Three LGBT Gamers Talk About Queering Geek Culture

queer geeks in a pride parade

Roll for love: Queer geeks in the 2012 Seattle pride parade. (Photo by Dan B)

In the wake of Gamergate, NPR’s Youth Radio correspondent Rafael Johns, a 19-year-old queer, black person, wrote about the systemic toxic everyday language used in gaming culture and the particularly vicious attacks against anyone who dares to point out the ugliness of these assumed norms. Johns had felt marginalized within the larger gaming community and explains how the experience of finding like-minded gamers through social media helped changed the way he thought about the possibilities of community within the culture. He wrote:

“I learned I could explore multiple subcultures that included gamers who were also queer and people of color. These were people who played video games and found the constant verbal barrage just as off-putting as I did. I was stunned to find others who believe that the world of gaming should, and can, change. There are people who want to play video games with others who look like them, and act like them, and love like them.”

While geek spaces like San Diego Comic-Con International and New York Comic Con provide programming content for LGBTQ individuals (SDCCI “Gays in Comics” panel, organized and moderated by Andy Mangels since 1988 is the longest-running annual panel at the con, and NYCC had a plethora of offerings at its 2014 convention) newer, smaller geek organizations are providing a more nuanced, niche, focus.

Just to name a few, BentCon, one of the pre-eminent celebrations of LGBTQ geekdom, recently celebrated its fifth annual convention. QueerGeek! Seattle is a thriving community that combats homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny while promoting diversity and acceptance in geek culture. Geeks OUT rallies and promotes the queer geek community, and is currently planning Flame Con, New York City’s first LGBTQ Comic Con. In Seattle, GeekGirlCon is committed to offering programming from an intersectional feminist perspective and has participated in Seattle’s Pride Parade since the organization’s inception, as well as Trans* Pride Seattle in 2013.

I talked to three notable LGBTQ geek activists about safer spaces, indie opportunities, and the importance of community. First Bitch contributor, editor emeritus of gaming blog Border House, and academic Katherine Cross discusses identity and representation, and recommends games consumers can support. Next, Toni Rocca, president of Gaymer X, a San Francisco-based gaming convention, talks con culture, celebration, and support. Then Zan Christensen, founder of diverse comics publisher Northwest Press, tells us how fandom and LGBT issues have merged for him, and how he in turns brings that back to the community through panel discussions and publishing opportunities.

Each interview illustrates the changes in geek culture Anita Sarkeesian alluded to when she recently wrote about the evolution of gamers for The New York Times, “The time for invisible boundaries that guard the “purity” of gaming as a niche subculture is over… The new reality is that video games are maturing, evolving and becoming more diverse.”

katherine cross

KATHERINE CROSS

Writer for Feministing and Bitch, PhD candidate, and former co-editor of gaming blog The Border House.

How do spaces like the LGBT-friendly gaming blog Border House subvert concepts regarding a monolithic "gamer identity.” Why are calls for inclusiveness perceived as threatening?  

There's been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth lately over what a "gamer" actually is. Is it simply someone who plays games, or does it connote an identity as a committed gaming enthusiast who has every console, games a ton, and knows all the trivia? And what does a gamer look like? Historically, the sense has been that gamers are mostly young white, heterosexual, cis men, and that anyone not fitting those identity categories is only acceptable if they submit to games that are not made with them in mind. Border House was part of a larger wave driven by the rise of internet subcultures that provided people with communities and discourses that challenged that notion, putting people in touch with one another who liked games but were tired of harassment, or who wanted to see more diverse characters and stories, and so on.

Let me be clear, women, people of color, and queer gamers have always been a part of the gaming world at every level. What's changed is that the internet has given us a thousand ways to make our unfiltered voices heard as never before.

And that is, I think, why "inclusiveness" as a concept is so threatening to some white male gamers because historically their definition of "gamer" and the entitlement that goes with it is that they and they alone are the special, anointed class of consumers who should be catered to, listened to, and even admired. The old magazine gaming press, which was directly beholden to, or even owned outright by industry organs is no longer the epicenter of tastemaking in gaming. And for young women or poor people or folks of color who want to get into game design, they no longer have to submit to that vision, they no longer have to do the things the way they've always been done, they no longer have to whitewash characters or submit to the whims of marketers who'll only promote male lead characters.

