TV & Radio
Women drawn to men loving men
YAOI | The comic book genre draws on gay love with a heterosexual twist. By Patrick Evans
May 21, 2006. 01:00 AM
Forget gay men as you know them. Imagine how they'd look, and act, if they walked straight out of a woman's sexual fantasy.
In the 1970s, Japanese women explored this fantasy and put it down on paper, giving birth to Yaoi — a comic book genre that's seduced women around the world with sexually explicit, gay male love stories. Created by women for women, Yaoi is male homosexuality retooled for female pleasure.
And it's not just a Japanese movement, as local fans intend to prove next weekend with Yaoi North, an exhibit at Anime North 2006, a Toronto convention that celebrates Asian-style animation.
The word Yaoi is an anagram of the Japanese phrases, "Yama nashi, Ochi nashi, Imi nashi," which mean "no climax, no point, no meaning." In other words, these stories are about sex and not much else.
The translation comes courtesy of sociologist Dr. Mark McLelland, at the University of Wollongong, Australia, who discovered Yaoi while researching his book Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan.
"It's no surprise to anybody that men enjoy a fantasy of lesbian sex," he says. "But people are very surprised to think women would enjoy male-on-male sex. A curious double-standard."
McLelland says Yaoi's origins lie in a Japanese literary tradition called "boy love" — a centuries-old, boy-meets-samurai love story formula that fell into disrepute in the 20th century. "It was no longer socially acceptable for men to be in love with men in modern Japan. So Japanese women picked up the subject and breathed new life into it."
In the 1970s, he says, Japanese women started drawing comics that featured popular heterosexual male comic book characters falling in love with each other. But soon they were producing completely original material, too. And as Yaoi started filling shelves in Japanese comic shops, gay men were bewildered. The homosexuals in Yaoi were pretty enough to be girls. What happened to all the bikers, Marines, construction workers and firefighters?
"There's no masculinity (in Yaoi), and it's masculinity that turns gay men on," says McLelland. The gay men of Yaoi "make love in a very aesthetic, romantically beautiful environment. It's a way of (women) crafting male sexuality into an image that they find delightful."
Japanese comics for gay men had peak print runs of about 40,000 in the late 1990s, McLelland says. Meanwhile women's comics with Yaoi content have had runs of about 500,000 copies.
And then, with the Internet, Yaoi spread its seed around the world, including Toronto.
Lisa Lau, co-organizer of the Yaoi exhibit at the upcoming convention, says 2005 was the first time Anime North featured a Yaoi enclave. She says about 500 people visited the exhibit to check out gay-male lovin' from a woman's perspective.
Sublunary is a mature-readers online comic, co-created by Toronto Yaoi devotees Sarah Terry and Reena Smith. It takes place in the future where a plague is killing people and a cute guy scientist thinks he's found a cure. Add to that mix a totalitarian government, randy rebels and a population-control program that markets gay sex as a perfectly acceptable alternative to heavily taxed heterosexual romps.
`When do I see two hot 21-year-old boys making out in my commercials for mascara?'
From there, things get a little weird.
Except when they're naked, most of Sublunary's gay men look like women, with broad hips, long hair and Cotton Ginny-style leisure wear. But look closer. "They're all male unless you see giant breasts," says Terry.
She offers a theory to explain why Yaoi's gay men are always so androgynous. "I find girls who are into Yaoi like their men as pretty as their women."
As pretty as their women?
It's plot-twist time. The fantasy gay-male sex in Yaoi is leading to a lot of actual sex between women.
Terry and Smith aren't just comic collaborators, they're also lovers. "A lot of the Yaoi community is bisexual," Terry says. "What I found — me included — is that they like living out these Yaoi fantasies together."
Terry says that's because straight men generally aren't willing to dress up as androgynous homosexuals to turn on their girlfriends. Gay men, meanwhile, are too busy with each other. If Yaoi women want to act out their fantasies, they're on their own.
"It allows them to play out a fantasy that is really unattainable," Terry says.
For some perspective on gender and sexuality from outside the Yaoi community, the Star turned to Chanelle Gallant. She's Chatelaine magazine's sex columnist and manager of Good For Her, a Toronto women's store that offers sex courses like "Flirtation 101" and "Bigger, Better Multiples."
"Women are attracted to femininity in their lovers. It's hot," says Gallant, who in the 1980s screamed for the guys in Duran Duran. "There's something special, kind of magical about androgyny and gender-bending," she says, noting that Brokeback Mountain had her writhing in the theatre.
And just like Yaoi women, she'd like to see more male homosexuality catered to female tastes. "There's so much lesbian eroticism built into popular culture. When do I see two hot 21-year-old boys making out in my commercials for mascara?"
Anybody who hocked their Duran Duran LPs in 1989, but is back in the gender-bending mood, can learn more about the Yaoi exhibit at http://www.yaoinorth.com.
The Anime North 2006 convention runs May 26-28, Toronto Congress Centre, 650 Dixon Rd., and Doubletree International Plaza, 655 Dixon Rd.