Behind the Curtain: Exclusion Trauma and M/M Spaces

Content note: this article talks about “fujoshi discourse” and both criticisms and supports of m/m ship spaces, as well as getting into homophobia, transphobia, transmisogyny and racism, some mentions of pedophilia accusations, and sexual assault/rape. I’m not capable of talking about the original or cultural meaning of ‘fujoshi’ in the appropriate depth; rather, I’m using the term primarily in the sense taken on by Western fandom concerning ‘pro-fujo’ and ‘anti-fujo’ stances, and acknowledge that that’s a separate meaning.

I’ve been in fandom for… nearly fifteen years now, depending on how you count it. My first fandom — that is, that I did with other people – was Chronicles of Narnia, in a LARP-style roleplay with my closest friends in Grade 5 and 6 that quickly expanded to include the Pellinor books, Pirates of the Caribbean, Lord of the Rings, The Last Unicorn, Edge Chronicles, and various other fantasy franchises that our sweet little autistic hearts had latched onto. My foray into the wider online world started with (excruciatingly bad) Harry Potter fanfiction; Naruto and Bleach followed soon after, but I found my feet in the Fullmetal Alchemist fandom around 2006-2007. For context, I’m 26 or so now, so I was very much a child in fandom. My interests have grown with me but stayed pretty consistent, with a few modifications here and there.

Why do I say all of this? Well, because it’s very odd seeing discussions about fandom sometimes, especially when the reliance on Old Fandom vs. New Fandom guides so many discussions. Today, most fandom discussions, including ones about the “fujoshi” community, are centered on and circulate around anti-shippers vs. pro-shippers; people who believe very strongly that there is such thing as a Bad or Evil Ship and shipping it makes you a bad person, and people who push back against that and believe that fiction is, well, fiction. For that debate, I’m squarely on the pro-ship side, but it is sometimes unnerving to realize that the entire origin of being anti-fujoshi in the first place has gotten erased.

That’s not to say that I’m particularly comfortable with the label of anti-fujo. There’s a few reasons for that, but the primary one is probably how it uses a specific label to criticize a Broad, Multifaceted Problem. The modern iteration also very strongly presumes that being “anti” means you’re willing to harass, suicide-bait, and/or dox people who don’t agree with you. Absolutely not. But this debate, like most shipping debates, had much gentler origins, and the nuance has been entirely destroyed.

So, why would anybody have a problem with m/m shippers? If you’re newer in fandom particularly, you might be kind of boggled by the idea. In response, I want to run through the actual points of the discourse, and debunk a lot of popular myths about people who are critical of m/m ship spaces.

  1. It’s Not Really About The Shipping

Well, sometimes it is. It would be a full-on lie to pretend that there aren’t folks in fandom using anti-fujoshi talking points to defend or attack ships, and no other reason. But the reason I say this is because, between the Modern RadFem Anti-Fujoshi and pro-ship talking points pushing back on them, there’s a surprisingly prevalent idea that being uncomfortable with m/m shipping spaces necessarily means you despise everyone who ships m/m or think they shouldn’t ship it at all.

It couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, before the rise of the Anti-Shipper, these arguments were a lot more precise, and the ones that still apply today are specifically about the Shippers, Not The Ships. That is, I don’t have any particular investment in what you ship or even how you ship it (with some exceptions), but instead in how people in those spaces think about real queer men. The end goal should never be “stop engaging in the thing”. It’s no wonder that we’ve ended up there with how anti-ship arguments lean so heavily on it, but it’s a lot simpler than that: how you talk about those ships, as contrasted to real people, matters.

This is also relevant to the “fiction = reality” arguments, because realistically, someone who writes the filthiest, smuttiest gay porn in the universe can (and often will) be absolutely excellent to other queer men outside of the fictional borders, and some of the worst homophobia I’ve ever endured comes from people who wrote “appropriate, non-fetishized” m/m ships and/or took strong anti-fujoshi stances. The difficulty is that in very much the same way that anti-shippers in general prioritize the fiction over the real people, many pro-fujoshi posts focus on how there’s nothing wrong with what they’re writing and ignore how real people feel in the face of their arguments.