What interventions do you see gaymers and queer geeks making in geek culture by combining their geek and LGBTQ identities? 

I think simply making ourselves heard and ensuring that we're recognized and accepted as gamers is important all on its own. But I also think that some incredibly queer, and especially trans women game developers have been making games that unapologetically portray things like sexuality, queer romance, or trans existence in ways that would be passively censored in mainstream game design. They are telling the untold story, much as the new wave of trans women's literature is telling stories about our lives that were unsayable in the past. Merritt Kopas' games challenge mechanical conventions (win by hugging!), Mattie Brice's Mainichi lent voice to her own experience as a trans woman of colour, Christine Love's games combine queerness and an unapologetic feminism for pathbreaking sci-fi, and the list goes on.

What they give to the world of gaming is new ways of playing, and new ways of telling stories. Bear in mind too, we're not a separate class of people bringing in this essentialised "LGBTQ experience"—we're also women, we're also people of color (I'm Puerto Rican), many of us have disabilities. There are a lot of conversations we're adding to, including feminism as a whole. Intersectionality goes both ways, as I like to say. I'm a trans woman with something to say about being a woman, et cetera. 

You've written about being antagonized for writing about transgender life in online gaming and for "bringing politics" into gaming culture. Like other women using their voices in public spaces you've been subjected to threats of physical danger. But what is the danger of NOT expanding or complicating our conversations about representation? And what advice do you have for negotiating the balance between speaking up and self-care?  

People have this deeply troubling idea that culture, or fiefdoms of culture like "art," advance on their own as if they are an organic morass of vines growing of their own volition. But culture is made up of people and of our own participation. Nothing will change if we say nothing, nothing will get better if we eschew criticism. Denying yourself subjects or stories due to half-baked prejudices stultifies art and, ultimately, those who consume it. Those of us who love video games and believe in their potential owe it to ourselves to keep improving this medium. Diversification is a means to that end: the more new mechanics we explore, the more new stories, the more new characters, the more new players we attract, the better.

As to negotiating the self-care balance, I wish I had an easy answer. It is important that you remember no one can take on these issues alone. So much in our culture valorizes the individual hero above all else and activists feel that pressure too, but we must bear in mind that change is a collective process. If you take care of yourself, the world won't end; that's why everyone else is involved, they pick up the slack. As a scholar and writer I feel this urge to write about every plethora of painful subjects that the news delivers to my door, or that I personally experience, but I know if I sit one out and take care of myself, someone else will say what needs to be said. Remembering that is how I force myself to take breaks. I also take solace in community, by reaching out to my networks for support and being supportive in turn; that makes all the difference for me.

Raising cultural consciousness through critique and advocating for media literacy are but two steps to social change. Voting with your dollars is often cited as another. To that end, are there games or companies you recommend we support that are committed to LGBTQ representation? 

Oh, so many to list. Samantha Kalman's Sentris, a musical puzzle game, Christine Love's "Love Conquers All" studio (gotta love the pun!), Posthuman Studios—makers of the great PnP RPG Eclipse Phase, Monte Cook Games' The Strange and Numenera, Harebrained Schemes Shadowrun games, Paizo's Pathfinder RPG has been on a roll with including trans women characters of late (good ones!), any and everything by Merritt Kopas, Red Thread Games (run by the same people who made The Longest Journey— they're making a sequel as speak), Apocalypse World—an impressive RPG system that's very gender inclusive, Brianna Wu's company Giant Spacekat, which just launched a new project, and of course, The Fullbright Company and their instant classic Gone Home.

 TONI ROCCA

TONI ROCCA

President of queer-friendly gaming convention GaymerX.

Can you tell us about the origins, mission, and evolution of GaymerX? What are some of the most pressing issues in gaming culture for LGBTQ folks?

GaymerX was originally started by Matt Conn and began as a dream of a small gay gamer get-together and exploded into something much bigger. Now it has become a large hub for the discussion of issues LGBT/Queer folks, women, and other marginalized groups have faced in the world of gaming while also being a place to celebrate our progresses and creations.

