‘Gay geeks’ find their super-powers

By : Stephen Miller
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Like millions of LGBT people before them, gay geeks have come out of the closet! They and their straight counterparts will descend on Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center Apr. 10 through 12 for MegaCon, Central Florida’s massive multi-genre convention. Expect elaborate costumes, miles of merchandise, tons of games and multitudes of meet-ups!

Professing a love of X-Men, Harry Potter, anime, or live-action-role-play may seem trivial compared to LGBT struggles, but there are several definite similarities. For years, many gay geeks had trouble admitting their love. They were shamed, teased, and even bullied.
Now, they’re out in the open, flashing their economic muscle.

“This stuff is big business,” says Bryan Pittard, a cofounder of Flame On!, a gay geeks podcast out of Orlando.

MegaCon is expected to generate $23 million for the local economy. Last year, the convention saw 80,000 attendees on its busiest day. This year looks to be even bigger, with guests like pro wrestler Hulk Hogan, Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee, actor Ron Perlman, and cast members from Firefly, The Walking Dead, Adventure Time and The Princess Bride, among many others.

“I love going to conventions!” says Star Trek fan Heather McClendon.

And she’s not alone.

“People show up in droves,” Pittard says. “A lot of those people are the LGBT community.”

There’s no official count on how many attendees will be LGBT; statistics would be difficult to come by. However, the community has definitely made its presence known, growing in visibility over the years. Facebook, YouTube, dating sites and other online services tout gay Harry Potter fans, lesbian comic book girls, and many, many more subgroups to encounter at MegaCon.

Coming to Terms
The term “gay geek” may seem like a double indemnity, but not to fans.

“It all comes down to differentiation and finding your tribe,” says Pittard, who loves science fiction literature, comic books, Doctor Who, and electronic music history and instruments.

It’s a more intimate way of getting to know others: “If you came up to me and said you were gay, I would greet you as I would any other individual. If you said that you were a gay geek, then I might instantly seek out your geek interests and search for a common interest that we could then dive into.”

Digging into gay geek passions is why Pittard and four others cofounded the podcast Flame On! which—with over 80 episodes—even ventures into others’ passions, like drag performers, lube inventors, geeky porn stars, makeup artists and other people who fixate on hobbies.

Within MegaCon-oriented geekdom, there’s a lot to discover. What once was fringe art now predominates pop culture. The Big Bang Theory used the stereotype to make for sitcom success. Comic book movies like Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy are Hollywood’s multi-billion moneymakers. Anime has redefined children’s cartoons and cross-marketing. Comic business is now four times larger than it was 15 years ago. Sci-fi and young adult fantasy tops book bestseller lists. Game of Thrones is a massive HBO victory, The Walking Dead revitalized the AMC channel and The Lord of the Rings’ third movie even won the Best Picture Oscar.

Even old Flash Gordon, Dungeons & Dragons gaming, ‘80s horror flicks, and Ray Harryhausen Claymation monster flicks have their fans.

“I’m big into board games,” says Adam McKercher, who also loves video games and movies. “That’s takes up about four nights of my week…getting people to play games, even games that you haven’t played since you were a kid. You can even play some online.”

Technology has a heavy hand in the revitalization of those games.

“I think the Internet has definitely made it easier for anyone who is passionate about something to find others with that same interest,” Pittard says.

A League of Heroes!
Geek culture—perhaps inspired to protect the underdog—is standing up for LGBT rights. On March 26, Indiana’s Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed a controversial religious freedom legislation that allows business owners to refuse services to same-sex couples. Organizers of the $50-million gamers’ convention GenCon have threatened to pull its event from the state.

Similar laws are being pushed in ten other states. Atlanta’s DragonCon condemned Georgia’s legislature for discussing a “religious freedom” bill. DragonCon’s official statement reads: “Should this bill become law, we will seek written assurances from all of our business partners that they will not participate in any discriminatory behavior on the basis of race, color, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or any other point of identification. We have no intention now or in the future of supporting a business partner that discriminates.”

“I think that the theme of exclusion in a lot of the literature definitely speaks not to just geeks, but to gay people who’ve felt excluded,” says 37-year-old Kevin Sigman, an actor and administrator who is passionate about sci-fi/fantasy, comics and anime.

