Exploring gender identity with Love Me for Who I Am

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One of the things I’ve come to particularly appreciate about manga is that it feels like an inherently more “personal” creative medium by its very nature. Since manga series are typically the work of just one or two people at most, they’re often less concerned about the “business” side of things and more interested in telling compelling stories — or perhaps exploring subject matter that doesn’t often get explored in popular media. Love Me for Who I Am, a five-volume manga series by Kata Konayama, is a great example of this.

Love Me for Who I Am, also known as Fukakai na Boku no Subete o or simply FukaBoku, is a story about gender identity. Specifically, it explores the story of a character named Mogumo, and their feelings towards traditional definitions of gender identity.

Mogumo is non-binary, though they exhibit an obvious preference towards presenting in a traditionally female-coded manner. This is a distinction that is extremely important to Mogumo, as we’ll talk about in a moment.

Love Me for Who I Am volume 1

The cynical might argue that presenting a non-binary character as what essentially appears at first glance to be a cute girl (or perhaps an otokonoko — a cute boy dressed as a girl) is probably easier than giving them a truly “genderless” appearance. But bear in mind that historically, anime and manga have had no qualms whatsoever about depicting deliberately androgynous characters and thus it would probably be charitable to assume that Mogumo’s appearance in Love Me for Who I Am was a specific creative choice on Konayama’s part.

In fact, as is often the case, we get a little insight into the creative process thanks to Konayama’s afterword to Love Me for Who I Am’s first volume. When they first started putting together the story, Mogumo was a more “traditional” otokonoko character, who was, in Konayama’s words, “annoyingly cute”. But for one reason or another, the story wasn’t coming together, and during a frantic research session into the otokonoko phenomenon, Konayama learned about people who didn’t identify as either male or female: non-binary people. And that, it turned out, proved to be a good catalyst for the story.

As Love Me for Who I Am opens, main male character Tetsu witnesses Mogumo making a wish for “friends who really understand me”. Assuming them from their female-presenting appearance to be an otokonoko at this point, Tetsu invites Mogumo to work at his family’s maid café — an establishment staffed exclusively by otokonoko. It’s an offer made with good intentions — Tetsu believes it will allow Mogumo the opportunity to be with people who are “like them” — but, as we discover quite quickly, things aren’t quite that simple.

Love Me for Who I Am volume 1

Going in to Love Me for Who I Am, most people will likely already know that Mogumo is non-binary before the manga specifically announces it, and thus Tetsu’s obvious misgendering of them throughout the entire first chapter really stings. It’s an effective depiction of how the concept of non-binary people is still unfamiliar to many; while Tetsu obviously doesn’t mean any harm in referring to Mogumo as “he” initially, the gradual transition from “he” to “they” in the early chapters is rather heartwarming, particularly once the other characters get involved.

The first sign of trouble comes when Mogumo is introduced to the other staff of the maid café (known, rather delightfully, as “Question”) and, with said staff not knowing any better, they explain the situation as them being “guys dressed as girls who work hard, play hard and strive each day to out-cute the girls”. Mogumo is, of course, taken aback by this, and is disappointed that they “have to be a boy” in order to work there. Naturally, this leads to further misunderstandings, particularly since Mogumo has a distinct preference for feminine-presenting clothing, hair and other aspects of their appearance.

“I didn’t say I wanted to be a girl,” explains Mogumo, “but I’m not really a boy, either. Why does not being a boy make me a girl? You don’t get to decide that for me! I’m not a girl or a guy!”

It’s a blunt statement, but an effective one, and Mogumo’s genuine anger while letting this out gives us the distinct impression that they haven’t really had the opportunity to talk about this enough in their life. Not only that, but the staff of Question are rather taken aback; this is a situation they hadn’t really considered before, even though it’s almost immediately obvious that all of them are part of otokonoko culture for quite different reasons.

Love Me for Who I Am volume 1

“I’m sorry, I got the wrong idea,” says Tetsu. “It’s just I saw what you wrote for your wish, and I thought if you wanted people who understood you, I should bring you here. I wanted to get to know you better. So, if you really meant what you wrote in that wish, then I know that you can make a place for yourself here! I can’t promise it won’t be hard, but you’ll be with others who are facing similar challenges. The people here… I think they can understand you better than anyone.”

This is an excellent jumping-off point for exploring the gender identities of the various other characters who work at Question, because while Mogumo is obviously the main focus of the story as a whole, all the other main cast members have interesting stories to tell, too. For example, Tetsu regards his older brother Satori — who presents female at every opportunity — as having the “soul of a woman”, and respects him enormously for it. At the same time, he is heartbroken any time he overhears people talking negatively about Satori.

