Moved from my Tumblr to here. Since Tumblr’s format doesn’t really make for good long-term posts.
As in, series that aren’t published in yaoi/yuri magazines, for lesbian or gay characters, and any series with bisexual/trans/intersex characters. (I have a separate rec list for BL, and one for GL as well.) And by “bisexual” I mean any character who explicitly identifies as bisexual. None of this “you’re the only guy/girl I’ve fallen in love with” — these situations do happen, yes, but they aren’t really great bisexual representation.
I will try to focus on series that gives these LGBTQI+ character ample screentime, all the while not invalidating their identity, and actually allowing them some possibility of romance (if they so desire).
Please note: While I do identify as queer, I am in no way an authority on whether these are good representations. All commentary are my own personal thoughts on the subject, and if I say anything particularly egregious, feel free to call me out on it! Additional comments, if you have any, are also appreciated.
This is not an exhaustive list (obviously). It merely contains manga I have read and
(sort of) liked not hated. Will be continuously updated whenever I find/remember more. Feel free to rec me any manga that isn’t featured here! Well, with the exceptions of Wandering Son and Bokura no Hentai — the former I know about but haven’t read yet, while the latter isn’t on here for a reason (hint: it’s bad representation).
Manga title links to mangaupdates (the best database for manga around), and I’ll try to link to publishers’ pages if they’re licensed.
[Last Updated: October 2020]
A, A’: So here’s the recommendation for Hagio Moto, because she definitely goes out of her way to write sensitively about issues of gender, sexuality, etc. (Though she’s also very much a product of the times, so YMMV.) If you don’t know, she’s also a super iconic and famous figure in BL manga history in general, since she was one of its first pioneers, so to speak. I think A, A’ is a good taste of what she can do, if you want to know if her stuff is for you. It’s a series of interconnected sci-fi oneshots. Viz apparently released this one a long time ago, in 1997.
Adachi and Shimamura: I really, really enjoy this manga for how simple it is. About two girls who meet while ditching class, with one of them eventually falling for the other. Very slice-of-life-ish and very fluffy. It’s based on a light novel, and there has been two manga adaptations of it already, so I just linked to the currently ongoing one. Incidentally, Seven Seas is currently publishing the light novel, while Yen Press has licensed the manga.
Ame Nochi Hare: This one’s an interesting take on the “gender bender” (yeah, problematic term, I know, but that’s what the category is called — feel free to suggest alternatives) trope in which five boys undergoes a body transformation every time it rains. It adheres a bit too closely to the sex/gender binary for my liking, but it does feature two queer characters (though neither of their loves come to fruition) so that’s something.
A Night of a Thousand Dreams: [cw: dubious consent at the beginning, off-screen rape in one of the stories
, Shahryar being a dick] An adaptation of the Arabian Nights, except with Scheherazade as a boy (Sehara) desperate to save his sister’s life. Also: lots of anachronistic stories that nevertheless manages to fit in perfectly with the main story. Really, really good, not only with its stories within a story, but also with its two main characters. Shahryar is also quite possibly one of the most likable assholes I’ve ever read, and I enjoyed how real his struggle to heal felt. This manhwa is licensed by Yen Press.
Antique Bakery: Antique Bakery is super fun, and Yoshinaga Fumi is amazing, so if you haven’t read this already, you definitely should. What always strikes me about Yoshinaga’s work is how she treats her characters so humanely. They’re real people who sometimes makes mistakes and shitty decisions but who she loves despite all that. And this definitely shines through the most when she’s doing some bit of slice-of-life, like she is here. Antique Bakery is about four men who open up a bakery together. It was licensed by Digital Manga Publishing, and is currently out-of-print. Her What Did You Eat Yesterday? is also super wonderful, about a long-time gay couple and their meals together, and is actually available in English via Vertical!
Astra Lost in Space: A fun shounen manga about a bunch of kids lost in space trying to get back to earth via multiple planetary jumps. Coming from the author of Sket Dance, there’s quite a few gags but also a whole bunch of heartwarming moments. One of the kids is intersex and identifies as a man (which is readily accepted by everyone after a youthful heart-to-heart). He’s also canonically bisexual but attributes this to his being intersex (actual words — “even my feelings are guy-girl mixed together,” which has certain icky heterosexist/cissexist connotations), but that’s about my only gripe. The series is licensed by Viz.
