Queer Geeks, Assemble!

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

Christopher Stansfield
Lewd Alfred Douglas Sigrid Ellis Fyodor Pavlov Josh Siegel Christopher Stansfield

There are many traits that queer communities and geek communities share. One of them is the penchant for finding others of their ilk and making meaningful connections. Queers and geeks love to come together and form alternate family structures -- and often feel forced to do so out of a sense of "not belonging" in mainstream spaces.

In the second part of this two-part roundtable, these self-identified queer geeks discuss how being a queer geek has informed their own art, their sense of community and their activism.

Read Part One of this conversation, in which the five participants discuss geek culture -- and the stories that gripped them and wouldn't let them go.

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 co-editor 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. You know, 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: My next question is for Christopher and Josh. What made you want to be a part of your respective organizations? Did you see a lack of spaces for this community to gather? And were you surprised at how popular your two groups became?

Josh Siegel: In New York Comic-Con a few years ago, we noticed that there just wasn't an official queer presence. And for all the queer people that we knew were in attendance, there wasn't really a way . . . you know, no one was gathering them. And we realized that we wanted to make queer people, queer geeks, feel like they were at home at the Con. So we set out to have a presence there the following year and built a community locally, along the way.

We were blown away by the response we got and the following that we gathered. It continues to grow and it's super exciting. It couldn't have been better.

Christopher Stansfield: In my case, I've been involved with both organizations -- I go to a lot of the Geeks OUT events, and I actually met most of the Geeks OUT guys before I actually met any of the Gay Geeks people. Part of it is a personal thing, in terms of, I've always had a very strong sense of volunteerism. For about 10 years, on and off, I was a fairly committed volunteer with the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Arts, and ran the MoCCA Art Fest for a couple of years, and volunteered with them.

When they were taken over by another entity, the Society of Illustrators, that had no real place or need for volunteers, because they have quite a lot of money and they do everything in-house, I was kind of left with stuff that I had wanted to do with them that never happened because of that, and stuff that I wanted to get involved in. And when Geeks OUT came along I was very excited for what they were doing. And I think I showed up at your very first event, if I'm not mistaken.

Josh Siegel: You did.

Christopher Stansfield: I wound up getting more involved with Gay Geeks for a few reasons. The focuses of the organizations: There's kind of a Venn diagram. There are certain areas where we both kind of try to promote the general welfare of the community. Geeks OUT has more of, I think, a political activist bent. Gay Geeks is more of a social organization -- which, in its own way, is activist, in the sense that you're still trying to provide a safe space.

We steer away from political issues, for the most part, except for the ones affecting the general welfare, because we do want a diversity of community. And we do have people who are, you know, conservative queers, who are geeks; and we have people who are less out of the closet; and people who are more out of the closet. I, basically, because the organization opened up the board to a general election, had been getting involved with their events for a few months. And, again, I had a lot of ideas that I was taking with me from MoCCA that never happened. And I said, "You know, I'd love to help out." So I ran for a position and I was elected to the PR position.

So I've become much more involved, not only on the PR level; but I've now been given events of my own to run. And I was pretty much instrumental in forming the AIDS Walk team for this year, which we hadn't done before. And I'm really excited that we blew past all of our initial goals, in terms of the fundraising.

I've always said that for queer people, in general, LGBTQ people, you actually come out twice. First, you have to come out as being whatever you identify as. But then you have to kind of come out within a community in order to actually find that community.

"One of the most disheartening things for young LGBTQ individuals is that sense that, 'Once I come out everything is going to be OK, and I'm going to find a community immediately, and everybody's going to be all embracing.' And I think a lot of people end up feeling very hurt and rejected by that if they don't have people of like minds within the community to do that embracing." -- Christopher Stansfield

One of the most disheartening things for young LGBTQ individuals is that sense that, "Once I come out everything is going to be OK, and I'm going to find a community immediately, and everybody's going to be all embracing." And I think a lot of people end up feeling very hurt and rejected by that if they don't have people of like minds within the community to do that embracing. Coming out as a geek is maybe not as emotionally wrought as coming out as an LGBTQ individual; but it is something that . . . it's sometimes hard to bring up with people who, you don't know how they're going to respond if you say, "Oh, by the way; I really love comic books," or, "I really love this."

And it's very important, I think, to Josh and his organization and to our organization to just kind of provide that space, where you can tell people: "See? There are other people like you." We will lead you to those people. We obviously can't give you friends. But we can put you in a situation where you can be comfortable talking about what really interests you, and find community that way.

