When I put it this way, it sounds a little ridiculous, but I do believe the butterfly effect exists and small events have the power to change entire courses of lives. For me, that small event was coming across a Twitter thread, and that change in the course of my life was the realisation that I was bisexual.
Fanfiction is a genre of amateur fiction, written by fans and for fans, often for little to no pay and a niche readership. While it has existed probably since as long as written literature has, it grew especially big in the mid-to-late-2000s when Wattpad—an online fiction writing community—was created. The 2010s saw a horde of fans dedicating their words to “Johnlock” (Sherlock Holmes and John Watson from the TV show Sherlock), “Bechloe” (Beca Mitchell and Chloe Beale from the Pitch Perfect series) and “Drarry” (Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter)—all mostly queering mainstream pop culture icons.
Unfortunately, my exposure to fanfiction was on this website through stories about meeting Harry Styles in an elevator and somehow having all him fall in love with me. Luckily, even as a kid, I knew how to recognise the completely absurd. But then in a phase of my life when I had little to do, a lot to think about, and nowhere to go, I discovered the sweeter joys of fanfiction.
It all started a little more than a year ago. I came across fanfic because of Twitter’s sometimes beneficial—mostly annoying—feature of showing you tweets from random people. But I was pulled in because I saw the names of two men from an anime I was bingeing then. That thread turned out to be an explicit account of the two characters, who were supposedly enemies, diverging from the original story and falling in love—and who doesn’t love a spicy romance story anyway? I indulged—a little secretly and a lot guiltily—for I didn’t want to be that one weirdo who spent her time fantasising about fictional people with other fictional people. It was going to be a one-time thing anyway, I thought then.
What it turned into, though, was a full-time hobby. A younger, seemingly heterosexual me began reading about all the characters she was fascinated with. She didn’t want to see them now in “canon ships”— the relationships as they are in the actual fiction, which are usually heterosexual. Now, it was time to go full creative and queer. While, like many other people, I had till then looked upon fanfic through a deprecatory lens, it was only a little while before I became a full-time fanfiction advocate. I had been trying hard to get back into reading, one of the things that I loved as a child but had a poor attention span for, growing up. And what better way to get into reading than with stories involving some of my favourite people on the planet falling in love with my other favourite people?
I discovered Archive of Our Own—or as the fanfiction community calls this fanfiction hub, AO3. And I was hooked. To me, the stories were only a form of escapism. And if I was choosing the ones which solely had queer couples, it wasn’t anybody's business. And before I knew, I had started subconsciously associating myself with the characters (and feeling like an imposter as a supposed heterosexual for relating to queer problems). So as the discovery of my own sexuality crept in, relationships in fanfictions kept showing me the light and letting me know that the things that went through my mind also went through the minds of my favourite characters in some other dimension. And that it was okay.
Asking around assures me that it wasn't just me. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve never liked romantic books," adds Khushi, a second-year philosophy student. “I thought it was because I was not into the idea of romance. Turns out, I was just gay and not into the heterosexual romance that's pushed into our faces everywhere.”
Khushi’s exploration of her sexuality followed a similar trajectory. “Like all teens, I wanted the joy of the sweeter moments. But as a young queer person, I could either read tragic homosexual stories (which TBH, the real world is already filled with) or go through unnecessary heterosexual drama to get that one interaction between queer characters, which honestly wasn't worth it. And that’s where fanfiction saved me. Since I enjoyed reading fanfic, I looked up lesbian stories. All of them revolved around the dread of coming out, oddly-timed sex, and tragic deaths. With so many options out there, I could find the exact romantic story I was looking for, and that too between two women. And to be honest, the giddiness I felt reading them assured me that I did like romance.”
Since the fanfiction community is abundant with queer authors who choose to dedicate themselves to this art and explore their ideas and sexualities better, it has never felt safer. The anonymity that this space provides them, along with the lack of restrictions and complete control over what they write gives authors space to explore their characters, themselves, and by the virtue of it, their sexuality. While fanfiction does tend to be seen as the lesser form of literature—or a half-assed effort by fans to fill gaps in their lives—some fanfictions casually have more than 200,000 words with brilliant characterisations rivalling published fiction. This length would generously amount to over 700 pages if published—bigger than some books in GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
“Bi- and (explicitly) asexual characters are pretty rare in published novels and television shows,” says Blue*, a fanfiction author who's written over 15 stories which are often as long as 100,000 words each. “And it's historically been a struggle to include them because there are always gatekeepers in traditional media, who are driven by money and self-serving interests, who decide what makes it to publication.”
