Slash vs. Gay

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Related terms: slash, meta, gayfic
See also: Slash Controversies, Homophobia in Fandom, History of Slash Fandom
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Cover of a 1992 slash zine. The rainbow motif, very common in design in the early 1980s but rare in zine art, is most likely a reference to the Star Trek movie poster and not to gay pride.
Interior art from a 1993 gen zine

As long as slash fans have been calling their stories slash, there have been conversations about how slash relates to LGBT literature.

Many of these debates have assumed that slash writers were heterosexual women (and that slash did not include femslash); therefore, the debates started from an assumption that slashers were not writing about their own experience. See Slasher Demographics.[1]

A good deal of the "slash vs. gay" question rests on female fans' perception of who a gay man is and what constitutes a gay identity[2], but also on how they depict the characters' perceptions of these things. Male characters who have same-sex relationships are usually straight in canon. Are they men who have sex with men without thinking of themselves as gay or bisexual? Or is the writer deviating from the canon source to depict a "what-if" where the characters are and perceive themselves to be gay? How does the writer handle these issues in fan fiction taking place in former times, e.g., Sherlock Holmes, when these cultural identities and perceptions were very different? How does the writer's own experience as a straight, bisexual or Lesbian woman affect her portrayals of gay male characters? How do male slash authors -- gay, straight and bi -- perceive these things?

Are Slashed Characters Gay by Definition?

One of the earliest variations of this conversation was a question about the very definition of slash: "How can a story be slash if it is about anything other than two heterosexual men?"[3] Over time, this part of the conversion has faded, as today it is common to have at least one character with some background bi or gay thoughts, if not experience. The idea that, as Lezlie Shell said in 1995, "slash is the process of getting two heterosexual characters into bed" would seem extreme to most modern fans.[4]

From the preface of a 2006 zine, A Real Good Life:

We're not writing gay porn. We're writing slash. Gay porn readers are, of course, welcome to partake if they like slash, but the story is meant for a slash audience.... We're writing sexual fantasy, not sexual reality. Fiction isn't about the ordinary, it's about the extraordinary.

The question now, in the on-going conversation about slash is more likely to be: "What is the difference between slash and LGBT fiction?"

This leads into conversations about whether slash is or should be female-centered sexuality appropriating male characters, or whether it is or should be realistic in its portrayal of gay male sexuality. [5][6]

'Slash' characters excite by being extensions of female sexuality while the 'gay' characters excite by being a window into an alien sexuality, that of homosexual men. It is internal versus external in a way. The issues I will write about, power and trust, concern me as a woman, not Bodie and Doyle as gay men. I am fulfilling my kink, not accurately portraying the kink of gay men. -- Lezlie Shell, 1995 [7]
Most of us who identify as queer understand the complexities of sexuality. Many of us struggled with claiming our identities and defining them. Were that not the case, we would not have the alphabet soup of the LGBTIQ community, would we?
That said, fetishizing the sexuality of others is still a blatant form of sexism, homophobia, racism. When you fetishize another’s sexuality, you make them less than. You make them Other.[8]

Interestingly enough, some slash fanzines are now part of the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives.

The second part of the question was whether in writing two male characters in a sexual relationship meant that the characters should be read as having a gay identity.[9] The follow-on question was whether slash writers had an obligation to fit slash into the real-world or literary gay experience. The common counter-argument of slash fandom ("we're not gay, we just love each other") goes back to slash fandom's earliest roots.

In 2007, Natasha Solten, an early K/S writer and fanzine publisher was interviewed as part of the K/S Legacy project. In that interview she discussed how early K/S fans grappled with whether Kirk and Spock were to be read as homosexual:
[ So many K/Sers] fought hard to NOT label them as homosexual. [...] It is not because of prejudice, but I think in spite of it. I think Star Trek itself, [...] taught principles of a kind of open-mindedness that saw people as people and not just labels. Also, K/S writers saw this relationship as special, not one of a series of affairs Kirk or Spock might have. And therefore, the specialness meant that this relationship defied labels and boundaries. [...] it was and is a different kind of thinking because [Star Trek] is, after all, in the future and science fiction. [10]

While the addition of science fiction elements may have enabled early slash writers to focus on the characters and interpersonal relationships, rather than having the characters examine and redefine their sexual orientation, later fandoms for shows based in the here and now, such as Starsky & Hutch and The Professionals could not. In those fandoms writers often had to make a conscious choice to either ignore the sexual orientation question or to confront the issue head-on (ex. "Shadows Over the Land", a Professionals novel in which one of the main characters discovers he has AIDS). Most fan writers chose to fall somewhere in between, briefly bringing in sexual orientation as a backdrop before moving on to the main story of the growing romantic and sexual relationship. And many simply skipped past the issue altogether feeling that it detracted from the main story.