Josh Siegel: Yeah. I found that one of the most satisfying things about throwing events and gathering queer geeks together are the people who have been dying to express their geekiness. They've been out. They've been married to a same-sex partner for years or, you know, just all-around regular queer people, but have been harboring this, like, smoldering geekiness that they keep to themselves. And then they find there are others and it's just a blast for them. It's so great to be able to establish that.

Christopher Stansfield: And it's really joyous to watch it, too, if you have an event and it really clicks, and you can see that people are talking to people that they otherwise might never have met before, or otherwise would have been too shy to talk to. And, all of a sudden, they get into a conversation about The Lord of the Rings or something like that, and just start. You see their eyes light up. And you can feel very positive that you helped make that happen.

Josh Siegel: Yeah, even accidentally so, with having events that are at a public bar, and having people just stumble in that have no idea that that's even going on. They're suddenly surrounded by geeks, and they get to start talking about Game of Thrones, or Green Lantern, or things that they haven't talked about in years . . . and have a fantastic time, and keep coming back.

Mathew Rodriguez: So, for Fyodor and Lewd Alfred: Describe to us what goes into the process of making your art, and how it comes from you queer geek identities.

Lewd Alfred Douglas: My burlesque performances are heavily inspired by queer people in the annals of history that you wouldn’t necessarily learn about in history class. I spent a lot of my time at school doing independent research about people who were hidden, and wouldn't have been talked about -- at least, that aspect of them wouldn't have been talked about. Anyone who I inform about them are always really, really excited about it, whether they're queer or not; because it's just really fascinating.

I meet a lot of people who learn about King Christina of Sweden, who wouldn't have had the language to express whether she was trans or not, but she was definitely genderqueer. Because she called herself King, and dressed in men's clothes, etc., etc. And you definitely get the impression it wasn't just for political reasons.

"We are a very colorful ilk of people, who have had to be very creative in our lives, depending on which country, and which class, and which era we're living in, to find ways to express ourselves and still be safe." -- Lewd Alfred Douglas

They're just fascinated that that existed before now, you know? And it seems obvious to people for whom that's perfectly natural, but not for people who have never learned about this stuff. And it's very inspiring to hear about people like that. Because we are a very colorful ilk of people, who have had to be very creative in our lives, depending on which country, and which class, and which era we're living in, to find ways to express ourselves and still be safe.

There are certain time periods that are really rich in this, like the early 20th century -- especially in Western Europe. There was developing a language for being homosexual, and being genderqueer. And there was a scientific community that was actually supportive of it, rather than just prescribing shock therapy for everything. And that was a really fascinating time to be alive, and to be young, and to be a party person. Because you would go out and be who you were, in safe spaces, just like we do now.

Unfortunately, World War II kind of fucked everything up for that, but it was a really interesting time to look at. And it's comforting, at least to me and, hopefully, to other queer people, to know that we don't live in a bubble of, you know, the fact that we have queer culture and queer safe spaces here. It's not unique just to us. We have ancestors who we can take inspiration and strength from. So, yeah. I find that really inspiring for my performance.

Fyodor Pavlov: For me, that last point is really important. You know, it's like that famous quote, where history is written by winners. So when you approach, as a queer person, your own history, you have to do so much investigative work. Because mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, he was so crazy; he never married! He hung out with a lot of actors, and built castles, and didn't want to see people!

Josh Siegel: And had an obsession for Wagner, yeah.

Fyodor Pavlov: Right, yeah. What was the nature of his relationship with Wagner, really? And for me, that kind of investigating work, I get . . . I mean, Lewd Alfred can tell you, the books in our house have taken over our living space.

For me, doing that research and then transferring that all into my art is what really drives it. A lot of my work can be described as very historically influenced. I love doing historical fashion in my work.

But maybe it's, in some ways, nostalgic. But I actually think that it's not. Because I'm not nostalgic for a time that really wasn't; I look for the time that actually was. And that's very difficult to find. But it's really exciting to me as an artist to be able to bring it back and represent it now, in the way that I see it. Most recently, I've been doing a lot of erotic artwork, but set in time periods that we don't see that kind of erotic artwork come from, necessarily, unless we really dig for it. You know, you'll look through the erotic artwork of Rembrandt, and it's all, like . . .

Lewd Alfred Douglas: Nuns.

Fyodor Pavlov: Nuns, yeah. Or his wife. And it's like it's all very heteronormative. But the deeper you dig, the more you find this, like, crazy Weimar-era 1930s boot-fetish porn, of women dressing guys up in ridiculous jodhpurs and riding them around like ponies. Or you start finding the gay sailor art from the early 1920s, 19-teens. And that will lead to learning about all the terminology that was happening in New York right around that time.

