Queer Quest: A New Column for Interesting Times

By Ashley R. Lierman

These are interesting times to be a part of American geek culture as a member of any minority group. I mean that both in the genuine, positive sense, and in the sense of how that’s supposedly a curse. For better or for worse, women geeks, geeks of color, and gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and nonbinary or genderqueer geeks are all living through a bit of a war zone, with high stakes on the outcomes.

Recent years have seen an increasing number of pushes to make geek circles more inclusive, particularly online, that have garnered media attention. Feminist Frequency, a  web-based video series by media critic Anita Sarkeesian, examines video games and gaming culture through the lens of feminist critique. People of Color in European Art History, colloquially MedievalPOC, draws attention to the figures of people of color that appear in pre-Enlightenment European art, in large part as an oblique rebuke to fantasy fiction based on medieval Europe that excuses all-white casts as “historical accuracy.” Even from within industries, there are a few encouraging developments: video games of all kinds, from BioWare’s big-budget console series Mass Effect  and Dragon Age down to the casual mobile tapfest Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, have begun to allow players to choose their protagonist’s gender and romance partners of any gender; and last year, Batgirl writer Gail Simone, one of the most prominent women in the comics industry’s “Big Two” (Marvel and DC), introduced the first openly transgender character in mainstream comics. Representation is still difficult to come by, but social media make useful megaphones even for the most marginalized voices, and at least some creators have proven willing to listen.

Unfortunately, though, that’s not the only thing social media have helped to enable. One reason many of these efforts have become so high-profile is because of the backlash they’ve attracted, in the form of harassment, abuse, and violent threats. A massive controversy has recently erupted on Twitter, styled #Gamergate, in which alleged concerns about ethics in gaming journalism have devolved into campaigns of harassment and violent threats against Sarkeesian and game developer Zoe Quinn, along with other gaming professionals who have allied with them. The conflict is still evolving, and may have caused as many prominent critics to quit gaming circles altogether as it has inspired renewed calls for reform of gaming culture. This past spring, the author of People of Color in European Art History was repeatedly stalked, harassed, and threatened, which included attempts to post personally identifying information about her online and threats of violence at one of her convention appearances.  BioWare has borne – with unwavering grace and commitment to diversity – countless challenges and attacks for their inclusion of gay romance options. The internet is a megaphone for those who mean ill as well as those who mean well, and even as greater inclusiveness has pushed its way in, many geeks have pushed back.

I doubt it comes as any great surprise to most of us to meet with this kind of hostility in geek circles, any more than it does in any other part of life. Bigotry happens everywhere, and in any cross-section of humanity, no matter its area of interest, we can be unfortunately certain of finding at least some. It is disappointing, though, since for many people, geeky pursuits are treasured as an escape from these painful realities. What do you do when your escape from being hurt is the one that hurts you? Geeks like to think of geek culture as safe and inclusive by nature – a refuge for the teased and marginalized – but this very perception is often part of what makes straight, white, cisgender male geeks so defensive of their so-called safe space, including against the “encroachment” of feminist, PoC, and LGBT geeks. In most cases, the irony apparently never even crosses their minds.

I believe what we see before us now is a sort of watershed moment in geek culture: a tipping point where it stands pushed to the brink of evolving and opening its collective mind to its more marginalized members. It’s an exciting time to be involved – but also a dangerous one. There’s a conservative faction of every geek community that will quickly turn vicious in defense of the status quo. Though the days of this subculture’s place in the mainstream may be numbered (and that claim in itself is debatable), it can still do a lot of damage on its way out.

This column, as I envision it, will be equal parts readers’ advisory (or viewers’, or players’, or others’ depending) and frontline reporting. To the geekily-inclined queer librarian like myself, I’ll provide updates, reviews, and thoughts on media of interest to our community, as well as reports on current events and developments – positive and negative – in the real world. Given the aforementioned times we live in, I expect to have a lot to talk about.

Just so we’re all on the same page (so to speak), here are a few things you can expect from this column going forward:

  1. It will cover gaming (video and tabletop), comics, fantasy and science fiction media, sometimes horror media, sometimes anime and manga, and sometimes anything else I feel applies. I’m not drawing the boundaries too strictly here up front, for a number of reasons: primary among them that I’m only one geek, and one person’s geekiness may not be another person’s. Please don’t feel that your credentials are being insulted if I include something that isn’t your scene, or if I don’t include something that is.
  2. It will be intersectional. It seems disingenuous to me to talk about LGBT issues in a community without also talking about feminist issues, and issues around sexuality in general. It also doesn’t seem sensible to talk about an “LGBT perspective” and pretend that we all share just one and that it’s a white perspective, while ignoring the ways both queer and geeky cultures also marginalize people of color within their borders. Geek culture is also, prominently, a material culture, and it would be ill-advised to ignore economic stratification within it as well. All of these issues interact in fundamental and complex ways, and all of them need to be considered when examining the treatment of any one marginalized group.
  3. Except under special circumstances, it will appear on the GLBTRT News blog every other week. Pretty simple, but useful to know.

So with all of that said, welcome to Queer Quest. I look forward to talking to you about things I like, things I don’t like, things I’ve noticed, and things I want to see more of for a while to come. Maybe even more so, I look forward to finding out along with all of you what the next step is going to be in the journey that geek culture seems to be taking.

One way or another, it’s going to be interesting.


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