Balance Policy: OK, Balance Policy is a really difficult manga to recommend because, on one hand, it treats the whole “boy suddenly turning into a girl” thing way more delicately than a lot of other manga its ilk does, but, on the other hand, Yoshitomo has an extremely bad track record with sexualizing all the trans women in his stories. (And, yeah, he only has cis guys or women in his stories.) It’s an interesting manga because it actually tries to discuss issues of sex/gender, but don’t expect too much of it. Another similar manga is A World Without Boundaries, which pretty much has the same problems.
Bloom Into You: Yes, that one GL series that everyone knows about now because of its really stellar anime adaptation. And it’s reputation is (mostly) well deserved! (I do feel Some Kind of Way about the aro vibes that Yuu gives off, but that’s neither here nor there.) If you’re into thoughtful, school life, slow-moving shoujo-ai series, then Bloom Into You is probably for you. It’s licensed by Seven Seas.
Blue Flag: A slice-of-life, school-life romance story. Features a love… rectangle? Kind of. But one of the better constructed ones I’ve seen. The two main characters’ best friends are queer (and in love with their respective friends). Spoiler (hover to view): there’s a very off-color attempt at trying to humanize homophobes as if their homophobia actually “makes sense” in one of the later arcs (when one of the characters gets forcibly outed). The worst part is that the author frames this as reasonable rather than just characters being bigots. I’m giving this manga a pass, though, since the two main male characters do seemingly end up together at the end, though I feel like the ending as a whole is rushed and largely unsatisfactory. This series is licensed via Manga Plus and can be read for free over at their website.
Boku ga Otto ni Deau made: [cw: transphobia, homophobia] A manga adaptation of an essay written by activist Nanasaki Ryousuke, so it’s essentially an adaption of an autobiography. Details Nanasaki’s life, starting from childhood up until he gets married to his husband.
Boku ga Watashi ni Naru Tame ni: An autobiography by a trans woman specifically about her experiences with sex reassignment surgery. Very informative. Reads half like she’s recounting her experiences and half that she’s providing advice for others who might also want SRS.
Boys Run the Riot: Story starring a trans teenager who decides to start a clothing brand with a classmate. Early days with this manga, but since there’s not nearly as many manga about trans men as there are about trans women, I felt like this deserved a mention. (Author is trans too, which is a plus.)
Brave New World: [cw: misgendering] This is a super cheerful (like, really, it’s so happy) story about a trans woman deciding to come out in high school, consequences be damned. It’s been a while since I’ve read this, but I remember enjoying it, though it might’ve been a bit binary still with its gender representations (also a bit heterosexist). And, yes, it has been accused of being “too happy”/”unrealistic,” but whatever. It’s basically a shoujo romance manga with a trans protagonist, which is pretty cool all on its own.
The Bride Was a Boy: An autobiographical manga about her marriage, written by a trans woman! What’s great about this is that she not only talks about her own experiences but also includes explanations on common terms/information about the trans community in Japan. And she’s very careful to note that everyone’s experiences are different in these explanations. It’s great to see some great anti-stereotyping work going on here, and her experience is actually so happy that it cheers me right up reading it. This manga has been licensed by Seven Seas.
Cheese in the Trap: A romantic drama with a great female protagonist (seriously, she’s great) that’s one of the most realistic manhwa I’ve ever read. There’s a (fairly important) gay couple in this one. The real shining point of this webtoon is its excellent execution. The only reason I’m not highlighting this one as excellent is that its story is definitely about the straight couple, though the gay couple gets their own mini-arc that run tangentially to the main character’s troubles. Original webtoon available from Naver, and official English translation available on LINE webtoon.
Cherish: Cherish was one of the first works I’ve ever read from Yoshizumi Wataru, and so it holds a special place in my heart. It’s a fairly straightforward romance story about a woman getting back together with her ex-boyfriend, but I’ve always enjoyed Yoshizumi’s ability to write her characters as actual mature adults — there might be misunderstandings, but people actually talk to each other about them. The main character’s parents are a gay couple, and still one of the few non-caricatured queer parents in manga I’ve read.
Ciel: Oh wow, Ciel is difficult to talk about, both in terms of plot and in terms of sexuality. Plot-wise, it’s about four young adults who attend a magic school, but this premise changes pretty rapidly like midway through the manhwa. Sexuality-wise, it doesn’t really talk about it explicitly, but there is a canonical kiss between two men. And there’s an actual transition of sex/gender in this one too. BUT, since Ciel isn’t explicit with its love confessions (the only exception is between the main straight couple), I’ve seen some read the side relationships as deep platonic love. Which is just, well, uh, nope. So, yeah, your mileage may vary.
