BL Roundtable Sidebar: The Mirror of Male-Love Love

Posted by on June 10th, 2010 at 12:01 AM


Panel from the first volume of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Antique Bakery; ©2000 Fumi Yoshinaga, English translation ©2005 Digital Manga Inc.


I should note at the outset that I have a personal reason for being fascinated by the BL phenomenon: I’m gay myself. Moreover, my coming-out experience was easily the most turbulent, traumatic event of my life, and for this reason I’ve got more emotional investment in the subject than is probably good for me.

I grew up in Arizona. After returning from the Vietnam War, my father used a G.I. loan to buy a house in what would eventually become a nice, middle-class neighborhood, and after a stint at a trade school found a decent-paying job — there was a good school nearby, and we attended a fairly moderate Methodist church on Sundays. Nothing in my early childhood gave me any indication that my life was (or would ever be) different from the other boys in the neighborhood.

Things changed when I was 8, maybe 9 years old: My father made the mistake of saying the word “union” in a bar a few blocks from the shop floor, and was promptly fired from his job. Economically, my family never recovered. Dad began taking whatever temporary employment that he could find. My mother began babysitting and taking part-time jobs whenever they were available. This didn’t leave much time in my parents’ lives for anything that didn’t involve feeding and housing their three children, and extracurricular activities such as church quickly fell by the wayside. Only one of their children had any interest in such things anyway, and the people who lived in the house behind ours volunteered to take him — that is, me — to their church’s Vacation Bible School during the summer, giving my parents more free time to worry about keeping bills paid and food on the table.

The family in the house behind us — let’s call them the Smiths — were Seventh Day Adventists. On Halloween, they’d host “Autumn parties” for the neighborhood children in an attempt to save us from the pernicious and Satanic influences of the Pagan holiday. At VBS, I sang anti-evolution hymns and learned all about the perils of sexual deviancy and Secular Humanism, which apparently involved not believing in God. Which wasn’t a problem for me, mind you: I very much believed in God. When summer was over, the Smiths recommended a Southern Baptist church located conveniently nearby, where I could continue my religious education, and took me with them on religious camps and retreats every six months or so. It was fun, actually.

The Smiths were very good and somewhat misguided people. It would be years before I would figure that last part out, but I’d be a liar if I didn’t acknowledge the former as well. Life seldom mirrors cheap narrative. It’s not as though the Christians around me rubbed their hands together and cackled evilly as they poured ignorant horseshit into my head. Also included in my religious education were tales of selflessness and sacrifice, of forgiveness and mercy, that have served me well my entire life. I was taught that smoking was bad, that parents and teachers should be respected, that people of other races and nationalities were just as good in the eyes of the Lord as anyone else, that I should help people in need and never take on such airs as to think that I was better than others. I was also taught to beware homosexual deviants who prowled the streets, molesting children and spreading disease, and that the disturbing trend toward accepting such people was a likely sign of our great nation’s decline — a few points of corrupt data in an otherwise noble set of instructions. Hey, nobody’s perfect. I accepted it all as Gospel truth, and didn’t think twice about any of it. Until puberty.

During high school, I fell in love — and into bed — with another boy. At first it was just fondling, later we were trading blowjobs and eventually full-on fucking. He was always on top. I didn’t even fully recognize what we were doing as homosexuality at the time, or at least I was able to keep the notion out of my head long enough to enjoy the delicious fruits of our dalliance. If that sounds strange, bear in mind that I had been taught a very specific definition of homosexuality, and I certainly wasn’t that person. At one point, we sat down and actually managed to convince ourselves that we were “practicing for girls.” We never kissed… not even once. We didn’t tell another living soul what we were doing. Well, I didn’t, anyway. I didn’t even mention it in my nightly prayers.

