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


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.

  • What if, in each thing all of us made, we did one thing that broke a prejudice barrier?

    Yes. This. I look forward to the day when there are no more separate categories, and that everything is all mixed up and wonderful, just like real life.

    • Thank you 🙂

      One day equality and acceptance won’t even be required concepts, they will just be – but until that day, I feel it’s important to show the possibility of how good the world can be.

  • Constance

    I wasn’t happy with the coupling of Willow and Tara on Buffy. It felt forced. Maybe I didn’t like the “discovery” angle: “Oh, I’m a lesbian now!” as though she never knew her sexuality until her twenties. I don’t know anyone that unaware, though I’m willing to recognize the possibility, especially if someone tells me. I loved Willow, I adored Tara, but their relationship didn’t feel authentic. It was nice to have a show recognize that, shock and awe, this demographic actually exists, but it felt as though these characters were together because PLOT. Did anyone else feel this way?

    • Thanks for commenting Constance, and I agree – the flippancy of it annoyed me no end! I’ve known people who now identify as lesbian or gay that never realised it, but once they do they see it was always there, but the level of “Hey, I’m all gay now!” that Willow was given just struck me as lazy.

      [Warning – I’m about to reveal that I know WAY too much about Buffy ;)]

      I always thought a lot of the problem with the Willow.Tara relationship was a combo of not being quite sure what to do with it once it existed (which I find fair enough if it’s in part due to not being used to writing same-sex relationships – I’d rather it was tried and the writer learned), and partly problems with the network.
      If you look at Restless, end of Season 4, in Xander’s dream Willow & Tara are all dressed up like, well, prostitues, and ready to sleep with him – but they still weren’t allowed to show them kissing until, very subtly, in “The Body” (Joyce’s death in Season 5).
      Meantime, I always saw their use of magic as kind of a code for their relationship – the spell in “Who Are You” (Season 4) for example. It’s barely even subtext!

      Kennedy bugged me – after how Tara died, early next season comes a new lesbian character, who bears almost zero personality resemblance to either Oz or Tara, and BAM, they’re together.
      Didn’t do much for the idea that just because you’re lesbian or gay you’re therefore perfect for every other person who also happens to be of the same sexuality.

      • Terry

        Have you seen “Glee”? Do they do a better job depicting LGBT characters?

        • I haven’t seen enough of Glee to really comment, but what I have seen mostly made me cringe.

  • America

    This is great Angie. I was having a conversation about characters with disabilities (Not that I am comparing homosexuality with a disability, simply that is something that is considered “out side the norm” that is actually very, very normal in the general public. As is a race other than white.). One of the main points this person made was very similar to yours, there can never simply be a disabled character or a LGBT character. If there is, it’s part of the story line, we need explanation. It needs to be a thing. But it doesn’t. We are each so very diverse that anyone who is “normal” is actually the furthest thing from the norm.

    Thank you for writing this!

    • I actually used the same example of disabilities with someone who wasn’t happy with what I said here, as something that would probably push his buttons less, in order to restate the point 🙂

      Exactly like you say, America, the “not normal” idea is still very prevalent.

      I suspect some writers won’t write in a lesbian (or whatever) even if they might want to because they think or feel they’ll need to “deal with it” in the plot, but actually have a totally unrelated story to tell, and it doesn’t occur that this just isn’t the case.

      Thanks for your thoughts 🙂

  • Terry

    When someone tells me they’re gay, or asexual, or trans, or whatever, I never know what to say. I’m usually like *shrug* “okay”.

    It never occurred to me that people would equate who they are as a person, with who they are attracted to. …does my nonchalance make me come across as a total insensitive asshat? 🙁 What would be a better way to respond?

    • Thank you for asking, Terry, it’s a good question!
      I’m quite happy when someone, on first learning my sexuality, has no reaction, because it means they’re not suddenly reevaluating what they know about me and what to think of me. I think this is true for many, and great for those who are inwardly cringing in expectation of a reaction (due to past experience).

      I generally think it’s better to say nothing than attempt an uncomfortable acknowledgement to show that it doesn’t bother you.

      My exception would probably be if someone is actively coming out, rather than in passing, it’s usually obvious. Then I think a comforting word, or a question that acknowledges it without challenging it (“do you have a bf/gf”, for example, or if they’ve mentioned one ask a general question about them, etc) can be helpful to build confidence.

  • Kirsty

    I have a question, I’m a writing currently creating a graphic novel and I do have a prominent lesbian character, but this isn’t revealed right away – not because she’s going to have a coming out story but because the first scenes that she is in are action scenes in which she doesn’t really talk about anything except the action she’s involved in. Does it bug you when characters are lesbians but only revealed as such through a throwaway line? Without going into the details of the story she’s not in a situation that’s ideal for any relationship, so adding a girlfriend character wouldn’t really work.

    • Hi Kirsty, and THANK YOU for asking 🙂

      If you think about, you only ever really know someone’s straight through a throwaway line… We tend to assume straight, unless we see different, but technically we don’t know for certain until something is said.

      Here’s an idea for you: replay the scene/moment/conversation and reverse everything (rewrite it if necessary) so you’re looking at it as if your main character were straight, and whatever prompts the throwaway line fits in with that.
      Then insert the same throwaway line and ask: is this what she would say if she were straight? Would this need to be said?
      If it still sounds natural – you’re good 🙂

      If you want to chat more in depth, my twitter and blog are linked, feel free to get in touch.

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