Is Slash Appropriation?

"The K/S stories I've seen are offensive. It's a woman's idea of what gay men are like, and it's way off base. Besides, I like Kirk and Spock the way they are." - A gay male fan, quoted in David Gerrold's second edition of The World of Star Trek.

Some gay men have voiced opposition, or amusement, regarding slash writing. They say it is an inaccurate portrayal of homosexual experience written by straight women. Gay author and Star Trek co-creator David Gerrold is best known in fandom for his ridicule of K/S. There is also considerable controversy over whether writing slash means that a writer is simply open-minded and pro-gay, or is fetishizing both homosexuals and men in general.[11] Other critics say that slash may have paved the way for cultural acceptance of real homosexuality.[12]

In late 2009, a vigorous discussion arose on Livejournal concerning the tensions between original slash (original amateur stories with homosexual characters) vs gay fiction. Members questioned whether slash should be viewed as an expression of female desires by women to help one another reclaim their erotic power; by women who cannot identify with today's marginalized, hypersexualized female characters; or that it is misappropriation and misuse of the male gay experience.

One blogger summed up her stance:

The LGBT community cannot, as supporters of sexual liberation, demand that a woman stop consuming gay porn, stop writing gay erotica, stop consuming gay erotica. I cannot demand that my right to be sexually aroused by women, as a woman, be accepted, then demand that straight men stop being sexually aroused by the image of two women together. It would, in a way, be like asking me, or gay men, to only find people who share our sexual interest attractive and stimulating. I don't want my sexuality, my sexual response or fantasy life, to be policed. I don't want to police yours. What people can demand is that care be taken when presenting characters as homosexual....But I don't think slash writers should deny LGBT people and allies the right to criticize their portrayal of gay men, gay women, or the gay community.... But realism of gay characters isn't impossible to achieve, and it is not oppressive or criminal to demand that slash writers write gay characters as people.[13]
A fan in 2005 wrote:
I do think there's a difference between gay lit and slash... The difference is not whether the "canonical" characters are gay. The difference is that gay lit is usually written to appeal to men, while slash is usually written to appeal to women. [14]

The discussion (appropriation or legitimate expression) continued in person during an 2010 Escapade convention panel.

One audience member discussed her soul-searching about this same issue -- women writing about gay men, something outside her own experience.... She said this is what helped her: To consider the audience she was writing for; in other words, that her choices in ficwriting needed to be informed and directed by the fact that her goal was about women’s pleasure, pointed toward what would be enjoyable to a woman reading the fic, and that having that as her goal really clarified for her the question of "what should I be doing?"[15]

Writing in her blog Loving the Alien, Alison "Boom" Baumgartner observes:

I can literally describe my genesis as a slash fangirl. First, it was because the sight of it made my stomach do that good kind of flip-flop that told me I liked what I saw. Then, it was because I thought it made me progressive, and pro-gay rights. And when it became an obsession, I realized that all of it was because I was terrified of men always treating me like a sexual object, and I found refuge in slash because I couldn’t be involved.[16]

In a 2015 article for The Mary Sue, Kiri Von Stanten observed that the deafening screams emitted by fans of Welcome To Night Vale whenever Carlos appears or is mentioned in the live performances, and the fandom's heavy focus on his relationship with Cecil, while their romance is a relatively minor plot point in the canon, amounts to fetishizing gay men.

To many people, it often seems that women in the slash community have decided that "gay sex" is always sexy, that queer is always cute, and that we can take ownership of the gay male experience by writing about it and reading each other's writing.