It all passed like a pleasant dream until one night, when I was over at his house, his mother walked in while I was on my knees in front of him. I quickly raced past her, down the stairs, and was out the front door like a shot. I don’t think I’ve ever run so fast in my life. I spent the rest of the night sitting in my bedroom, scared out of my wits, waiting for his parents to call mine and destroy my life forever. It never happened. The next day, we met in front of the school, and he reassured me that his parents didn’t even know my last name, and that the incident would never come back to haunt me. He’d had a long talk with his mother, and he was going to start dating girls now. He wasn’t supposed to see me any more, and he would honor that promise. The last thing he said to me, I’m guessing after noticing how crestfallen I must have looked: “Don’t worry. It’s OK. You’re way too cool to be a faggot.”

Twenty-five years later, words still fail me in describing how deeply that phrase is burned into my brain.

I resolved then and there to “go straight,” so to speak. I’d never been particularly interested in dating — I’d made a couple of token attempts in middle school, but to tell the truth, it was more out of a desire to follow along with my friends than any real interest in the subject, and my experiences involved trying to imitate what I’d seen on television rather than acting on any actual impulses or desires — but I had a point to prove to myself, and I gave it the old college try. God, it was awful. The few times I actually did get beyond a few fumbling kisses, I was so underwhelmed by the results that I wound up convinced that I’d gotten it wrong somehow. Not that I’d ever let on, mind you: Any time I was seen with a girl, it wasn’t just a point of pride, but insurance against some terrible, ill-defined truth that I still wasn’t remotely capable of understanding, let alone accepting.

One night, toward the end of my misadventures in high school, I was hanging out with a friend — not a particularly pleasant person, mind you, but a friend nonetheless — listening to him complain about an ex-girlfriend. At some point, attempting to appear sympathetic, I noted that I’d had a few bad experiences myself, and the word “he” somehow came out of my mouth. And said friend caught it. I quickly backpedalled, but he began mocking me for what, in hindsight, he must surely have seen as nothing more than a dumb slip of the tongue. Nonetheless, I endured a 10-minute harangue about what a disgusting fucking queer I was. I spent the rest of the evening thinking about it, absolutely terrified by what I was sure would happen next. I knew full well what happened to boys at my school who were assumed to be gay. The next day, I informed my parents that I was dropping out of high school. And then I did just that. What can I say? Teenagers are idiots.

I fumbled my way through a couple of entry-level jobs, eventually lucking into a print-production gig at a small local newspaper that I held for two years. The paper had its offices in a somewhat seedy part of town, chock full of check-cashing centers, liquor stores and porn shops. At some point after I turned 18, I walked into one of those porn shops and set myself down in the video arcade. There were booths with TV screens into which you could feed tokens and watch a selection of videos, some straight, some gay. At first, I watched the straight ones, but soon I was watching the other kind. Around me, men were furtively sneaking into stalls and blowing each other. Soon I was, too. This lasted about two weeks, after which I quit my job and went insane.

In hindsight, I guess you’d call it a nervous breakdown. My head was full of sex and sin and Satan and AIDS and death and Jesus Christ and my ability to compartmentalize the experiences had broken down and so did I. I can’t even tell you when it really started or ended. It wasn’t a clean break: I didn’t just go nuts one day and then “go sane” on another day. It was a slow slide in and a slow climb out, and the experience lasted about two years. My memories from the period are jumbled, so I can’t even accurately describe it. I hallucinated a fair amount, and was seldom entirely clear about what was real and what wasn’t. I spent a fair amount of time begging God’s forgiveness, and needless to say, never got it. I stopped taking care of myself in any rational sense. I remember a couple of half-hearted suicide attempts, which I was never able to carry out, which in turn made me feel worse. I seemed to have lost a certain amount of language skills — I was mumbling a lot, though I know this only because people kept having to ask me what I just said after I said something. The weirdest thing that I remember was that there was a period where I was saving my own saliva in cups placed strategically around my bedroom. I have absolutely no idea whatsoever why I did this, but I seem to recall that it was important. Mostly, though, I remember an overwhelming fear and pain and sadness, all of which kept crushing me like a stone.

Two things eventually brought me back out of it. The first was a hallucinatory experience under the influence of LSD, which occurred when I was maybe 20 years old or thereabouts and allowed me to accept at last the idea of a universe without God. The second was a medical emergency involving my mother, during which she asked her sons to donate blood, as she had heard about several AIDS scares involving blood banks and didn’t trust them when she went in for her operation. Upon learning this, I did the first responsible thing I’d done in two years: I went out and got myself tested. The tests came back negative, so I donated the requested blood, and at some point thereafter, finally began picking up and reassembling the shattered pieces of my soul.