Coffin Jackson: A heist-gone-wrong thriller webtoon. Short and sweet. It’s kind of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, but one of the men recruited to the heist has a boyfriend (who actually shows up at the end to yell at his significant other). It’s a minor thing, but since the webtoon itself is good, I figured I might as well mention it. (CTK, the author, also does BL, incidentally.) The original webtoon is available on Naver, but while Spottoon did release an official English translation, Spottoon has since gone defunct.
Double House: [cw: some casual transphobia] Oh, yeah, this one’s a nice, delicate slice-of-life about the relationship between a trans woman and a cis woman. It’s actually all about gender identity and fluidity, so maybe it would be more accurate to just call them both genderqueer, actually. Haruno Nanae is already pretty famous for her Pieta, but I personally like Double House a bit more. The only problem is that it’s too short!
FAKE: Yeah, so FAKE (which is basically a buddy cop comedy) is a pretty iconic title in the BL genre, and I personally have mixed feelings about it (mainly because Dee is persistent to the point that some consent issues arise). It definitely manages to avoid a lot of the pitfalls of the genre though, and Dee actually identifies as bisexual and is never maligned for it by the narrative, so definite points for that. FAKE was licensed by Tokyopop a long time ago, and is currently out of print I believe.
Gisèle Alain: An utterly adorable slice-of-life about a young girl doing odd jobs for people set in France. There are actual lesbians and cabaret girls who aren’t demeaned in this one and it’s great. It’s what Emma would’ve been if it hadn’t been so heteronormative.
Golden Days: This is a really great historical, slice-of-life manga about a kid who has been transported back in time. The main character’s sexuality isn’t really touched upon (though he definitely doesn’t read as straight to me), but his best friend is openly gay. And there is a lot of… feelings between them, initially unrequited and edging more towards requited near the end. The setting is vibrant and rich and the characters are all a joy to read. Definitely, definitely recommend this.
Golondrina: If you don’t know est em, you should, and this one’s one of her best. It’s about a girl who decides to become a matador after being betrayed by her girlfriend. One of the few non-yaoi/yuri manga with a queer main character that I know of! It’s a great read, very atmospheric.
Honey & Honey: [cw: some casual transmisogyny] Another autobiographical manga, this time a low-key slice-of-life about the author and her girlfriend. This one’s slightly more dated than the other autobiographies on the list (it was originally published in 2006). It’s overall a nice and sweet manga, though, and it’s always good to elevate these kinds of personal experiences. (For reference, the “casual transmisogyny” refers to the fact that “women-only” LGBT+ events in Japan include trans men but not trans women, not anything on the author’s part. She’s actually fairly good at always referring to her trans male friends as men.)
Hoshino, Me o Tsubutte.: [cw: bullying] A refreshing youth story about a loner who ends up helping a popular girl with her makeup (and with being a secret ally of justice who helps her classmates behind the scenes). One of the side characters is gay, and while his romance didn’t pan out and he doesn’t feature as prominently in the manga as I would like, (1) he is never maligned by the narrative and his sexuality is taken at face-value (no questions, no homophobia) and (2) it is just plain refreshing to see queer characters in a shounen school-life story just existing.
Hydra: Miyamoto Kano is a pretty beloved figure in the BL scene, and for good reason: she writes some comparatively realistic stories (though her stuff tends to be too drama-filled for me, personally). Hydra is Miyamoto at her best, and one of the main characters Taira identifies as bisexual. Some of the other characters voice some biphobic thoughts, but the narrative always frames them as being in the wrong. This series is part of her overarching Rules universe, which consists of a series of fairly straightforward gay romance stories.
Immortal Days: Starts off a bit slow but eventually picks up its stride with some pretty sweet worldbuilding. Of the number of manga with the premise of “mortals living in an immortal world”, this has probably the best characters of the lot. There’s a major arc about the daughter of a mafia leader who has a girlfriend, but the overall world seems to be extremely queer friendly, just from the tidbits of worldbuilding the author gives in the end notes. Both the original webtoon and the official English translation is available at Lezhin.
Inari, Konkon, Koi Iroha.: A sweet seinen romance about a girl who gains the power to transform one day. It’s an absolutely adorable series, made all the more so by an actual lesbian side character whose identity is never invalidated by her friends. The manga is available digitally via Kadokawa Bookwalker.