Most games from major AAA publishers do not contain much, if any, queer content or characters. In fact most adhere very strictly to being a straight, white male who seeks to rescue or in some other way conquest a desired woman. "Queer coding" is a trope where someone is made to look and/or act visibly queer in order to evoke distrust, disgust, or simply dislike for a character. While several wonderful queer indies such as Anna Anthropy, Mattie Brice, Robert Yang, Merritt Kopas, and Todd Harper have managed to make insightful games about queer experiences, the AAA scene has only managed to give us BioWare titles and a handful of gems such as The Last of Us. And while I'm looking to romance The Iron Bull in Dragon Age: Inquisition, because he's tall, I wish I could have some sort of excitement towards other AAA titles instead of awkward trepidation for the inevitable "this is not for you" scenes.  

At GeekGirlCon this year, Anita Sarkeesian talked about "safer spaces." GaymerX was founded to be just that. What constitutes a "safe space" for queer geeks?  

I really do love the term "safer spaces" over "safe spaces" despite it being minor semantics. I just find myself not a big fan of finality or ever deciding your work is over. Rather, I love finding ways to improve your practices and change them. I think of the con as being a living, breathing thing comprised of mainly the volunteers and attendees and I think every year it grows and becomes more beautiful. 

For us a safe space is a little hazy. It's not about not saying certain words or not assuming gender, but it is to a degree. Mainly, I think the thing that makes it a safer space first and foremost is that the staff, volunteers, and attendees agree together to make the space as accommodating as possible to others and to work and change in order to meet that goal. It isn't that someone gets scolded for saying a no-no, but rather that we talk it over, learn what went wrong, and bond over that. I think that's where most of the "magic" people kept talking about came from. We treat it as a rare space that's 100 percent ours and we take care of it and each other. I think that's why we outgrew the "gaymer" label so quickly. Nobody needs to ID-check their sexuality at the door. This is a queer space and a safe space and that is what matters.

We've seen, especially recently, how gaming culture is hostile to women. In what ways can it be unwelcoming, uninviting, or outright hostile to LGBTQ identities? How do Gaymers defy the stereotypes of the straight, white, male gamer?  

Obviously there's nothing wrong with being straight, white, and/or male, but the idea that this is the only kind of person that does or should play games is ridiculous. However, I think that this recent backlash (GamerGate) against "the other" in gaming is just kind of the last death throes of that idea being accepted. 

I am borrowing a little from the words of Colleen Macklin, a guest of honor at GX2 and a wonderful person, but I think that everyone has their own ways of queering the media that they interact with. As abstract an analogy as it is even doing speed-runs of games is a form of "queering" or changing the way a game is meant to be used. People of different perspectives will often want different things from their media and with games being as interactive as they are, we get to see them being used in completely new ways. That's what's really magical about this and why it's valuable to encourage everyone to play. 

Do you think indie games and alternative spaces offer enough? What are ways for LGBTQ geeks to make interventions in the dominant culture? How can allies best help? 

Well, I know there are a lot of people who feel "indie games are enough." I won't for a moment say these aren't beautiful and powerful.  However, with the way capitalist markets work, sadly, these are not the games with million dollar marketing budgets. So, yeah maybe a AAA company won't or can't make a very good queer character, but that's not really enough. The mainstream has to start being held to these standards. Think about it. Just WHY does everyone settle for less from a multi-million dollar budget $60 title? Those queer people who can write beautiful stories are out there, and most of them can be hired. 

Allies need to become aware of these things. Even if you ARE being represented in games, as a straight white man, then you should question that. One of the magical things about games is that it can put you in the shoes of someone else, and macho power fantasies have distracted the mainstream from exploring that. Talk to queer folk and learn how they feel, play games that DON'T represent you and see how that feels. Look things up online, learn, listen, and don't argue if you are called out on something—instead, look at it as an opportunity to learn more. 

 ZAN LYING on a pile of comics

ZAN CHRISTENSEN

Founder of Northwest Press, comics writer, and founding president of Prism Comics, a nonprofit that promotes LGBT comics creators. (photo by Adrian Sotomayor) 

You've been active in gay geek culture and pop culture conventions for over 15 years. Can you tell us how you got involved in LGBTQ panel discussions and with Prism Comics? 

