Modern fandom has blessed us with many gifts. But the most unique gift fandom has given the world might be slash.
Defining slash as just "fanfiction featuring same-sex relationships" is, while technically accurate, imprecise. Conflating fanfiction featuring same-sex female relationships (or femslash) with same-sex male relationships does a disservice to both, as they both have very different histories. I prefer defining slash as a genre of fanwork focusing on usually noncanonical same-sex male relationships. While it is often created and enjoyed by queer fans, it's significantly distinct from queer literature. The focus isn't on imagining a lived queer experience, but something else entirely.
Over the last six decades, slash has gone from something written about in code and shared carefully between fans for fear of legal action to something so normalized that it's referenced casually in Supernatural and Marvel comics. As a genre, it's developed enough style, tropes, and common language that it can travel beyond the fannish spaces where it was born and still be recognizable. You can open up any number of books currently on the market and clock that the writer cut their teeth and may yet still be sharpening them on slash.
Why do some people enjoy slash? That's a question that's been asked since fannish antiquity. It's been asked so much that in 1995, Blake's 7 slash fan Susan Beth penned "The Generic Slash Defense Letter" to serve as the metaphorical sign for slash fans to tap on. There are as many reasons fans like slash as there are fans, but there are three main flavors of arguments as to why.
The first argument is that the characters being slashed (oh yes, it's a verb too) and their relationship are simply more interesting to the fan than anything else on offer. One of the earlier discussions I can find about this topic is a fan discussing this at length in the third issue of The Terra Nostra Underground in 1990, but I seriously doubt it was a brand-new idea that many years into slash's life cycle. Essentially, in a world where female characters, especially those that serve as love interests, are often underdeveloped, the argument goes, it's only natural for fans to focus on and extrapolate off of the strong relationships between male characters.
The second, and far more popular, argument is that an imagined romance between two male characters allows people of marginalized genders and sexualities to explore and experiment with gender, sex, and romance in a narrative safe space. If you're writing a romance between two characters whose gender is the assumed default gender of our world, you can bring or leave as much of your own baggage or self as you desire. Legendary lesbian sci-fi writer Joanna Russ made such an argument about Kirk/Spock at her one-woman panel at Norweson in 1984, which later became both a fanzine essay and an academic essay in Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans, and Perverts.
And the third argument is just good old-fashioned prurient interest. Or, as fan M. Fae Glasgow put it in a 1993 issue of Strange Bedfellows, "normal female interest in men bonking."
To accurately capture the history of slash in the detail it demands would take up absolute volumes. In lieu of that, I've elected to present to you a history of slash through six ships. Some are the heavy hitters and some aren't, but all of them allow us to track slash's history from its origins on the margins to its current place in the mainstream.
Kirk/Spock, Star Trek
The original Star Trek premiered in the fall of 1966, two months after the Compton's Cafeteria riot and three years before the Stonewall riots. Homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and would be for another eight years. Homosexuality between men was still functionally illegal in the United Kingdom.
This is the environment in which the first generation of slash fans, long before slash was even called slash, watched the show that would birth the Mother Fandom and saw sparks between Captain Kirk and Lt. Spock. Fans had been up to their fannish practices since time immemorial (ask me about ancient Greek ship wars sometime). But Star Trek fandom developed and codified what we now recognize as modern media fandom (in contrast to the male-dominated traditional science fiction fandom): fanzines (or just zines), fanfiction, fanart, conventions, meta, and, of course, slash.
The two best candidates for the first Kirk/Spock fic are Audrey Baker's "Green Plague," dated to the late ‘60s when it was published in the fanzine Son of Grope in 1977, and Jennifer Guttridge's "The Ring of Soshern," dated to 1968. But both of these were privately circulated, instead of being published in fanzines, to ensure that only friendly eyes read it. Fellow fan Fiona James was one such set of friendly eyes, who received a copy of the story from the author in the mid-seventies. According to James, Guttridge was concerned that publishing "The Ring of Soshern" would lead to legal trouble.
But K/S, as Star Trek fandom styled the ship, was emerging from the underground. The first openly published K/S story was Diane Marchant's "A Fragment Out of Time," which appeared in the first adult Star Trek fanzine, Grup, in 1974. But even this fic was written so carefully that many readers had no idea what was going on in the story. At least, until the next issue, where Marchant elaborated on both her piece and her thoughts on K/S.