Innocent and Innocent Rouge: [cw: blood, gore, torture, etc.] About Charles-Henri Sanson, the executioner who executed King Charles XVI during the French Revolution. Lots of queer folks in this one (and its sequel) actually! Though sexuality is never mentioned, as such. Still, lots of interesting sex/gender things happening here. (Marie, who is Charles’s younger sister and the protagonist of Rouge, is so queer and badass, it’s great.) Just heed the warnings — this series is very gory.
IS – Otoko Demo Onna Demo Nai Sei: [cw: for general bigotry, homophobia, etc.] Yes, a manga about intersexuality exists! This one’s definitely a manga focusing primarily on educating the general populace about exactly what being intersex means. So, yeah, there definitely are some problems that comes with that, but at least it’s a step. And I have to admit that this one has made me cry a few times, and I’m not a crier. (Though I have to admit that it occasionally feels uncomfortably close to “inspiration porn” so YMMV.)
Kamisama no Ekohiiki: Again, I’m not a fan of the “genderbender”/”genderswap” trope, but this one is an interesting take. While at first I was worried that changing the gender of the main character was a way to “no homo” the base premise (a straight guy falls in love with his also straight male best friend), it actually led to a pretty sensitive portrayal of the way gender lends to attraction. I’m not super fond of the way manga often portray straight men “turning” gay for that ~one special guy~, but Komura Ayumi actually makes gender a significant factor in the process (he’s in love with him because he’s a guy not in spite of it), which is miles above what other folks have done with this. Also, spoiler! the mangaka definitely “yes homo”s the base premise.
Also literally no one is completely straight in this and I love that.
Kanojo ga Suki na Mono wa Homo deatte Boku de wa nai: [cw: homophobia, underage sex, suicide ideation, mention of cousin incest, bullying] Well, this one’s a doozy, and I have mixed feelings about it, though I liked the ending well enough. It’s a darker queer teen coming-of-age story than I’d usually read, but I’m fairly sure this is an #OwnVoices story, so I’m including it. I’m really not a fan of the whole older adult/teenager thing going on in here, and I feel like the author doesn’t really interrogate this legit, real problem that often occurs in LGBTQ+ communities where older folks prey on younger ones who don’t have the means to realize that they’re being taken advantage of… But, regardless, this is still a pretty heartfelt story, and is very “real” with how harsh society can be towards queer folks.
Kanojo ni Naritai Kimi to Boku: [cw: misgendering, transphobia, homophobia] A manga featuring a trans female protagonist and her childhood friend who’s in love with her. A slightly awkward but ultimately incredibly well-meaning manga (and main female protagonist). Very good at being super affirming about trans women actually being women — and about varied gender/sexual identities in general! Actually would really recommend this: it’s candid about the homophobia/transphobia people face but never defeatist about it, and it has a great cast of supportive characters. This series is available in English on the Mangamo subscription app under the title I Wanna Be Your Girl!
Kodomo wa Wakatte Agenai: A manga about a girl who decides to look for her birth father and the male classmate she enlists to help. A very low-key, slice-of-life mystery. The main male lead’s older sibling is a trans woman who moonlights sometimes as a detective. The only instance of misgendering is that she’s still referred to as “brother” by her younger brother, but this reference is explained in-manga in a way that felt relatable. (The scanlators also take care to include end notes which explain their decisions in translating.) Otherwise, this is one of the few manga with a trans character whose presence is pivotal to the plot but their transness isn’t. Aki is trans because she just is. It’s very refreshing to see.
Liar Game: A series centered on logic puzzles/mind games, basically. One of the major side characters is trans, though there are definitely some issues with their representation. For one, the author, during end notes, seems to switch pronoun usage willy-nilly, and even gives contrasting information about said character’s preferred pronouns. Their transness is never really invalidated in-series, but the author doesn’t seem to give it much thought outside of series either. (I’m also sure this manga needs a content warning of some kind, but it’s been so long since I read it, I can’t give any specifics. Just be aware that it’s one of those “play or die” types of stories. And while there isn’t much physical violence, there’s a lot of psychological elements at play.)
