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Living Queer, Speaking Geek

Part One of a Two-Part Conversation on Queer Geek Culture, Icons, Community and Activism

June 14, 2013

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Mathew Rodriguez: What other hero, or series of comics, or geeky show, or movie, do you think has done the best job of navigating queer identity, either through explicit content or through metaphor?

Sigrid Ellis: To say that Terry Moore's comics, Strangers in Paradise, does a good job with queer identity is, at this point, practically trite. But it's true -- in no small part because sometimes queer identity is handled not as perfectly as we might like! That's real, and important. It's important to see that people change identity, that they lie or present themselves to best advantage, that they regret their choices. And that they go on to continue having a life. And that this life simply expands to contain everything that came before it.

The other property I love for its matter-of-fact queerness is Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. There is so little drama about sexual expression or gender presentation in the world of that film! And that world allows for dazzling variety of both things. Diversity is writ large on the screen, often in eye-blinding orange.

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Fyodor Pavlov: I have a really biased answer, because it's something that I really, really enjoyed. I don't know how popular or well-known it is, but The Authority series. I learned colloquial English from X-Men when I first moved here. But after that, I moved onto The Authority. To my knowledge, that was my first introduction to a comic book where explicitly there was a gay couple, and explicitly they had a relationship. It was treated fairly explicitly in the books: There was kissing; obviously, there was no graphic sex, but there was discussion of their having sex. And these two guys end up getting married throughout the course of the story and then adopting a child.

What was great to me about it, too, was that they were both human, obviously, but one of them had natural superpowers, and the other one, Midnighter, was just a really good fighter. It was the first time where I saw a gay character not being treated as the sum of his sexuality, and where it was a full-fledged relationship. Yes, it wasn't always at the forefront. But it was the first time where it was treated so frankly and so, sort of, as a given. It wasn't really a huge deal. But, at the same time, to me, reading this as a young teenager, to see that in comics for the first time, so blatantly ... With X-Men, there's always subtext; and now they're coming out with couples and whatnot. But it was like this is right here. And it's all the benefits and all the normal rights of life passage ... for gay people, not just the straight, cisgender characters, and so on. That, to me, was kind of phenomenal, and I just really loved it.

Josh Siegel: It kind of blew my mind when they first kissed.

Fyodor Pavlov: Right? Yeah.

Josh Siegel: They sort of hinted; but not really. And then suddenly they just started making out. And it was right there. I loved that the point of The Authority was that they were challenging the world.

Fyodor Pavlov: Yeah. They were almost antiheroes in a way, too.

Josh Siegel: And then, on a personal level, they were challenging the idea of superhero romance. And they were metaphors for Batman and Superman.

Fyodor Pavlov: Exactly.

Josh Siegel: It was so great.

Lewd Alfred Douglas: I think that Neil Gaiman's writing does an awesome job dealing with queer, and genderqueer, characters, especially since they have a wide range of fill-in, nebulous gray area, and heroes. They're not just representing their own minority. They're characters, and then their sexuality is either incidental or it does play a part, but it's not the only reason they're in the story. I always thought he did a great job with his queer and genderqueer characters; especially since, as far as I know, he's not queer or genderqueer, himself.

Christopher Stansfield: It's an interesting question for me, because I feel like I was born at exactly the time that comic books basically evolved in the same way that society was, in general. As a kid, I remember the first obvious queer characters were a good attempt, in that they were not mean.

There was a character called Extraño, who was part of The New Guardians. In defense of that character, I know people like that to this day. It's not like that archetype did not exist. But as the first openly gay character in a comic book, is that where you should go? It's intentions.

But then, on the other hand, you had people like Maggie Sawyer, who was a lesbian cop in John Byrne's Superman, which was an all-ages comic. They never really said "lesbian," but there were story lines that made it very clear that this was what she was fighting, and her ex-husband, for custody of her child, and being on society's margins.

The understanding of comics about sexuality seemed to be at the same exact time that I was understanding sexuality myself, which is kind of a funny thing.

There was a comic book, very obscure -- it's strange, nobody seems to ever refer to it -- but it was an early Vertigo comic book called Sebastian O that specifically ...

Lewd Alfred Douglas: Oh, yeah; I love that one.

Fyodor Pavlov: Yeah.

Christopher Stansfield: At that point, I was a teenager, and that blew my mind because that dealt with genderqueer issues. It dealt with nebulous sexuality, in general, and moving on. As my understanding of queer culture broadened in my own life, all of a sudden, these things were just kind of popping up.

