Parents of trans-identified boys mention anime repeatedly. The animation style seems to loom large in the lives of many—at least half—of the young men whose stories I’m telling. Many of these boys have anime alter-egos, which function as a sort of stand-in for their real-life trans personae. Two of the boys whose parents I’ve met have even named themselves after the same anime character. What, if anything, explains this Japanese connection?
To take the most obvious explanation first: No, Japan is not a hotbed of trans-identification. Japanese laws regarding gender recognition are more traditionally stringent than those of the United States or Canada. In fact, Japanese citizens wishing to change their identity must first undergo sex-change surgery. As a result, only about 7,000 Japanese citizens are classified as transgender—just 0.006 percent of the country’s total population. (The figure often used in the United States, 0.7 percent, is more than 100 times higher.) And while Japanese anime characters and plot lines often subvert gender norms, this typically isn’t specifically connected to the idea of sex transition as we understand it, as many anime shows feature supernatural themes, undead characters, and shape-shifting more generally.
“So is this anime culture sexual?” I ask. “Oh yeah,” she says. “For sure.” Specifically, Leigh sees anime, and yuri in particular, as popular among that subcategory of trans-identified biological men and boys who become sexually aroused by the idea of themselves as female. (It’s a condition that some sexologists refer to as autogynephilia, though the very mention of that word is controversial in many trans-activist circles, as it is seen as reducing the issue of gender identity to the status of sexual fetish.)
“These are the guys who call themselves lesbians,” she says. “It’s actually fascinating, but kinda heart-breaking. A lot of these guys are just lonely.”
As we talk, it becomes clear that the boundary between porn and non-porn can be somewhat blurry when it comes to anime. Cartoons featuring “catgirls”—girls with feline ears and tails—can be quite explicit, especially the ones created and posted by older men. But for young members of online trans communities, catgirl characters may be little more than a cute-ironic profile pic. “Could I get from a totally non-sexual anime game to yuri porn in two clicks?” I ask. “Probably,” Leigh tells me.
The transformative theme in MTG extends to gender: The game features characters who are non-binary and transgender. In fact, the game’s developers have seemed keen to stress this progressive aspect as a way to make the gaming world more hospitable to non-gender-conforming individuals. The fan culture sometimes features “crossplay”—a form of sex-swap cosplay—with gamers dressing up as their favourite cross-sex characters. On Reddit feeds where gamers congregate to swap tips and observations, this kind of playful fluidity tends to get a lot of positive attention, thereby bumping up a contributor’s algorithmically assigned visibility level within Reddit threads. And so over time, a sense of gender playfulness gets hard-wired into these young gamers’ minds. For some, it can become a viable strategy for dealing with pubescent feelings of awkwardness and placelessness.
In many cases, the conversations that take place on gaming threads serve as onward pointers to other Reddit feeds, where teenagers burrow further into existential questions of mind and body, but now with the fantasy gaming elements stripped away. One such feed is r/egg_irl—where irl abbreviates “in real life,” and “egg” indicates the symbolic shell out of which a young transgender person must supposedly break. The egg_irl feed encourages users to adopt new trans identities, relentlessly applauding them for every step they take.
When Charlie expressed dysphoric feelings about his testicles, one user suggested that he should ignore his parents, and “go BUCKWILD” in the process of “customizing” his body. The tone of the described exchange suggests this user wasn’t a fellow teenager, but rather a full-grown male adult.
Ron told me he sees this process as what big retailers might refer to as “customer acquisition.” From egg_irl, Charlie was lured into other, more explicitly sexual environments, which further strengthened the association between his stunted sexual development and his emerging female identity. In these worlds, parents and other sceptical authority figures are routinely vilified. It’s presumed that the discussion that takes place among anonymous strangers online is sincere and authoritative, while good-faith communication within one’s household is impossible.
Reddit hosts a lot of grooming activity.
But Lola isn’t just an on-screen avatar. Alex wants to take cross-sex hormones, which, he hopes, will help him develop perfect breasts (a subject of obsession). “Only straight men talk about breasts the way he talks about breasts,” Rosalee tells me. She sees her son’s alter ego as a means to bridge the gap between flesh-and-blood reality and sexually inspired fantasy. Alex’s therapist, on the other hand, sees Lola as a dissociative means of overcoming self-hatred. But Alex is adamant and uninterested in hearing about any option besides transition.
Alex is unusually skilled as an artist. But as readers of the previous articles in this series will know, the fact that he’s gifted more generally hardly marks him as an outlier: It’s a universal quality among young men who have trans identities yet displayed no signs of dysphoria in their very early years (and often betrayed no particular form of gender-atypicality). Sometimes, they’re history buffs; more often they excel in science. All are good at maths, and read at a level that’s well beyond their years.
Like his mum, Alex developed Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder early on in life. He couldn’t focus at school. Though he passed any standardized test he sat with flying colours, he’d fail his exams because he refused to show his work (reasoning that he didn’t need to because he’d already gotten to the right answer). At the age of three, he was asking his mother how to pronounce three-syllable Scandinavian brand names written on the side of ducts, yet he never had the patience to finish a book. His ability to read everything in front of him, at an adult level, should have made his teachers happy; but they were more concerned by the fact he couldn’t sit still.
Alex was adrift. He often misunderstood social cues, and his habit of talking like a college professor made him seem pedantic. His anime-enabled discovery of a new, trans self gave him a label for the resulting sense of detachment, while unlocking a vault of praise. At his new school, Alex was taken out of maths class at the behest of the school’s LGBT counsellor, so that he could spend the time learning about trans advocacy—the idea being that this information would help Alex defend himself from prejudice. But what he was really getting was positive reinforcement for his new gender identity.
Rosalee didn’t find out about this arrangement until six months after it had started—and even then, only by accident. She was understandably furious. As she saw it, her child’s exceptional talents and character had been co-opted by a school administrator looking to indulge her own ideological convictions.
Young men such as Alex tend to prize autonomy, be it intellectual, creative, or physical: they react badly to being reined in. In the digital space, Alex is free to be who he wants to be, letting his imagination run wild, with no real boundaries. In the short-term, that seems superficially liberating. But Rosalee believes the real long-term effect has been negative, since the people Alex meets have exposed him to a whole new gamut of hang-ups and dark thoughts. He suddenly started believing himself to be ugly, obsessing over his arms as the focus of his dysphoria. And he began talking about suicide. All this left Rosalee wondering how she might have channelled her son’s giftedness in a less risky way.
Very good case here that mental illness can be virtually contagious.
Lots to digest at the original link.