It wasn’t an easy thing to do in Phoenix. When I made my first attempt to set foot in a gay bar, an old place downtown… the 404 Club? Something like that. Anyway, I never made it inside; I got maybe 20 feet from the door, looked across the street and noticed that there were policemen in a second-or-third story window, videotaping the front entrance. It wasn’t a stakeout or anything. The curtains were open; they wanted to be seen. One of them waved at me. I waved back, and walked past the entrance. Later, a reporter for the local alt-weekly, Deborah Laake of the New Times Weekly, began chronicling the campaign then being waged against the city’s gay population by the Phoenix chief of police, a nasty piece of business named Ruben Ortega. He reportedly kept a list of known homosexuals on the dashboard computers of his employees’ cop cars. Once, at a press conference, a reporter asked him how many gay-bashings occurred in the last year. His answer: “Not nearly enough.” Laake’s reports fed my already engorged sense of paranoia. I trusted no one. I went nowhere. It was a miserable period in my life, leavened only by the fact that the previous period in my life had been more miserable still.

Eventually, I left home and made my way down to Tucson. I began going to bars, began dating, began reading books on gay history, began to fill my head with contents of my own choosing for once in my life. Down in the local bohemian neighborhood along Fourth Avenue, I saw the occasional gay couple walking hand-in-hand down the street, and was barely able to believe the evidence of my senses. I came to love Tucson, and eventually, myself as well. And I got on with my life at last. It’s been all uphill after that.


I’ve told this story maybe half a dozen times in the years since. This is the first time I’ve written it down. Let me be clear: I do so not to establish my “victimhood bona fides,” or my right to wax superior on the subject of The Struggle, or any pathetic, needy, dumb-ass shit like that. Indeed, circumstances for homosexuals in the United States have changed greatly in the past 20 years — my experiences aren’t nearly so relevant these days, thank goodness. Rather, I do so in part because I want you to know that the subject at hand is important to me, indeed central to the very core of who I am; that it has changed me greatly over the years, and that I am on a base and fundamental level incapable of being objective about it.

Mostly, though, I’m telling you all of this because if I’m going to discuss someone else’s fantasy version of gay life, there’s no goddamned way I’m going to do so without first explaining what the real thing involves, and all I have to work with is what you’ve just read. (My apologies for not having been born in Beverly Hills to cosmopolitan parents — I realize that would’ve been slashier, but what can you do?) And having just plowed through a collection of essays on a genre in which people like me are simultaneously the central subjects and completely irrelevant to the discussion, written by authors half of whom I suspect would profit greatly from a good, swift kick in the stomach, I’m finding it difficult to summon the grace needed to be gentle about it.


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3 Responses to “BL Roundtable Sidebar: The Mirror of Male-Love Love”

  1. Dirk Deppey says:

    I should note that when this piece was posted, I hadn’t noticed that an important part of a quotation from Antonia Levi’s introduction (located at the top of page one) seemed to have mysteriously vanished during the editing process. I have no idea why this occurred, but as it was an important part of the resulting rebuttal, I have re-inserted the missing text.

  2. J. Ryo says:

    With all respect, I am from Indonesia and I’m interested in Yamila Abraham’s essay about yaoi in Indonesia. Perhaps it is asking too much but can I ask for its transcript since I cannot justify importing a not-so-good book for an essay that may or may not be worthwhile. Perhaps I can shed some light about the correctness of it.

    As far as I know though, while properties with pretty boys like Black Butler is very popular among teenager girls here, yaoi fandom is not visible even through any large forums. There are some artists that do BL stuff, but it seems that they are not connected though any specialized community. Also, perhaps knowing the conservative nature of our country, some of them actually released their BL-themed work in USA (OEL) and not here.

  3. IraeNicole says:

    Thats a nice piece of trans erasure you have regarding third gender cultures and two spirit peoples.