With fanfiction, though, Blue finds the freedom to write a story and share it with no gatekeepers involved. And because it's free, there's no concern about whether it's going to be popular either. “It's okay if just a few people read it. That makes it easier to write and read about issues relating to my identity, especially being biromantic gray-asexual.” And that’s exactly how it helped me too. The plotlines slowly scratched away my internalised homophobia and let me assure myself it really was okay to be romantically or sexually attracted to men and women.
Fanfics also gave me a sense of community, for everyone who read the stories I did could relate to what I was going through. “I don't have many people to discuss my sexual orientation with in my offline life,” says Blue, who found support in the anonymous community online too. “I've often wondered if I would've realised I was asexual sooner if I'd just read more stories about characters on the asexual spectrum. It took until my mid-twenties for me to properly realise I was ace. I, in turn, hope that my stories will help other people sort out their own identities.”
Moreover, fanfic is also a means through which fans can reclaim characters they love without the complexities of real life mixing in. When the millennial favorite J.K. Rowling revealed her transphobic ideologies, many turned to the Harry Potter fanfiction megaverse to reclaim the characters they had loved so much as kids. Queer authors who had grown up reading the books saw Harry Potter fanfiction as their way of separating the art that had helped them so much from the artist who seemed to oppose their identity.
None of this would be without AO3 though. It was founded in response to various issues this art was facing: commercial exploitation of fanworks; the loss of fannish history in the face of sites disappearing because the host couldn’t or didn’t want to maintain them any longer; and a desire for a broad cross-fandom platform that fans would control. When the 1990s or the early 2000s had smaller-scale examples where sites chose to delete, censor, or outright forbid certain types of works (often on the whims of site mods, without warning), Organisation of Transformative Works (OTW), an America-based NGO dedicated to preserving fan culture, came through with AO3. An informal census conducted by a fanfiction website in 2013, found that only 38 percent of its respondents identified as heterosexual.
This freedom of censorship on their website has given the fanfic community liberty to especially explore sex—a feature that fanfics are known for. “There was always an awareness within OTW that censorship didn't only mean banning works featuring certain relationships (or ships, as the fanfic community refers to it)—it often took the form of requiring LGBTQ+ content to have a higher rating than heterosexual content, or not allowing explicit works at all,” an OTW representative tells us. “AO3's limits on expression were deliberately set very broadly, within the confines of U.S. law, because its founders and early members wanted a site where all sorts of works could exist without having to fear they would be taken down due to a single complaint or a mod's arbitrary decision.”
The erotica (or smut, as it is tagged on the website) ranges from soft tropes such as first-time sex, to hardcore ones like bondage and submission, and even harder and niche tropes like Alpha/Beta/Omega dynamics—where people are essentially werewolves and fall into one of these categories of people who have more animalistic sexual insticts such as rutting, heats, and knotting. The anonymity ensures you can create (and enjoy) just the trope you want, no matter how mortifying it might seem in real life. And for queer people, whose identities are somewhere tied with sex—or the lack of it—there’s nothing better. The stories with same-sex characters are also decorated with sexual tags such as top, bottom, switches, rimming, and intercrural.
While it's perfectly okay for people to just seek out fanfics to titillate themselves, to me, these smutty fics were for more than just getting off. As someone who was new to sex, especially queer sex, they essentially gave me an idea of what sex would looked like. And unlike porn, they emphasised on the importance of condoms, lubes, and STD testing. Moreover, it reduced the whole buzz around P-in-V sex that heteronormativity has us obsessed with and assured me that all other sexual explorations were just as much about sex as its standard penovaginal representation. As much as I believe fanfics shouldn’t be the only source of sex education, I stand by the fact that they genuinely did a better job than my parents, society, sex education at school and porn combined.
If you asked a younger and supposedly heterosexual me a few months ago whether I read fanfiction, I would have taken a moment to answer, and still replied that I didn’t. I wonder if it was because to a younger me, happy queer relationships sounded somewhat just as absurd as Harry Styles falling in love with me in an elevator. But as someone who essentially discovered her own identity through stories, there’s honestly no community that I am more content being a part of.
*Name changed on request.
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