It's the Saturday night before Thanksgiving, and the crowd in Salon B at the Holiday Inn in Sunset Hills is primed for a drag show. Some 50 teenagers are dressed like Japanese comic-book and video-game characters, and many of them sport wigs in colors not usually found in nature.

Two girls bounce onto the stage dressed as boys dressed as Cheshire cats. One wears devil horns and a cape; the other carries a whip. They begin to sing their own version of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." The devil-horned cat forces her sidekick into a chair, climbs onto her lap and begins to bump and grind and poke her between the legs with her tail. The crowd goes wild.

In retaliation the cat in the chair pulls out her leather whip and forces the other to bend over. It's butt sex, Wonderland-style. Then the handcuffs come out. The crowd goes even wilder.

Moriah Douglas, 18, from Ashland, Tennessee, performing as Ciel Phantomhive from Black Butler.
Moriah Douglas, 18, from Ashland, Tennessee, performing as Ciel Phantomhive from Black Butler.
Douglas with Genna Greene, 19, from Valparaiso, Indiana, as Sebastian Michaelis from Black Butler.
Douglas with Genna Greene, 19, from Valparaiso, Indiana, as Sebastian Michaelis from Black Butler.
Gender play continues at an impromptu game of spin the bottle, err, gun.
Gender play continues at an impromptu game of spin the bottle, err, gun.
From left: Jayme Smith, 23, from Piedmont, Missouri; Kiimberly E., 15, from Robertsville and Katrina L. from Pacific; Sharon H., 15; Elise Z., 16.
From left: Jayme Smith, 23, from Piedmont, Missouri; Kiimberly E., 15, from Robertsville and Katrina L. from Pacific; Sharon H., 15; Elise Z., 16.
Jessica Chelmecki, 18, traveled from Chicago to show off her Soul Eater costume.
Jessica Chelmecki, 18, traveled from Chicago to show off her Soul Eater costume.
St. Louisans Kayla Georgiafandis, 25, and Catherine Kruta, 23.
St. Louisans Kayla Georgiafandis, 25, and Catherine Kruta, 23.
Bishie Con 2009 organizers Katrina and Mikhail Lynn at Saturday night's Drag Ball Z dance.
Bishie Con 2009 organizers Katrina and Mikhail Lynn at Saturday night's Drag Ball Z dance.
Rosiel and loyal servant Katan from Angel Sanctuary by Kaori Yuki, as portrayed by Sam Tillman, 25, of Edwardsville and Jen Patton, 27, of St. Louis.
Rosiel and loyal servant Katan from Angel Sanctuary by Kaori Yuki, as portrayed by Sam Tillman, 25, of Edwardsville and Jen Patton, 27, of St. Louis.
Even anime characters wear out as the hours go by.
Even anime characters wear out as the hours go by.

By the time the Cheshire cats finish their number, the screaming has reached ear-shattering levels. Out in the hallway, unsuspecting hotel guests, big-haired visitors to the Viking Lounge and a couple of garden-variety female impersonators in high heels, wonder: What the hell is this?

Why, it's Bishie Con, the Midwest's first weekend-long celebration of all things yaoi. And what is yaoi? Well, that answer is a bit more complicated.


Yaoi (pronounced "yowee") is stories of beautiful, deeply emotional boys who are desperately in love with each other.

One can find these erotic tales in Japanese comic books, called manga, or watch the animated versions, known as anime, on DVDs that are sold at mainstream bookstores like Borders. The stories range from the cute to the romantic — to the downright depraved.

The bestseller Happy Yaoi Yum Yum begins with a panel of a boy who is enthusiastically shoving a corncob up his ass. On the next page the corncob has magically transformed into a full-grown, fully developed man. Exclaims our hero: "I'm so glad I found out that when I stick vegetables in my ass, they turn into hot hunky men!"

Yaoi boys, called bishounen (or bishie for short), don't just make it with vegetables. They do their teachers, their brothers, their dogs. Sometimes the sex gets violent. The two romantic heroes of the series Gravitation consummate their attraction with a rape. Afterward, they cuddle.

Virtually all the characters in yaoi are boys, though they're so slender and delicate-featured that, aside from dangling genitalia, they could pass for girls. But fans are almost exclusively adolescent girls and young women.

"The guys I'm seeing are into it to win brownie points," observes Yaoi Press publisher Yamila Abraham.

