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“Where Am I?” – a brief, personal look at LGBT in geek culture

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MaliseBefore we get into this, I need to tell you something important: LGBT may be a single tag, but those contained within are not treated the same within geek culture. I want to write today about lesbian tropes, and why they matter – to me, and to you, whatever your sexuality may be.

Being a geek hasn’t been easy. I started playing games not long after I learned to read and start to tell stories. These things have been absolutely central to my life, my development, my creativity. Games and stories are a part of who I am, how I think, how I relate to my life and the world around me. They’re important. They’ve also been an escape.

I’m also a lesbian. Growing up the only LGBT “influences” I really had were people like Kenny Everett, a comedian who was married until the mid-80s when he came out, refused the label of “gay”, confessed to attempted suicides because of his sexuality, then later died of HIV; and two Uncles, whose relationship I figured out for myself, because nobody was ever going to tell me. But I knew this: when I felt attraction to someone, they were female. To me it was that simple, but I knew enough to know it wasn’t that way to anyone else.

In the games I played, the books I read, the films and tv I watched – until the coming out of Ellen DeGeneres and the coupling of Willow and Tara in Buffy – there was nothing. Thinking back to some of the very early stories I wrote I can see my own confusion. I can hear myself crying out “I’m a part of this world too! Where am I?!”  There was so little to relate to, so little to help me understand who I was.

Lesbians in culture: they’re hidden, and they die – miserable and usually by their own hand. They hide, they suffer, they die. Most of my favourite things had no LGBT characters at all, the few that touched upon them were mostly more tropes and stereotypes and jokes.

I learned what most of you probably learned – however unwittingly: the only existing standard of happy, sustainable love is male/female. I learned this to the point where even I feel a little strange writing LGBT characters into my own work!

Only misery can result from making the choice to be a lesbian – this is what I was shown over and over. I’ve made efforts to refute this – always being open, always answering questions, always trying to teach the people who are open to learning. I have close friends, who I love dearly, and who believe me to be unnatural. Friends, knowing I’m a lesbian, will make insulting jokes or comments, and be surprised when I don’t laugh. My own family amongst others have linked my sexuality to pedophilia and sick fetishes. I have been bullied, hated, stereotyped, fired, beaten up and worse for refusing to ever be anything but who I am – complete with geeky interests and sexuality. Animosity is easily disguised as acceptance or humour, and it’s all too easy to let things slide in because you don’t want to be THAT person.

Remember when J K Rowling said something about Dumbledore being gay? The jokes STILL haven’t stopped! And things like this reveal something inherently wrong with our geek culture as it is today: we love our obscure things, we love our popular things, we love our fandom and our connections to each other. I love those things, too – but I still find myself looking around, wondering “I’m a part of this world too. So where am I?”

I remain relegated to a subset of my own interests.

Fable was the first game I played which allowed me to marry someone of either gender. Dragon Age too – NPCs were bisexual or heterosexual. Mass Effect 3 was the first game to offer entirely homosexual characters. Yes it’s formulaic – it’s all balanced out – but it’s there, and it’s offered with the same care and attention given to straight characters. Simply put: these characters are whatever sexuality they are, because that’s who they are.  It’s not perfect, but it’s there. Their sexuality isn’t part of what drives them or even relevant to the plot. It simply is.

The Doctor Who reboot – in the future, everyone is bisexual. As proof we have Cap’n Jack making it obvious that he’s omnisexual, Vastra and Jenny who are at least a solid couple, the occasional nod from whoever’s playing the Doctor, and occasionally another side character who hints around it. It’s not perfect either, but it’s a natural and normal part of the world.

Yet, Star Wars: The Old Republic, from the same studios as Mass Effect and Dragon Age, gave us an entire planet made up of a gay characters – only as download content, and only because the complaints about the 100% heterosexual cast were too loud to ignore.

In the Secret World, if you choose the Dragon faction, whether male or female you will be seduced by a female NPC. It seems to me an assumption that you are a straight male – after all, isn’t that who games and films are created for? Straight, white men?

Look the outfits of females compared to the males in games. 1) in comparison the women are almost always objectified (a bit of male chest hair does not compare to a skintight suit flashing cleavage and thigh); 2) in my experience, the few who even take the time to consider it (which seems to be very few indeed) tend to assume that the lesbians will react to the skimpy, impractical, revealing outfits in the same way they expect straight men to react.

There are still standard genres of game/film/tv/books, and then a separate catch-all LGBT option. They’re kept separate. Segregated.

I still feel like a second-class citizen within my own culture. Forgotten, brushed aside, or fobbed off. I still see very little of myself in the things I love. Can you imagine that, growing up? Getting none of the assurances in the things you loved that you were a normal person who could thrive, love, be happy? That’s how I felt, and it’s how so many still feel right now.

The world is not yet comfortable with lesbians – not in its media, not in its backyard. I want to change that. How?

Well…a long time ago I promised myself something I’ve never said aloud until now:
In everything I write, in everything I retain control over, in every world I create, there will be at least one LBGT character, and they will be simply another person. It’s my way of creating my own bit of balance. It isn’t always obvious, because there isn’t always time. Some stories pivot on the characters and some pivot on the prejudice of others, some on the character learning who they are – sometimes their sexuality becomes one part of the wider story, because sometimes that’s what happens. In most of my work, though, they’re simply there, they exist. I treat all sexualities with the same love, the same care, and I am as willing to write a relationship between a man and a woman as anything else: but in everything I write I will know that someone is LGBT, even if the story never touches on it. It doesn’t matter. Part of every world I create is the existence of sexualities other than what is still thought of as “normal”. Occasionally I even flip it upside down, but it’s always there.
One day that concept of normal and abnormal won’t be an issue, one day everyone will be comfortable with everyone else’s sexuality – until then, my promise stands.

I have always believed that art can show the world, both individuals and as a whole, what it is capable of being. It’s not patronising to look at your work and find a place for LGBT characters to exist as normal people. I’m not the only one making the promise I made, take a look at Machine Age Productions, for example. The first time I read that I punched the air and shouted for joy, because somebody else understood.

What if, in each thing all of us made, we did one thing that broke a prejudice barrier? Think about it, the next time you create characters. Don’t be afraid to try. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice (heck, ask me, I’d love to help). Don’t be afraid to reach outside your own experience and comfort zone. There are amazing things to be done, amazing lessons to be learned and taught – amazing influence to be brought by our understanding of being ridiculed but still having the power to effect change.

Ladies, it’s things like this and people like you that change the world for the better. It just seems like a waste not to at least give it a shot.

About Lee Hulme

You’ll mostly find Lee hiding out in whichever fictional world they’re writing about or playing games in. They’ll usually be hopped up on caffeine and talking at twice the normal speed of most humans. When not tied to the computer, they’ll be walking, reading, probably not far from coffee or alcohol, and often chatting to total strangers just because they can. At any given moment they’ll be working on at least one new book and/or short stories, producing fun things with 8 Sided Films, learning about the indie film industry that they somehow fell into entirely by accident, diving headfirst into any other fun projects they get the chance to do and occasionally remembering to have a social life. Their reputation for never sleeping is often well-deserved, but they do need to recharge their energy source every so often by only doing 2 things at once, instead of 5.