Love and Lies: This one’s a fairly paint-by-the-numbers teen romance, complete with a love triangle, all set to the the backdrop of “government-sanctioned arranged marriages”. What (slightly) elevates this rendition is that all the characters are relatively likable, and while I still cringe at the love triangle, I am actually rooting for an OT3 instead of, y’know, for one side of the triangle to just go away like I usually do. The main character’s best friend is gay and in love with him, though it takes a long time to get to the (very obvious) reveal. But the mangaka actually dedicates a surprisingly amount of time to establishing that, yes, this dude is Definitely Gay and not just Confused Because of Puberty, so that’s how this mediocre (though relatively enjoyable and painless) series earned its spot on this list. This series has been licensed by Kodansha.
Love at Fourteen: [cw: for a student/teacher relationship] A slice-of-life romance about two fourteen-year-olds, with some side couples. Honestly, I have mixed feelings about this because while the main couple is nice and sweet, the side teacher/student couple is… awkward, at best, in my opinion. But there’s a recurring lesbian character whose love probably will not come to fruition. (But whose identity is never invalidated unlike other romance manga of its ilk!) One of the poorer examples of representation on this list, but important to mention since this series is licensed and marketed at young girls (at least in America).
Love me for who I am: [cw: misgendering] This one’s a tentative rec that I might end up pulling depending on how it goes. (My main issue is that it leans really hard into the moe aesthetic, which is a whole other can of worms.) The main character is very explicitly nonbinary (X-gender, I suppose, would be the Japanese term?) and the other characters are incredibly supportive of them. Though the accuracy of the representation is up for debate, it’s rare enough to see binary trans representation in fiction, much less nonbinary, which is how it earned its spot here. The only other issue I see is that the character in question ends up working at an 男の娘 cafe, and I have no idea what cultural connotations/implications are behind that term, whether good or bad. Though there are also actual trans women working in said cafe, which is a plus. This manga has been licensed by Seven Seas.
Mermaid Line: Here’s a sweet one! It’s a oneshot collection, with most of the stories being shoujo-ai, but one of them (“Ayumi and Aika”, chapters 4 and 6) features a trans woman, and it’s super sweet. It might be deemed “unrealistic” because of how easily said woman is accepted, but, hey, it’s fiction, and we all need a break from the doom and gloom of usual trans narratives in fiction, I think. (Note that the other stories in this volume are actually pretty darn sad, but the trans story is 100% unabashedly happy.)
Murasakiiro no Qualia: [cw: mentions of torture] Qualia is… intense. It’s a super interesting hard sci-fi story about time travel with a lot of quantum mechanics thrown in. (It’s based on a light novel which won a sci-fi literary prize — a feat that is virtually unheard of for LNs.) Fair warning, though: it gets pretty darn dark later on, though the manga is never explicit in showing these things. Main character’s sexuality is never explicitly stated, but she is canonically shown to have fallen in love with both men and women.
My Brother’s Husband: [cw: for casual homophobia] This one’s a fairly famous one outside of the manga-reading world. It’s written by Tagame Gengoroh, most famous for his gay erotic manga. It’s not an autobiography, as such, but it is specifically designed to challenge homophobia within Japan. It’s worth checking out for that alone. The manga has been licensed by Pantheon Books. You can also read a sample of it via Vice.
My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness: [cw: depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm, eating disorders] Oh jeez, this one’s a doozy. As the title implies, this one’s an autobiographical manga about the mangaka’s struggle with depression. A lot of the things in here hit way too close to home for me, and after reading the first chapter, I had to go and cry for a while before I could do anything else. Probably the most relatable autobiography I’ve ever read, full stop. This manga has been licensed by Seven Seas. There is also a two-volume sequel, My Solo Exchange Diary, also licensed by Seven Seas!
My Secret Brother: A fairly realistic high school drama. (I tend to think of this as the high school equivalent of Cheese in the Trap or Something About Us.) The main premise is admittedly kind of weird and feels like it gets a bit too unnecessary with its misunderstandings, but the art and characterization are pretty great. This webtoon also features two prominent female characters who get together in a super awkward yet sweet way. Fair warning, though: it takes them until near the end of season 4 to get their shit together. Also, a spoiler-y content warning for season 4 and beyond (highlight to read) yes, apparently it ends in cousin incest (Junhyuk is revealed to be in love with Hanmi and she eventually reciprocates). I’m very much not a fan of this development but the two girls who get together are so cute, so I’m hesitant to take this down, ugh. The original webtoon is available here, while the official English edition is available for purchase over at Lezhin.