After this, other K/S fics began to appear in other zines. In response, fans began discussing whether or not "the premise," as K/S was coyly referred to, was appropriate content for the Star Trek fandom. There was even a panel at SekWester Con, Too in May of 1977 devoted to the topic.
Star Trek fandom's debate over K/S necessitated the creation of a new vernacular. K/S, which previously referred to any fic about Kirk and Spock, was slowly beginning to mean fics about them in a relationship, which meant that the fics where they were not a couple needed to be designated as "gen" (for general).
All that said, the fandom could debate whether or not K/S was appropriate all it wanted, but as the seventies began to wind down, the slash cat was out of the slash bag. When Star Trek fans began to take to other shows and films, they took what would become slash with them.
Starsky/Hutch, Starsky & Hutch
Over the course of the late seventies and early eighties, Star Trek fans got involved with or moved to other fandoms. Other sci-fi properties, like Star Wars and Blake's 7, were obvious choices. Starsky & Hutch and The Professionals, two action-oriented crime dramas, seem less obvious. At least, until you realize that both dramas invest heavily in the relationship between the partners who serve as the protagonists. (To wit: catnip.) As K/S fans began to name pairings in these new fandoms, they utilized the K/S naming convention from Star Trek, ultimately resulting in the designation of what was fast becoming its own genre of fanfiction as "slash."
Star Trek fans bringing their talents to Starsky & Hutch marked the moment that media fandom broke entirely from science fiction fandom. It proved that a fandom did not have to be built around a sci-fi story. It could be built around any kind of story, so long as that story made fans want to, well, do fandom.
Which Starsky & Hutch did.
But there was a complication. Fandom widely understood that the production of fanzines, the primary platform for fandom, was only allowed with the blessing (or at least the willingness to look the other way) of the creators. Otherwise, there was the threat of legal action—especially if you were printing something that might be considered obscene material, such as anything referring to homosexuality positively. Star Trek fandom had received Gene Roddenberry's blessing and received little to no interference, though they did police themselves (thus the debates over whether K/S was appropriate to print). But Star Wars fanzines had received conflicting signals from Lucasfilm: some were served with copyright violation notices, while others were asked to provide copies to Lucasfilm. When a supposedly explicit Han/Leia fic was published in the fanzine Guardian in 1981, several fanzines received a notice from Maureen Garrett, the director of the official Star Wars Fan Club. The notice was a warning, telling fanzines that publishing "X-rated" content would jeopardize the existence of the Star Wars fanzines.
Against that and the backdrop of Reagan-era conservatism in the United States, Starsky & Hutch fans were reasonably concerned that the producers of the show would sue them if they were too open about their activities. After the publication of the first S/H zine, 1980's Forever Autumn, fans battened down the hatches. Paula Smith, the fan who coined the term "Mary Sue," recalled the lengths the entire fandom went to in the Paul Muni Special convention program:
... here were secret series, secret round-robins, even a secret letterzine for a while in 1981. Most of this underground stuff was S/H, and the reason that it was so encrypted was the fear and occasional paranoia that Spelling-Goldberg would sue the writers. Hence "The Zine With No Name"; CODE 7 1. There are no editors, no artists, no writers credited in this 1981 publication. Other stories remained buried because their authors gafiated [left fandom] before they were finished. From time to time some incanabula surface, but sadly, most may molder away, in obscurity, forever.
Code 7 wasn't the only zine that went to extraordinary lengths to obscure its slash content. The 1983 zine anthology Pushin' the Odds printed any S/H stories in blue ink on a red background, making them impossible to photocopy and requiring the reader to use the included sheet of red plastic to read. Slash was alive and well in the Starsky & Hutch fandom, but signs of life were purposefully hard to find.
Fraser/RayV, Due South
Fandom and, thus, slash continued in this fashion through the eighties and nineties: always careful of the producers (or "The Powers That Be"), and eager to self-police if the need was felt. The Robin of Sherwood fandom, for instance, openly discouraged slash due to the stated wishes of the television show's creator.
A slash fandom could be large, but, given the word of mouth nature of analog media fandom, it could also easily operate under the radar. But all of that began to change as fandom began the slow migration to the new digital reality. As early as 1980, Usenet provided computer users a way to interact with each other via digital bulletin boards known as newsgroups. Naturally, fans seized on the opportunity, with the first Star Trek newsgroup created in 1982.
