12 Days of Anime: To BL or Not to BL

12 Days of Anime: To BL or Not to BL

This year, I started working at a bookstore. My knowledge of manga comes in handy for our manga section, particularly boys love and yuri as I’m the only employee familiar with the genres. I follow BL and yuri in English closely to present Rainbow Releases at conventions, as well as for my own enjoyment. I don’t consider myself an expert in the genres–or any field–because I am always learning, but I sure feel like one compared to how little the average person at my job knows of BL and yuri. They definitely haven’t witnessed the “what is BL and what isn’t” arguments that seem to happen on my sphere of Twitter every month. As a result, the designated BL and yuri shelves are largely my responsibility.

The books we order are not obviously labeled BL or yuri, with the exception of SuBLime’s logo on the spine and Tokyopop’s “boys love” and “girls love” genre boxes. At most, a book’s blurb may describe it as BL of yuri. It’s up to us, the bookstore, to decide where to shelve them.

Even before my current job, I gave a lot of thought to how bookstores organize their BL, yuri, and LGBTQ-themed manga. Some stores I shop shelve all LGBTQ-related manga in a single section labeled “Yaoi/Yuri,” some have no special section and organize together alphabetically. Since yaoi and yuri were marketable terms and the first LGBTQ-adjacent works of manga available in the United States, yaoi and yuri are historically synonymous with LGBTQ manga. It makes sense those terms have become the space for LGBTQ manga, even if they don’t quite fit.

At my job, they had already decided on a section for BL and another for yuri, and I’m usually the one putting certain manga there. Of course, I include titles from English language BL-specific imprints and/or those serialized in BL and yuri magazines in Japan. For other titles, my rule of thumb is to include same-gender romance manga. I personally define BL and yuri as romance genres and go from there, especially if I feel a manga is adjacent. For example, My Brother’s Husband has gay characters, but is not a romance and would therefore not belong in our BL section. Other titles may be more complicated. Killing Me! and Cocoon Entwined weren’t published in yuri magazines, but their use of yuri tropes to tell of romance between girls can easily place them in the genre. I believe genre is nebulous and arbitrary, so don’t take my reasoning too seriously. Admittedly, sometimes what pushes me over the edge to move a manga is a lack of space on the main shelves. As much as BL and yuri have grown in the US, their area always has room to spare.

If anything, “unofficial” yuri and BL may appeal to the readers checking out the section. In my years of retail, I was taught to display items together in a way that makes sense to the customer. Shelving What Did You Eat Yesterday?, which was not serialized in a BL magazine, in the same place as 10 Dance, an “official” BL, makes it more obviously about two men in love for those interested in such manga. On the flip side, I wouldn’t shelve Our Dreams at Dusk: Shimanami Tasogare or My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness under BL or yuri to avoid confusing expectations. They have been categorized that way, including on the publisher Seven Seas’ website where BL and yuri seem to be defined as “manga involving same-gender attraction” even if not in relationships, it’s true. That’s perfectly fine, but at my bookstore I would feel guilty if someone read either under the impression the main character will find love, because they don’t.

I wouldn’t have to overthink which titles go where if there weren’t BL and yuri sections to begin with, of course. On one hand, it’s convenient to have them all in one place for those seeking out the genres. Knowing how little people are aware of BL and yuri, it may be for the best to make them more obvious. I’ve seen clearly BL and yuri manga like The Wize Wize Beasts of the Wizarding Wizdoms and I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up outside those sections, at my bookstore and others. Even manga with titles like Yuri Bear Storm and Yuri Life, probably shelved by clerks who just didn’t know better. (I move them at my job.)

On the other hand, the sections feel like singling out BL and yuri–and by extension LGBTQ content–from everything else. I can’t really argue with that. It may limit the possibility of someone who normally doesn’t read BL or yuri coming across one, and at worst cater to bigots who want to ignore any gay content. To avoid that, I make an effort to display and recommend BL and yuri outside their designated sections, the same as I do with other LGBTQ titles like The Bride was a Boy. There is no perfect solution, but I’ll do my best.

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