The stories of geek culture have always included outsider struggle. Superman is an alien on Earth. The hunting down and exclusion in the X-Men series can be seen as an allegory for LGBT people. Marvel’s Northstar came out in comic books in 1992—before Ellen or Will & Grace. Since then, many other heroes have come out. Harry Potter’s Dumbledore was outed by his creator J.K. Rowling. This February even saw beloved hero/villain Catwoman as bisexual.

Combining Forces
The predominant image of a geek is of a lonely person engrossed in comic books. Some of that seems valid.

“I had such a horrible upbringing,” says Harry Potter fan Adam Faircloth.

“I use the fantasy to escape real life, and I don’t want to think real life things when I escape,” says Faircloth.

Still, geek passion can build strong relationships. Faircloth also belongs to the local convent of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, making new friends and doing good works in elaborate nun drag. Others get together to participate in role-playing games, see the newest Marvel movies or build costumes for MegaCon.

Alternately, that love can sometimes preclude relationships.

“A lot of my experiences—when I meet someone new and I’ve found that if we’re not into the same thing—I’ll still be nice,” Faircloth says. “But I’m not necessarily going to bond with them because we’re into different things.”

Some geek bonds can cross over the gay-straight barrier. Sigman and best friend Josh Geoghagan met when Josh’s then-girlfriend was in a play with Sigman in 2010. Since then, Josh and Kevin have tightly bonded.

“Not only do Josh and I have the same interests, but we tend to latch onto the same reasons we’re interested,” says Sigman.

“Even today, Sigman and I can corner someone at a party and talk about Blade Runner for hours,” says 36-year-old Geoghagan, a massage therapist and writer who has just released A Graveyard for Whales, his first comic book with illustrator Brian Demeter.

Love of pop culture may even fire romance.

“With gay geeks, you already have two things in common—because I’m still looking for a relationship—to possibly build on, and to get to know each other,” says McKercher.

When that spark lights, the stories are amazing.

“We met in high school,” says Star Trek and gaming fan Heather McClendon of her other half, Ada Brewton. They found they were into the same stuff, including each other.

“I finally asked one day, ‘Hey, would you please be my girlfriend?’” McClendon says. “And she said yes.”

After years of dating and living together, at Atlanta’s DragonCon, Brewton proposed. She was in Star Trek garb and she presented McClendon an engagement ring in a box modeled after the Star Trek communicator. She received an affirmative when she asked McClendon “to be her Number One.”

The fight’s not over yet
When asked whether they feel more discriminated for being gay or for being a geek, the answer with interviewees was mixed.

“I have only ever felt excluded because of my geekdom, not my sexuality,” says Pittard.

“I’ve felt a little of both but not to the extreme of other people,” says Sigman.

“Within geek culture, it’s definitely my sexuality,” admits McClendon. “At first they say, ‘You’re a geek? Cool!’ Then, they find out I’m also a lesbian and it’s—[a sad dying trombone note].”

In fact, expressing your fandom and coming out are both difficult. Jennifer Urda—a gaming, Harry Potter and sci-fi geek—says.

“I’ve never personally felt excluded due to my [bi]sexuality, since I am not very public about it,” Urda says. “But my geekdom has often always made me feel excluded. I have often been viewed as ‘childish,’ especially because of my age and my personal geeky interests. As I have gotten older I have cared less about what others think but I tend to keep quiet about my sexuality because, whereas society has become more progressive even in the past year, I’m still not to the point where I’m personally okay with expressing it to the world.”

Though she was willing to share her real name for this article, Urda doesn’t know if and when she’ll completely come out as bisexual.

“I think it boils down to one’s comfort zone, and I tend to feel more comfortable around geeks or those kind of like-minded people,” she says.

Holy fetishes, Batman!
With all this passion toward pop culture, it’s not surprising that fetishes emerge. Though they’re a subgroup of the gay geek subgroup, fetishes at MegaCon are not difficult to find. A brief search online leads to GayComicGeek.com, a NSFW website that combines MegaCon subjects, porn and even role-play.

Craigslist, Grindr and other sites sport ads for people willing to play out their fantasies with each other.

