When I first encountered fanfiction in the mid-aughts, I’d never considered that I could be queer, kind of in the same way I’d never considered if I could be a fish. It would have felt a bit silly to think about it, you know? A little dramatic. God only knows what unholy google search found me on FanFiction.net, but the experience was like being tipped out of a lonely fishbowl and into the ocean. No barriers, no direction, way wetter than I’d anticipated. It was only when coming face to face with another fish that it occurred to me to start wondering about what the heck I was.
Defences of fanfiction have been made on its creative merits, on its transformative merits, on its god-why-do-we-need-to-defend-enjoying-stuff merits, but one of the most important needs that fic meets is its ability to provide a low-risk space for people who are questioning their identity to actually explore it. These days, Google is more likely to take you to Ao3 where queer fiction numbers in the millions and is infinitely filterable, but even FFN would hit you with something gay on the first page back in the day. It sounded like an innocuous enough hobby when my mother asked why I was spending so much time on the computer, and the combination of Japanese loanwords and fandom slang meant that anyone seeing ‘H/D shounen-ai lemon’ in my browser history was mostly just going to be confused. Having a space where I could engage in queer content and speak with queer people was such a vital component of my personal queer journey, I’m genuinely not sure how long it would have taken me to get started without it.
Given the freedom inherent in the medium—it’s free, it’s easy and relatively anonymous to sign up—fanfiction could be a place for exploring queerness, and for pushing its boundaries. When the only constraints on what you can write are in what coding you can force Ao3 to accept, there’s a lot of room to get creative in our interpretation and expression of What Queerness Is. It also creates a space like no other for people to dig into queer sex and queer bodies, both of which are way too quickly villified elsewhere on the internet. Theoretically, fanfiction is a transformative media—you take a story that already exists, and make new art out of it, or in spite of it, or in conversation with it. And yet, the fic community keeps coming back to the same tired echo of rigid, cis-heterosexual norms with a thin coat of Gay slapped over the top over it.
All this to say, I had to explain what yaoi hands were to someone recently. It’s all about the shoulder-to-waist ratio these days. Much that once was is called something different now, but it’s hitting the same notes. We’re in the Omegaverse, and instead of seme/uke, we’ve got alpha/omega. Mpreg has become breeding kink. ‘DON’T LIKE DON’T READ’ is a prologue in the author’s notes begging the readers not to take sex advice from fanfiction. (Yaoi hands, for those who don’t know, is a tendency in boys’ love manga for the seme, or top, to be drawn with Very Large Hands, usually in direct contrast to the Very Small Waist of the bottom/uke. You’re welcome).
Regardless of we call it, the base model of queerness in fandom is this: two men (only two), nominally cis, are either In Love, or will be by the time the fic is through with them. Regardless of their actual physical characteristics, one will be assigned Large and the other will be assigned Small. Largeness™ can be quantified in height, breadth, strength, or general presence, but you better believe none of these boys are sporting love handles. Smallness™, meanwhile, is based less on actual size, but instead on how easy it is to femme the man in question. That said, a man is gonna be small, sometimes in height, always in waist measurements. Whether or not these men fall into these stereotypes in canon is irrelevant: a Large™ man gets assigned top (synonymous seme, dom, alpha, Penetrator), and a Small™ man is assigned bottom (uke, sub, omega, Penetrated). A Large man is protective, domineering, stoic, caretaking. A Small man is delicate, soft, passionate, needy. A Large man has a big dick; a Small man’s dick doesn’t usually come into the equation. We do not speak of women.
The modelling works in two directions—men with these physical characteristics will change personalities like an outfit to better fit the mould, but so too will men with certain personality traits find themselves being described as more femme or masc, regardless of their actual body types. The amount of straight-up-and-down men who suddenly acquire ‘curves,’ or ‘a waist so tiny his hands nearly closed around it’ because they’ve exhibited like, emotional vulnerability, is uncountable. There’s this womenification of feminine men that occurs, a term I use specifically because of the cisgender implications it has—these fics aren’t interested in exploring the nuances and complications of gender, they’re mirroring the worst tropes of heterosexuality. If women have historically been treated as passive creatures whose sexuality needs to be corralled and controlled by men, then fandom is doing the same thing to male characters who evoke femininity, and it’s painting it with this veneer of wokeness by calling it queer.
Even concepts that play with physical sex characteristics like allowing cis men to be pregnant overwhelmingly shy away from engaging with transness. The collaborative fandom creation of the Omegaverse has resulted in this collection of tropes that impose cisheteronormativity onto queerness; we’ve collectively constructed a world that allows for the wholesale invention of physical sex characteristics, and the most interesting thing the majority of stories can think of to do with that is recreate the biological imperative? It elevates the concepts of marriage (mating) and children from social norms to natural instinct, posits that even in a world where same-gender relationships are normalised, we are only supposed to yearn for some approximation of straightness.
In describing this reiterative trend in the fic space, I don’t mean to imply that it’s the only thing being written about—just that it’s really, really popular. Of course, the second anything gets popular on the internet, people will start doing the exact opposite. The Non-Traditional Alpha/Beta/Omega Dynamics tag on Ao3 has 11.5k fics in it—this compared to 123k Alpha/Beta/Omega Dynamic fics, but it’s not an insignificant number. Some of the queerest, sexiest, most identity-affirming writing is being done in this space. Writers pick up the concepts outlined by what I guess we’re calling the Traditional Omegaverse and start subverting expectations. Non-Traditional A/B/O understands that sex, sexuality, gender exist as connected, but distinct concepts, and that they can be mixed and matched at will. Rather than insisting on a strictly binary view of all three, it’s a space that hands writer and reader the pieces to create and interpret as they please.