Likewise, staffer Suzu enjoys the opportunity to dress as a woman at Question, which is something they don’t feel they’re able to do in the outside world — despite being gay and having a boyfriend when in “male” mode. That said, Suzu finds the ability to express himself freely at Question liberating, since he and his boyfriend feels like they have to hide their relationship when out in public.

Entertainingly, we get a great indication that, despite being the main subject of Love Me for Who I Am’s story and member of what we might describe as a “protected” minority status, Mogumo is by no means infallible; they blurt out “Suzu, are you a homo?” in response to Suzu’s proud explanation of their relationship status, and are promptly (and rightly) admonished for it.

Staffer Ten-chan is obsessed with cosplay, and believes that pretty much everything they do is some form of cosplay. At school, they cosplay a male honour student, while at Question, they cosplay a super-cute, incredibly enthusiastic otokonoko. Ten-chan is arguably the Question staffer who is most obviously playing a role, and they’re absolutely fine with it — they simply enjoy the role-playing aspect.

“Society is so rigid,” Ten-chan says. “I like being able to play this role here. At school I cosplay a super-dedicated student. It’s so stressful. That’s why I get all my happiness when I’m here!”

Love Me for Who I Am volume 1

Then we have Mei, birth name Akira, for whom the idea of calling themselves “otokonoko” is extremely important; when the rest of the staff considers dropping any explicit mention of being otokonoko or cross-dressers for the sake of Mogumo, Mei is extremely put out by the whole thing.

“This is our job,” Mei says. “Our customers come here because they know what we’re about. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of not telling them we’re boys and I’m afraid of losing that. Please don’t take away our right to call ourselves otokonoko.”

Mei is probably one of the most interesting characters in this first volume of Love Me for Who I Am, because despite their initial protestations about the terminology being used, there are some compelling indications a little later that they might actually be transgender. As part of the discussions over how Mogumo can introduce themselves without declaring themselves to be either a boy or a girl, everyone agrees that they should simply be who they want to be while they’re at Question.

“So I can really think of myself as a girl?” Mei asks, hesitantly. “Could I even ask you to call me ‘her’?”

Immediately after this, Mei feels guilt about betraying their otokonoko identity, but it quickly becomes apparent that this has been a means of holding herself back; she folds as soon as everyone tells her that the female pronoun “suits her” and seemingly decides to wholeheartedly embrace a female identity for the first time in her life.

The idea of subverting expectations continues throughout the course of Love Me for Who I Am’s first volume. For example, once the whole “identity” situation is initially resolved, we start to see the staff working properly in Question. One of the customers is a stereotypically presented “otaku” character — overweight, glasses, scruffy hair — and thus we might expect him to behave in an inappropriate character. But almost immediately Ten-chan explains that they are actually a very talented photographer — one who is responsible for some of their most impressive cosplay photos, and someone who Ten-chan is very grateful to for providing a means for them to express themselves.

Love Me for Who I Am volume 1

And finally, we get a teaser of where at least some of the drama in Love Me for Who I Am is going to come from: Mogumo’s one friend that they had from before they started at Question, and someone whom, it seems, has a bit of a jealousy problem. It remains to be seen where things go from here — but one suspects that neither Mogumo, nor Tetsu, who has taken quite a liking to Mogumo, is going to have an easy ride from hereon!

On the whole, Love Me for Who I Am’s first volume presents an enjoyable, interesting and thought-provoking story about gender identity. There are aspects of it that some would doubtless consider to be a tad insensitive — but these are entirely deliberate, since the story as a whole is intended to depict the reality of the challenges that people exploring their gender identity face.

The conflict and disagreements in Love Me for Who I Am’s story are presented plausibly but relatively gently, helping to demonstrate that it is possible to overcome these challenges if you’re among people who are predisposed to understand and accept you. That, unfortunately, isn’t something that everyone can boast in reality — but the world of fiction at least provides us with an opportunity to ponder how things could be under optimal circumstances.

Does this present an unrealistic view of gender identity? Perhaps, but while it’s important to focus on the reality of intolerance in the real world, it’s also important and helpful for fiction to provide a comfortable and safe fantasy for people to explore. For readers who are actively exploring their own gender identity, Love Me for Who I Am provides a good opportunity to feel like they are being heard and accepted; and for those who feel like they are probably comfortable in their own gender identity as they are, it’s an opportunity to contemplate some perspectives they might not have thought about previously.

Either way, Love Me for Who I Am feels like an important work — and it successfully delivers its message without feeling overly preachy about things throughout. And that, I think, is extremely important in a title like this, because it helps every reader feel included, regardless of the angle from which they’re approaching the narrative.

Love Me for Who I Am volume 1 is available in paperback format from Amazon. Digital versions and alternative retailers can be found on Seven Seas’ website.

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Pete Davison
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