June 14, 2013
It's the digital age, and geeks are in -- even if many of us grew up feeling like outsiders. Whether it's Luke Skywalker, Sherlock Holmes or any of the many uncanny X-Men, there's a character out there who made each and every geek feel as if he or she had a kindred spirit. Reading comics, watching television or sitting in the dark of a theater are all ways in which geeks, especially those who identify as LGBT and/or queer, have found their role models and found themselves. These role models are battling inner demons -- and often real demons, too, which is appealing when you're "growing up geek."
In Part One of this two-part roundtable, five self-identified "queer geeks" discuss geek culture; the stories that gripped them and wouldn't let them go; how geek culture deals with LGBT stories; and if Professor X and Magneto will ever sign those divorce papers.
Read Part Two of this conversation, in which participants talk about building community -- and organizations -- around queer geek identity.
Lewd Alfred Douglas: Lewd Alfred Douglas is my performance name. I am a Boylesque performer. I'm a trans man and also queer. A lot of my performances are informed by that background, and also my identity as a history geek. I grew up recognizing a lot of the queer metaphors of X-Men and things like that, and all of the minority exploration that Star Trek was doing at the time. I have a deep appreciation for geek culture.
Fyodor Pavlov: I am also a trans man. I also identify as queer, bisexual and nonmonogamous. I'm an artist, and I'm also a huge history nerd. American geek pop culture was something that I became aware of once I'd moved to the U.S. from Russia. But since then, I've done art that was geek-related -- some fan art. I'm a huge Sherlock Holmes nerd.
Sigrid Ellis: I'm a coeditor of the Hugo Award-nominated Chicks Dig Comics: A Celebration of Comic Books by the Women Who Love Them, and of Queers Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the LGBTQ Fans Who Love It. In my day job, I'm an air traffic controller. My partner and I homeschool our kids, who have no trouble understanding their mothers' queer, nonmonogamous relationships!
Christopher Stansfield: I'm a gay-identified bisexual. I never had really come out as a geek; it was just something that was part of my life. My first comic book was when I was about 10 years old; my first movie in a movie theater was Star Wars. I have always identified with sci-fi, fantasy comic books. Also, musical theater, which some people don't consider a geeky thing, but I consider it a geeky thing.
I'm a freelance writer and former performer, and I am currently the public relations director with Gay Geeks of New York, which has really opened my eyes to a lot of subgenres of geek culture that I hadn't even really been aware of.
Josh Siegel: I'm a graphic artist and illustrator. I do geeky comics-inspired digital pop art, and I'm also one of the cofounders of Geeks OUT. We build community groups for people who are LGBT and into comics and sci-fi, and gaming, and pretty much any section of geek culture that can bring people together.
I grew up in a house with comics. My dad had comics. They were one of the first things I started reading. It's just sort of been there my whole life, too. As a queer person, the X-Men certainly resonated with me as well. They've just been there the whole time and, as I came out, they weren't going anywhere.
Mathew Rodriguez: Growing up, who do you think was the first "geek figure," real or fictional, to whom you latched on as a role model?
Fyodor Pavlov: Definitely, going back to Sherlock Holmes there. I remember my grandmother -- when I was very little, I had seen the Russian adaptation of the films, briefly, and she said, "Oh, you should read these books." And I was like, "Well, I don't know. Detective stories: kind of boring. I want something more exciting."
Then I started reading them just on a whim, because she gave me the book. I was hooked. It was also my first introduction to, like, here are these two dudes living in Victorian England together, sharing an apartment. They're really dear friends. They love each other a lot.
I later learned that a lot of confirmed bachelors in the Victorian era were actually men who chose not to marry, for certain reasons. I always thought that there was a lot of queer reading that was easily available and easily accessible in the Sherlock Holmes stories. And I just loved it. It was an interpretation that I liked to see. It sort of chimed in with my obsession with history and, specifically, that era.
Christopher Stansfield: For me, it wasn't necessarily a queer reading, but Luke Skywalker, which then led me to the whole Joseph Campbell thing about the hero's journey and the metaphorical nature of discovering things that are inside yourself that you're not fully cognizant of until somebody introduces you to that, and going on a quest for identity and for authenticity in your own life.
Through Star Wars, I became obsessed with mythology. And through comic books. It all started linking up. I didn't get into comic books until after I had already been into Star Wars. And I didn't get into Doctor Who until after I'd been into comics. But the things that have drawn me to geek culture have always been about the journey from one stage to another, in terms of how you can become a fully formed individual. And how you can, while you're doing that, also hopefully help other people and assist them in that way.
