As the Persona series bursts forth into, nearly, every list of the best JRPGS out there from the momentum of Persona 4 and now Persona 5, more than ever, I think it important to think back at the series' treatment of Queer characters or more applicable, mistreatment. The series has a history of flirting with Queer storylines and characters and then at the last moment, un-Queering the narrative. This has happened multiple times over the course of every modern Persona game and each situation is uniquely troubling. Today I'll be looking at the situations of Aigis, Kanji, Naoto Yusuke, and the protagonist in every single entry.
Aegis: Persona 3 Portable
Aigis is an android who joins the S.E.E.S task force around the end of Perona 3. She is initially just a robot who follows orders but, through the help of her friends, she learns human emotion managing to grasp fear, happiness and even, love. For you know, the male protagonist. Who she has always felt a strong gravitation towards. In Persona 3 Portable, with the addition of playing through the story as a female protagonist, there was the looming question of how they would handle Aigis and the answer was, by maintaining the already established canon. When Aigis rolls onto the scene in the P3 Portable exclusive path, she is every bit as attached to the female protagonist as her male counterpart.
In the original storyline, this was, irrefutably, meant to be read as the beginnings of a romantic path for the protagonist. In the portable storyline, this initial feeling stays much of the same. Aigis clearly has feelings for the protagonist, regardless of gender but, for no reason but forced heterosexuality, you are not allowed to pursue a romantic path with Aigis as the female protagonist. An absurd reasoning made even more absurd by the fact that Aigis is a damn android and gendering an android to begin with, is creepy. But then to arbitrarily sanitize a clearly implied attraction is to erase Aigis' Queerness entirely.
Kanji Tatsumi: Persona 4
Kanji's storyline, in Persona 4, is inextricably linked to struggling with concepts of masculinity but also feelings of attraction towards other men. I'm trying to go easy on spoilers here, so I won't get into incredible detail. In the dungeon, built around the disconnects between his psyche and his true self, Kanji struggles with feeling Queer as he acknowledges his attraction towards Naoto Shirogane. His Queerness is canonical. He struggles and then finds his peace and is able to overcome his shadow. But the question of his established Queerness looms over the plot. How will this resolve itself inside of the storyline? Well everything wraps up very neatly when it is revealed that Naoto is a woman.
Everyone, Kanji included, breathes a breath of relief. Surely even though Naoto was successfully living as a man Kanji's feelings transcended perception and he was attracted to her because she was a woman the entire time. From then on Kanji joins Yosuke and the protagonist in being stereotypical, heterosexual pervs trying to pick up girls and practice heterosexuality.
The problem is that it makes no fucking sense. Kanji was attracted to Naoto because he was. It clearly had nothing to do with gender because his feelings remained the same either way. Regardless of whether Naoto ended up coming out as a woman or not, Kanji's still a Queer character and Persona 4 managed to gloss over that fact with expert precision. It was disappointing for his character who was so close to making peace with the person he so clearly is, and also was disappointing in and of itself. There was a huge opportunity to show the reconciling of one's feelings with what is expected of them that got entirely pissed away.
Naoto Shirogane: Persona 4
I have a lot of feelings about the treatment of Naoto Shirogane. I was 15 when I started playing Persona 4 and I admit I was nursing a little pixel crush on Naoto from her first appearance as a man. Which made me breathe a sigh of relief at the time because I thought that was proof I was straight. Then later when it was revealed she was passing, affirmed that I was a gaybo. So same situation as Kanji, only in reverse. But since then, as I've thought more critically about her story arc, I've become skeptical of her treatment in the series.
For background, Naoto Shirogane is a 15 year old ace detective who comes to the town of Inaba in order to assist with the investigation of the rash of murders and disappearances in town. She chooses to present as a man because her family profession as detective is a traditionally practiced by men and she didn't want to deal with the high amounts of sexism she was expecting. Later she joins the joins the main party after facing her shadow self in a dungeon centered around her desire to live as a man. The final room of this dungeon is quite literally an operation room where her shadow talks about undergoing sex reassignment surgery.
Naoto is a complicated case because, she was presenting as a man for external reasons. If her profession wasn't dominated by sexism it's hard to say how she would choose to present. And I think from an outsider's perspective I can't exactly speak to if she reads as trans. Ultimately I don't believe she was written as such because her reasons for struggling with her gender don't come from inside her. But the fact of the matter is even in the later non-canonical spin-off, Persona X Detective Naoto, which depicts Naoto at the age of 18, though she's grown out her hair and no longer wears a binder, she still chooses to present in a suite and tie. Mainly, she doesn't enact womanhood in the stereotypical fashion. Cool, no problems yet. But oh, they are coming.
If the protagonist chooses to pursue her romantically, Naoto eventually expresses feeling as though the way she acts out womanhood isn't attractive and asks what the protagonist would prefer. You are then asked if you like her the way she is or if you would like her to act more feminine. And if you're a douche, you ask her to be more feminine. Instead of punching you eye, like you'd deserve in this situation, she begins to speak in a higher register, just for you. In a later event Naoto will dress up in the Yasogami High School "woman's" uniform, just for your viewing pleasure even though she seems embarrassed and not really happy about it. I literally said this yesterday but I'll say it again, Naoto shifting the way she acts so she appears more feminine for the sake of the protagonist is fucked up. It's fucked up because Naoto isn't real. This is a cis straight man writing this woman to shift the entire way she navigates the world and feels comfortable, for the sake of a man. The way Naoto Queers gender is sterilized multiple times just so a man can get his jimmies. It really is, incredibly deplorable.
Yusuke Kitagawa: Persona 5
Yusuke Kitagawa is Persona 5's missed opportunity. Over and over Persona has offered characters who read as Queer and Yusuke is no different, during his confidant conversations, Yusuke and the protagonist are put in a number of flirty, goofy situations. It's pretty adorable really and they even go as far as to give the protagonist the occasional suggestive dialogue option but, alas, Yusuke isn't am option for a romantic partner. It's hard to ferret out why this is. Persona 5 came out in 2017, why in this day in age must heterosexuality be shoehorned into places it, frankly, doesn't seem to fit.
There isn't much else to say here. It's straightforwardly just a disappointment.
All of the Protagonists: Persona 3-5
Every Protagonist in the Persona Series was created to give a level of freedom to the player. Though you can't control their design, you're allowed to choose who they befriend, when the sleep, when they study, etc. They become an extension of you and just by way of existing every one of these protagonists is Queer. They are you, but not. They occupy a liminal space. You even get to choose their romantic partners. You get to decide what they say, who they think is attractive. But, even if you want you protagonist to be Queer and to have Queer desire, you're 100% shit outta luck and it's an incredibly arbitrary decision. But it gets more insidious than that.
When a game asks you to take on a character and gives you the option to characterize them however you wish. You can do whatever, you want with it and read your character however you like. I made my characters routinely flirt with every character, whenever I got the chance, in every game. Men, women, androids, it didn't matter. In my mind the four modern Persona protagonists are Queer but, they've been sanitized to fit the tastes of the cis, straight, homophobic men assumed to be the game's primary audience. For that reason the Queerness written into the characters and dialogue options are intended as comedic relief, when push comes to shove these are cis-gender heteros. Like all of the rest of the characters I've mentioned, they've been un-Queered.