For a long time in mainstream media, LGBTQ representation has been less than progressive and more of a bookend for a joke. In early media, queer representation was always shown as predatory or super effeminate (i.e. Maltese Falcon, or Silence of the Lambs), while lesbians were almost absent in the media until shows like The L-Word brought them into the limelight.
In many respects, the LGBTQ community has had a come-up in mainstream representation with shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag queen and drag king story times across the country, and Netflix’s Queer Eye, and Queer as Folk, to name a few.
However, as niche as this may seem, there is also an even more niche genre of media that is up-and-coming with its queer representation, and that media format is anime. When you think about anime, you may think Dragonball, Naruto, lots of colors, explosions, and even kawaii (cutesy) culture. If you look deeper, though, there is a whole world of LGBTQ characters who aren’t just limited to being gay.
The characters in the world of anime are not only queer; their ideals aren’t just limited to their sexual or gender identity. However, that does not mean that the genre is devoid of stereotypes, but it is working to change that. Characters are not just powerful for merchandising in anime, but are also a powerful symbol for love and acceptance among fans.
One example of a show that has important diversity in characters is Sailor Moon. Two of the characters, Haruka Tenoh and Michiru Kaioh, also known as Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, are not only sailor soldiers sent to protect the galaxy and Sailor Moon, they are also lovers bound by their love for one another. When they first met, most people thought that Haruka and Michiru where good friends and maybe more (though this was still when Haruka was thought to be a boy due to her more masculine representation.) It was then discovered that the two are actually lovers and skirt-wearing, high-heel-clad sailor soldiers. To the main cast, the shock was not that the two women were lovers. Instead, having powers was more of a shock than two lesbians being in love.
As far as early representation of gay men, look no further than Cardcaptor Sakura! This is another 90s anime where queer representation is not just a footnote in the director’s commentary. Sakura’s older brother Touya is in a burgeoning relationship with his best friend Yukito as the events of the manga unfold, and the main character, Sakura, has her adventure and actually has a crush on Yukito. We get to watch the love between Touya and Yukito unfold. Eventually, Sakura confesses her love for Yukito, and he takes her words with great kindness, but explains to her the person he loves the most is her brother, and that they are an item.
To Sakura, the fact that her brother and Yukito where in a relationship was not so much of a shock but more of a wonderful surprise, as the two always seem to know how to make the other happy.
After this, the story doesn’t place the two on the back burner, but as the show and manga unfold, we continue to see the two interact with one another and play key roles in the story beyond their love for each other.
However, it isn’t just cis, gay men and lesbians that get representation, but also trans characters Trans representation in media is hardly there, but in anime, it is a topic and even a whole genre that is explored. One trans character who has seen a lot of popularity in mainstream anime is Grell Sutcliff from the Black Butler series. Grell, with her crimson hair and fiery red coat, is a man who represents himself in a more feminine manner and would prefer to be called by she/her pronouns. Gender reassignment wasn’t a very well-developed concept in early 1800s England, but this is still a theme in the story. Being trans isn’t the only thing that Grell has going for her; she is also part of the reaper association and one of the chosen few immortals who is gifted with a customizable reaper scythe to collect the souls of the dead.
It should be noted, though, that Grell does start out as an antagonist but morphs into an ally as the series carries on. The importance of queer characters being more than queer cannot be understated and should be shared with others, especially those of us who hunger for representation.
However, with representation also comes erasure. During the 90s and even the early 2000s, media companies such as DiC and 4kids would license anime to bring them to the west and generate a new medium for profit, but of course, that came with some issues. Taking foreign media and dubbing it into a new language and adapting themes and ideas for a new audience naturally causes change in the messaging and content of shows and books.
Changes came with U.S. characters like Sailor Uranus and Neptune becoming “cousins,” and the final season of Sailor Moon, which consists of themes of bisexuality, death, rebirth (as did the older seasons), and most importantly trans men and women in positions of power and affection, was never originally aired in the U.S. Cardcaptor Sakura suffered the same fate, with Touya and Yukito only being besties.
Another major and more contemprary example of queer erasure is in Netflix’s dub of Neon Genesis Evangelion, where two male characters, Shinji, who is asexual, and Kaworu, who is gay, have a love story in the original version. In Netflix’s dub, Kaworu only tells Shinji that he likes him. This caused a stir not only with LGBTQ anime fans but anime pureists as well. Erasing queerness in localization is not only a problem for the medium but also for the companies. Luckily, newer anime companies such as Crunchyroll and Funimation are more concenred with keeping the original themes and ideas of the authors intact for queer and straight audiences to enjoy.
Anime doesn’t only cater to cisgender, straight people but to everyone. Shows like Kino’s Journey and Naruto have characters who are nonbinary; Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid has lesbian dragons, and shows like Tokyo Babylon and X/1999 have coming-of-age stories about gays trying to save the world and themselves. Their queerness is not a second-hand inclusion but an element to help broaden the story and character development.
When I think of anime, I don’t just think about giant robots, loud colors, and bad dubbing; I think about the queer stories waiting to be told for everyone around the world to enjoy and relate to. As it pushes more into the mainstream media, so will its value and ideals. LGBTQ representation is as important to anime as it is to the fans, and authors use their creativity and artistry to illustrate that. Be we cis, trans, non-binary, lesbian, gay or questioning, we as humans relate to experiences and not just sexuality and gender.
Art by Lonnie M.F. Allen