Drawn Together

The surging popularity of yaoi—graphic boy-on-boy comics—might be the genre's downfall

Untranslated Japanese comics began to arrive in the U.S. in the 1980s and '90s. With the arrival of the Internet came a new labor of love — the "scanlation," for which die-hard fans scanned each page of a comic and painstakingly added translations. To avoid such toil, Americans began writing English-language slash based on their favorite characters from anime (Japan's animated TV shows and films) and manga.

"Then Gundam Wing happened," explains Eliza Cameron, whose manuscript on the history of yaoi is being considered by a Berkeley publisher. In 2000, the sci-fi anime series about a team of teenage fighter pilots began airing on the Cartoon Network, and thousands of new fans ventured online to look for pictures of the cute heroes. What they often found instead was a slash universe that dedicated yaoi fans had already created around the Gundam Wing characters. "It was the 'gateway yaoi' of my generation," Cameron says.

In 2001, a small group of Bay Area fans threw the first Yaoi-Con, and about 450 people showed up to swap photocopied fan fiction and buy Japanese books. "All these people who had been in the closet came out," remembers 32-year-old Anneke, a fan who doesn't use her real name because her family doesn't know about her yaoi fascination. "When the dealer's room opened on the first day, people were three deep, waving money in the air."

These yaoi books push past taboos with love stories that pair stepbrothers, a boy and his magically transformed dog, and a teacher and his high school student.
These yaoi books push past taboos with love stories that pair stepbrothers, a boy and his magically transformed dog, and a teacher and his high school student.

Anneke — wearing, on this last day of Yaoi-Con 6, a bright pink wig and a red-and-black military outfit, meant to evoke the anime character Revolutionary Girl — came to the first Yaoi-Con without fully understanding what it was all about, and promptly experienced a revelation. She says, "I thought, 'OK, that makes my life make sense now. I'm not a fag hag, I'm a yaoi fan!'"

Many others at the convention report having felt relief and delight similar to Anneke's when they first stumbled on a community of yaoi enthusiasts, and then found their way to the convention. "First I felt disbelief, and then a sense of celebration," Cameron says. "It was like, 'You mean we're all into this?'" But now that American publishers have brought what Cameron calls a "revolution" to yaoi — that is, more books and more fans — the glee among older devotees has faded somewhat. "I'm still amazed when I walk into Borders," Cameron says. "How are they going to deal with this? That's our next hurdle: How do we get this into the mainstream without a huge backlash?"


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The source of yaoi's appeal, the touch of sexual subversion, also has the capacity to destroy it.
Such worries are on the back burner at the convention's Saturday-night auction, the highlight of the weekend. Bishounen — beautiful boys — climb onto the stage, elaborately costumed as their favorite characters from manga, anime, and literature. If a character doesn't already have queer tendencies, he gets some via a skit or song. Audience members pool their money or make injudicious use of their credit cards, bidding wildly for a few hours of companionship. Those without serious cash reserves rush the stage and tip the fellows, strip club-style.

The next three hours are a riot of stripteases, dirty limericks, and S/M skits. A Slytherin — perhaps Draco Malfoy himself, from the Harry Potter books — strips off his schoolboy outfit, down to bright green briefs. "Show us the one-eyed snake!" screams a blowzy woman, but the boy just smiles demurely. A mob of women rushes the stage to slip dollar bills into his waistband, and a girl dressed as the luscious and swishy Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean locks lips with the schoolboy, to the most piercing screams yet. In the world of yaoi fandom, everyone and everything is potential subject matter: popular movies, Pokemon, and even Friends (with a long leap of imagination).

It's nearly 1 a.m. when the final two boys go up for auction. A tall, well-built young man dressed as the despotic President Shinra from the Final Fantasy videogames struts about the stage in a white suit, beckoning a delicate Asian boy with a white rose. When the boy reaches tentatively for the flower, Shinra tosses it away and grabs his young victim. They're playing the typical yaoi roles of seme and uke, which can be translated as "predator" and "prey," "top" and "bottom," or, most commonly, "pitcher" and "catcher." The two go up to bid as a package deal; the lucky winners will have the pleasure of their company for the rest of the night.

"You don't need to eat tomorrow; you don't need to pay rent!" exhorts the auctioneer, a plump woman bursting out of a black vinyl bustier. "Multiple credit cards welcome!" The two boys eventually go for $700 to a team of young girls in schoolboy outfits, who jump up and down, squealing with delight at their purchase.

How will they fulfill their desires, now that they're in possession of two of the prettiest boys at the auction? As with most yaoi fans, the girls seem more practiced in fantasizing than in fulfillment. For all the wildness of the auction, and for all the innuendo about what the winners would do with their bishounen, "President Shinra," whose real name is Devon Jacobson, later says that they had a pretty tame night. They went to the dance organized by the convention, "but it was hot and they were playing pretty bad music," he explains. So the group of girls just took some pictures together, snapped a few shots of the boys embracing, and drove around looking for fast food at 6 in the morning.

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