I briefly mentioned this issue in something that got passed around Tumblr a couple times, and I received a number of private and public messages from people claiming (it’s the Internet, so who knows) to be gay men who had wanted to share unpleasant experiences from their participation in the slash community. Some personal friends echoed these complaints. Specifically, these men indicated that straight or bisexual women had repeatedly asked overly personal questions about their sex lives, treated them like adorable puppies instead of humans, and attempted to co-opt the gay male experience or even elevate allies over actual gay men.

"The worst thing," one gay friend said, "is that [women in the slash community] aren’t listening to me. You’re not listening when I tell you that you’re being hurtful."[17]

A response from Night Vale fan Vio on Reddit seems to miss the point:

Why is it that slash fans are constantly having to answer for and made to feel shame for enjoying something that doesn't conform to the mainstream, male-dominated pop culture motifs and cliches.

Slash and fanfiction are one of the few creative outlets where it is decidedly women dominated- both in the creative side and in the audience side. We're constantly having to answer for our own stories, and defend our preferences and likes.

The fact is that we're not fetishizing gay men, we are working in a genre about fictional characters- sometimes they're gay or bi, mostly they're not within the canon. But we are enjoying a genre of fictional characters on our own terms. Sometimes it's graphic, sometimes it's mild, sometimes it's ludicrous, but it's a valid writing style and concept that is becoming ever more and more mainstreamed.

Few other genres out there receive the same level of mocking, dismissiveness, and outright contempt. It makes some people feel icky, and yet they rarely ever have to confront their own biases or attitudes on the subject. For as many gay men out there hating slash (and I do feel for them and have known a few), there are far, far, far, far more people out there who denigrate slash and fanfiction that has nothing to do with defending the perceptions and cultural agendas of gay men. And the writers/readers of it are constantly harangued online, even by people in the same genre, to defend and "Be Careful" about not feeling guilty or negative or constantly having to self reflect on why this genre exists, why it's successful, and why we're somehow "bad" for taking part in it.[18]

Citing LGBTQ Visibility as a Rationale for Canon Same-Sex Shipping

In the 2010s, many fans have begun communicating to The Powers That Be via Facebook, Twitter &c., supporting their favorite slash pairings and suggesting storylines in which they could be made canon. They make strong arguments in favor of establishing relationships between male stars in shows with fannish appeal; science fiction and fantasy, magic realism, "buddy cop" shows and action-adventure series. These fans often cite the need for more visible LGBTQ characters on television, making their petitions in terms of a call for visible diversity rather than a personal obsession or kink.

This has particularly been the case with Supernatural. Fans claiming to be LGBTQ, or to be supportive of same, have lobbied heavily for canon relationships between Dean and Sam Winchester, and especially for Dean and the angel Castiel (Misha Collins). Dean has had relationships with women in the past, especially Cassie (Megalyn Echikunwoke), to the chagrin of slash shippers. When Castiel had romance with a woman (April Kelly, played by Shannon Lucio) at the end of season 9, negative fan response pinned the meters. WB executive Chad Kennedy's Twitter account blew up after he said that the producers had not intended for either Dean or Castiel to be bisexual. He clarified that he did not write the show; that no one had pitched him an episode in which the male leads had romance with one another; but that he would not rule it out if such a script did come to him. [19]

Meanwhile, Misha Collins has done his part to fan the flames by making statements at conventions such as "Destiel is canon and the writers know it."[20]

Sherlock has received similar attentions from fans, including online petitions, but creator Steven Moffat says he has no intention of allowing the famous pair to consummate their relationship physically. [21]

Meanwhile, gay fans are also pointing out that for all the slash fanworks out there, Star Trek itself noticeably lacked gay characters, and there are few if any gay continuing characters on other shows.