Nameless Asterism: [cw: internalized homophobia] A school-life romance story about a love triangle between three girls. Was axed/ended fairly abruptly (unfortunately). I have mixed feelings about this series, though, on the whole, I enjoyed it. Mainly I enjoyed the sort-of romance between the main character’s twin brother and the guy who likes his sister. While we never learn if this romance pans out, the author does hint that they eventually move in together, which is almost close enough. Also, probably the only manga I’ve ever seen which actually used the word “asexual” in-story to describe one of its characters (the twin brother). Any form of media that even acknowledges that asexuality exists is a rare bird, and so I have to recommend this. The series has been licensed by Seven Seas.
Nickelodeon: [cw: for general weirdness and explicit content] Oh, Nickelodeon is a fun one! It’s a collection of really, really weird, sort-of supernatural short stories that are interconnected. Douman Seiman in particular seems to have the magical ability to write things that would usually be offensive and just come off as quirky/strange instead. Nickelodeon is one of his tamer collections, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. Any relationship can basically be found in this one, but the ones which are queer are in chapters 2, 13 (cw for dismemberment), 14 (cw for self-harm, misgendering), 19, and 34 (cw for voyeurism from a ghost). And the content really isn’t as gruesome as I make it sound; it’s more odd and quirky than anything. If you enjoyed these, his Voynich Hotel is worth checking out too.
Our Journey to Lesbian Motherhood: [cw: mentions of casual homophobia] A memoir about two women deciding to have children after three years of marriage. Higashi Koyuki and Masuhara Hiroko are actually fairly famous Japanese LGBTQ+ activists who were also the first same-sex couple in Japan to have a wedding ceremony and register their partnership! Some of their activism work is briefly mentioned in this memoir, but I suspect the bulk of it (and further details about their relationship) are in their earlier, still as-of-yet untranslated, memoir Lesbian-teki Kekkon Seikatsu.
Otokonoko Doushi Renai Chuu.: A memoir illustrated by Fumi Fumiko and written by professional crossdresser Ooshima Kaoru about his time as a porn actress, his transition to a TV personality, and his relationship with his (now ex-)girlfriend Michelle. Ooshima identifies as pansexual and Michelle is a trans woman. Personally, I’m glad that something that pushes the realms of gender/sexual identity was published, though again I have no idea what the cultural implications are behind the term 男の娘.
Requiem of the Rose King: Based off the Shakespeare plays Henry VI and Richard III (of which I’ve read only the latter). Kanno Aya switches it up, however, by making Richard intersex instead of a hunchback. This adds some interesting dimensions to the story. Now, I’ve really only skimmed the first volume at a bookstore, but it seemed all right at first glance, and there’s just so few manga with actual intersex protagonists that I’ll tentatively include this for now. I’ll actually read it one of these days and edit this review. This manga is licensed by Viz Media.
Seifuku no Vampiress Lord: A girl gets accidentally turned into a vampire and, in the process, discovers she’s a lesbian! One of those manga that could easily be a male gaze-y mess but is thankfully saved from that since the mangaka is a woman. Honestly, Yunagi is one of the most relatable wlw teen protagonists I’ve ever read in a manga, and I enjoy how straightforward the whole “vampire” deal is treated.
Shimanami Tasogare: [cw: homophobia, bullying, transphobia, misgendering/deadnaming] A manga about a gay teen coming to grips with his sexual identity. Written by Kamatani Yuhki (of Nabari no Oh fame) who identifies as X-gender (the approximate equivalent of nonbinary/genderqueer in the West). There’s plenty of side characters who are queer in this one too. (The main character joins a vacant house restoration project which basically functions as a gathering place for queer folks.) An easy recommendation, and probably one of the best on this list if you’re looking for good, heartfelt representation. This series has been licensed by Seven Seas.
Shut Hell: [cw: blood, gore, etc.] For a manga all about a man winding up in the past in the body of his female ancestor, it’s actually significantly less gay than one might expect — though there’s definitely an interesting blurring of gender lines happening here. (The protagonist seems more concerned about the time travel than the strange body he winds up in, interestingly enough.) That’s not why I’m rec’ing this, though, even if it’s a good historical manga all on its own — one of the major side characters (an antagonist, whose loyalties are much more blurry than one might think) is a lesbian whose sexual orientation is very significant to her backstory/the plot.
That Blue Sky Feeling: Haven’t read this yet, but it’s a manga originally written by a gay mangaka as a webcomic that eventually got picked up by an official publisher. And from the sounds of reviews, it’s as good as one expects from an #OwnVoices story about adolescence and sexuality. Will update this blurb when I get my hands on a copy and actually read it. The manga is licensed by Viz. And you can still read the original webcomic for free online (in Japanese).
