In terms of sheer quantity, there are a lot more queer characters in anime than there are in American cartoons. Until recently, queer representation in American animation has faced two ridiculous obstacles: the idea that cartoons are just for kids, and the idea that it's inappropriate to expose kids to the existence of queer people. Thankfully that first obstacle started being challenged in the '90s with shows like The Simpsons and South Park, and the second obstacle's being challenged now thanks to shows like Steven Universe and The Loud House. In Japan, however, neither of obstacles exist. There's been anime for adults almost as long as there's been anime, and kids anime have long featured openly queer characters.
As for the quality of queer representation in anime, it's a mixed bag. While there isn't the same "think of the children!" panicking as in America, Japan still has a fair deal of cultural stigma around the queer community. Because of this, while including queer characters is less taboo, they're often portrayed as jokey stereotypes. Sometimes these stereotypical characters are written well enough to transcend their problematic origins, other times they can be incredibly offensive (let's never speak of "Puri Puri Prisoner" from One Punch Man). There's also the yaoi (boys love) and yuri (girls love) genres which focus on same-sex relationships, but often in a very unrealistic and fetishized manner. As the LGBT rights movement picks up steam in Japan, there's thankfully been an increase in more respectful and believable portrayals. This article will examine how 20 popular anime approach their queer characters.
20 YMIR AND CHRISTA (ATTACK ON TITAN)
There's a lot you can say, both positive and negative, about Attack on Titan, but one aspect of the show that's almost universally praised is its treatment of queer characters. Unlike a lot of mainstream anime, it neither stereotypes nor fetishizes them. They're just part of the story like anyone else.
The most prominent gay characters are Ymir and Christa, two lovers in the Survey Corps who are both hiding some huge secrets. Ymir's English voice actress, Elizabeth Maxwell, stated she hopes the portrayal of their relationship "will have an impact that echoes far into the future." Other queer characters in the series include Reiner, who's expressed a lack of interest in women, and Hange, whose gender is intentionally kept ambiguous.
19 GRELLE (BLACK BUTLER)
Jack the Ripper stories have been done to death, but have you ever heard the one where the Ripper's actually a transgender Grim Reaper killing people because she's obsessed with the color red? Yes, this is actually part of the plot of the anime Black Butler. Grell was suspended from Grim Reaper duties for breaking the official code, but gets reinstated and becomes a recurring character.
While Grell refers to herself as a woman, other characters in the show refer to her as a man. This has sparked some fan debate whether she's either a super flamboyant "in character" drag queen or a problematic portrayal of a trans woman. Either way she fits this list, and is a fan favorite character despite potential problematic issues.
18 TOUYA AND YUKITO (CARDCAPTOR SAKURA)
Those who grew up with Nelvana's Cardcaptors dub were missing a lot. The American TV version of Cardcaptor Sakura was hacked up even beyond usual standards of the time, trying to change a show aimed at girls into a show aimed at boys and cutting full episodes in the process. One of the many things that got chopped out was the show's gay content.
Manga author team CLAMP started off their careers making yaoi fan-comics, and most of their work since then includes some sort of queer representation. Sakura initially has a crush on Yukito, but Yukito's much more into her older brother Touya. Touya and Yukito's love for each other is powerful enough to defy magical prophecies.
17 RYO (DEVILMAN)
[SPOILERS] Technically, as an angel, Ryo is genderless. As a human, he presents as male and falls in love with a boy, so he's generally considered gay. He's a villain (literally Satan), but a tragic and sympathetic one who finds himself falling in love with the heroic Devilman Akira even as they fight. Ryo's characterization in the original Devilman manga influenced later works like Evangelion.
The Netflix series Devilman Crybaby adds additional queer characters, providing more representation so it's not just literal Satan. Miko, a lesbian Devilman, confesses her love for Miki, while Moyoru struggles with grief over his boyfriend's death. The portrayal of "Devilmen," who are persecuted by religious authorities and have to "come out" to their families, also works as a queer allegory.
16 OTOKOSUKI (DRAGON BALL Z)
For a franchise filled with hundreds of characters, Dragon Ball is surprisingly light on canonical queer representation, and what little there is hasn't been great. Fans were initially hopeful about an official relationship between female Super Saiyans Kale and Caulifla, but Dragon Ball Super concluded without the ship becoming canon. In all of Dragon Ball history, the only officially canonically gay characters are General Blue, who is also a Nazi, and Otokosuki.
Otokosuki is a minor participant in the 28th World Martial Arts Tournament in Dragon Ball Z, where he freaks out Goten and Trunks with his flirtations. His name literally translates to "man love." He's nothing more than a flat and obvious stereotype, but at least he's not a Nazi like General Blue.
15 MOTOKO (GHOST IN THE SHELL)
How do you even define sexuality when you can switch in and out of different cybernetic bodies? Ghost in the Shell has understandably attracted a queer following over the years for the questions it raises about identity. The 1995 movie, which introduced most Americans to the series, doesn't directly address sexuality, but its themes of disassociation from the body inspired a lot of transgender interpretations.
