of them all.
The iconic cop duo offers a fascinating look into how gay men are packaged for mainstream consumption. Prominently featured in promotional materials and on the show's official Twitter account, Reo and Mabu are the picture of a marketable BL couple. Yet in the show they're a duo at odds, on the verge of falling out as they act as enforcers for a capitalistic empire. Explicitly forbidden from verbally confirming their love for each other, they exist in a state of limbo, neither lovers nor just colleagues. Their sexuality is deliberately ambiguous—they're allowed to work for the powers that be only as long as they project a perfect image and never, ever confirm their gayness. But their relationship is as tumultuous and complicated as any real one can be, despite early reveals' promises of domestic bliss. And they very much are in love, with all the baggage that comes with long-term partnerships. They struggle and hurt each other, but their love is real—and their final affirmation of that love is a powerful moment in 2019 anime.
Luca's big reveal halfway through Astra comes at a pretty critical moment: threatened at gunpoint, Luca whips out their tiddies to reveal they're intersex. As such, their father basically cast them out of the Esposito family's patriarchal line, so they're just as much an outcast as the other characters. Luca tentatively identifies as male, though they don't stick too hard to that label knowing they might feel otherwise later in life; by the end of the series, Luca's presentation leans a little more feminine. Given that fluidity, it's hard to say exactly what Luca's gender identity is, but they're definitely unique in anime as a main character born intersex rather than altered by sci-fi space diseases or external influence (lookin' at you, Carole and Tuesday). They're also bisexual and a heck of a troll, cracking jokes about their own gender as a power move. Luca's willingness to be flexible for the sake of a good own deserves some mad respect. That they have the guts to keep their cool at gunpoint is just a nice bonus.
Stars Align sometimes comes across as a season-long Very Special Episode, touching on various kinds of trauma and abuse without much subtlety. Yet it's hard to fault its portrayal of Yu Asuka, whose very introduction brings their non-masculine presentation into question. Yu reveals later that they like wear women's clothing, though they're not fully sure if they're binary trans, X-Gender, or something else entirely. They're at a critical stage of their self-discovery where no existing gender label feels quite right, just as none of the paths their parents set for them feel quite right. A kid's search for their identity can sometimes involve questioning things as fundamental as their gender, and where Stars Align excels is in emphasizing that Yu's struggles aren't all that different from their peers' struggles with parental pressure. No kid has all the answers right away; Yu's entitled to all the time they need to figure things out, just like all the other kids. They're a wonderful character to have out there, not to mention an absolute angel. Stars Align may not have finished their story, but perhaps it didn't need an end— the answers are our own to find.
My reading of Waver (previously of Fate/Zero fame) as gay is probably the most controversial pick on this list, but dang it, I love my grumpy associate professor too much not to talk about his nearly-textual love for his former Servant Iskandar. Historically, Alexander the Great was known for his coffer-draining devotion to his male lover Hephaestion and relative disinterest in his wives and harem. And Given Waver's often irrational obsession with seeing Iskandar again, I don't think it's too far a stretch to suggest that his lingering regrets stem partly out of romantic feelings. (Also, he drinks tea.) Waver's character arc in Case Files then becomes one of a gay man coming to terms with a lost love, which is a dynamic I find immensely captivating. More importantly, Waver's a whiny, exhausted, easily-bullied trash fire of an adult with permanent frown lines and a bad case of impostor syndrome, so he's pretty much the best boy of 2012, 2019, and every year in between.
Truly ranking the best queer characters and moments from 2019 would feel like picking a favorite child, but the ones I mentioned are those that stuck out most to me. It's nice to have a bit of choice as a queer viewer! The representation isn't always great, but as awareness of LGBTQ issues grows worldwide, so does their presence in anime. And that's something I look forward to seeing in 2020 and beyond.
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