That's what I always first identified with when I was a kid, and I was getting into all of these different little geeky areas and genres.
Josh Siegel: When I started reading the X-Men as a young teen, there was the queer undercurrent in the X-Men of being born different. And that's very clearly kind of a queer metaphor. But I feel like I was also very drawn to the writing style in the '80s, where it was very much a soap opera, and characters were just extremely passionate and very loving with one another. They were this close-knit family and were very clear about expressing their love and commitment to one another, even if it wasn't necessarily romantic. Men and women were treated sort of equally in that regard, in the stories. They also dressed incredibly fiercely, and had superpowers. But there was just this overwhelming love in the characters that didn't seem to have any inhibitions when it came to men being close to their female friends or their male partners. I think that that really struck a chord with me, and that is why I collect those same comics to this day. They're in my head as these beautiful, passionate characters.
Lewd Alfred Douglas: I think with queers and X-Men it's like all the roads lead to Rome.
Christopher Stansfield: I know plenty of non-queer people, people who are in other minorities and that kind of thing, for whom X-Men speaks to their experience, as well. "Mutant" can be a metaphor for so many different things that it's a wonderful kind of Rorschach test -- if it's written well, anybody can find a home within these sorts of stories.
Sigrid Ellis: I think it was probably Kitty Pryde, from Chris Claremont's Uncanny X-Men comics. I had encountered geek characters before, certainly, but I usually wanted to put some distance between myself and them. I was called a geek by others, and it wasn't a compliment. Why would I want to associate myself with these unwashed, nasal, goggle-eyed social maladepts? That would only make my life more difficult.
But there was Kitty. She was my age. I was 13-and-a-half! She was from Chicago. I lived in Chicago! She had brown hair. I had brown hair! And she was a geek. A serious, hands-down, computer-programming, Star Wars-loving GEEK. I wanted to be just like her. Superpowers included.
Lewd Alfred Douglas: I especially liked, as a younger person, reading X-Men, because it was one of the only things I had access to that was a candid and honest explanation of prejudice, and what that was, and what it was like to have not only people treat you differently, people who may just be ignorant and not understand, but also the government being against you. This thing with the whole mutant plague, and trying to see if they could correct or heal being mutant, and whether you wanted that because it was your life choice, or whether you didn't want it because there was nothing wrong with you in the first place. It's so potent for anyone who is part of a minority group. And I think it's important for people who aren't identified as belonging to a minority group to understand what prejudice is, and what it's like.
I wanted to bring up that a geek figure that really got me thinking about this was also Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. I was completely fascinated with his character as a child because he had a completely different relationship to his body, and to human interaction, than the life forms did. He was part of a society that he didn't 100 percent understand the social implications of, and didn't identify with, but in some way wanted to.
In hindsight, I can see how that would really move me as being someone who didn't feel the same way about their body that other people did, and who didn't quite understand why it was considered normal to just be attracted to the opposite sex, etc. Obviously, not written as a metaphor for that, but it was written so well that anyone can identify with it, in some way.
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.
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?
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.
Christopher Stansfield: I tend to be more turned off, not by overtly negative portrayals of queer issues, but more well-meaning condescension, and also obvious self-promotion in certain cases -- where it's like, "Look, we have a gay person!" And then it's not touched. But you make sure that you get those press releases out about Northstar, you know, 15 years ago. And then nothing happens with the character. Or you have Judd Winick, the writer of Green Lantern. Very queer positive in his own life, and again, very well meaning, but the way he handled the gay bashing story in his Green Lantern comics, I felt, was not going to change anybody's minds, and was actually going to irritate people. Because there was still that kind of condescension: We have a gay character, so what are we going to do? We're going to make sure that he goes through gay bashing.
Fyodor Pavlov: The victim story. Always the bad stories.
Christopher Stansfield: So that tends to just annoy me more. Unfortunately, I think that's the case with any minority that begins to kind of get integrated with society at large. You do go through these stages; and well-intentioned liberalism is still well intentioned, and I'm thankful for that. But you have to get past that point of being first the victim.
Fyodor Pavlov: I think you touched on a really important point. Again, I can't think of any one example, because there are so many where a queer story always has to be a story of negativity and suffering, and pain, and tears, and overcoming, and lost love, or not ever finding love, or being in love with your straight best friend.
Christopher Stansfield: Boys in the Band mentality.