The original manga is much more direct about Major Motoko Kusanagi's sexuality. One particularly graphic scene between her and two other women was cut from the English translation. The Stand Alone Complex TV series alludes to her bisexuality. The American live-action movie showcased a same-sex kiss in advertisements, but that scene got cut from the final release.
14 LEERON (GURREN LAGANN)
Gurren Lagann is a series which gleefully celebrates traditional hypermasculinity. It's a show where the spirit of manliness is able to warp the universe itself! Even with this being a thematic focus, the show still manages to acknowledge those who don't fit the gender binary. The engineer behind the robots those manly men pilot happens to be Leeron Littner, who identifies as "kind of man and woman."
Leeron's feminine-leaning androgyny frequently plays up camp gay stereotypes to tease some of the male characters. Littner is also the brains of Team Gurren's whole operation and saves the day repeatedly. Dub voice actor Steve Blum says Leeron is actually the most powerful character he's ever played, and remember, Blum was also Spike Spiegel and Wolverine!
13 FRANCE (HETALIA)
Fans speculate that most of the characters in Hetalia are either gay or bi. The series is about the anthropomorphized representations of different countries, mostly male and all very cute. As these pretty boys form political alliances, it becomes very easy to get shippers' imaginations going.
Many of the jokes in the show are very directly homoerotic, and it's very easy to view a lot of the characters' relationships as more than platonic. As for characters whose sexualities are actually canonically confirmed by creator Hidekaz Himaruya, France is attracted to everyone regardless of gender. Sweden is also officially gay... but only for Finland!
12 DIO (JOJO'S BIZARRE ADVENTURE)
Yes, Dio from Jojo's Bizarre Adventure is canonically bisexual. He's maybe the most evil being in the universe, the type of character who's introduced kicking a dog and only devolves from there. In spite of this, he never reads as an offensive stereotype... and not just because internet memes declare that he "did nothing wrong."
Dio's sexuality is incidental to his villainy, and his same-sex relationship with Enrico Pucci in Part 6 of the manga is actually one of his few humanizing moments. Beyond that, Jojo's Bizarre Adventure as a whole is an extremely homoerotic series, something which creator Hirohiko Araki completely acknowledges.
11 RYUKO AND MAKO (KILL LA KILL)
Somehow a lot of fans are still in denial about how gay the ending of Kill la Kill is. Mako Makanshoku's whole method of encouraging Ryuko Matoi in the final battle is promising to go on a date with her. She even kisses Ryuko when asking her out! Sure enough, the final scene of Kill la Kill shows Ryuko and Mako on a date.
Some fans still deny what happened on screen, saying the date was "platonic" and the kiss was just a "joke." The main motivation behind this is seemingly shippers wanting Mako to end up with Ira Gamagori. Gamagori and Mako would be an adorable couple, but remember, bisexuality exists. So does polyamory. Mako can have both of her loves!
10 KINO (KINO'S JOURNEY)
The 2003 Kino's Journey anime has long been one of the most underrated anime series. Thankfully more people are discovering the show thanks to its 2017 reboot (a series which has its good points but can't compare to its predecessor). There's a lot that makes it stand out from other anime: smart Twilight Zone-style thought experiments, incredible atmospheric direction by the late great Ryutaro Nakamura and a unique non-binary protagonist.
Kino was assigned female at birth (going by a different name as a child), but adopts an androgynous persona. As such, Kino alternates between masculine and feminine personal pronouns and resist others' attempts to pin a gender down as "boy" or "girl." Kino's one of the rare transmasculine anime protagonists.
9 TOHRU (MISS KOBAYASHI'S DRAGON MAID)
The 2017 anime Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid charmed the pants off otaku in large part thanks to the ever charming Tohru, the titular "dragon maid." A powerful chaos dragon stuck in the human world, she takes on the form of a human maid aiming to please her human crush Miss Kobayashi. There's none of the "queerbaiting" teasing you see in other moe anime; Tohru's very direct with her feelings.
Whether Kobayashi reciprocates those feelings is not so clear. The dub controversially mistranslated some dialogue to make it seem Kobayashi was either straight or closeted, when in Japanese those lines were more ambiguous. The show heavily implies Kobayashi is also a lesbian and that Tohru's maid act is specifically appealing to Kobayashi's turn-ons.
8 SHINJI AND KAWORU (NEON GENESIS EVANGELION)
For most of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Shinji Ikari struggles in his relationships with women. Episode 24, the third to last episode of the series, suggests he may very well have more success with guys. The mysterious Kaworu Nagisa falls instantly in love with Shinji, and Shinji, while confused, is happy to be so loved. The relationship doesn't work out for reasons that constitute a major spoiler, but for once it's not actually Shinji's fault!
Despite the brevity of his appearance in the show, Kaworu instantly became a fan favorite character. You can find tons of Kaworu merchandise, and he plays a more significant role in Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo, the third in the as of yet unfinished Rebuild of Evangelion movie series.