Which brings me to…

2. Real People Matter… And They Determine The Bigotry, Not You

I’ve been mentioning “pro-fujoshi” arguments prety vaguely so far, but it’s necessary to be specific. I’ve seen a number of posts making the very salient point that as long as you’re treating real people with respect, what you write doesn’t matter. That’s completely true – if you actually are. A lot of folks take it for granted that they must be treating real queer men totally fine, after all, they’re not homophobes… but then push back, hard, on being told when they’re being homophobic. It’s a side effect of the increasing focus on every other part of the acronym except the G; it’s increasingly normalized to say awful things about gay men because we’re the “most privileged” members of the community. Nor is this limited to the baby radfem circles that are so often also antis. I’ve seen multiple proshippers make arguments about “men vs. queer people” that are gutting, all the more so for the fact that they don’t seem to see the problem with it. And if I never see the phrase “cishet gay man” again, it will be too soon.

It’s hard, I know, to accept that you might have been hurting someone without realizing it. But the answer isn’t to insist that you can’t possibly be bigoted, especially since you’re often putting the onus on queer men to tell you otherwise, and we can’t be sure that you’ll respond well. Let’s be honest. Why is it so normalized for fandom to be a space for AFAB people? And is it really an improvement from “fandom is for women”? (Not really, no.) I, myself, am AFAB (assigned female at birth) but the pushback on men and masculinity affects me heavily, especially since I’ve been out and presenting myself as male online since I was 15. Multiple versions of fandom discourse do touch on this… but then attribute it to a divide between transformative and collective fandoms. Moreover, it’s talked about semi-constantly how collective fandom (the standard cishet gatekeeping of ‘girl gamers’, etc.) enforces its borders, but practically verboten to discuss how transformative fandom does the same thing. Either you are accepting without much consideration that people with penises just ‘naturally’ aren’t creative, or you have to ask why and how fandom became such a restrictive space. Nor does the argument about ‘carving out space for ourselves’ hold up against this. Fandom is important for women and trans men because we so rarely see ourselves represented accurately on the screen or in books… but are you claiming that AMAB queer people don’t have the same needs? And if you don’t want to be making that claim, what are you doing to make your corner of fandom less exclusionary?

The influence of radical feminism on anti-fujoshi stances has come up plenty, not least that TERFs/radfems often claim that trans men are just ‘deluded girls’ obsessed with gay men. (This is ridiculous, obviously, and I hate that I have to underline that I don’t agree with it, but such is the state of the world right now.) But significantly less discussed – to the point of deafening silence – is how many accounts with “No TERFs welcome!” will then immediately presume that their audience is female, and then maybe add in trans men as an afterthought. TERFs’ primary targets are trans women, but if you were listen only to fandom’s version of radical feminism, one might come away with the idea that the people most at risk from radical feminism are cis women and/or AFAB non-binary folks. There is an endless amount of discussion about how “women’s” interests are degraded and disregarded, and absolutely zero about how it is infinitely more dangerous for AMAB queer people to show interest in feminine hobbies. (Nor do I lump ‘AMAB’ together thoughtlessly; the young cis gay boy trying on drag when nobody’s looking and the closeted trans woman scrawling self-insert fanfiction on the inside of her notebook exist in the same spectrum, even if their ultimate identities and more specific experiences differ.) It’s also a little frightening that it never comes up even with the amount of transmasc and otherwise AFAB trans people in fandom. One of the barriers that most trans men have to deal with is the pressure to give up those hobbies in order to pass. From “Real men don’t have stickers on their laptop” to “real men don’t care about romance novels”, the restrictions on what “masculinity” should involve affect more than just AMAB queer folks – and this shows you that, despite the change in ratios, a lot of fandom discourse is still primarily propelled by cis women.

You may already be thinking “but I didn’t do any of that”. And that’s true, but the core point is that when gay men speak up about bigotry they face, it’s still too often dismissed – often by counter-accusations of ‘misogyny’, which has been used as an attack against queer men for decades. (I return to the anti-fujoshi RadFem stance of accusing trans men of being deluded girls with ‘internalized misogyny’; it trades on exactly the same thing as the idea that gay men all hate women, that bisexual men are rapists or sluts by nature, or that drag queens are ‘mocking women’ with their outfits.) You may not intend the hurt you cause, but you owe it to others to at least listen and account for it in your view of your own world.

