[tw: discussions of transphobia in anime]
Also known as Trans Equals Gay, Anime Edition. Let TVTropes explain it for you better than I can:
In Real Life, being gay and being transgender are entirely separate, as they relate to two different things. Being gay relates to sexual attraction, and means being attracted to others of the same gender. Being trans relates to gender identity, and means identifying as a different gender from one’s assigned physical sex. This can be expressed (in a heavily oversimplified way) as being “a woman trapped in a man’s body” or vice versa. However, this distinction is all too often overlooked by straight cisgender writers wanting to insert a little LGBT-ness into their stories.
The root of this confusion is probably the heteronormative cultural attitude that “boys like girls and girls like boys” as a rule, and anything else is an “unnatural” aberration. Faced with the existence of gay people, using this assumption some might think the two are linked: “Well, the only reason these boys like other boys is because they want to be girls”. Similarly, in trying to understand transgender people, they might think “The only reason these boys want to be girls is because they like other boys.”
Japanese culture has a complicated relationship with queer characters in anime and manga to begin with. This is something I’ve touched on before. QUILTBAG anime characters tend to be smushed into a one-size-fits-all stereotype, where trans* and gay and genderfluid and bi and every other kind of character, especially if they present male, will act the same flamboyant way. Perhaps this is an attempt to force traditional gender roles on non-hetero characters and relationships; perhaps the writers just don’t know the difference. Either way, it’s the opposite of good, and has lead me to assume that like 90% of the queer male-assigned characters in anime are just gay guys written by writers who think gay equals trans. (For examples of this outside the characters in this post, see Leeron, Nuriko, Charlotte Coolhorne, that one gay character in InuYasha who they dubbed with a female voice…)
To add to that, fandom doesn’t help—the characters who do seem to be trans* are constantly misgendered by fandom in discussion, meta, fanfic, etc. Let’s look at these two characters from very popular shows.
First we have Fire Emblem from Tiger and Bunny. She is actually the inspiration for this post. This is a topic I’ve been hashing over for a while, but finding this submission on the T&B Confessions, Tumblr really got to the heart of the matter for me.
The person in this picture is Nathan Seymour, aka the hero Fire Emblem. Nathan presents as a flamboyantly gay man in Tiger and Bunny and is voiced by a male actor, but also commonly uses female pronouns self-referentially and identifies as “one of the girls”.
Here’s the problem: I’m not trying to police sexuality or gender here. I’m not saying it’s impossible that Nathan Seymour is genderfluid and comfortable in her body and prefers female pronouns and male paramours. (Actually, according to TVTropes’ entry on her in the Trans Equals Gay post, that’s all true—show creator Word of God has said Nathan is actually androgynous. So hey, that’s awesome.)
But the point here is that portrayal of queer characters in anime up to this point is so hackneyed that I didn’t look at Nathan the first time and think, “Awesome, finally a badass genderqueer superhero!” I think “Oh God, they’ve confused what trans and gay are again. Just stop.” Furthermore, both the characters in the show and the fandom consistently misgender Nathan when they use pronouns for her.
The other character I’m going to look at is Grell Sutcliff from Black Butler/Kuroshitsuji. Let me say this just one time: GRELL IS NOT A GAY GUY. Grell is, based on her actions and dialogue in the show, a bisexual trans* woman. She was born male and wishes she could have children. This is part of her motivation in being Jack the Ripper (whoops, spoilers) with Madame Red, who is also barren; they are killing women who get abortions. (And let’s not get into that huge-ass can of worms, evil transpeople and internalized misogyny and reproductive rights issues, oh my.) She is in love with Madame Red, but also desperately wants to have Sebastian’s babies. Again, as with Nathan, pretty much everyone in the show misgenders her; furthermore, whereas at least Nathan is a well-liked and respected character within the show, pretty much all the in-show characters from Grell’s shinigami coworkers to Sebastian and Ciel are disgusted by her and her feminine ways. Grell is also misgendered by the (ostensibly well-meaning) fanbase—that’s who that capslock message was for, by the way.
Here’s the problem. Outside of these misrepresented genders and sexualities, the characters are interesting, three-dimensional, and well-loved by fans. But just as writers do queer characters a disservice by confusing gender and sexuality, fans do these particular characters a disservice through constant casual cissexism and erasure.
Take Grell. She is trans, but that doesn’t make her less female. If you ship her with Sebastian it would be considered a het pairing. If you ship her with Madame Red it’d be femslash. Look at her reactions in-show to being misgendered—every time you refer to Grell as ‘he’ you’re doing the same thing Sebastian does to her. Same goes for Nathan. She has preferred pronouns—so why do fandom and the characters in the show who claim to be her friends constantly get it wrong?
It’s baiting, it’s erasure, and hell, you may not even realize you’re doing it, but it needs to stop.
Look, people: the road to feminist victory is a slow one. Making sure queer characters are represented fairly and correctly according to what flavor of queer they’re supposed to be is one of the fights we’re still slogging through. So is the fight against trans erasure (and really any kind of erasure). Fans of queer and especially trans* characters need to take the first step and at least get the gorram personal pronouns right if we’re ever going to win.