I was about seven years old when I first became aware of Pokémon. Soon after, it became an obsession.
I’d wake up and watch the TV show over breakfast. Then I’d go to school and draw Pokémon with my best friend during recess. I’d trade Pokémon cards with my friends during lunch. Then I’d come home and play Pokémon Blue, while my twin brother played Pokémon Red right next to me.
The Pokémon franchise officially began in 1995, but the first game didn’t come out in Japan until February 1996. Over the next couple of years, the games reached North America, Europe and Australia.
With every new release, it transported me deeper and deeper into the franchise. Now, as an adult, it’s equal parts nostalgia, escapism and belonging bringing me back to Pokémon each time.
And I’m not alone.
A lot of people within the LGBTI community love Pokémon.
There’s something about the franchise that draws LGBTI audiences in, appealing to specific areas of their gender identity and sexuality.
Last week, I went to go see the latest movie release – Pokémon the Movie: The Power of Us. This film makes a total number of 21 feature-length films for the franchise.
It’s a film that delivers on the formulaic success of the brand – featuring cute characters, new storylines and plenty of rainbow motifs.
The music, narration and lead character will all be familiar to a veteran viewer of the franchise. And that sense of nostalgia keeps bringing audiences back.
But looking around in the movie theatre made me realize the cultural impact it has on LGBTI people.
Kyle Stewart, 30, from England has been playing Pokémon throughout its 22-year history.
He told Gay Star News: ‘Growing up as a mixed race, gay kid in rural Norfolk at a school where a staggering majority of the pupils were white and straight, I naturally had a hard time fitting in.’
He found himself withdrawing from social interactions at school, opting instead to play Pokémon by himself in the corner of the playground. It helped him escape.
Until one day, a group of kids approached him and they all bonded over Pokémon. They became great friends and went through high school together.
Kyle said: ‘They supported me through my coming out, and we remain friends to this day.
‘And that love of Pokémon never really left. My partner and I love going on Pokémon Go walks most weekends,’ he said.
There are a tonne of reasons why LGBTI audiences connect with the Pokémon franchise. So let’s start with the TV show.
Jessie and James aren’t straight
While it’s never actually explicitly mentioned, there are several obvious moments when it’s implied Team Rocket’s Jessie and James aren’t straight.
The most obvious clue is in episode 52 of season three, entitled The Fortune Hunters.
In the episode, Team Rocket’s Butch (yes, the character’s name is Butch) and Cassidy – an obvious reference to American criminal Butch Cassidy – convince James his perfect Pokémon is the legendary fire bird Moltres.
Then James dresses up in a form-fitting Moltres costume and says: ‘I am a flaming Moltres!’
Meowth chimes in: ‘That outfit – where’d he get it?’
Then Jessie says: ‘I think that costume came right out of his closet.’
There’s also an episode of James with fake boobs that never made it to English-speaking audiences.
In the episode, both Jessie and James talk about their love of drag. Jessie prefers a more masculine look, while James loves embracing his feminine side.
The episode escalates with James getting a blow-up chest and competing against Jessie and Misty in a beach beauty contest.
Misty says: ‘James! I thought you were male!’
And James replies: ‘So what? As long as I’m beautiful, it doesn’t matter.’
James also says in one episode: ‘It’s times like these that make me want to go straight.’
While it’s probably more likely he’s talking about going ‘straight’ – as in leaving a life of crime – many believe it’s an allusion to his sexuality.
But if Jessie and James are not gay, they’re at least asexual.
In Pokémon the Movie 2000: The Power of One, Jessie and James weigh in on marriage.
Jessie says: ‘Listen to me kid, when you get involved with the opposite sex you’re only asking for trouble.’
James replies: ‘Yes, and that’s the kind of trouble I stay out of!’
Team Rocket are gay/lesbian solidarity and Meowth is a messy bisexual. pic.twitter.com/6fuSd4xWxY
— ✨ Hamish Steele ✨ (@hamishsteele) November 10, 2018
In the first few games of the Pokémon franchise, users can choose the name of their playable character. Then in later instalments of the game, you can choose your own gender.
In Pokémon X, for example, Pokémon Professor Augustine Sycamore asks at the start of the game: ‘Are you a boy? Or are you a girl?’ They also offer options of skin tone.
And in the latest release, Pokémon Lets Go, they simply ask: ‘What do you look like?’
Charlie, 23, is a trans man and says the reason he loves Pokémon is because ‘gender is practically meaningless in it’.
He told Gay Star News: ‘You have a lot of video games where women are sexualized, or you can only play as a male. In Pokémon, you can play as male or female and your powers and how others interact with you don’t change due to your presentation in the game.
‘Gym leaders can be women or men and they don’t make a female gym leader a joke,’ he said.
His favorite Pokémon is Eevee.
‘There’s so much potential of what it can be,’ Charlie said.
Eevee can evolve into eight different Pokémon – Jolteon, Flareon, Vaporean, Umbreon, Espeon, Leafeon, Glaceon and Sylveon.
‘It kinda gives me hope,’ Charlie said.
In the first ever Pokémon movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back – there is a widely-used quote in trans circles from Mewtwo.
