The variety of two boys in love: Queer identities in Bloom and Coffee Boy

I fear this comparison I’m about to make between two gay romance narratives will perpetuate queer people being too overly critical of their own community.

So let’s just make this clear now: I’m about to talk about two lovely stories. My placing one against the other is purely due to the circumstance of my having read one right after the other. What I say here speaks to my feelings regarding the current state of what is and is not represented in queer pop culture in general.

Nothing can represent everything for everyone, but when you haven’t seen enough of one kind of representation and too much of another, unintended lack of inclusion can feel more pointed than it is.

Let’s start with Bloom, a cute YA graphic novel written by Kevin Panetta and illustrated by Savanna Ganuchaeu.

I liked Bloom. It’s cute. A post-high school romance in which two boys, Ari and Hector, bond over baking. I liked the characters. The art was crisp and effective. But the story also felt too light, like a meal without enough nutritional value.

There’s a subtle depth to the writing — I especially liked its treatment of quietly dysfunctional friend groups — but every conflict has a sitcom-like ability to be resolved easily and conveniently. Difficult topics like economic hardship are resolved in an easy wish fulfillment kind of way, when I feel like they ought to be more complex and open-ended.

Ari is a realistic, sometimes irritating, relatable protagonist, but Hector is a little too perfect. His charm and contrast with Ari giving the impression of depth where, once you think about it, there isn’t enough. I wouldn’t call him a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, but he’s not enough of his own person in the story either.

In all Bloom gave me a nice warm buzz when I finished it, but it was a fleeting feeling.

More than anything, it triggered questions for me about what we want to deal with when we read queer romance narratives. Like, I’d like to see more queer narratives actually deal with questions of identity more on the page.

Again, though, this lack is endemic to queer literature in general — particularly work aimed at YA audiences.

In a romance between two boys, the word “gay” isn’t mentioned once in Bloom. Nor bisexual, nor queer, nor any other such identifying term. My inner-rebuttal is “Well, do straight romances have to mention the word ‘straight’?” No, but having queer characters not engage with their queer identities on the page feels disingenuous to my real, lived experience.

I get the impetus to skirt around these conversations, as dialogue is tricky and using queer terminology can feel pedantic, not to mention it’s just nice to imagine a world where these things are taken for granted, but I haven’t seen enough works — and especially breezy light work like Bloom — address the messy reality of people grappling with their identity.

Added to this, and again a representational void larger than the book itself, but Ari and Hector represent a certain level of acceptably soft cis gay masculinity. Like, both carry some amount of comfort with femininity, but neither could be construed as femme. Both are still butch and “regular guy”-ish enough to not push social boundaries too much. It feels like there was some unstated concern that they’d be too alienating to audiences if either of them were any more gender nonconforming.

Coffee Boy by Austin Chant was an interesting book to follow up my reading of Bloom with, because it covers these two areas I found lacking in Bloom: Its avoidance of talking about sexual and gender identity upfront and its relatively normative representations of gay masculinity.

I should note that this might be informed by how Bloom is a YA story and Coffee Boy is very decidedly adult. As in, to be fair, the characters in Coffee Boy have probably figured things out about themselves that are believably still ambiguous to the characters in Bloom.

Coffee Boy is about an intern for a political campaign named Kieran, a young trans man who finds himself increasingly interested in the older cis campaign strategist Seth.

A huge chunk of Coffee Boy’s dialogue is made up of the two leads discussing their sexual and gender identities. It shows brilliantly how this kind of dialogue doesn’t have to be overly technical or pedantic, that these discussions can work really well to develop a relationship between characters when laid out by an adept writer. Which makes me wonder where the reticence comes from. Like, I’m always dying to discuss sexuality and gender with friends because I avoided talking about it for so long and I feel like there’s so much about them that still goes unstated in my day-to-day life. Is it really us trying to imagine a better world by taking these marginalized identities for granted, or are we afraid to broach the subject?

As just mentioned, in Bloom, the protagonists are undeniably soft masculine characters who don’t really break the boundaries of acceptable softness for cisheteronormative masculinity. Which is fine! I exist within those boundaries too. Most people do. It’s not a problem with Bloom specifically, but I will say it was refreshing to have a character like Kieran who unapologetically shows his femme side. Seth, too, feels a bit transgressive, despite his frigidness, especially in his sexual dynamics. Which, again, is something Bloom as a YA title couldn’t really have tackled in depth.

Which is to say, I see lots of characters like Ari and Hector from Bloom, but I don’t see a lot of characters like Kieran and Seth.

And that’s why, despite how both stories are pretty fluffy and light, I found myself thinking about Coffee Boy longer and at more depth than Bloom. There’s value in what Bloom is doing, as it normalizes queerness by putting these characters in a fairly typical YA romance framework, but Coffee Boy’s frankness in both its dialogue and in how it depicts its characters is something I haven’t seen enough, and I would like to see more.

Journalist and writer of quiet queer fiction. Point-and-click adventure protagonist. He/Him. Contact @ bryancebulski@gmail.com

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