Visibility can make a huge difference in a person’s understanding and acceptance of themselves as well as facilitating positive cultural shifts in how people perceive the LGBTQ+ community. Media representation can act as a double-edged sword, having positive or negative effects on a marginalized community depending on how the creator uses it.
In honor of Pride Month and to celebrate the many genders, sexualities, orientations, and identities that make up this proud community, I’ve compiled a collection of creative works that help positively increase visibility. Join me in this fourth and final installment of the LGBTQ+ visibility miniseries celebrating works that increase visibility for the LGBTQ+ community.
(If you missed part 1, don’t forget to check it out!)
Ouran High School Host Club
People often consider gender in binary terms: male or female. In reality, a range of genders and gender expressions exist in between, like the gradient between the darkest shade of a color and the lightest. Many people find themselves fitting neatly into one specific spot along this gradient. Not everyone has a fixed spot, however. Some people flow seamlessly between both ends of the gender spectrum, not having any particular spot where they feel most comfortable one hundred percent of the time.
A notable genderfluid or genderqueer character in pop culture appears in Oran High School Host Club by Bisco Hatori in the form of the central protagonist, Haruhi Fujioka. When the boys of the Host Club first meet Haruhi, they assume that Haruhi is male based on visual cues, only to discover later that Haruhi is biologically female. When pressed for an explanation, Haruhi casually comments that it doesn’t really matter what people assume about her gender. This statement reflects Haruhi’s conviction that gender doesn’t define one’s choices.
The club’s leader, Tamaki Suoh, seems to have a difficult time accepting the idea that Haruhi would willingly reject the cute-girl role that he feels best suits her. He exuberantly jumps on any opportunity to try and convince Haruhi to dress up or act girly in any way. He also frequently imagines Haruhi in rolls typically relegated to female characters to make them more cute or feminine. Any time this comes up, Haruhi responds with indifference or irritation, pointing out that none of his imagined scenarios match her personality.
When I first started watching, I thought that Haruhi was gender neutral, showing a preference for short hair and clothing that didn’t have a defined gender attached. Later on in the show, my perception shifted. Haruhi wears feminine clothing outside of school, leading me to see her as more of a genderfluid or genderqueer character. I suspect that Haruhi identifies more as female but flows between gender expression pretty freely. She never seems troubled when people mistake her for male, and appears to genuinely enjoy participating in the Host Club and flirting with the affluent young women who frequent it.
I remember feeling irritated when Haruhi explained away her clothing and hair as mere happenstance, the result of random chance and limited income. To me, it felt like a brush-off, invalidating what I perceived as an LGBTQ+ character. After she explains away her hairstyle and clothing, it becomes difficult to say whether Haruhi is indeed genderfluid/genderqueer, or just has such a strong sense of her own identity that she doesn’t consider the perceptions of others important.
The show features another character who does not follow traditional gender norms as well: Haruhi’s father, Ranka. Ranka is her dad’s female identity, developed from working at a drag bar. Interestingly enough, Ranka seems to prefer adopting this identity at home as well, though the narrative never makes it clear whether Ranka identifies as female, genderqueer, or just dresses as Ranka sometimes. She hints at having a hard time coping with life as a single parent, and puts on her feminine persona at home in order to give Haruhi the experience of having a mother. I’m still not sure how I feel about this character either. Overall, she is presented a bit clownishly, as crossdressing men (and transgender women such as Tokyo Godfather’s Hanah) often are. That being said, I try to keep in mind the show’s lighthearted, comedic tone and realize that without it, Ranka might feel entirely out of place.
Neither Ranka nor Haruhi can neatly be wrapped up in easily defined labels, which is part of their beauty as well. We tend to try defining ourselves and others with convenient labels that help us identify and organize elements of the world around us. Although not inherently bad, these labels can get in the way when it comes to anyone that does not fit neatly into these labels. With Ranka and Haruhi, it seems convenient to define them by labeling them as genderqueer, genderfluid, or similar categorization. Though not necessarily incorrect, it is great to also recognize that this pair can also exist without labels, making these characters not only representative of genderqueer and genderfluid individuals, but also of people who do not have a label that they identify with.
Blogger LynLynSays has a pretty interesting OWLS post about these characters and how they disrupt gender norms if you want to check it out!
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Gender is a fluid thing and everyone has their own way of discovering, presenting, and living it. Sure, our culture sets norms for people to follow in order to really fit into a particular gender, but these norms are pretty limiting for many individuals. Anybody who steps outside of these norms falls automatically into the homosexual label even without any evidence of their orientation (and with general disregard for other identities). Although there is nothing wrong with being homosexual, mistaken assumptions about orientation can cause a lot of frustration.