This Witch of Mine: About a witch and the man she fell in love with. I really like the witches here as beautifully inhuman, most of them without the usual human morality or scruples, but sympathetic despite all that. One of the witches falls in love with a girl and their story features fairly prominently on the side. The original webtoon is available over at Bomtoon, and the official English edition is available for purchase over at Tappytoon.
Tokyo Babylon [cw: murder, suicide, mentions of rape/rape aftermath, unhealthy relationships]: No list about LGBTQI+ characters would be complete without a Clamp mention! And Tokyo Babylon is my favorite Clamp work. Like always, Clamp never really talks about sexuality outright, but there’s really no question here that Subaru is in love with Seishirou. This manga is also kind of dark, though most of its violence happens off-screen. X, its sequel, is also really gay (and significantly more bloody and gory). Dark Horse re-released it in omnibus format a while ago and it is gorgeous so y’all should just go buy it. And, of course, for other Clamp stuff, the iconic Card Captor Sakura has Touya who is basically canonically bisexual, Magic Knight Rayearth (or, actually, its sequel) ends in a polyamorous relationship, and Wish/RG Veda/Gate 7 all have agender protagonists.
Uchi no Musuko wa Tabun Gay: Written and drawn by Okura who wrote the original That Blue Sky Feeling. I usually try not to include multiple of the same mangaka to save room, but I’m scraping this by a technicality (since the published manga of Blue Sky Feeling is by a different artist). This one’s really cute, about an understanding mother watching over her gay son.
Umareru Seibetsu wo Machigaeta!: Another autobiography about sex reassignment surgery. This one is a lot more detailed about the exact specifics of it, and while there’s some talk about the author’s decision to transition, it’s mostly grounded in discussing the surgery itself. Useful if you want to read about the exact details of getting SRS done in Thailand (with a chapter on SRS done in Japan too).
Young Gun Carnaval: [cw: blood, gore, rape, general violence] A seinen action series about two assassins, with one of them being a lesbian! (I remember being incredibly surprised because, wow, a lesbian protagonist in an action series that isn’t overly sexualized??) Since it’s a story about assassins, there’s definitely a lot of violence in this one, so watch out for that.
Yuureitou: [cw: blood, gore, rape, sexual assault] Yet another difficult manga to talk about. This series is a horror series about a “ghost tower.” But! One of the protagonists is a trans man, and the series even details the hardships he went through because of it. However, much like Balance Policy, the problem with Yuureitou is that it sexualizes him far too much, with “sexy” shots of thighs/arms/breasts in cover shots, made all the more disturbing because, in-series, his gender dysphoria has been explored in depth. So, yeah, definitely some dissonance here. Still a series worth noting, especially because it’s a “mainstream” horror manga. And for what it’s worth, I actually really enjoyed the ending. Also features a gay character later on who has one of the best lines about representation in the entire series.
Welcome to Room #305!: [cw: homo/trans/queerphobia, misgendering, etc.] A slice-of-life webtoon about a guy who finds out his new roommate is gay. Later on, lesbian and trans characters also make appearances. Now this one’s definitely aimed at educating those who are uninformed because (I assume) the main character (who starts out as extremely homophobic) is meant to essentially be an audience stand-in. It’s a good webtoon for that purpose, able to keep itself from becoming too distilled or too heavy-handed in its execution. But, for those who are actually in the queer community, the series is extremely uncomfortable during its first arc because the main character is just SUCH AN ASS. He gets better, though, and the series becomes more nuanced after that. The original webtoon is available on Naver.
White Note Pad: A list about queer manga characters wouldn’t be complete without a Yamashita Tomoko work! White Note Pad is a serious take on the “body switching” subgenre, in which an adult male engineer switches bodies with a female high schooler. Nothing funny happens (in any sense of the word) and both struggle to live with their new bodies. The girl in question is actually shown (in flashback) to have originally liked girls, which is an incredibly interesting dynamic in something like this. It finishes very open-endedly, but the questions it brings up are fascinating. Otherwise, Yamashita Tomoko also writes BL, but her other non-BL with queer characters are: Hanaizawa-chou Kouminkan-dayori (series of interconnected stories centered on a place, two female characters are dating) and Ikoku Nikki (a girl moves in with her aunt after the death of her mom, her best friend is a lesbian).