You'll start learning. Like, I found out that in my neighborhood, where I live there used to be an Italian gang of youths, like 15 to 18, who would run around, wearing makeup. And they were like a tough street gang. And they were all gay; and you didn't fuck with them.

To be able to sort of dig that up, and then bring that into my artwork: Oh, it's so exciting. That's what I love doing. And to just take these time periods, and these places that we associate so much with sort of heteronormativity, and very strict religious and moral codes, and to actually say, "Well, no. Here's the stuff that might have been happening when you weren't looking" -- where nobody was recording the history.

Most recently, for an erotic comic anthology that will be coming out sometime in spring, hopefully, I did a short comic set in the early 19-teens -- and it's all silent, because I sort of wanted to hearken to silent film, but in drawn form -- about a gentleman of leisure, presumably an upper-class gentleman coming home; and his valet undresses him. And then that proceeds into something else. Because that's a thing that could have happened -- and probably did happen.

So it's just interesting to take these very typical, Downton Abbey, prim-and-proper scenarios and actually subvert them to stuff that probably happened. We just weren't there to look at it.

Mathew Rodriguez: What made each of you want to devote a part of your life to geek culture?

Sigrid Ellis: I think I didn't choose a queer geek path deliberately. Or, rather, I didn't choose it any more than I chose to simply be out about everything. I'm queer, I'm geeky, I'm poly, my partner and I homeschool our kids -- I talk about these things all the time. It's unavoidable! Lynne [Thomas, the co-editor] asked me to join her on Chicks Dig Comics because she suspected I would know the topic.

Well, there's the saying that we get where we are by standing on the shoulders of giants, right? That's how I feel about queer visibility, feminism and representation. The world gets better for those that come after us only if we make it so. I have helped make evidence that queers love Doctor Who, that women love comics. That evidence is there for everyone to point to when some yabbo tries to say that's not the case. That's my part -- so far -- to making the world wider for those who follow.

Fyodor Pavlov: The geek life chooses you; you don't choose the geek life. [laughs] I actually got involved in the burlesque scene first, and that sort of led to the geek scene. Within the burlesque community there's been a flourishing of nerd-lesque, with shows like D20, Epic Win, all these phenomenal shows.

I don't know what happens first, whether you come out as queer first, or whether you come out as a geek first. But I feel like geek . . . you know, they get you at the age of 10. And I think because geeks in school and whatnot face already such an amount of prejudice that coming out as queer, in some ways, can be almost like, well, I'm already a freak. And on top of it, I'm a queer freak. Awesome.

But they have been some of just the most sweetest and welcoming people. Because I feel like, yeah; when you're sort of shunted your whole life and then you find people with like minds, like-minded people with these interests, they're just so laid back and so relaxed. And it's been lovely, really sex-positive, really friendly; and just genuine people who are so nerdy and so adorable about how nerdy they are.

So, yeah. That's kind of been . . . You know, as a child, I didn't grow up with video games or anything like that. My geekdom was more, like, history- and literature-based. And then I sort of started getting into more of American pop culture, once I had moved here. But, yeah. That underbelly of lovely, awesome sort of people that came with the naked burlesque scene is where I found all the nerds.

"The camaraderie that you find in geek culture is just so infectious; it's such a blast. So the idea of building geek community just seemed like, what could be more fun than that?" -- Josh Siegel

Josh Siegel: As much as I grew up reading comics, and geeky on the inside, I also didn't really come out as a geek until much later. I didn't grow up knowing anyone else who liked comics or anything. So it was all inside my own head. And then the camaraderie that you find in geek culture is just so infectious; it's such a blast. So the idea of building geek community just seemed like, what could be more fun than that?

It's a lot of work, but it's very satisfying. Geeks OUT just went to C2E2 in Chicago, where there's a Geeks OUT chapter that's just taking off and having a great time. And it was just so satisfying to see the same thing just happening there. You just need to plant a flag and all these people will come out of the woodwork for it.

Just seeing that happen here, and knowing that it can happen elsewhere, and now seeing that it can happen all over the place, is such a great reward that . . . just knowing that could happen has inspired me from the beginning of starting Geeks OUT.

Christopher Stansfield: In anything that you commit to, or identify with, especially if it's going to be in terms of getting involved in community organizations and that kind of thing; it starts as a very personal thing. I have been out as queer for, gosh, it's got to be, you know, 20 years, almost, now. But it took a very long time. As I said, you know, you come out and you think that the world is just going to be ready for you. And you have that personal struggle to find groups of people that you identify with.

