A casual search on the popular fanfiction site Archive Of Our Own will reveal a trend that—while unsurprising to the fandom community—would be somewhat baffling to the casual observer. A search of standardized tags on AO3 indicated that nearly 63% of all the romantic and/or sexual fanfiction published there is classified as male/male (i.e. “slash”), compared to about 30% in the female/male category and a scant 6.6% in the female/female (“femslash”) category. Based on a survey of fanfiction.net, another popular fanfiction website, FFN Research estimates that 78% of fanfiction writers identify as female. Myriad explanations try to account for this: the most popular is that girls just like to fetishize gay men, but some contend that it’s partly an empathetic reaction to media dominated by male characters; others speculate that it is a way for women to write romance while removing objectification from themselves. As other LGG&F writers have speculated, the real explanation is probably a combination of these motives, as well as innumerable others.
As a genderqueer person I’m fairly certain that my own experience with slash fanfiction differs somewhat from the norm. Only recently have I begun reflecting on how formative both writing and reading fanfiction was at a time in my life when I felt isolated and frustrated by my own seemingly incongruous feelings. Knowing now that there are a surprising number of people for whom the gender binary doesn’t hold true, I like to think that for some small portion of the fan community fanfiction has been an important tool for self-discovery, as it was for me.
Let’s talk about genitals real quick (I know, right out of the gate, hot damn): I am biologically female with some minor sexual birth defects thrown in for laughs. Strangely enough, sex education was so lacking in my ultra-Catholic upbringing that I didn’t realize there was anything physically unusual about me until I visited a gynecologist in college, who explained that such abnormalities are usually caused by hormone imbalances during development. Most people would be devastated to realize that any of their body parts were atypical, but I had quite the opposite reaction: I was relieved. I felt validated. It was nice to have a biological link to the gender “mood swings” I had been trying to repress since age five when I first tried to pee standing up (it didn’t go well).
It was only after this great epiphany that I felt safe embracing the fact that some significant parts of my psyche—whether for biological reasons or not—were fundamentally male, and that was okay. I found communities online where other people had similar experiences with their gender identities, I learned about the trans spectrum and the ways of describing in-between genders, and while the discrepancies between my mental image of my body and the physical reality of my body can still be difficult to deal with, I generally feel comfortable and accepted. This comfort, however, came only after more than a decade of struggling to understand why I felt so different, and the first solace I found was in fanfiction.
Being a “tomboyish” child had had its ups and downs, but it was nothing compared to navigating puberty with the intermittent, inexplicable feeling that I had the wrong junk. After a period of intense denial between ages twelve and thirteen when I grew out my hair, wore an obscene amount of makeup, and purchased a number of colorful bras, I made a discovery that would change my life: self-insert fanfiction on Quizilla.
I know, it sounds dumb; Quizilla isn’t even officially a fanfiction platform and doesn’t even exist in the same form today, but I was obsessed with Yu Yu Hakusho at the time, and that was where I first found fanfiction, in the form of choose-your-own-adventure “quizzes”. Strangely, though the point of self-insert fanfiction is to—eponymously—insert yourself, I imagined a male version of myself nearly all the time. I did it instinctively, without conscious choice, and when I stopped to think critically about what I was doing I was both baffled and slightly alarmed, but not alarmed enough to stop. Puberty being what it is and Quizilla being as cumbersome as it was, I started creeping into racier, more sexual material, which brought me to fanfiction.net. I deliberately looked for heterosexual fics at first, adamantly sure that it was what I was supposed to be interested in, but slash kept creeping into my searches somehow, and before long I couldn’t help but click on it.
I told myself I was just in it for the cutesie romances. I don’t know who I was trying to fool. My interest in slash was very much not voyeuristic. I chose pairings with a character I identified with in some way and lived the story, the romance, and especially the sex through that lens. Through fanfiction I was vicariously living out significant parts of my adolescent sexual awakening as a gay man. In some ways it felt perfectly normal, but logically and morally I tore myself up about it.
As I mentioned, my family and education was deeply Roman Catholic. Homosexuality was a subject broached only awkwardly, with much shaking of heads and clearing of throats, and being transgender was not even a concept I was aware of. I had no idea how to process my sexual feelings. I was pretty sure I was gay, but also convinced by biology that I was female. I tried out femslash and discovered very quickly that—based on what I understood sexuality to be—I was definitely not gay. Nothing made sense. I was sure I was going to Hell but not entirely sure on what grounds.
Ashamed but addicted, I started writing my own fanfiction and even some original fiction at age fifteen, all of it rather sexual and all of it very, very gay. It didn’t help my moral conundrum, but it did force me to make peace with the fact that my ideal expression of my sexuality was as a male with another male, and because I couldn’t crush that desire, the only way to maintain my sanity was to embrace it. It was around this time that I started cosplaying male characters, something I had aggressively refused to do up until that point, for fear of making things worse. On the contrary, it allowed me the same sort of outlet for self-expression that fanfiction had. I could be male for a few hours at a time without ridicule or fear of judgment.
Through cosplay, fanfiction, and the anonymity of the internet, the fandom community became the only place I felt free to be myself. Roleplay was commonplace, gender-bending was accepted and even encouraged. I was praised for my fanfiction, and rarely did anyone ask my “real” gender or my “real” name. It would be many years before I felt safe enough to express my gender identity in everyday life. Even now I am not “out” to my parents or even some of my friends, but though it may seem infantile to anyone outside a fandom community, fanfiction was fundamental to my sense of self for a very long time. Coming to terms with my masculinity made it easier to accept my femininity as well. I now enjoy the occasional heterosexual fanfiction and on the rare occasion that I can find a decent trans fic I practically high-five my computer. I no longer feel afraid or repressed or confused, and for better or worse, I owe part of that to whoever it was in 2004 busily writing Quizilla fic about two dudes from a poorly-drawn 90’s anime aggressively getting it on.