Yaoi is an acronym for the Japanese phrase "Yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi," which translates as "no climax, no resolution, no meaning." Of course, given the abundance of boy-on-boy sex, it could also stand for "Yamete, oshiri ga itai," or, "Stop, my ass hurts."

The genre's origins are somewhat murky. What is known is that it began in Japan in the 1970s when, according to Kyoto Seika University manga scholar Matt Thorn, some teenaged girls noticed that the friendships between certain male characters seemed unusually intense.

"These female fans," Thorn wrote in a 2004 essay, "read into the story — its setting and characters — the possibility of male bonding yielding to homoerotic desire."

The girls began to make up stories about these boy-love affairs and publish them as amateur manga.

Around the same time in the United States, female Star Trek fans sensed that there were tender feelings between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock and wrote erotica about them. Then they moved on to Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John in M*A*S*H, Josh and Sam in The West Wing, and Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy. These stories became known as slash fiction, stories in which pop culture characters hook up and a slash is used to separate the lovers' names: Kirk/Spock.

Yaoi came to America via the Internet. Girls who were too young to buy the hardcore manga in comic-book stores could read it online. In chat rooms they could meet other fans, learn about new yaoi sites and share their own slash.

"I'm not lying when I say I knew how yaoi sex works before I knew where babies come from," declares a young woman named Mary during a Bishie Con panel discussion. "It started with Yu-Gi-Oh! [a popular manga, anime and card game] fan fic. I didn't know what was happening, but I liked it. I finally found one with clinical terms, and I got out the medical dictionary."

The How I Got Into Yaoi panel feels like a revival meeting. Girls talk proudly about converting friends to yaoi fandom and hiding their manga and DVDs from their parents. "My mom asked me, 'What's yaoi?'" reports one girl named Colleen. "I told her, 'When a boy and a boy love each other and don't make babies.'"

Another girl, Mary, says she tried to get her mother to watch yaoi anime. "She lasted 57 seconds." The room erupts in laughter and hooting. "I'm serious!" Mary protests. "I timed it."

The girls have trouble, though, explaining their yaoi obsession.

"Not a lot of people talk about why they like male/male romance," says Jessica Freely, who writes erotic romance novels. "They say it's exploitative to gay men, or women fetishizing. It's much more than that, or porn. It's about exploring gender roles."

When a girl reads or writes yaoi, adds Katrina Strauss, a St. Louis male/male romance novelist, she isn't confined to traditional women's roles. She doesn't have to identify or compare herself to the heroine. The reader can imagine herself pursuing a man instead of waiting for him to approach her. Then, afterward, no matter how raw the sex, she gets to cuddle.

"A lot of my really die-hard fans have had abusive pasts like me," says Yamila Abraham. "They're kindred spirits. Yaoi lets us get into [the rough sex] without reservation, despite the way we've been treated in real life, because the uke [a submissive bishie] is not us."

At Bishie Con girls get to spend a weekend pretending to be boys. There's more hugging and cuddling and innuendo than actual sex, but that's not the point. Instead girls get to be sexual without having to worry about getting raped or being called a bitch or a slut. It's sex without the politics. Instead, it's just fun.


All weekend long, 300 girls and bishies parade through the Holiday Inn in hand-sewn military jackets and hoop skirts. In con parlance, dressing up in costume is known as "cos-play."

To look more boyish, girls bind their breasts with duct tape. "The first time I used duct tape I passed out," recalls Sonja Desloge. "The problem with duct tape is that you have to cut it off."

On Saturday afternoon Moriah Douglas walks down the hall in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. Another young woman sees her, screams, runs over and gives her an enormous hug. Then she picks up Douglas and carries her away in the direction of the lobby. This practice — hugging and sometimes kidnapping — is known as "glomping" and is considered the ultimate tribute to a cos-player's outfit.

"Going to a con is an immersive experience," says Mikhail Lynn, one of the organizers of Bishie Con. "It's grabbing people out of real life and putting them into something else for a weekend," adds his wife and co-organizer, Katrina.

Katrina and Mikhail work at a video company in Clayton, but their real passion is organizing fan conventions. For the past four years they have put on Kawa Kon, advertised as "St. Louis' premier anime convention." "It's the most fun thing in my life," Katrina declares.