In celebration of people who do not conform to their gender’s norms, I wanted to highlight a particular character from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. In the game, players can complete a multi-part side quest “Hylian Homeowner” in Hateno Village. The quest involves speaking with a rather flamboyant man named Bolson, who owns the village’s construction company. The man doesn’t follow common gender norms for men, especially older men (and especially not men working in construction). He wears a pink band around his head, a pink earring in his right ear, and a flashy fur-lined vest that always hangs open. When he speaks, he tends to make more feminine gestures as well. At first glance, a player might be tempted to assume that he is gay.
There aren’t any indications to support this stereotype-based assumption. We see no evidence of his sexual orientation throughout the quest. He might not fit preconceived notions of gender, but that does not define his sexuality.
What I love most about this character is that even if he is gay, he still does not fit the caricatures of gay men often inserted into games and other popular media. Bolson owns a construction company that he founded called Bolson Construction. As a result of his occupation, he regularly does hard labor, which is not a common representation of gay men in the media (especially not when it comes to lean old men).
It is also notable that unlike common homosexual caricatures, Bolson isn’t presented as a clown who can’t help but flirt with the attractive young hero of time or go after the men he works with. Judging by the highly suggestive manner in which the Great Fairies handle gear upgrades, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this lack of blatant flirting isn’t just because Nintendo’s team wanted to avoid sexual jokes in the game.
Yuri!!! On Ice
I rarely watch sports anime. I don’t know a lot about sports, so many of the epic moments are lost on me. I felt reluctant to watch Yuri On Ice (ユーリ!!! on ICE) as a result, operating on assumptions based on its focus on figure skating. The series details the ups and downs of competitive figure skating, primarily focusing on the experience of Japan’s skater, Yuuri Katsuki. Yuuri faces his final year of figure skating following a crushing loss during the previous season. He must overcome this obstacle early on in order to pick back up in the new season and go for gold.
Mitsurou Kubo’s outstanding series receives many accolades, including high praise for its portrayal of the developing relationship between Yuuri and his coach and fellow competitive skater, Viktor Nikiforov. What starts out as a one-sided crush rapidly becomes something more, experienced through sweet, genuine moments over the run of the series. Gay couples are not new to anime—The yaoi and BL (Boy’s Love) genres consist entirely of stories involving homosexual or bisexual characters— but what makes this anime such an important work for raising LGBTQ+ visibility is that it doesn’t sexualize the relationship. Yuuri and Viktor build their relationship in an organic story arc that doesn’t rely on “hotness” or the promise of graphically depicted or heavily implied physical intimacy.
Recently, I had the opportunity to work with several middle school students (both boys and girls of varying ages) who, to my surprise, love Yuri on Ice to pieces. One even spent the entire week frolicking around in imitation of elegant skating moves. I’m no stranger to Tumblr, so I already knew that the show boasted a large fan base, but I didn’t realize the true scope of its wide appeal. It made me really appreciate the accessibility of Kubo’s beautiful work.
(An aside: I am aware that the most common Romanized spelling of Yuuri drops the second ‘u’, but I prefer to include it. At one point, Yuuri finds himself in competition with another skater from Russia, also named Yuri. For me, the spelling difference felt significant for not only cultural reasons, but also as a nod to their individuality. A second reason that I leave it as Yuuri is that Yuri is commonly a female name in Japan, and I found it interesting to find an alternatively spelled version of it bequeathed to a male character.)
I always look forward to seeing how pop culture can positively increase LGBTQ+ visibility both now and in the future. As it is, I’m both impressed and excited by the growing number of creative works that feature characters from under the rainbow. In my childhood, I remember latching onto any show (mostly anime at the time) that had a character that miiiiiiight be any sort of queer if you squinted at them just right. My little brain couldn’t even fathom a creative work that blatantly portrayed queer characters outside of more sexual genres such as yaoi and yuri.
Today, I think with building excitement about the growing number of creative works I regularly enjoy that feature LGBTQ+ characters. Even ones airing on networks with strict rules against featuring LGBTQ+ characters have managed to slip them in without a word. I can’t help but think that despite its many ugly spots, the world is beautiful, and growing more and more so every day.
Thanks for reading this miniseries! Do you have a favorite game, show, comic, or movie with LGBTQ+ characters or themes that didn’t make the list? Please share them in the comments! You can also connect on Twitter at @Popliterature, or send a message on the “contact me” page.