Getting gay or lesbian characters onto the screen is about adjusting the statistics and doing justice to a group of fans who have been ignored so far. Slash fiction (which is often not even written by fans who are homosexual themselves), on the other hand, is not political but chiefly a matter of taste.[22]
...I’ve already fled, spitting blood and bullets, from threads where discussion of, for example, complete GBLT erasure in any and all Disney programmes was derailed by slash fans running in and discussing which characters they thought were the best slash fodder. Or which characters could possibly maybe. Or which characters they’ve always, personally, interpreted as gay in their own head-cannon (sic). Or, y’know, any number of things that are COMPLETELY BLOODY IRRELEVENT to the actual erasure happening. Or how many times do we see people celebrating and leaping all over the slash potential of a show – even calling it GBLT friendly – when it doesn’t have one single GBLT character or relationship? People are CELEBRATING erasure and calling it inclusion because it fits their slash goggles. And we’d be foolish to think that writers, producers et al aren’t seeing this and playing towards it. It’s ideal – they get inclusion cookies without offending the usual suspects on the right.[23]

Yaoi vs. Gay

There have been similar arguments over the depiction of gay men in yaoi.

In his landmark study of Japanese comics, Manga! Manga! (Kodansha 1983), Frederik Schodt touched briefly on female fascination with gay men, or at least men having same-sex encounters. In Japan, this style dates back to the 1970s. Sex roles in Japan are comparatively rigidly defined and standardized; Schodt spoke of "men's comics" (shonen, written and drawn by men, with a predominantly male readership[24]) and "women's comics" (shojo, written and drawn by women and with a predominantly female readership[24]) accordingly.[25] Women's stories featured female protagonists exclusively, but often had an underlying theme of bisexuality.[26]

In 1970, some shojo writers began to create stories with male leads. By 1976, these stories began to depict erotic love between teenage boys. Middle-school and high-school girls were the main consumers of these stories at first. An editor explains that girls of that age have no sexual experience, but are intensely curious. They find love between males "pretty" and distant enough from their own reality that they are not threatening. [27]

Schodt also discussed the "binanshi" figure, better known today as bishonen. Junè magazine devoted an entire issue to this attractive male figure. "In his advice column, gay counselor Yanagi Kawabata, in answer to a young girl's question about what love between males was really like, told her that it was similar to love between men and women but not always so pretty as the comics implied. Ignore harsh reality, he told her, and continue to fantasize about gay love on the aesthetic level of girls' comics."[28]

See Akiko Hori's translated essay in a 2013 issue of TWC.[29]

In 2001, fan blogger Tom Hardings and his friend Buki Skylark of Realmangamoon hosted fanwriter Irk's raunchy Mystery Science Theater 3000 parody of a well-known screed by fanwriter Jeanne on the yaoi site aestheticism.net[30]. Using characters from the longrunning franchise Slayers, Irk took Jeanne to task for her enervating preoccupation with making yaoi out of every male friendship or acquaintance in anime, manga and games;

>>Mapping m/f roles onto two guys turns a lot of women on.

IRK: "What is 'a lot'? Like, ten? How do you know these things? ARE YOU A BUTT PSYCHIC? ARE YOU CLAIRANUSVOYANT?!"

>>Hence the fantasy sex also reproduces female physical sexual experience in a way that's familiar and congenial to women.

IRK: "So...what you're saying is, women can't masturbate to anything but mentally skewed male/male buttromp?"
XELLOSS: "Boy, do *I* feel lucky to be a man right now! I can wank off to anything I want! Free to jerk! Free to jer-"
FIRIA: *CLONG* "Jerk." -_-
....
>>I could see the tortured weepy uke in two lights.

IRK: "Yeah, but I can see the transgendered leather fetish league in Three Lights."
TX signs: "DEADLY PUN!"

>>One is as an epitome of Them, the guys, being made to act as We have to, a comedown for Them right there.

IRK: "Yeah, you know how us women are always taking it up the ass like there's no tommorrow? THE TABLES ARE BEING TURNED SIR."

>>They have to suffer because of a role imposed from the outside- passive, forbidden to act, weak- the way We do, except that the suffering is translated into physical as well as psychological terms. And other times it looked like an expression of rage at the role itself.

XELLOSS: "I'm sure if the radical feminists had it all to do over, they'd stop publishing propaganda and picketing and rallying and just write gay rape stories. After all, gay rape is an appropriate form of protest for any occassion!"
IRK: "Let's hear it for Yaoi Lib, and progress!"
XELLOSS: "Progress and COCKS!"

>>Sweet loving weepy trusting stupid ideal 'female', now you get yours.

