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How the Boy’s Love genre might shake-up LGBTQ attitudes in Asia and beyond

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Is the Boys’ Love genre paving the way for LGBTQ acceptance in Asia and beyond? Fans welcome recognition, but critics push for creative controls

Hong Kong actor Godric Leung Man-yin started watching Thai drama series Bad Buddy two years ago to kill time during the Covid-19 pandemic and was soon hooked by the Boys’ Love (BL) genre.

“In the BL world, there are no traditional gender roles like in heterosexual dramas where the female character is weaker and the male character is the one that pursues and protects her,” the 29-year-old actor said.

The genre’s exploding popularity in Asia has drawn on a largely female fan base, and Leung said he was initially wary of declaring openly that he liked shows that depicted romantic and sexual relationships between men.

“I didn’t know anyone else who enjoyed it,” he said. “I think that also had to do with the fact that people lacked acceptance for the LGBTQ community.”

He found an outlet through his YouTube channel where he reviewed BL drama series, eventually garnering more than 5,000 subscribers.

Hong Kong actor Godric Leung says the BL genre goes against traditional gender norms and has helped to stoke people’s curiosity. Photo: Instagram/@_godricleung

“Through my videos, I found fellow BL fans and I no longer felt embarrassed,” he said. “The genre’s growing popularity also made more people curious, and made me realise many people are OK with it.”

BL has its roots in Japanese comics and graphic novels in the 1970s, where mostly heterosexual women writers produced fantastical stories about romantic or sexual relationships between male characters.

Fans called themselves fujoshi – “rotten girls” who embraced their deviation from social norms by consuming homosexual content and exploring their sexuality.

In recent years BL has taken off in Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and mainland China, with the genre spanning comics to novels, video games, films and television series.

The 2020 Thai-made 2Gether: The Series drew more than 100 million views within two months over the streaming platform Line TV.

Experts and fans said the genre’s popularity appeared to reflect greater LGBTQ visibility in Asia, but not necessarily social progress for the community.

The genre has also attracted a backlash from conservative and Christian groups, with some mainland authorities saying they wanted to put an end to it.

Hong Kong held its first Boys’ Love Festival over a fortnight at hotel and cultural hub Eaton in November. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

‘I was afraid people would think I was a pervert’

In November, Hong Kong held the first Boys’ Love Festival over a fortnight at hotel and cultural hub Eaton HK, with local filmmakers, cultural scholars and fans gathering over two days to discuss the phenomenon.

Stephanie Diane Chow, 27, one of the organisers, said that compared with heterosexual stories where she might project herself onto the female character, reading BL novels allowed her to enjoy exploring the relationship between two men without inserting herself into the experience.

“In heterosexual works, male and female characters easily fall into gender stereotypes,” she said. “In BL, the woman doesn’t have to be a love interest. She can be anything she wants. Men in BL can be weak too.”

She said her interest signalled to her LGBTQ friends that she was an ally of their community.

“Some have approached me before coming out because they knew I read BL and am accepting of queer people,” she added. “This trust is so precious to me.”

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Chow co-founded a BL bookstore, The Fu Court, in Mong Kok with her friends Maron Chan Yee-shan, Konnie Lee Kwan-yu and Philip Chan Ka-chun. Fans pay a small fee to linger for as long as they like to read comics or novels there.

“When I was younger, I felt ashamed when others discovered that I read BL as I was afraid people would think I was a pervert,” she said. “But now we feel there is more openness.”

The Fu Court co-organised the festival and exhibition together with Eaton HK, drawing sponsorships from both international and local brands.

The Post observed that the festival activities over a weekend were attended by more than 100 fans, mostly women in their 20s and 30s.

“We believe in greater visibility and representation,” she said.

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Comedy series put a taboo subject on TV

In 2021, Hong Kong broadcaster ViuTV released a remake of the hit Japanese comedy series Ossan’s Love, the first BL drama to be televised in the city.

Starring Anson Lo Hon-ting and Edan Lui Cheuk-on of the popular Hong Kong boy band Mirror, the series received positive reviews and became the network’s highest-rated drama series since its launch in 2016.

Homosexuality has long been a taboo subject in Hong Kong owing to conservative Chinese and Christian values. Although gay sex was decriminalised in 1991, same-sex marriage is not allowed and anti-discrimination laws do not extend to sexual orientation.

LGBTQ couples have scored a string of victories in the Hong Kong courts in recent years.

The release of a Hong Kong remake of Japanese BL series Ossan’s Love in 2021 was met with positive reviews and has become ViuTV’s highest-rated drama since 2016. Photo: Handout

In September, the Court of Final Appeal delivered a landmark judgment requiring the government to provide some form of legal recognition, such as civil partnership, for same-sex couples, which would include a set of “core rights”.

Ella Li Mei-ting, a popular culture scholar from Chinese University, said the Hong Kong remake of Ossan’s Love encouraged BL fans and members of the LGBTQ community to explore different ways of expressing themselves and encouraged conversations about queer relationships.

“When they see that an official television station has made a BL drama, they will come up with other BL content that can be produced locally,” she said.


Hong Kong’s top court orders government to create legal framework for same-sex partnerships

Hong Kong’s top court orders government to create legal framework for same-sex partnerships

Pull and power of the ‘Thai BL machine’

Thailand has led the Asian BL boom, with production companies there and in East Asia churning out hundreds of drama series over the past three years.

Thai media companies took advantage of the pandemic in 2020, when people were stuck at home and looking for feel-good, lighthearted content.

The huge success of 2gether: The Series made stars of Bright Vachirawit Chivaaree and Win Metawin Opas-iamkajorn, who played the lead characters. They have more than 30 million followers on Instagram.

Last year, Thailand produced 56 BL dramas, averaging one new drama a week. It has put out 29 so far this year.