They are both 23. Mikhail is calm and scholarly and skinny enough to fit into women's size-one jeans. At Bishie Con he works behind the scenes. Katrina handles the MC duties. She is cheerful and seemingly incapable of being embarrassed or rattled by the crowds screaming for penises.

Bishie Con was conceived two years ago as an alternative to San Francisco's Yaoi-Con, which for ten years was the only yaoi convention in the United States (There's also Yaoi North in Toronto.) The Lynns raised $20,000, booked the Holiday Inn, locked in vendors and guests of honor, and recruited a band of volunteers.

"We have the same function as an amusement park," Katrina says. "It's fun. We have games and stuff for people to win. You can people-watch." There's karaoke and a laser light show. Vendors sell T-shirts, stuffed animals and neon-colored Japanese soft drinks.

"People who are normally shy get really social," notes Cassie, a frequent con-goer.

Cassie is at Bishie Con to help promote Gale Con, scheduled for this summer in Galesburg, Illinois. She and her fellow organizers did not come in costume, but they already know plenty of people from the Midwest anime con circuit.

"Sarah didn't recognize me," one of Cassie's friends complains after an acquaintance breezes by.

Cassie consoles her and pats her arm. "She only saw you with your real hair once."


One of the biggest hazards of a Bishie Con weekend, besides a lack of sleep, is what Sonja Desloge refers to as "con stench."

"There are people who don't shower all weekend," she complains. "Their rooms smell like feet and dead people. And you're not allowed to Febreze people. It's considered assault."

Febreze aside, Bishie Con is a peaceful affair. The two-man security force wanders through the events, making small talk with the con-goers and, in the case of Brad Hale, promoting Gale Con. Loud screaming doesn't constitute a security threat and is, therefore, out of their control.

Bishie Con happens to coincide with the release of The Twilight Saga: New Moon, which may explain the absence of girls dressed as vampires. Desloge went to a midnight premiere and, consequently, showed up to the convention on three hours' sleep. "It was totally worth it though," she says. "Cute Indian boys. Even though Edward has hairy nipples."

A panel for Hetalia: Axis Powers is almost entirely occupied by girls in quasi-military uniforms. Hetalia tells the story of twentieth-century world politics with each country represented by a pretty boy. The panelists make a few half-hearted attempts to introduce themselves to the uninitiated ("I'm America, and I'm Russia's bitch because we're in debt"), but they can't resist acting out their roles.

Spain and China show up late and get glomped by Italy and Japan. Italy cuddles on Germany's lap. France gets down on bended knee and proposes marriage to England.

Slowly, the non-Hetalia fans file out of the room.

After the panel, some of the Hetalia enthusiasts sit on the floor in the main hallway and play spin the bottle with a toy gun. They crawl across the circle to kiss each other on the cheek or, more daringly, the mouth.

Amelie Belcher, an artist from Austin, Texas, instructs her panel in the fine art of drawing yaoi manga. "I love anatomy so much," she says. "Especially the muscles. Guys will look at a picture of a girl and go, 'Oh my god, that's hot.' But they're less likely to spend money unless it's really sick. Girls are more likely to buy it because it's harder to find yaoi. So the market is much better for my male work."

Abraham tells her panel the story of how she started up Yaoi Press in Las Vegas five years ago and how she now publishes 45 titles, which have been translated into four different languages. She gets the best response, though, when she attempts to make a penis shadow puppet on the wall and recites this ditty: "Semes come from Mars/Ukes come from Venus/Anal sex is easier/With a self-lubricating penis." (Translation: semes are the dominant lovers and ukes are the submissive. The rest is self-explanatory.)

Things are quieter in the manga library where Sarah Hayes and a fellow volunteer named Anna watch newcomers check in. The registration desk is staffed by Sarah's mother, Julie, cos-playing as Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter books. (Julie read a few Harry Potter fan-fictions at Friday night's Yaoi Bedtime Stories and Sleepover that made her daughter blush.)

"I saw Pleasure Dome — I have it back here, on the eighteen-plus shelf — as a staff pick at Borders," Anna volunteers.

"It was a staff pick?" Sarah asks incredulously. Pleasure Dome is a hardcore anthology of manga shorts that includes, among many other things, rape, father-son incest and graphic depictions of the Kama Sutra. But that's not why Anna and Sarah are so surprised.

