UNIVERSAL APPEAL. Guy-on-guy anime finds fans among queer men and bi/straight women, alike.
On May 25 some 15,000 anime fans will be flooding Toronto for the annual Anime North convention. Throw in the yaoi and you've got the makings of a gay 'ole time. But where do the real live homos fit in?
"Ya-what?" you ask? Yaoi, pronounced yah-oh-ee, is the North American term for man-on-man anime, ranging from the romantic to the hardcore.
"Yaoi is about men who are idealized by women, for women," explains Yaoi North spokesperson and bi gal Lisa "Hideto" Lai.
"But just because that's what they intended it to be, doesn't mean that's what the effect has been," adds fellow Yaoi North organizer Matthew Schwartz. Schwartz is one of the homos on the ever-popular "Gay Sex 101" panel. "You get straight guys in there asking questions.... It's wonderful."
This year's convention will feature two rooms dedicated to all things yaoi. Programming will include viewings of yaoi films and TV shows, panel discussions with titles including "World History Of Homosexuality" and "Crossplay 101" (in other words, drag) and Café Nocturne — a Japanese-style drag café featuring flirty female waiters dressed as men.
But Kat Williams, a Toronto-based anime artist and author who organized queer panels at the convention for several years beginning in 2000, says she's dismayed by the lack of queer content created specifically for queers at recent Anime North gatherings.
"[Last year's Yaoi North] was pretty much straight girls squealing about their favourite [gay anime] couples," says Williams.
Lai makes no bones about the genre's objectification of queer men. "But yaoi men are as ridiculous as gay porn men," she says.
Nor is she worried about the lack of gay activism at the conference. "We don't discourage people being proud and out or talking about issues like that... [but] this is a hobby, an interest. Our purview is discussing cartoons. We're not saving lives."
Schwartz is all for straight anime lovers' queer obsessions. "These people are our straight allies. They're the ones who are with us at gay pride marches, and if they relate to gay media, then that makes me happy bringing them into the gay community."
He adds that Yaoi North attendees run the gamut of gender and orientation, and notes that he hasn't heard any complaints from gay attendees about feeling objectified.
Gay men may be getting the red carpet treatment, but last year when Williams was promoting lesbian events, her experience was quite the opposite.
"I got spat at. I had things thrown at me," says Williams, adding that she heard similar complaints from other queer attendees.
Williams says she didn't report the incidents to convention security. "There isn't much security can do about people being overly rude unless [the homophobes] stick around and continue to harass someone repeatedly."
Todd Spencley, who handles security for Anime North, says he is unaware of an escalation in homophobic incidents at recent conventions.
"Anything that is reported to me, I make sure I track it down," says Spencely. "If I find somebody behaving in a discriminatory manner I have a nice long talk with them. I do not put up with that at our convention."
Spencley says that offenders may be banned from the conventions, offering as an example the hosts of The Conventioneers, a reality show on Bite TV, who reportedly harassed crossdressing attendees and body checked a child on camera without his guardian's consent at the 2006 convention.
"For those actions we decided The Conventioneers are no longer permitted to attend Anime North," says Spencley.
Williams is also disappointed with the lack of girl-on-girl anime, or Shoujo-ai (pronounced show-joe-eye), compared to yaoi. Although Williams is presenting a two-hour panel on girl-on-girl anime, it's a far cry from a 24-hour dedicated space.
Anime North's director of programming Eileen McEvoy agrees that there's room for more Shoujo-ai at the convention. She says that there had been a room set aside for a three-day track focussing on dykey fun but that panel organizers — including Williams — backed out at the last minute.