The streaming rights of Thai BL series bought by other Asian countries totalled 360 million baht (US$10.2 million) in 2021, according to official data.

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Thai media companies have also generated more income through international fan meetings in Asia and also in Europe and North and South America.

This year alone, there were more than 20 sold-out Thai BL fan meetings in Hong Kong, each featuring the two actors from a drama series, generating at least HK$21 million (US$2.7 million) in ticket sales.

The top ticket price of HK$1,880 earned fans a signed poster and the opportunity to take a photo with the stars and hi-five them.

Australian anthropologist Thomas Baudinette, of Macquarie University in Sydney, has researched the subject, written a book and calls the phenomenon the “Thai BL machine”.

“BL was predominantly text-based. Fans used to read between the lines and spot moments of intimacy which sparked their imagination and created their own fantasies,” he said.

“But now the Thai BL machine has taken two young, handsome celebrities and starred them in a television series where they fall in love, providing fans with content inside and outside the show, selling a fantasy.”

The huge success of 2gether: The Series has made stars of Win Metawin Opas-iamkajorn (left) and Bright Vachirawit Chivaaree. Photo: Handout

Fan meetings and reality shows featuring the lead actors have become what he called “staged homoeroticism” as everyone was aware that the on-screen intimacy between the actors was just make-believe.

Apart from a few openly gay stars, Baudinette said the sexuality of many Thai BL actors was not known and coming out as gay could affect an actor’s career.

He added that although Thailand seemed like “a queer utopia” in Asia, its laws did not protect same-sex couples.

The country is expected to debate a change to its civil code to allow same-sex marriage this month.

Li from Chinese University said that while BL could be described as part of queer culture, its roots stemmed from the exploration of sexual desires of women in oppressive societies.

“For example, in Japanese or Chinese culture, it is difficult to openly discuss the sexual desires of females,” she said. “BL provided a platform for their imagination, which might not represent real same-sex relationships.”

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Li said Hong Kong was unique as it may appear open-minded towards the LGBTQ community, but there were not many visual representations available until Ossan’s Love.

The popularity of the show also led to the media reporting that male lead Anson Lo had a same-sex relationship in the past. He did not confirm or deny it.

“Discussions surrounding Lo’s sexuality triggered audiences and fans to support him and say it didn’t matter if he was gay,” Li said.

“These voices showed that Hongkongers don’t care about his sexuality, and many have accepted queerness as a fact or at least are not opposed to it.”

But Li said despite the popularity of BL, the city’s LGBTQ community still faced many hurdles in achieving equality.

“For example, the judiciary in Hong Kong has affirmed through court cases that marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman,” she said. “The government has also shown hostility by appealing tirelessly against verdicts that rule in favour of same-sex couples.”

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‘Abnormal’, ‘confusing’ – a bad influence?

Among the BL industry’s opponents is lawmaker Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, who slammed Ossan’s Love for featuring same-sex romance, calling it “sugar-coated marijuana”.

He also declared that promoting homosexuality was against China’s three-child policy and the national security law.

On the mainland, where the BL genre comes through in danmei dramas that are less about sexual relationships than bromances, there have been moves to curb the proliferation of series featuring men in love.

Last year, Beijing broadcasting authorities banned danmei in films and TV series to “create a clean and healthy cyberspace for the capital city”.

In 2016, Addicted, a popular 15-episode TV drama about love between two young men, was pulled from all Chinese video platforms after 12 episodes were shown.

Soon after, TV producers were banned from making programmes that showed “abnormal sexual relationships and behaviours, such as incest, same-sex relationships, sexual perversion, sexual assault, sexual abuse and sexual violence”.

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Cheng On-yin, ministry director of the Hong Kong Sex Culture Society, a Christian organisation teaching sex education in schools, said the proliferation of BL might influence teenagers to confuse fantasy from real life.

“I have seen a situation in schools, when two boys made physical contact when playing tag and their female classmates pointed at them, shouting that they are gay,” he said.

“I am concerned these fantasies will affect friendships, make boys doubt their sexuality and feel uncomfortable around their male friends.”

He said BL was not an accurate teaching material for young people who wanted to learn about the LGBTQ community and BL products often included explicit sexual interaction between men.

“BL packages socially unacceptable relationships into a beautiful tale, and the media might instil harmful values in those who are unable to separate romance from improper content.”

(Left to right) Fu Court co-founders Stephanie Diane Chow, Maron Chan, Konnie Lee and Philip Chan. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

The Fu Court, which co-organised last month’s BL Festival, said it received homophobic comments on its videos, including one that asked: “Will watching this affect my child’s sexuality?”

Maron Chan, a co-founder of the bookshop, said people still lacked understanding of BL.

“The ratio of male to female customers in our store is 60:40, contrary to the traditional BL fan base of mostly straight women,” Chan said.

“BL works are not limited to romance and can include thrillers and sci-fi, or debate issues like classism. As long as the plot is interesting, it will attract fans. It just happens that both lead characters are male.”

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BL fan Godric Leung said he spent more than HK$8,700 this year on top-tier tickets to get up close to his idols at fan meetings in Hong Kong.

He travelled to Thailand in June for a concert featuring 16 BL stars and will be in Bangkok again this month for a meet-and-greet event.

He said it was difficult to imagine Thailand’s BL success replicated in Hong Kong due to a perceived lack of demand and lack of diversity behind the camera.

Despite Ossan’s Love’s success in 2021, the city’s major TV stations did not produce any more BL television series.

“If BL can be sold as a product, then fighting for more LGBTQ rights is possible. But in Hong Kong, we don’t even have this mindset,” Leung said.

“If we don’t have equal rights, I guess the next best thing we can do is to capitalise on queer relationships and give them greater visibility.”


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