"There aren't a lot of people obsessed with anime," Anna says. "In high school there were a lot of people, but I had nobody to hang out with. I've been called a freak, a loser. It doesn't bother me, but football fans paint their faces and scream, too, and nobody calls them losers. Everybody likes football. We're left out in the dust."

"We're one of the last groups you're able to bully," Sarah agrees.

The conversation gradually segues to Sarah's latest passion: Obama White House slash. "When I found out about [chief of staff] Rahm Emanuel, how he sends dead fish to people he hates and cheesecake to people he likes, I totally fell in love," she gushes. "I've been writing lots of fan fic with a vampire Rahm. A popular pairing is Rahm/Obama, but there's also Rahm/[press secretary] Robert Gibbs and Rahm/Joe Biden. That takes place on a train, because Biden likes trains."

"Wait till Obama hears about this," Anna says.

"Rahm has a lot of really ugly ties," Sarah continues. "I was going to send him a gift box of nicer ties. But there's a fine line between appreciation and being creepy."


The atmosphere at Bishie Con resembles a teenage sleepover at 3 a.m. On Friday night, a group gathers in the third-floor hallway, next to the elevator, and serenades everyone who walks by with a rendition of "Happy Birthday" in full harmony.

"We're bored," they explain.

In the elevator, Mary, the one whose mother endured less than a minute of yaoi, giggles happily. "This is the best con I've ever been to!" She pauses and considers. "Well, maybe the second best. Tokyo in Tulsa was pretty awesome."

The seminal event of Bishie Con is not the "Happy Birthday" singers — or even the raucous game of Yaoi Checkers, where players leapfrog over their opponents and getting "kinged" means getting handcuffed to a partner.

Nor is it the late-night Yaoi Hentaipalooza where Yamila Abraham explains the significance of the corncob in yaoi lore. (It was used to rape the uke character in a particularly graphic manga called My Sexual Harassment.)

It's not even Friday night's Wonderland Host Party, where everyone samples instant coffee and pretends to be characters in the manga and anime series Ouran High School Host Club. Mikhail Lynn presides as the Queen of Hearts, resplendent in one of the con's best costumes: a white frock coat with an enormous collar over a red silk shirt with matching cravat and tulle petticoat.

No, the main event is Saturday night's drag show, where the Lynns unveil their next project, mysteriously referred to throughout the weekend as "The Cosmic Egg Roll."

The lights, already dim, grow dimmer. The Columbia Pictures logo appears on the screen. And then, a familiar beat: The Ghostbusters theme song.

Ghostbusters, it turns out, has great yaoi potential, at least when edited by Mikhail and Katrina. The Ghostbusters exchange lots of soulful glances. Ernie Hudson tells Harold Ramis, "That's an awfully big Twinkie" three times. (In the original movie, he only says it once.)

The audience, already pumped from the drag performances, applauds and hoots.

Katrina Lynn jumps back on the stage. "Presenting, Ecto Con!" she shouts.

Ecto Con, a weekend devoted to the appreciation for all things Ghostbusters, will launch in 2011. The crowd is excited about the new con, but, arguably, they're even more excited about Ghostbusting man-love.

Now everyone waits in suspense for the judges to finish deliberating over the winners of the drag show. The final contest is a four-way: The Cheshire cat twins; a gender-bending necrophiliac reinterpretation of Sleeping Beauty; a young man in a 65-pound robot costume who does a seductive dance to "Pump Up the Jam"; and Moriah Douglas' heart-rending interpretation of the song "Please Do It for Me."

To pass the time, Katrina Lynn pulls out a book of Mad Libs. "Gimme a body part!" she yells. "Penis!" everyone shouts back.

"Number!"

"69!"

Katrina rolls her eyes. "God, you guys are predictable."

The resulting story is perhaps not as filthy as Happy Yaoi Yum Yum — although a corncob reference does find its way in — but the audience is satisfied anyway. "That turned out so epically!" someone shouts.

Fifteen minutes and five Mad Libs stories later, the judges have returned with the results. Everyone's a winner! The cats win a special award for "Twincest." The robot wins best in show for costume. The "prince" from Sleeping Beauty and Douglas are crowned king and queen. They all come up onstage to take a bow and receive a standing ovation.

Back in the manga library, Anna and Sarah discuss the weekend. "You know," Anna says, "people take cons pretty seriously."

"I used to know nobody else who liked Dr. Who," Sarah says. "Then I went to my first con. And I thought, 'These are my people.'"

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