Leaves from the (Rainbow) Vine: A Queer Fanfiction Journey

Janusz Malo

I'm trying to survive late stage capitalism, give me your clicks.

While spending time with the Avatar the Last Airbender universe on Tik Tok, I came across one video that got me wondering about the very small Queer presence in the universe. 

The video, posted by Tik Tok user Yovodo, theorized that Mako’s childhood on the streets of Republic City—along with his Triad dealings—had repressed his sexuality and that Prince Wu is his sexual awakening. 

Given that I love non-canonical relationships (especially if they are Queer) and fan-held opinions, I had to search out more non-canonical Queerness.

This got me thinking. As of this moment, Avatar Korra, Avatar Kyoshi, Rangi, Asami, and Kya are the only canon Queers.  But there must be other Queer theories within this fandom.

So I went on a six-hour-long fan fiction journey to find out.

The true definition of fanfiction is non-canonical stories written by fans of a specific fictional universe. But from a poetic point of view, fanfiction fills in a sliver of a fandom’s universe that is missing and deemed by fans to be worthy of attention.. Fan fiction has eased literary hunger that many fans have–hunger for Queer stories, character specific romances, continuity tweaks, and most importantly; for fans to see themselves in the worlds they have chosen to be in.

For example, I read Avatar the Last Airbender and Legend of Korra fan fiction because I’m not satisfied with the universe’s Queer presence. As a whole, media either ignores Queer existence or quickly kills off their Queer characters, erasing an entire group of people from the public eye. Without fan fiction I’d be denied a chance to see myself in fictional worlds that offer an escape from this current one. We all deserve to see ourselves in the media we consume, and as of now fanfiction provides the majority of that media. 

The writers of fan fiction I read both understand and respect the nuances that come with existing as Queer men, especially the relationships we have with each other and our relationship with the heterosexual world.

Nuances like the awkward confusion one’s first same-sex attraction and eventual relationship can bring, or in Queer folks hiding their love for one another in front of loved ones and society at large, or in the relationships Queer men have within a violently homophobic society and the fathers that society creates.

In Avatar canon, Zuko and Sokka are heterosexual friends and nothing else. But in the world of Avatar fan fiction, they are often depicted as intimate lovers. 

One story about the pair showcased the walls childhood trauma can create and the difficulty one can have opening up to their partner. Sokka, noticing Zuko’s emotional introversion and his night terrors, gently asked his new boyfriend what was troubling him. 

After affirming that the two were in a safe place, and that Sokka would not think less of him, Zuko let his walls down and explained the abuse at the hands of Fire Lord Ozai. Reliving the day his father scared him for kissing another boy. All the while believing he deserved it, it was his fault for his father’s act of brutality and depravity.

Sokka didn’t shun him, or view him as broken and only comforted him, letting him know it was not his fault and facilitated Zuko’s healing process. 

Despite this, Zuko still found it difficult to be open with his emotions and still flinched when Sokka appeared to be upset. Zuko still feared abuse at the hands of a man, even if he loved him. This is because for the vast majority of Zuko’s life, the men that were supposed to love him abused him.

Zuko’s trauma stemming from an abusive childhood was not ignored or pushed to the side—as it is canonically—and, instead,  was both elaborated on and given light. 

In Moving Mountains by thefangirlingdead gave Zuko’s childhood trauma grittier consequences–consequences that highlight the effects of normalized violence. 

While laying in Sokka arms under the moonlight, Zuko casually discusses the abusive relationship he shared with Jet in Ba Sing Sei. Because of Fire Lord Ozai, Jet’s abuse was accepted as another shade of love, something that one is deserving of; Zuko perpetuated the cycle of abuse with Jet. 

To be a Queer man is to face patriarchal violence–violence that is dealt by the men we call our fathers, friends, lovers, and strangers. The patriarchal and homophobic violence—created by an imperialistic authoritarian monarchy  like the Fire Nation– followed Zuko into the Earth Kingdom just as patriarchal violence recognizes no borders in this world.

Zuko and Sokka managed to find love amidst a genocidal war, much like soldiers who go from brothers in arms to lovers in arms in our world. They were openly Queer in societies who see them as weak, unmanly, and deserving of violent reaction—a society not unlike ours. 

Just as they have, Queer men find love in a world that is still not ours.

Not all of the fanfiction that I read held a mirror to the drearier side of humanity, but they did include realism as a running quality, and did so while offering humanized, authentic Queer stories within an internationally adored universe. 

Lin Beifong metal-bended her fiance’s betrothal necklace, further incorporating her own Earth Kingdom heritage into Kya’s Southern Water Tribe heritage. Despite being in a previous relationship with Kya’s brother Tenzin, keeping Kya and Lin’s relationship secret, and Lin not officially coming out, their declaration of love went smoothly. 

The family she had known and battled with welcomed her with acceptance and joy and Suyin Beifong pretended to act surprised when adding Kya as a new sister. And, in typical coming out fashion, Prince Wu and Mako read the room and came out as well. 

Mako’s developing attraction toward Wu, both physically and romantically, was written with the awkwardness and excitement familiar to many Queer people. New feelings and uncharted territory were portrayed naturally and allowed me to see two characters I personally wanted to see together fall in love. 

The Queer presence in the ATLAB universe is slim and relegated to literary and graphic novels, Televised Queerness is not allowed due to Christian uproar. When it is shown, the creators make the Queerness subtle by simply mentioning romantic kisses, a lover’s embrace, or a declaration of love.

It’s not enough. I need and deserve Queer content; especially if Queerness is canon. However, because of homophobia and faith-based intolerance, fan fiction is the only medium that is available to me.

Being authentically Queer is an act of revolution and therefore largely ignored by film and television industries. However, the revolution remains strong in literature, and especially unrelenting in fan fiction. 

The Queer community does not always have the benefit of seeing themselves in the stories we read, universes we fantasize about, and in the characters we adore. Often, we have to accept the scraps that are given.  

But fan fiction fills the void. Through it, the revolution lives another day, and Queer erasure is pushed back once more.

Janusz Malo

I'm trying to survive late stage capitalism, give me your clicks.

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1 Response

  1. April 8, 2021

    […] I touched on in a previous column, literature is the only medium in which—quality—Queer represenation cannot be regulated, coded, […]

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