I say this without worrying about embarrassing him, because he has made it clear on the website himself: Nick DelGuidice, who founded Gay Geeks, is very open about the fact that he founded the organization because he didn't have any gay geek friends in his life. And he wanted to make friends. And it became something that took off. And it became a thing that was larger than him.

It's kind of an odd thing for me. Because there's always a dichotomy in my mind, in that I'm very much pro communities, and I'm very much against cliques. I don't personally think that the best way to embrace your own identity is necessary to exclude other people who don't fit in to that identity. And that is a struggle that is ongoing with this.

I think that most people who try to promote any kind of identity, or who try to kind of promote equality and fairness for people who are marginalized would admit that hopefully the ultimate goal is that, you know, in 100, 200, 500 years, we don't have to say, "I'm a gay geek"; or, "I'm a gay sportsman"; or, "I'm gay"; or, "I'm black and I'm proud" -- that it just becomes a part of you and you can interact with other people, and make different friendships for different kinds of things.

But, in the meantime, we're very much in the stage of coming out, and letting the world know that we exist, and letting the world know that we have power that we didn't realize that we had, in order to make changes. And in order to build it and have people come to it, you first have to identify it. So it's really great, because I feel like, not even just in the queer community, but geeks, in general: It's the geek zeitgeist now. And it's coming out all over the place. There is something intrinsically geeky about being gay, and something intrinsically non-heteronormative about being geeky, anyway, in terms of, you're confounding expectations of what you are supposed to like, and what you're supposed to be interested in. You can be a straight boy who isn't into sports but is into dressing up like a vampire and playing in the woods. And that is just as gay as being a queer person.

"There is something intrinsically geeky about being gay, and something intrinsically non-heteronormative about being geeky, anyway, in terms of, you're confounding expectations of what you are supposed to like, and what you're supposed to be interested in." -- Christopher Stansfield

So there really is a natural association between the two groups. And it is really astounding that it's taken this long for it to even be revealed. And I'm glad to be a part of that on kind of the ground floor, and to keep expanding things, and to see that, yes; if you build it, they will come.

The more people that you get to come out and embrace that identity, the more power you have as a community to effect change in all kinds of small and large ways. And, again, that's a personal sense of activism, in terms of why I would get involved. But I like being involved in these things. And that's really as easy as it is to say.

Josh Siegel: I think we were all kind of nodding when you were talking about inherent sort of queerness of geek culture.

Christopher Stansfield: Yeah.

Fyodor Pavlov: Well, you start out alone. Because you don't associate with, like, the really creepy, cliquey shit that goes on in junior high school, or in high school. So what are you going to do? You sit alone. You read your Sherlock Holmes. You read your comic books. You're wrapped up in your own world which, in some ways, is better, because it's like your buffer against the outside world.

But it's also difficult because, yeah; when you come out, it's like you've been internalizing all this stuff for so long. And then you think, OK, well, I'm an adult now, or whatever, and everything should just accept me as I am. Because I've been living with myself all this time. But it's kind of tricky.

Christopher Stansfield: And really, why is it fundamentally more geeky to like dressing up as a superhero than it is to like wearing the basketball uniform of your favorite basketball player? That's considered acceptable. Painting yourself and going to a sporting event is considered a normal, heteronormative, macho kind of thing. But you go to a convention and dress up like your favorite fictional character, and that's weird, for some reason.

Drag is the same thing. We all play dress-up in different ways. And we all have obsessions. And for some reason through history -- at least, through American history for the last couple of years -- certain obsessions are considered OK, and certain obsessions aren't. If I have a fantasy baseball team, and I can recite the statistics of every player in the major leagues, I don't see why that is somehow more normal than if I could tell you exactly what issue Northstar debuted in, in Alpha Flight. You know? It's statistics. It's obsessions. We all have it. It's just that, for some reason, certain things are categorized as geeky and some things are categorized as not.

Lewd Alfred Douglas: I will say this for the geek communities that I've been embraced in: There's a wonderful sense of intellectual one-upmanship that I love. And I think it's so funny.

Of course, there are people who take it too far and are too aggressive with it. But, at least in the circles that have embraced me, it's really positive an encouraging, and really funny. And I love that knowing everything about a subject, whether it's like a historical character, or a comic book series, or a TV show, or whatever you're passionate about -- that that's like a badge of honor, that you can compete with people about and have debates about. I love that.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Read Part One of this conversation, in which our five self-identified "queer geeks" discuss geek culture -- and the stories that gripped them and wouldn't let them go.

Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.