An example: a lesbian alpha explores gender identity through BDSM. So much of our language regarding sex and sex roles is already gendered—trying to play with those roles as a queer person can often involve a lot of wincing and ‘oh no, that doesn’t work for me’. In this particular A/B/O verse, female alphas have dicks (they retract! Non-Traditional A/B/O understands that if we’re making up genitalia anyway, we might as well get creative with it). A lesbian alpha engaging in vaginal penetration with a lesbian omega is considered pretty standard sexual behaviour. The traits of power and dominance become associated not with male-ness, but alpha-ness, suggesting that those alpha-associated traits are disconnected from our standard understanding of gender entirely. The A/B/O framework allows the fic to treat as comfortable, even typical, a lot of things that are considered taboo in reality, e.g. lesbians with dicks, lesbians engaging in penetrative sex, lesbians having sex for themselves and not cis men. Obviously lesbians and queer women in general engage with how to wrangle BDSM and gender all the time, but the fantasy here is about having the kind of space where one doesn’t have to wrangle—the things you want are a matter of course.
That’s not going to be every queer person’s favourite flavour, which that’s kind of the point. Another thing this Non-Traditional space allows for is the fact that queerness is different for everyone using the term. Another example: a sexual romance between two men, both omegas. In this verse, gay relationships are considered par for the course, but only if they’re between an alpha and an omega. Neither omega character is depicted as the aforementioned Large or Small type of man—after all, most people don’t fall into one extreme or another, and the goal in writing most characters in fiction (fan or otherwise) is for them to be people. But both characters have to work through their own experiences and assumptions about being an omega attracted to other omegas, something that looks different for both of them, and mirrors pretty closely the experience of being gay in real life.
Which of course begs the question: if we’re just writing gay erotica, why bother with all the bonus features using the setting enables? Sometimes it is just that people find the aesthetics of A/B/O appealing, sexually or otherwise. Sometimes it’s the fun of playing around with what a society looks like when you start turning those features on or off in different combinations. And sometimes, a made-up sex/gender framework that is malleable to the writer’s choices and the reader’s interpretations allows it to serve as a useful analogy for those things that hurt too much to handle directly.
At this point, I do want to say—it would be remiss of me not to point out that a lot of that queer, sexy, identity-affirming work mentioned above is being written by trans writers, who have seized the worldbuilding mechanics for their own, whether that be to dig into the social issues of gender and transition, or to just be horny. A lot of queer writing in fanfiction spaces is often spoken about in terms of non-queer writers fetishising communities they aren’t a part of—I have no statistics to prove this, but my personal fandom experience has overwhelmingly been of people who identify as queer, or who will identify as being queer in about three to five years time. Non-Traditional Omegaverse fic is this phenomenon distilled, a space where you can really dig into the nuts and bolts of what sex and gender mean to you. This is genre fiction at its best; when people take the established boundaries of a known concept and run them completely off the map into something vibrant and new.
But the existence of Non-Traditional Omegaverse work also ends up being the exception that proves the rule. Because what we’ve done is created two types of queerness: Traditional Queers, which fit into that Big/Small framework I outlined before, and Non-Traditional Queers. Frankly, the word “traditional” is enough to send me running, and that’s when I hear it from straight people. When it’s coming from queer spaces, it starts to acquire the grim aura of gatekeeping—which is a wild thing to begin with when we’re talking about a sub-niche of a niche corner of fandom, and even more infuriating when you consider that we’re talking about community created tropes. Who put these gates here? The Omegaverse might be the most popular iteration right now, but it’s just a new take on the same thing we’ve been doing for years; we’ve created this hierarchy where the most popular ships and dynamics, the stories that are most seen and most told, are the ones that adhere the closest to this ideal of a monogamous, active/passive pairing whose life goals sum up to marriage and babies. Even in this space that we’ve crafted for ourselves, our fantasies lean overwhelmingly straight. The Non-Traditional A/B/O space is doing some really interesting work, but comparatively, it’s so small—it’s not that fic outside the binary isn’t being written, it’s that you have to scrounge to find it.
This isn’t a call to Halt All Queer Erotica Until Everyone Writes At Least One Masc Bottom Or Sapphic Woman. When it comes to fic, proscriptive criticism is less than useless; nothing has personally driven me to write about something more than someone insisting it shouldn’t be written about, and the joy of fic is in being able to throw it online with as much or as little connection to who you are as you want. But I think it serves us well as queers and writers to take a look at our communities and talk about the work we’re producing, and what possibilities our stories are spinning for us. It’s not surprising that, in a media landscape so starved of diverse queer content, even the stories we write for free can end up replicating the same patterns that have been pushed on us for decades.
When you haven’t been allowed to see yourself, sometimes the most radical thing you can imagine is being queer at all. But it seems like this is where the community has stalled itself, one frozen step away from the demands of straight society. I don’t want to yuck anyone’s yum, but I would love to… broaden some palates? Expand the menu? If fanfiction is supposed to be transformative, then let’s transform it.
Hannah graduated the University of Auckland with a BA in History and English Literature in 2013, and has been putting it to dubious use yelling about queerness and fandom ever since. You can yell with her on Twitter @hanpersands