A really kind of silly example: Akbar and Jeff in the Life in Hell comics. You have these two fez-wearing, identical twins, played for comedy, but not in a mean way -- just, you know, gay characters who are funny for all kinds of reasons, but not because you're laughing at them for being gay.

Obviously, Neil Gaiman is a wonderful example, and The Authority. I think Y: The Last Man is really interesting, philosophically, about queer issues. Because it's about a society where there's only one male born in a male body -- basically, heterosexual male -- navigating a society that's entirely female. It really touches on issues of the interaction between nature and nurture and culture. What would happen in a situation like this? Would everybody still hold to their rigid gender norms? Or would things become more fluid? And, again, very nonjudgmental in the way that it approaches it, too. There's a lesbian couple that's just a lesbian couple. And it's not because they were forced to be lesbians. They just happened to be the most heroic couple on this journey.

I can't think of one thing that ever really touched me specifically in that way. But it is just strange that, in my own life, growing up in the '80s and then the '90s, that it all seemed to be happening just as I was entering adolescence.

Mathew Rodriguez: Interesting side note: I don't know if Neil Gaiman's queer, but he's either married to, or in a relationship with, Amanda Palmer. And she's queer.

Lewd Alfred Douglas: Yeah. And they have an open relationship.

Josh Siegel: We're all left to speculate as much as we want about them.

Christopher Stansfield: Well, I've met him, and he's a really lovely person. And he's obviously very queer positive. I think, if he identified that way, he wouldn't be hesitant to identify that way. But I think he basically identifies as a heterosexual male, in an open relationship with a queer female.

Josh Siegel: One of the early queer comics that had a big effect on me was another Vertigo book called The Enigma. I don't know if anyone's read that.

Christopher Stansfield: Oh, The Enigma was another one, exactly, at that time. Yeah.

Josh Siegel: And you didn't have a sense that it was going to become a queer story until halfway through.

Christopher Stansfield: About six issues in.

Josh Siegel: Yeah. And then it just suddenly took a very queer turn. It was really shocking and awesome and exciting, at the time. It continues to be one of my favorite comics. But going back to look at it now, there's so much ambivalence about queerness in that. There's a kind of apologetic tone in it. Because I feel like it was just such new territory. There was pride in it, but not as much as what we've grown to expect in comics that present queer characters now. But that definitely had a big effect on me.

Mathew Rodriguez: What series or heroes or part of geek culture do you think has done a bad job at handling queer characters or story lines? Like, "Hmm, I see you're trying, but it's just really sloppy." Or have you ever seen one that actually even offended you?

Fyodor Pavlov: Oh, God. How do you even start?

"I am all manner of conflicted about the two seasons of American Horror Story! ... I think the show-runners and writers are hammering away at all the things that make Americans uneasy, sex being very high on that list. ... yet I feel uneasy. I worry that sexual diversity and gender identity are seen as legitimately horrific by far too many people." -- Sigrid Ellis

Sigrid Ellis: I am all manner of conflicted about the two seasons of American Horror Story! I can see what they are doing, and I cautiously approve. I think the show-runners and writers are hammering away at all the things that make Americans uneasy, sex being very high on that list. So we see queerness in many forms -- and all of those forms are used to provoke horror.

I mean, that's the entire point of the show! Everything on the show is used to provoke horror! That's what it's for! And yet ... and yet I feel uneasy. I worry that sexual diversity and gender identity are seen as legitimately horrific by far too many people. I don't want the appearance of my friends to make bystanders think that said friends are either victims or perpetrators.

Lewd Alfred Douglas: The thing is, when that happens to me, I just put it down and try to forget about it.

Fyodor Pavlov: Yeah. I'm having a tough time coming up with any one title. But I think, in a way, because it's the norm -- like, a lot of queers just expect to be treated either as comic relief or as just a side note -- we dig for these queer stories, for these queer subtexts. The rest of it kind of almost washes over you. Because you're like, "Well, yeah, that's what it's going to be."

Because I think a lot of geek culture -- and I've been seeing a great shift in it right now -- but a lot of geek culture, still, is very misogynistic. It can be very homophobic. I think with you guys doing your Geeks OUT events, and so on, it's great. And there's more. It's changing with the progress of social change, as you mentioned.

But there is a way that we expect it. So I'll put down the offensive comic and look for my friendly X-Men and my Authority, and whatnot.

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