But newsgroups were visible to the public (a public with early computer access, anyway) and slash fans saw visibility as a legitimate threat. In 1999, one user asked their Highlander newsgroup to be careful: "There have been slash sites that were pulled by servers because they became too well known. Please, please put slash URLs in personal e-mail rather than posting them to the [newsgroup]. For all you know a minor or an irate fundamentalist is reading these posts."
Instead, the discreet slash fan took to mailing lists. Initially begun on private and university servers in the early nineties, the combination of Mark Fletcher's free mailing list service ONEList and Hotmail's free email addresses in the late nineties allowed fans to join mailing lists in large numbers.
The comedy-drama Due South, about a Mountie, Benton Fraser, working with an American detective, Ray Vecchio, in Chicago, debuted in 1994. The odd couple/buddy cop dynamic immediately appealed to fans, especially slash fans, and one main due South mailing list was created in 1995. Show employees frequented the mailing list, however, so fanfiction was relegated to its own list. After that mailing list fell into the hands of a fan so conservative she would not allow fic depicting the characters using the profanity they used on the show, fans created two more mailing lists for fic that are still in existence to this day.
But even as Due South was getting very online for 1995, it was still working in the older analog space. Two and Twogether, the first Fraser/RayV fanzines, were published in 1996 and 1997, respectively. In order to bridge the two mediums, both zines featured links to online reviews in their letters of comment sections. Due South was a fandom where zines and mailing lists sat comfortably alongside each other. The Internet was simply one way of interacting with your fellow due South slash fan. But that would soon change as the Internet rose in prominence.
As the new millennium dawned, fandom began getting more tech savvy. Geocities provided fans a way to create and host their own websites for free. FanFiction.Net allowed even the smallest fandoms to create an archive of their fics. And LiveJournal provided fans with a blogging platform where they could build communities. Fandom's online infrastructure, while never completely secure, was now developed.
Four days after Smallville, the WB's show about the teen adventures of Clark Kent, premiered, the Smallville Slash Archive opened its doors on October 20th, 2001. Associated mailing lists followed, ensuring that users could be part of the conversation and be able to post and read fic to both the archive and the mailing lists at the same time. If you were watching Smallville in the fall of 2001 and swooned over Clark giving a young Lex Luthor CPR, you were covered.
But that wasn't the only place a budding Clark/Lex slash fan could get their fix.
In the days before easily accessible streaming video, written recaps were popular in fandom. If you missed an episode—or even if you didn't and just wanted to relive the episode—you could just read the recap. Television Without Pity, a website originally launched to provide snarky recaps of Dawson's Creek, was the gold standard. Television Without Pity also boasted very active forums dedicated to each show it recapped. The Angel forums, for instance, gave rise to the term HoYay when Angel fans created a thread entitled "Homoeroticism, Yay?" to discuss queer subtext on the show. Similar HoYay threads popped up in other shows' forums, allowing slash fans or would-be slash fans to connect in a space that wasn't necessarily intended to be for fandom.
Television Without Pity writer Omar G.'s recaps of the first seasons of Smallville leaned heavily into HoYay, thanks to the show's early focus on Clark and Lex's relationship. Some slash fans loved it—one even commented that "Omar's recaps are slashier than some of the stories up at the Archive."
But old habits die hard. When three fans paid for an ad for the Smallville Slash Archive to appear on Television Without Pity in 2002, several fans expressed concern that this increased visibility would get the attention of the producers and invite legal action against the archive and its authors. One author asked the archivists to pull their stories in response. Other fans argued that it wasn't as if the Archive was hidden in the first place; it was, after all, then the seventh result if one searched for "Smallville" on Google at the time. The ad ran for two days without incident, but the debate around the ad demonstrated that a new generation of online slash fans were willing to be more vocal, even as others wanted to remain cautious.
The late aughts saw some marked shifts for fandom at large, two of which are particularly relevant here. The first is that the Organization for Transformative Works' establishment in 2007 provided both a framework for fans to understand their work legally and a promise of support should they run afoul of producers, giving fans a type of agency they'd never had before.