FIRIA: "In the ASS!"[31]

Further Reading/Meta

References

  1. Porluciernagus, Why Is There So Much Slash Fic?: Some Analysis of the AO3 Census on Ladygeekgirl, November 12, 2013.
  2. The idea of a homosexual identity, let alone outsiders' perceptions of said identity, didn't arise in western culture until the early 20th century. See J. Bryan Lowder, "What Was Gay?" Slate, May 12, 2015.
  3. See also Jane Ward's book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men (NYU Press, July 2015) detailed interview here..
  4. See the essay Let's Just Call It All Butter Brickle: What Is Slash? for an in-depth look at these questions.
  5. Cintra Wilson, W4M4M?. Out, August 17, 2010.
  6. Victoria Brownworth, The Fetishizing of Queer Sexuality: A Response. Lambda Literary, August 19, 2010.
  7. Lezlie Shell, 'Normal Female Interest in Men Bonking: Selections from The Terra Nostra Underground and Strange Bedfellows', retrieved October 21, 2010
  8. See more at: Victoria Brownworth, The Fetishizing of Queer Sexuality at Lambda Literary.
  9. Some very early slash stories had James Kirk behaving like a stereotypical flaming queen. William Shatner's well-known habit of camping it up for laughs, e.g., while filming "Turnabout Intruder" (described in Star Trek Lives!, may have played into this.
  10. (Legacy, vol 1, pg 142).
  11. Boom, The Downside of Slash Fangirling. In her blog Loving the Alien, November 2012.
  12. Brent Hartinger, Has Slash Made The World Better For Gay Men? In The Backlot, blog devoted to gay portrayals in film and TV, August 11, 2010.
  13. thoracopagus. [meta] The Slash Debate: Queer vs. Female Space, 14 January 2010. (Accessed 07 September 2010); WebCite.
  14. from Jean Lorrah, June 2005 at Rimon Farris Memorial Library - Articles - 'Slash' Fiction - In Search of a Definition from simegen-L, Archived version
  15. princessofgeeks. Escapade 2010 Panel: "Gay Is Not Slash", 01 March 2010. (Accessed 07 September 2010); WebCite
  16. Alison "Boom" Baumgartner, "The Downside of Slash (Or When Slash Isn’t Sexy… It’s Sexist)". In Loving the Alien, August 28, 2013.
  17. On the Fetishization of Gay Men by Women in the Slash Community. The Mary Sue, January 17, 2015.
  18. Vio, comment in Reddit discussion of Von Stanten's article, January 18, 2015.
  19. Regarding Chad Kennedy at The Fandom Debunker, October 23, 2013.
  20. See tenoko1, Per Misha Collins: Destiel is Canon. October 29, 2012. Collins made these statements at the Supernatural convention in Chicago on that date.
  21. Alyssa Rosenberg, Steven Moffat on Sherlock’s Return, the Holmes-Watson Love Story, and Updating the First Supervillain. May 7, 2012.
  22. Bernd Schneider, Homosexuality in Star Trek. Ex Astris Scientia, January 26, 2016.
  23. Gay male fan "Sparky", writing in his blog Spark in Darkness, Slash Goggles, Fanservice and No Actual Inclusion, Saturday, 21 July 2012.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Note that this does not match the current accepted definition.
  25. Shonen manga and Shojo manga at Wikipedia.
  26. Frederik Schodt, Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics (Kodansha, 1983). In the chapter on shoujo (girls' stories) he cites Osamu Tezuka's Ribon no Kishi (Princess Knight) and Oscar Francois de Jarjayes from Riyoko Ikeda's The Rose of Versailles among others.
  27. Schodt, p. 100-102, 137.
  28. Schodt, p. 137.
  29. Hori, Akiko. 2013. "On the Response (Or Lack Thereof) of Japanese Fans to Criticism that Yaoi Is Antigay Discrimination." In "Transnational Boys' Love Fan Studies," edited by Kazumi Nagaike and Katsuhiko Suganuma, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 12. doi:10.3983/twc.2013.0463.
  30. not to be confused with the other "Top 10 Things I Love About Yaoi", which originally appeared at rec.arts.anime.misc and was written by "Saturn"
  31. Tom Hardings and Buki Skylark, The Top Ten Things I Love About Yaoi MST, by Irk.