In an epic battle, Mewtwo uses its psychic abilities to freeze Ash and then Pikachu tries to revive him with his electric shocks.
When Pikachu fails, he starts to cry. Pikachu’s tears then bring Ash back to life.
Mewtwo says: ‘I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.’
Non-binary and gender fluid users
There are a bunch of genderless Pokémon.
According to Bulbapedia, there are 106 Pokémon that don’t have a gender. Just in the first generation alone, the genderless Pokémon include: Magnemite, Magneton, Staryu, Starmie, Voltorb, Electrode, Porygon, Mew, Mewtwo, Zapdos, Articuno and Moltres.
But one hugely popular genderless Pokémon from generation one is Ditto.
The little pink blob only has one move: Transform. It can transform into any Pokémon and mimic everything its opponent does.
For this reason, it’s become somewhat of a symbol for some people who identify as non-binary or gender fluid.
Dee, 32, identifies as femme non-binary and said they never felt boxed in to gender by the Pokémon games.
‘Unlike most games at the time, it did not create an aesthetic for the protagonist that I couldn’t identify with,’ Dee said. ‘It gave me a blank protagonist I could “decorate” whichever way I wanted.’
When Pokémon Go first came out in 2016, the game asked users to choose their ‘style’ instead of their gender.
Fans praised the initiative as it was a clear move for non-binary and gender fluid players.
LGBTI people and escapism
As with any roleplaying game, the Pokémon games can be a way of LGBTI people to experience escapism from their everyday lives, choosing alternate realities for themselves.
Kieran Lowe, 30, from London has been playing Pokémon since it first came out. He leaned on Pokémon while growing up as a way to escape his childhood.
‘I was quite lonely and at that point didn’t have friendships that felt authentic,’ he said. ‘You get to set out on your own journey at puberty, to collect your own friends, who will love you so much they’ll fight for you.
‘And also they’re cute or fabulous creatures,’ he said.
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Karl Slater, 35, from London also used Pokémon as a way of escapism. He said he was bullied at school and was also having problems at home.
He said: ‘Later in life, Pokémon became more connected to my queerness, openly collecting the toys and not being ashamed of it. Knowing that you can still be a man and enjoy child-like things. Being a gay man, you don’t have to play by the rules of traditional masculinity.’
Karl added: ‘Maybe on some level, evolving a weak Pokémon into a stronger more powerful one told me I can always grow and evolve past any problems or identity issues I had coming to terms with my sexuality.’
David, 32, from London agrees.
He said: ‘If you were an awkward, shy, bullied 12-year-old, then Pokemon was a perfect escape.
‘It presented a world of possibilities where you could adventure and be in control,’ David said.
It’s a similar story for Jack Flynn (not his real name) who is 24 and lives in Somerset, England.
He’s not out to his friends and family as gay and said playing Pokémon gives him a sense of power and control over his life.
‘I’ve always found Pokémon to make me feel oddly safe,’ Jack said. ‘Sort of like a feeling that in that world, nothing bad can happen.
‘I have anxiety [so] I tend to freak out a lot. Pokémon has helped me relax.
‘[I] get quite anxious when it comes to gay stuff because I can’t be my true self at home, and I can do that in Pokémon,’ he said.
Using Pokémon to connect with others
One of the best things about the latest releases of the Pokémon franchise is its ability to connect LGBTI players.
With the rise of Pokémon Go and its gameplay that encourages people to connect, interact and meet other players in the real world, it’s caused a stir on social media.
Philip Normal, 36, says the ‘whole concept of Pokémon is about friendship’.
He continued: ‘I’ve experienced not only making new friends through the game, but bonding with people further that I already know.
‘From the beginning, Pokemon has celebrated people’s differences and different characters, and when you’re growing up and you know you’re a bit different, it’s good to have positive messaging,’ he said.
Kieran Lowe said he’s always had a passion for it, but has only recently utilized the game to make friends.
‘I only recently, via Twitter and London’s Gaymers group really realized how many other adult gay guys played Pokemon.
‘And I guess the popularity of Pokémon Go in 2016 made me less shy about it as a passion.
‘I thought it was pretty odd and geeky before that, and because I had no interest of interacting with your average (straight, younger) gamer online, I didn’t see it as a social thing,’ he said.
Adam Kaplan, 26, is a gay man from Glasgow and said Pokémon helps him connect to his colleagues at work in a slightly different way.
Pokémon helps him ‘perform his queerness’.
He said: ‘I’ve tended to work in places where I’ve been the only queer person or person my age.
‘I know I can’t speak in Drag Race quotes, Carly Rae Jepsen lyrics or come in wearing mesh – as much as I’ve been tempted – because it would just be too out there.
‘But I can come in wearing my Eeveelutions sweatshirt or have my Pokémon Go watch on and kind of represent myself in a way that’s still accessible to others.
‘It feels like something intrinsically “me” that I can openly share and that people can understand and be positive about, which can be a rare feeling when you’re a queer person in a straight environment,’ he said.
It’s been over 20 years since the Pokémon franchise took over the world and it’s unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon.
Pokémon The Movie: The Power of Us is in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on 24 November and 1 December. Get tickets here.