Queerness occupies a strange place in the world, pun not quite intended. From what I gather, which I hope is not my own projection, the queer and trans people I know just want to live and thrive, be nerds, have sex if we so choose or have people respect us if sexual or romantic attraction is not something we experience. We just want to be. However, systems of queerphobia have sought to prevent that throughout history, and becoming is not such an open act, out of fear or sometimes safety. So, that takes me to a manga that gets at some of this reality, though wrapped in wholesome and truly loving family dynamics: I Think Our Son is Gay. So, for the return of Health and Inclusivity, it was something I wanted to tackle, given this point in history and culture.
I Think Our Son is Gay by Okura, who is gay himself, follows Tomoko Aoyama, mother to Hiroki and Yuri and wife to Akiyoshi. She watches her older son, Hiroki, with curiosity, pointing out his reaction to handsome men, his ‘best friend’ Daigo, and his platonic reaction to childhood friend Asumi Ogawa. The manga is basically slice of life, with Tomoko navigating her own thoughts about Hiroki and the ‘possibility’ of him being gay. From affirmation to challenges, she ponders what life is like for him, with the core idea that there’s a reason he cannot be as open as maybe he’d like to be. Her perspective and observations allow her to grow and change, learning to be an advocate for Hiroki in the ways she can. These are the reasons I wanted to tap into the magic that is the manga, because it’s a great roadmap for how to approach the queer and trans younglings in our lives.
Life is hard. Like, that’s a statement in and of itself. And, in 2023, globally it is still tenuous to be queer. The UK and US have been notorious for ramping up what was already a violent treatment of trans people, and as queer and trans people gain freedoms in some places, they are withdrawn in many others. That many, or any of us, are able to grasp joy among how the world interacts with us is remarkable, though never forget that resilience does not arise as a result of marginalization, rather than occurring alongside it out of necessity and survival. Thus, it is paramount that we not just make a better world, though, sadly that sounds trite, we have to do things to ensure our queer and trans youth have queer and trans futures. Things like what Tomoko does in I Think Our Son is Gay.
From the beginning and her initial questions, Tomoko revisits the past and watches the nuances of Hiroki’s behavior to figure out if he’s gay or not. From a distance, she sees how he responds to men and women, who excites him and who he doesn’t think sees him. She considers who he was as a younger child, and also the world around them in trying to understand who he is and offer the safety he needs. Because another thing is clear to her: there are reasons why Hiroki may not want to share that he’s gay with anyone, even her.
I Think Our Son is Gay is wonderful and heartwarming, but the title and premise have a heartbreaking foundation. In a world where queerness and transness is not marginalized, there’s not a need to come out or reveal, because there’d be no framework for the closet. Given that queerphobia and transphobia can and do create harmful realities, it makes the closet necessary. Non-disclosure can mean survival in many places, and as such should be supported in ways that help meet people’s material needs. With Hiroki, Tomoko slowly sees reasons why he may not talk about being gay, while also giving him some room to just be himself regardless of sexual orientation. She becomes more aware of the barriers he may likely face, and her fondest wish becomes just like many queer and trans people’s: that Hiroki can just be.
However, from coworkers to Akiyoshi, her husband and Hiroki’s father, Tomoko can hear things that make it more than rational to stay in the closet, to not talk about being gay. Heartbreak and marginalization are real and painful consequences in a queerphobic and transphobic world, and she can sense Hiroki’s hesitation at engaging with either. These events, though, elicit something powerful in Tomoko and that makes me admire her.
She becomes a more staunch advocate of her son.
Rather than out Hiroki or ask him point blank, she gives him space to be himself. She grows to challenge Akiyoshi more without alerting anything to Hiroki’s feelings. She talks with her coworkers about being respectful of a gay colleague, and even finds a respectful way to talk with him about Hiroki. She does so many awesome things that I would recommend to any parent, and she does it all through honoring Hiroki’s autonomy and challenging her own misconceptions.