7 THE KAMABAKKA QUEENDOM AND NEWKAMA LAND (ONE PIECE)
Is it possible for a straight writer's portrayal of queer characters to be utterly absurd and yet also respectful? That's the debate over the "okama" (drag queen) characters in One Piece. They're ridiculous caricatures, but pretty much everyone in One Piece is pretty wacky. There are some tacky "gay panic" jokes, yet the characters also have complexity, with Oda basing them on his real life okama friends.
The Kamabakka Queendom is a whole island of okama with magical abilities. This magic allows them to change hormones at will. Their leader, Emporio Ivankov, is powerful enough to even alter other people's hormones. Ivankov used to rule another okama paradise, Newkama Land, which is now ruled by the antagonist-turned-hero Bon Clay.
6 HOMURA (PUELLA MAGI MADOKA MAGICA)
There's enough blatant subtext throughout Puella Magi Madoka Magica that it's fair to guess that all of its magical girls are queer in some way. With Homura Akemi, it's not even really subtext so much as just text. Her storyline simply makes zero sense if she's not head-over-heals in love with Madoka Kaname.
Especially after the Rebellion sequel movie, it's blatantly obvious her feelings for Madoka go far beyond anything you could consider "friendship." Her love both saves the entire universe and then dooms it. She's obsessive and possessive, not exactly handling her feelings in a healthy fashion. She'll do anything to keep Madoka safe, but her ideas for "saving" Madoka aren't always what Madoka wants.
5 EVERYONE IN REVOLUTIONARY GIRL UTENA
Straight people seemingly don't exist in the world of the Revolutionary Girl Utena anime. Most of the main characters are bisexual. One of the only characters who was officially straight in the manga, Juri Arisugawa, is a lesbian in the anime! The heart of the show is the budding romance between the crossdressing female "prince" Utena Tenjo and her "Rose Bride" Anthy Himemiya.
Director Kunihiko Ikuhara has long been interested in exploring queer and feminist themes in anime. Utena is maybe his masterpiece, but before Utena he was one of the directors of Sailor Moon. More recently he directed Yuri Kuma Arashi, a surreal social commentary, the title of which translates in English to "Lesbian Bear Storm."
4 SAILOR URANUS AND NEPTUNE (SAILOR MOON)
The romance between Haruka Tenoh (Sailor Uranus) and Michiru Kaioh (Sailor Neptune) in Sailor Moon might be most famous lesbian romance in all of anime. Thanks to Cloverway's bizarre censorship of the original English dub, which made the two Sailor Scouts "cousins" in a failed attempt to hide their obvious attraction, it's also the most infamous.
Thankfully all the current releases of Sailor Moon, both of the original series and of the recent Sailor Moon Crystal, are uncensored. Haruka's characteriation varies between the old anime and the more manga-faithful Crystal: where she was butch but entirely female-identified in the '90s show, in Crystal and the manga she's described as "both a man and a woman."
3 FIRE EMBLEM (TIGER AND BUNNY)
Nathan Seymour, who fights crime as the superhero Fire Emblem, is a character who seems like a flat stereotype at first but develops a lot over the course of Tiger and Bunny. Gay, genderfluid and able to control fire, Emblem is "flaming" both figuratively and literally. Early on in the series, however, there are some tired "hitting on and freaking out straight men" scenes.
Over the course of the show, though, it becomes clear Fire Emblem is as heroic and upstanding as any of their fellow superheroes. The Tiger and Bunny sequel movie, The Rising, goes in depth into the hero's backstory facing homophobic bullying, and affirms Seymour's mix of both masculine and feminine qualities as a major strength.
2 HANA (TOKYO GODFATHERS)
Satoshi Kon's film Tokyo Godfathers is a loose remake of the John Ford western Three Godfathers transposed to the slums of Tokyo. Instead of a bunch of cowboys, the film's heroes are disgraced gambler Gin, teenage runaway Miyuki and transgender drag performer Hana.
Hana is the voice of reason and morality of her makeshift family. Her Christian faith and desire to be a mother influence her choice to rescue the lost child she finds in a dumpster on Christmas. Note the official English subtitle translation misgenders her at points, which aren't in the literal Japanese script. That complaint aside, she's one of the most lovable trans characters in anime.
1 YURI AND VICTOR (YURI ON ICE)
So many anime, sports anime in particular, tease lots of homoeroticism without ever committing to actually portraying same-sex romances. Yuri on Ice stunned audiences because it actually went there. You might be forgiven for just assuming it's another all-subtext sports anime at first, but Yuri on Ice evolved into a full fledged romance.
While the show was targeted primarily at women, Yuri Katsuki and Victor Nikiforov's love story appealed to actual queer men much more than your typical yaoi series. The characters were realistic enough to be relatable while the series' sheer positivity gave it an appealing level of escapism. The theme song's lyrics were correct: these two were "born to make history!"