The other is that shipping culture underwent a shift in priorities. Yours truly argues that this occurred in Harry Potter fandom, when the Harmonians, a small group of Harry/Hermione shippers, chose to respond to confirmation that their ship wouldn't happen by attacking J.K. Rowling. Where previously ships had been something you could enjoy regardless of the canon, this new type of zero-sum shipping posited that a ship could only be enjoyed if it became canon—basically, if it won.
Given the political climate of the first forty or so years of slash's existence, expecting one's slash ship to become canon was patently absurd. But as politics changed and as queer representation improved in media, the John/Sherlock slash fans of the Sherlock fandom dared to dream.
Holmes/Watson slash was hardly a new phenomenon when Sherlock premiered in 2010; Rex Stout already made the argument that they were totally married back in 1941. (Also that Watson was a woman, but you catch my drift.) But Sherlock's contemporary setting, inclusion of queer characters, and the presence of the openly gay Mark Gatiss as one of the showrunners made viewers wonder if the show might be headed in that direction.
Those hopes were dashed pretty quickly, as the show featured characters mistaking Sherlock and John as a couple as a running gag and its queer representation involved a lesbian who falls in love with Sherlock Holmes because he's just that cool. Even before the first episode aired, showrunner Stephen Moffat confirmed that Sherlock wasn't gay, and the show's creatives and cast often made it crystal clear that the show would not and would never explore that relationship.
But fans continued to ask and even demand that Sherlock/John become canon, tweeting at Mark Gatiss. Some even subscribed to the Johnlock Conspiracy, a fan theory that posited that the creators were, in fact, lying to the audience and would definitely end the show with Sherlock and John getting together. Obviously, that didn't happen. But while slash and queer representation are not synonymous, the fact that slash fans felt comfortable demanding that a slash ship become canon would have been unfathomable even just a decade prior.
Finn/Poe, Star Wars
Back in 1981, Official Star Wars Fan Club director Maureen Garrett (remember her? From before?) had a back and forth with author Karen Osman. Osman, the editor of the fanzine Imperial Entanglements, had submitted a fic written by two other fans called "Hoth Admiral" to Garrett for approval (the bone-chilling standard at the time). Since the fic included two male Imperial crew members in a relationship, Garrett rejected it, claiming that even Imperial crew members were too innocent to be gay. Osman called Garrett out for the idea that being gay was too villainous for even the Empire, and got approval to print the story.
Several decades, a prequel trilogy, and marriage equality later, we were introduced to Finn and Poe in 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Slash fans, naturally, fixated on their quick and easy bond, the sharing of the jacket, and, of course, a reunion shot as if the film has become Pride and Prejudice for five seconds. It was a beautiful time.
But it wasn't just the tried and true slash fans who swooned. Media outlets were reporting on the slash ship with the same breathless enthusiasm as slash fans themselves, instead of treating it as something weird and strange that fans do. When the original trilogy had come out, this would have been absolutely unthinkable. Slash had finally broken through to the mainstream that slash fans of earlier generations had so feared.
But despite the wide popularity of the ship known as Stormpilot, the ship fell behind in fanworks posted to the Archive of Our Own. Instead, the most popular slash ship to come out of the Star Wars sequel trilogy became Kylux, which paired off Kylo Ren with General Hux. While rival ships are a fandom classic, the sequel trilogy became part of a long-running and troubling pattern, where slash ships featuring white male characters are vastly overrepresented in fanworks compared to slash ships featuring male protagonists of color. For instance, Psych was a 2006 comedy mystery series about two best friends, one white and one Black, running a fake psychic detective agency. The most popular slash ship in the fandom, according to Archive of our Own, is the white friend with another white character, despite "two best friends" being a commonly beloved slash trope.
When fandom stats blog Destination: Toast! examined the 50 most popular ships on Archive of Our Own in 2013, the majority of them were white slash ships. By 2019, those numbers had only marginally improved. Fans of color have expressed their frustration with this throughout fandom history. So while Finn/Poe does represent a coup in the mainstreaming of slash, I would be remiss to present it as an uncomplicated win. It says something about slash fandom that it can't reliably sustain a slash ship built on the earth-shattering charisma and chemistry of John Boyega and Oscar Isaac.
What that says to me is that slash needs to evolve. If slash's most radical usage is for people of marginalized genders and sexualities to explore and experiment with gender, sex, and romance in a narrative safe space, white slash fans need to ask how we can expand that so that slash fans of color can reliably have access to that narrative safe space. The next chapter in slash's history needs to be one of intentional growth.