Why Did Men Stop Wearing High Heels?: [cw: homophobia] About a (straight) guy who just really, really likes wearing high heels, and his friendship (?) with the women’s shoe designer Chase Oh. I was initially ambivalent about this series because of the way Chase treats Manseok (terribly), but recently this webtoon has been consistently good at articulating the ways in which societal norms of gender performance are arbitrary and oppressive. Also, the main character’s sister is a lesbian, and her story is dealt with fairly delicately. (The only issue is that one of the side characters, who is a man, likes her, though she makes it clear she doesn’t reciprocate his feelings.) The original and official English translations used to be available on Lezhin but has since disappeared, hm…
Zombie Cherry: A romcom about a girl who accidentally turns into a zombie one day and her crush who hates zombies. Her love-rival-turned-friend is a trans woman whose identity never gets invalidated by the narrative or by any of the characters. It’s actually really refreshing to see in an otherwise silly shoujo slapstick comedy. The series is available digitally in English.
Oh, and honorable mention goes to Sket Dance for REALLY nicely handled trans representation in its final arc. (The only issue was the use of the term Gender Identity Disorder, but I’m giving SD the benefit of the doubt and chalking that up to cultural differences since it did everything else perfectly.) The only reason it’s not getting a rec is that it takes up only one arc, so it’s not a prominent enough part of the narrative. Worth noting, though, since it’s rare for a high-profile shounen like this to do so well.
Also, since I see a lot of people recommending it, I just want to say that I do not recommend Bokura no Hentai. The mangaka is a cisgender woman and it really, really shows. There’s a lot of casual transmisogyny, not only in the story itself but also in the way Fumi Fumiko writes it. (The protagonist, a trans girl, is misgendered not only by her friends/family/classmates but also by herself. And I mean this continues after she comes out to said friends/family/classmates and starts transitioning.) If you want a story about a trans woman, please read The Bride Was a Boy, which is written by an actual trans woman.
I also see Banana Fish recommended a lot, and while it’s a decent story, the relationship between the two main male characters is platonic to the point where it can be read as really deep friendship. While they share a lot of intimate moments (and a kiss, I guess), there’s absolutely no love confessions in the text. Literally the only actual mention of romantic love is in the epilogue, when one of the side characters say that they might have “loved each other the way lovers do.” (Yeah, notice the “might”.) There’s also some casual homophobia/use of homophobic slurs as well as a lot of off-screen rape. It’s all right for what it is, but since there’s so many other, better representation out there, I opted not to include this one.
+ Bonus Anime Recs:
Psycho-Pass: A police drama set in a dystopic near-future world. Probably the best dystopia I’ve ever seen. Also stars two side characters who are 100% unabashedly women who like women. Seriously, it’s not even subtext; it’s actual text (you’ll see what I mean if you watch it). Be aware that S2 is made by a completely different production team and hence is absolutely terrible.
Samurai Flamenco: A tokusatsu (think Power Rangers) parody that brings out a weird plot twist every few episodes. Starring a man who wants to be a superhero and his police officer friend — oh, and a magical girl trio. The lesbian/bisexual female characters in this are a bit male gaze-y, and YMMV on that. But! (And this is a slight spoiler.) The main mlm relationship is actually not entirely queerbaiting!
Stars Align: Heard this was queer as heck but haven’t watched it yet. Also a sports anime that’s actually good, apparently.
Yurikuma Arashi: Literally translated as “Lesbian Bear Storm”. Almost everyone is a woman and a lesbian in this series. They are also bears, for some reason. This might all sound like a male gaze-y mess (so YMMV), but it’s directed by the master Ikuhara, of Revolutionary Girl Utena fame. Worth watching if you enjoy lots and lots of metaphors. (Don’t worry though — the queerness is explicit. There’s just lots of additional metaphors to drive it home that this show is queer as heck.)
All of Bee Train’s “girls-with-guns” trilogy (Noir, Madlax, El Cazador de la Bruja) is worth a mention, though with some caveats. All of them have a generally happy ending. (As in, the “main” lesbian pairing rides off into the sunset together. Yes, often literally.) But while it’s definitely not as male gaze-y as other yuri anime aimed at dudes, there are definitely moments when the male gaze shines through the shot compositions, though never too excessively. And although there are technically “love confessions”, the girls’ relationships are often left in a “more than friends but less than lovers” kind of stage which slightly frustrates me. Still, queer women having happy endings is always a good time. (And all these series have amazing Kajiura soundtracks.)