“It’s a subgroup of a subgroup,” Sigman explains, though he acknowledges fetishes are more prevalent perhaps because of the ubiquity of the Internet.

“It’s a niche market,” Pittard says. “Furry culture only started 20-30 years ago, and then there’s zentai.”

“None of the fans I know do it,” says McKercher.

Pittard then reminds him of a couple names, and McKercher quickly amends, smiling, “Well, then, I don’t do it.”

“You’re right; these cultures have arisen,” Pittard finally says. “When people are passionate, these things are going to emerge and cross over into their sexual lives. But they are a small group of the larger geek culture.”

It’s about where people feel accepted.

“The truth is that furries may not be welcome to walk down Park Avenue, but they are welcome at MegaCon,” says Pittard.

Battling some classic villains
Gay geekdom isn’t without its own internal problems. There’s online and public shaming of some fans who may not possess an encyclopedic knowledge of culture that others think is necessary to be considered a fan. It’s a hot-button issue.

“I do think geeks can alienate themselves,” says Pittard.

Sigman agrees.

“I guess people feel the need—even within traditionally excluded groups—to put down others to make themselves feel better,” says Sigman. “It’s snobbery. Everybody has to start somewhere and shouldn’t we be celebrating that shared love?”

A group that has suffered a lot are geek girls—both lesbian and straight—who often feel they have to prove their love of all things geek.

“This is one of the things that really gets me riled up,” says Urda. “Perhaps once more representation of women in geekdom has occurred there may be greater chance for change. But the tolerance for this has really gone down, and women and even other men are starting to fight back.”

In fact, there’s still the old argument that comics and other geek art is sexist—with impossibly shaped women. That’s been countered in arguments since 2008 that the men are also hyper-sexualized, physical ideals.

“I hate that argument, that men are also sexualized, too, so it’s okay,” says McClendon. “You look at most of the comics or games and men are still heroes and they’re not staying home with the kids, in general. They’re not the victims. We need a new template.”

Predominantly, women are the damsels in distress, needing rescue by males.

“There is a strong desire for more equal archetypes and storylines,” says McClendon. “But there is still a strong bias that says, ‘This is what girls in comic books and video games have to look like and act like.’”

McClendon says she’s seen changes.

“It’s still not a 100% equal, but it’s a lot better than what I’ve seen in the past.”

GayGeekSideBarThe power of love
Any conversation with geeks will willingly delve into pop culture, going down a rabbit hole of odd and fun facts. Friends lose hours—like Geoghagan and Sigman with Blade Runner. Couples bond with a secret language, as is the case with McClendon and Brewton.

Even conversations for this article stretched into hours of comparing original material to movie versions.

“Geek culture, in my experience, is far more interested in sharing references,” Pittard says. “It’s tough, because you can get excited, and that excitement will turn some people off.”

“Still, we can laugh at ourselves. Geek culture has a great sense of humor,” says McKercher. “That helps balance when we’ve gotten too enthusiastic.”

Pittard feels that geek culture is a great way to connect to both LGBT friends and the larger community.

“I believe that the gay community is best served by being subsumed by other communities [like the geek culture],” he says.

Pittard loves getting into deep conversations, both in person and in his Flame On! Podcasts. He doesn’t discriminate—whether those conversations be with lesbians, transgender people, drag performers or straight allies.

“Like every other subgroup,” Pittard says, “the more stories we hear and lives we experience can only help us understand what we otherwise find foreign and unknowable.”

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  • Sarah

    Is anyone going to comment about the lack of women in the cover photo…?

  • Stephen J. Miller

    As the writer, I can add a little understanding. We decided to focus on the four people who created the Flame On! podcast – they just happened to be all of the male persuasion.

    While writing this article, I became distinctly aware that it was more difficult to find lesbian and bisexual MegaCon fans, versus the 5 males I interviewed. I don’t know if this is because of the perceived sexism of a lot of geek culture (whether true or not) or the shaming that has been reported happening to female fans. In the article, I tried to cover all of these aspects. You comment tells me I made the right choice.

    I did get 3 female inputs. Heather McClendon did talk about feeling unique as a lesbian in geek culture. She, her other half Ada Brewton, and Jennifer Urda all opened up in ways I deeply appreciate, to tell their stories in the article.