I came to LGBT comics stuff through fandom. At first, my focus was almost exclusively superhero comics and characters, and I found a great group online called the Gay League to socialize and chat with other queer folks. LGBT folks are often the minority in general fan circles and I often felt self-conscious being "out," so I really enjoyed the freedom I felt to be myself and a fan at the same time. My involvement with the Gay League led to working on an annual resource guide to queer comics, Out in Comics, helmed by Andy Mangels. That later led me to be the founding president of Prism Comics, which has been working to support LGBT comics creators for over ten years now.

One great thing Prism has done over the years is dramatically increase the level of programming at Comic-Cons addressing queer content and creators. I've always been a big fan of queer comics discussion panels; these are the bigger, flashier version of the conversations we have, as queer fans, all the time. They range from the seemingly silly, like discussions about costumes and "who wore it best", to the profound, like how to push queer visibility and honest storytelling up from the indies into mainstream comics.

What led you to found Northwest Press? What kinds of conversations do you hope your titles will promote?

 One of the questions that Prism Comics was asked, over and over, was, "Will you publish my comic?" Prism, of course, is not a publisher but a support organization for creators—offering table space at conventions, grants, online articles and features, and the like—so I always had to turn people away, and didn't even know where to send them. 

I was inspired to start a publishing company when my friend Jon Macy, who'd also volunteered with Prism for years, was unable to find a publisher for the erotic graphic novel project he'd been working on for years, Teleny and Camille. This is an important book that gives readers a glimpse into the Victorian world at the dawn of what would become the modern gay community, and it was unthinkable that it wouldn't be published and promoted in a meaningful way.

So Northwest Press came into existence so I could publish work that I wanted to read, and thought it was important for others to read. That's pretty much the only criterion I look for in submissions. Of course, what I want to read is what's too often missing from comics: stories where women aren't relegated to supporting the men, where complex, honest queer characters are center stage, and where we explore sexuality and gender with candor. 

I find that I'm much less concerned with identity politics and representation of groups and a lot more interested in the messy complexities of individual lives. Those are the conversations that I really love, these days. Editing the anthology Anything That Loves, which was a collection of comics beyond "gay" and "straight," really solidified my desire to dig deeper and break down the barriers between us. It's politically and practically useful to have labels like "gay," "bisexual," "transgender," "man," "woman," "black," "white," but when we get down to the human level and are discovering another human being—whether through in person or through a comics story—we need to see them as more than their categories and labels. There is so much to learn from different points of view, and the comics world is denied great stories when the vast majority all come from people who look the same.

You recently wrote a love-letter to BentCon—a relatively new, grassroots, convention in the Los Angeles area—and said that even though over the years other events have developed a stronger LGBTQ presence, BentCon is the first space where you've felt truly able to breathe.

My experience at Bent-Con and the queer spaces at Comic-Con are similar to what I experienced with the Gay League, years ago: losing that self-consciousness and being able to totally immerse into the fandom I love. I've been a longtime supporter not just of Bent-Con, but also GeekGirlCon because I want everyone to have their own version of that experience, to be themselves, geek out, and have a good time!

And we take that feeling back with us to the general-audience shows. It makes us more courageous and open, and we expect better. There's no question that conventions have made great strides in being more welcoming to all over the years, and that's because people stood up and demanded it. I think these community-focused shows have really helped speed that process up.

Related Reading: The History of Women in Geek Culture Should Not Be Overlooked. 

Jennifer K. Stuller is an Ink-Stained Amazon, a co-founder of Geek Girl Con, and was sorted into House Ravenclaw. Her feature “Leveling Up: Geek Woman Are Connecting Like Never Before” can be read in Bitch’s (Re)Vision issue

by Jennifer K. Stuller
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Jennifer K. Stuller is Co-Founder and Director Emeritus of Programming and Events for GeekGirlCon -- an organization dedicated to the recognition, encouragement and support of women in geek and pop culture and STEM. Stuller is a writer, scholar, media critic, and feminist pop culture historian. She is an author and contributor to multiple publications, including Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology, and the editor of Fan Phenomena: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She has spoken at national and international conferences and regularly appears at the Comic Arts Conference, the Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses, and San Diego Comic-Con International. She is a frequent presenter on the topics of media literacy, geek activism and community-building, ever endeavoring to use her powers only for good.

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