3. Being Trans Doesn’t Automatically Help

Another common friction point is the idea of fujoshis/slash shippers/yaoi fans/etc. (at a certain point the words truly are interchangeable) all being cis women. Flat out: that is wrong. However, it’s not any more correct to pretend that all yaoi fangirls and slash shippers are transmasc. It’s certainly a common shared experience, but let’s be a little more realistic here. Even though the modern iterations of these fandoms are more aware of transmasc experience and use different pronouns for their attendees, the fandom spaces are still run, policed and oriented around cis femininity. This is sometimes true even when nobody in a space is cis. (Especially since ‘not-cis’ and ‘transmasc’ are not synonyms.) There’s no magic button that applies when coming out, learning about yourself, etc. that teaches you how to not be bigoted; the number of transphobic transmedicalists should tell that story quite well, or even just the continued public missteps of Caitlyn Jenner, who seems to think she doesn’t “count”. But if we can account for public figures like Kalvin Garrah, Buck Angel, Blaire White, and even the (less damaging but still controversial) Natalie Wynn having ideas and platforms that punish other trans people, why should someone’s transmasc identity immediately exempt them from criticism? Certainly a lot of the experiences I’ve had have come either from other AFAB trans folks, and people who most likely have some sort of resonance with the idea whether they come out or not.

Much like how the defense of ‘you’re just being misogynistic’ isn’t a useful one for cis women, I urge other trans folks to keep in mind that fandom wasn’t built for us. We’ve always been part of its making, we’ve helped shore up the foundations, but in return, all we get is token inclusion and afterthought mentions. It doesn’t mean that your identity doesn’t matter! (The anti approach of turning a broad discussion about fandom being cis women-oriented into direct misgendering of individuals has not helped.) But being a marginalized person existing in a space doesn’t take away the fact that the norms of a space can be immensely harmful for others. In fact, the fujoshi spaces that many other trans men talk about in glowing terms had a dreadful impact on my mental health – because it didn’t seem to matter how much I tried to do otherwise, every argument supporting fujin and m/m shippers was oriented on the right to write about the Other, and not for the Other to write his own stories. This manifested (and still manifests) in a lot of strange and awful forms, including an experience where I was screamed at for ‘not understanding the discrimination’ that m/m shippers experience for Liking It When Boys Fuck, and the fact that I am in fact one of those boys didn’t seem to make any impact. (And keep in mind, too, that I’m supposedly one of the people these spaces are ‘welcoming’ to. How are AMAB queer folks treated by the same reactions? Consider that.)

4. Okay, But What Did Slash Shippers Even Do?

This is a pretty reasonable question, actually. The switch from m/m shippers being the anti-SJWs to anti-fujin as the bigoted ones feels like it happened overnight. As a result, many of the arguments people use for the more dramatic oversteps are outdated – or feel outdated, and the new versions don’t get as much focus.

But when I say ‘outdated’, it also needs to be said that one of the most aggressive abusive experiences I ever got from a slash shipper (on the basis of slash shipping) was in late 2016. That isn’t decades ago. That’s five years ago. Yaoi paddles might be gone, but the attitudes are not that old. In fact, some of the loudest pro-shipper voices are people who brag about being in fandom for ten, twenty, thirty years… and very rarely is there any acknowledgement of the actual behaviour that was occurring. (Which is a huge reason why people dismiss discussion of it.)

So let’s set the record straight. When people show hesitance around yaoi/slash spaces, it’s not because we think you’re embarrassing. It’s because being a man in fandom for a very long time has meant invasive questions about our genitalia and how we have sex, microaggressive ‘jokes’ about how being shy or effeminate means we’re a bottom, suicide-baiting and mass harassment over even the mildest of discomfort, shippers who waxed poetic about their OTPs in between posts supporting Prop 8 and fearmongering about AIDS, shippers who posted on forums about disowning their queer children, forums dedicated to hatemail and violent bashing of both female characters who got in the way and anybody who shipped half of their ship with a woman at all, comments on queer and trans-focused fanfictions about how ‘X character is a boy’ and being called the r-word for thinking they could possibly be a trans girl, assertions about feminine gay men being pathetic, slutty or ’embarrassing’, and my experience of being labelled a pedophile and slandered as an abuser for explaining why I don’t like the seme/uke trope or omegaverse. Nor is our hesitance somehow bigoted or unnecessary when there are still shippers and ship events in 2021 who exclude genderbends or trans versions of characters so m/f ships don’t get “snuck in”, or react violently to asexual and aromantic headcanons of popularly gay characters because gay masculinity is so linked to sex. It’s part of the induction into fandom, now, to be aware of the anti-ship and pro-ship camps, even if someone is brand new and obviously wouldn’t have any context. I’m of the opinion that the horrific treatment of queer men should be part of that same induction, and that it is the responsibility of people already in those fandoms to address and make up for the bigotry.

