“Omg did you see how they were eyefucking each other in that music video? Holy shit they are soooo gay, slay me sis!” If you’ve been around hardcore K-pop or One Direction stans since maybe 2016 you’ve probably heard variations on that. Since the rise of fandoms, queer folk, or more specifically gay men, have been the objects of teen fantasy—but with (seemingly) straight people as props. And what the fuck is up with that? I’ve always found the whole finding the gay between real life people weird, and honestly, a bit perverse.
Fans, mostly young women, are really out here scrutinising every innocent interaction like they’re the gay FBI combing for scraps to prove the fake romance they’ve made up. Banter, touches, even clothing can be turned from innocuous to gay subtext. God, I’d hate to be a silly goofy guy just showing human affection to one of my guy friends (admittedly, a rarity), only for Twitter user @zaynsasshole to write a 100-tweet thread “exposé” on our lives as gay lovers. They say any publicity is good publicity and the same can be argued for representation, but homoeroticisation just co-opts queer people’s own narritaves out of their control. In reality, queer folk are just trying to get through the day—our lives aren’t hobbies or entertainment for voyeuristic straights. But, I know it’s not as simple as saying, “Stop fetishising gay lives!! Leave straight and queer people alone!” As much as it’s problematic for queer folk, it’s also a symptom of societal neglect young women are trying to address in their own way.
I love queer shit as much as the next person. It’s liberating seeing more queer media, queer stories, more queer people in the world. But I can’t say the same with the imposition of queerness on straight people. Obviously, queerbaiting is rife in media and queer and straight members of fandoms feed on it, but reading in queerness often relies on stereotypes that boulster traditional ideas of gender and sexuality. The media industry is increasingly presenting male celebrities as ideal men who are the antithesis of toxic masculinity. It’s great until fans latch on and co-opt it. Men who are more feminine or otherwise break the masculine manly-man mold are automatically presumed to be gay; friendships that aren’t completely stoic are elevated to romantic. It reduces queer men to tired monoliths and prevents straight-cis men from the expressiveness we keep telling them to own.
We tell straight-cis men “Why aren’t you soft? Be vulnerable! Be feminine! There’s no such thing as a gaydar!” whilst also using these same behaviours as evidence for queerness. It’s counter-productive: no one wants to be something they’re not.
It gets messier when we add the culture into the mix. The rising popularity of K-pop has increasingly subjected Asian men to Western expectations: K-pop stans see their favourite idols acting against Western ideas of masculinity and male friendship and suddenly they’re gay for each other. But non-Western cultures have different ideas about masculinity and femininity that get overlooked. Sure, not all of them are great—but in many ways they’re leaps ahead of the West. To use queerness as an explanation for these behaviours erases non-Western understandings of identity and gender perfomativity, and usurps them with Western ideals.
Asian societies are unfortunately pretty queerphobic, and the queer struggle to live authentically in these places gets undermined by fandoms who see these imaginary relationships through rose-tinted glasses. It objectifies queer people and their lived experiences to be made props in someone else’s fantasy. When you separate the real person from their context to suit your narrative, especially when their societies are queerphobic, it alienates the individual from their experiences. You’re not normalising representation—you’re commodifying queer lives.
For some fans, the reasons for forcing homoerotism can be pretty superficial. They either catch on to certain sexual tensions brought on by uncharacteristic warmness between men, or by imagining them in such an intense, intimate way it brings the fan closer to the objects of their affections.1 To either I would say fuck off—queerness isn’t for your entertainment, end of conversation. But there’s another reason that deserves discussion: counter-cultural subversion.
I know fandoms (particularly those with mostly young women fans) aren’t just doing this to hate on the gays. With toxic masculinity so rife, it’s a fair call that female fans want to see positive male relationships.2 Queering male relationships can be an expression of idealised heterosexuality that provides fans an out from the same old heterosexual romantic storytelling. By reworking the narrative, female fans get to fuck with the heteronormativity and gender roles aimed at them as consumers of mainstream media. It’s a safe, seemingly harmless way for fans to reclaim their autonomy and challenge oppressive expectations of femininity in their own weird way.3
When it comes to the homoeroticisation of Asian male relationships, I get that gayification can serve as a middle finger to surrounding queerphobic societies. The few queer relationships we see are mostly between white men. The act of finding queerness between Asian relationships can be that much needed outlet for Asian folk desperate to see traditional attitudes be overturned.4 It subverts the stereotypes of all Asians being nonsexual, repressed, and defaultly straight—and reimagines a sexually liberated Asian identity. And this can be a reparative practice for any non-white fan. By imagining a world where the intersection of ethnic and cultural identity with queer identity isn’t relegated to the closet, fans can create their own narratives to fight against marginisation.5
There’s real power in queerification: it lets individuals challenge heteronormativity, gender constructs, and racial stereotypes in the mainstream—that’s important stuff. It’s a genuine need they’re trying to fill—but not at queer people’s expense. Queer experiences are lived experiences and shouldn’t be co-opted by voyeuristic fans who treat them like a cheap narritave device. Nor should queer people and their stories be the only way straights to learn to change their attitudes towards inclusivity because they ship two straight guys together they find hot. This isn’t a jab at those who gayify their faves—you’re not automatically a homophobic monster for doing it. But, there are more constructive ways to combat the multifangled problems homoeroticisation is trying to address that don’t use queerness as a prop.
If young women need an outlet from the overwhelming expectations patriarchal mainstream media pushes, then let’s fucking give them an outlet. We need healthy examples of heterosexual relationships that are aspirational and aren’t worn-out cliches. We need normalised queerness that doesn’t skulk in background ambiguity or conversely lavishes praise around the one gay character—cut that queerbaiting bullshit out and don’t tokenise us, mainstream media! Practise what you preach by ignoring your “gaydar” (whatever that means) when a man wears a pink shirt or listens to Lady Gaga. In the everyday, allow expression without expectation: when you say “gender isn’t real” or “there’s no way to look gay” make your actions mean it.
1Sarah Gooding. “How the Woman Who Got a Degree In One Direction Is Legitimizing Teen Fandom”
2Chunyu Zhang. “Loving Boys Twice as Much: Chinese Women’s Paradoxical Fandom of “Boys’ Love” Fiction”
3Clare Southerton & Hannah McCann. “Queerbaiting and Real Person Slash: The Case of Larry Stylinson”
4 Linda Kuo, Simone Perez-Garcia, Lindsey Burke, Vic Yamasaki & Thomas Le. “Performance, Fantasy, or Narrative: LGBTQ+ Asian American Identity Through Kpop Media and Fandom”
5Jennifer Duggan. “Fanfiction: Remixing race, sexuality and gender”