Fyodor Pavlov: Yeah. They're so insidious and so prevalent that I think we have now reached this point where a lot of this is true of queer experience, but the way it's handled is not good. And also, we've reached a point where queer people, whether they're gay, trans, whatever -- they're actually happy people. Not all trans people hate their bodies. Not all gay people go through gay bashing.
We don't have to just tell tragedies, at this point.
Christopher Stansfield: It's about being a character, as opposed to being a story line. Characters can have story lines, but characters being used as story lines is a very condescending and off-putting thing.
Lewd Alfred Douglas: There are a lot of instances, especially of trans women, being portrayed as murder victims. That's the only time you see them. Even Neil Gaiman had a serial killer that only went after trans women. That was all you knew about them, was that he killed them.
And then there are all these CSI-type shows where they'll find a victim who is a prostitute and then they'll be like, "She has a penis. That must be why he killed her. Case closed." You know?
And it's not that that doesn't happen. Obviously, it does. Trans people get murdered all the time. But if that's the only representation you have in media, that's not doing good for trans people.
Fyodor Pavlov: It's exploiting it for shock value.
Lewd Alfred Douglas: Yeah. It's exploitative, and it's not giving a really needed positive outlook. It doesn't have to be all sunshine and rainbows, but it would be nice to see them as people, rather than as bodies. You know?
Josh Siegel: I've started to realize that, of all the things that I love about comics, romantic plots are usually not things that I enjoy. Or just that, of all the things that can be written terribly in a comic book, usually it's the romance part. And now that there are gay characters having relationships in comics, they get to have really badly written romances, too.
I want them to be good so bad, but I think that they are no worse or better than any other romance written in your average comic book. So, I have all these high hopes, and then I read the Northstar marriage story, or whatever, and it's just like, ugh. I just want to stab my eyes out. I try not to feel insulted by it, even though I'm a little disappointed. But I think it's just that the genre doesn't really lend itself to smart romance, somehow.
Christopher Stansfield: I think comics, as a medium, are still struggling to find depth, in general, in characterization. And so you can look at some of these characters and be terribly offended about how shallowly they're used, or about how they are devices, but then you do remind yourself: Well, yeah, pretty much 90 percent of the characters -- gay, straight, whatever -- are used shallowly. Nobody is going to look for relationship tips in looking at Superman and Lois Lane, you know? Or anything else.
So you should certainly hold any creator to a standard that they should try to advance the medium. But you can also be a little bit more compassionate and forgiving of the actual issues with the medium itself, and the fact that it's not always the easiest place in the world to tell a deep kind of story about people.
Mathew Rodriguez: I think the interesting thing is that when a writer sits down and wants to write a romance scene, that's when they kind of get caught. Because some of the best romances are just homosocial relationships between two men who are not explicitly lovers. Like, if you want to see a jilted lover story for the ages, it's Magneto and Professor X from X-Men. They are so deeply in love that they just cannot get past the fact that they just have different political agendas.
Christopher Stansfield: "I just can't quit you." Yeah.
Fyodor Pavlov: X-Men: First Class was literally, like, these two dudes got married and then adopted a bunch of kids, and then went through a terrible divorce.
Lewd Alfred Douglas: I think that the comics that have really good, deep romance stories are ones written by one or two people, not ones written by companies. And I think it's the same thing if you have a TV show and it's catered toward the lowest common denominator; it's catered to be really, really popular, and people talk about it at the water cooler. The plot twists are going to be more interesting than the character relationships.
Christopher Stansfield: It's also about whether you're using something in order to create a perpetual IP marketing, or whether it's something that has a beginning, a middle and an end. I mean, good stories, in general, tend to have a beginning, a middle and an end. With comic books, especially mainstream comics that are designed to continue selling for infinity, you're not ever going to have that sense of resolution. And so it does make it much more difficult.
Even if it's only written by a handful of people -- or even if it's your Chris Claremont, or somebody like that, who does one comic for 25 years -- still, the realities of the marketplace where you're trying to extend something well beyond any normal narrative point, it's going to become more and more repetitive and reductive, and catered to: How do we get people to keep buying these things when we have a crisis every year?
Again, it's the nature of the medium. If you have a 12-issue limited series or something, where it's been plotted -- even if it's a 100-issue series, but it's been plotted -- where there's an actual resolution in sight, I think it's much easier for a writer to keep track of actual character development and characterization.
Josh Siegel: And to see their ideas through. The way that a mainstream comics writer can stay and go -- then plotlines are left hanging. The next writer won't really care about what they'd started; and relationships are cast off.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Read Part Two of this conversation, in which participants talk about building community -- and organizations -- around queer geek identity.
Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.