5. The Bigotry of Anti-Fujoshi Doesn’t Make Up For Yours

Anti-fujoshi stances, at least the modern ones, are pretty invariably racist. There’s a lot of white folks in these conversations, and often they assign meanings to fujoshi/fudanshi that just… aren’t part of the deal, and are completely inaccurate to ‘fujoshi’s origin as a Japanese term.

The problem is, that doesn’t mean ‘pro-fujoshi’ arguments are inherently Anti-Racist. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I’m not Japanese, but it has disturbed me for a while how Japanese positions supporting fujin will get thousands of notes, but the equal amount of Japanese and otherwise Eastern positions expressing discomfort are left to languish. Realistically, even the idea that any one or small group of Japanese people can speak for the entire culture is racism in and of itself, and many people take the ‘fujoshi pass’ and run off without any further conceptualization or analysis. Additionally, especially since ‘fujoshi’ is essentially a synonym to slash, m/m, etc. shipping, it’s upsetting to see any and all conversation about racism in fandom spaces come down to this argument… and the everyday racism in fandom gets ignored as a result. At the end of the day, being ‘pro-fujoshi’ doesn’t stop anybody from assertions about Asian men having small dicks or being ‘auto-twinks’, nor does it do anything against how Black men, when they show up in slash ships at all, are aggressive tops or caretakers; not much else. (Star Wars fandom in particular has contributed heavily to the difficulty of these conversations.)

It’s also more than a little troubling how the racism of being ‘anti-fujoshi’ (whether someone is or not) can completely overwrite someone’s complaints. I’ve been called racist over this before, and while I’ve definitely grown to appreciate that there’s nuance to the term I wasn’t understanding at the time, it will never stop bothering me that my complaints included the oversexualization of a Latin American character, down to ‘ay papi’ jokes and calling him ‘a spicy Cuban boy’. The pro-fujoshi arguments so often orient so heavily around ‘anybody can do what they want without judgement’, and ignore that that has never been true. If you don’t fit certain analogues or ideas about how m/m shipping “should work”, you’re treated with much the same animosity as an anti-shipper, and even suggesting that more things should be an option, not fewer gets the same response. Countering stereotypes isn’t supposed to be about limiting people – it’s the exact opposite, where the freedom to write anything has to also include addressing the current norms and attitudes. (And the idea that it has to be blanket condemnation is also – bluntly – garbage. One of my most popular stories was a deliberate deconstruction of the ‘prison sex noncon’ trope and depicting it as the rape it is. If it was true that I was actually condemning this trope, I wouldn’t also have written stories with it played straight. (In fact, good deconstruction actually requires a love of and intricate knowledge of whatever you’re deconstructing.)

Ultimately, fandom should be a place where everyone gets to feel comfortable and heard. If we keep pushing the idea of it as an oasis, then we should be willing to try make it that way in reality; it seems like a rather mild thing, all things considered, to ask people to stop and remember that queer men in many varieties Exist before writing up arguments about using gay men as ‘blank slates’ to explore misogyny with. Again, I can’t stress enough how none of the things I’ve mentioned are even particularly about the stories in question. I’m not triggered and upset until I watch how people defend themselves against enemies real or imagined, and they accidentally let slip how they actually see me (or don’t) in the process. I refuse to believe that there’s no way to reclaim labels that have been used in derogatory ways without pushing and circulating the harmful ideas that made Old Fandom so unsafe for a lot of queer folks, and if anything, most of what I ask for is entrance; entrance into circles that consider that talking about their “gals” when they’ve got a transmasc friend there, or that thinking of all rapists as people with penises and vice versa, might be making real, existing people uncomfortable. I believe that very few people are doing this on purpose. I’d like to be proven right.

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