There are so many ways parents harm their queer and trans kids. One of my least favorite is a twisting of the grief that can come with finding out your kids are queer or trans. While, yes, it is an adjustment to learn something new and figure out how to support your child, parents’ own feelings should not be at the center of their kids coming out. But they often are. And that’s one of the better scenarios.
Many parents are still kicking their kids out or cutting them off from resources. Sending them to conversion camps, vile as they are, and encouraging them to stay quiet to protect peace for the family or god knows what else. These things are all harmful, and they create some of the most poignant and painful barriers to becoming that queer and trans people experience. What makes me sad is I’ve never met a queer or trans person who didn’t have one of these stories.
But I have hope that future generations can experience something brighter.
Giving queer and trans youth tools for uncovering who they are is vital, and it has to happen at their pace. Again, given how queerphobia and transphobia have made coming out an unfortunate part of many experiences, kids and adolescents need tools and support to navigate on their own, but also safe adults to talk to and guide them to safe resources. This means backing off, watching what you say, defending queer and trans people in front of them, and removing harmful people from their lives.
While Tomoko doesn’t have to do anything drastic, she does have to challenge her husband more than she maybe expected. Akiyoshi is loving and devoted, and does his best to make up for being away with work. Both Hiroki and Yuri have a positive relationship with him, and all the same Akiyoshi reveals casual queerphobia that has an obvious impact on Hiroki. The first time it happens in the manga, Tomoko isn’t quite sure what to do. But later on she develops helpful strategies for countering Akiyoshi and providing some solace for Hiroki.
I appreciate this manga because it is a helpful guide for approaching the queer and trans kids in our lives. Hell, it’s great for cishet kids too because they can see what their queer and trans peers may likely experience in school, at home, or in life in general. This manga also shows us how to be there for the people in our lives by responding to their needs without projecting our own.
It warms my heart, sometimes to the point of tears, to see Tomoko react in a way I wish my mom had, that any of my parents had. There was no one in my corner to help me, let alone defend me, and I still carry that hurt with me. Sadly, in comparison, these wounds are the ones that are the least painful.
When we react poorly, with anger or sadness or dismissal, when queer and trans kids tell us about who they are, we reveal that we are unsafe. In fact, again looking at what it means to have to come out (on a repeated basis at that), it is an act of trust for someone to tell us they are queer or trans. We have to respond quickly and with care, lest we create wounds that may take time to fade, if they do at all. Feel free to ask me how I know.
One of the things I treasure is the possibility that we can give people what they need to find out who they are on their terms. With queer and trans youth, there are so few opportunities for this that it’s vital we create spaces and tools for them to navigate the world. The internet can be really helpful, but it is not perfect, as there has been a noted presence of queer and trans kids shaped by the puritanical and hateful environments they may find themselves in, adopting queerphobic and transphobic ideals because they don’t have room or space or freedom to encounter healthy and safe adults that can show them the joys of queerness and transness, including appropriate knowledge and resources around sexual health, consent, and boundaries.
I Think Our Son is Gay is a delightful read, though it can hit on some sore spots for me, and I imagine other queer and trans folx. It’s a lighthearted roadmap to helping queer and trans kids have futures where they get to live, at least as best as we can do so right now. And likely due to Okura’s own experiences, it holds nuances that reveal what the coming out journey can be like for those outside of our queer or trans identities, giving some insight into how to help someone without introducing pain into their path.
Just like Tomoko, my fondest wish is that queer and trans people get to be, and that all of our intersections are honored and supported. Until then, I’m glad we have manga like I Think Our Son is Gay because they give us a glimpse into a happier queer or trans life, into better ways to show up for the queer and trans kids in our lives, into a much more hopeful and bright future than so many of us are offered.
It won’t be super easy to hide the title, but if you can sneak this into the life of a queer or trans kid, safely I might add, I highly encourage you to do so. Show them there’s something, someone, who can look out for them, whether in life or on the page. Help give them hope that it can, or will, happen, even if we know that it does not for everyone.
Just like Tomoko, do what you can to give someone the room to ogle gymnasts and have crushes on their best friend. And if you have to ask the question? Keep it to yourself, giving others the room to discover who they are on their terms. Just like Tomoko.