Growing up gay is hard. Growing up geeky—that is, socially awkward and more comfortable around video games, movies, and other works of fiction than people—is no rose garden either. If you are both gay and nerdy, adolescence is a minefield; you may not share interests with the kids in your school’s gay-straight alliance, and you probably won’t feel comfortable calling out any casual homophobic slurs tossed out by your buddies during LAN parties or games of Magic: The Gathering. Even in adulthood, “gaymers” can feel like outsiders in the often ultra-hetero realm of video games. That’s where GaymerX, the first-ever convention for gay geek gamers, comes in.
The event, which took place last weekend at the Kabuki Hotel in San Francisco’s Japantown, aimed to create a safe place for gaymers to congregate, though you didn’t have to identify with part of the LGBTQ acronym to participate. Organizers—full disclosure: my brother, Matt Conn, runs the thing—also wanted to draw attention to the lack of queer characters in video games and to the industry’s underlying homophobia. “There’s been no advocacy for gay rights in the gaming world,” said Matt. “There are gay and lesbian film festivals and GLAAD and HRC fighting for characters on TV shows. But nothing really for the gaming industry.”
My brother Matt and another GaymerX organizer lounge around in a hotel room.
I was staying in one of the hotel suites with him and about 15 other gay nerds who blasted K-pop at all hours of the night. The convention pretty much took over the entire hotel with its panels, parties, and gaming tournaments, and a few events overflowed into the neighboring mall. Approximately 2,300 attendees showed up, and before the con opened its doors there was a line that went around the block in front of the hotel. Unsurprisingly, the queue featured an array of costumes—mostly video game characters, with an occasional brony or furry thrown in.
Most of the gaymers I spoke to that weekend felt isolated and abnormal growing up, and often the games they played didn’t help. Ben Gerzfield, a 34-year-old software engineer told me he grew up thinking that he was “the only one of [his] kind” and that he spent all his lunch periods in junior high in the library because “when I would sit down in the lunchroom everyone else would move.” When Matt came out to his best friend in high school—his partner in crime when it came to Street Fighter and Final Fantasy VII—“he pretty much kicked me out of the house. We were having a sleepover. He threatened to beat me up. I was in fear of him for a year before he finally got over it.” (Now that friend is, ironically, in the process of taking hormones to become a woman.) Jessica Vazquez, a 26-year-old lesbian who works as a journalist for the website Game Revolution, didn’t realize that she was gay until her late teens. She admitted to me that she “was in the closet by default. [Gay sexuality] was never expressed in the games that I played.” She actually realized her sexuality after playing Fable and having romantic interactions with NPCs.
Fable’s acceptance—even embrace—of gays is the exception rather than the rule. Homosexuality rarely appears in video games, though anyone who’s ever picked up a joystick has seen plenty of scantily clad women (and some games, like the God of War and Grand Theft Auto franchises, feature actual, sometimes porny, sex scenes). One of the rare titles that includes homosexual situations is a Japanese RPG called Persona 4, which features a closeted gang member who is secretly in search of someone to take care of him. “It’s not really well-written but it’s interesting,” said Matt. “It’s at least exploring [sexuality] and you’re helping him come to realize that that’s part of who he is.” A more high-profile example of gay character is Lieutenant Steve Cortez in BioWare’s Mass Effect 3, who is a romance option when you’re playing as a male protagonist.
You can really work up a sweat watching other people play a game.
BioWare was all over GaymerX—it’s employees were featured on four panels over the course of the weekend, including “Why We Think It Is Important to Create More LGBT-Inclusive Games” and “Romance in Games.” At the latter, David Gaider, the lead writer for Dragon Age and other RPGs, said players should be able to choose to romance whatever gender they like—but they shouldn’t have the option to remove LGBT-related content altogether. “We don’t turn off our massive amounts of violence so why would we turn off homosexual content?” he said. “There still should be gay characters that you encounter, even if you don’t intend to romance them.” BioWare is currently working on the next installment of its enormously successful Mass Effect series, which they have announced “will retain the franchise’s open-mindedness when it comes to gender options and GLBTI-inclusive stories.” Some gamers, like Jessica, are hoping for an LGBT character who occupies a protagonist role. “I really wish a company would just put a character in a game and see what happens,” she said.
The problem isn’t just that developers haven’t been especially proactive when it comes to gay characters, however—there’s also the matter of the casual, sometimes virulent homophobia in the gaming community (which is dominated by straight white men). “You hear ‘gay’ or ‘fag’ within three seconds of signing into Xbox Live. That’s just how it is,” said Jen LeGay, a 29-year-old gaymer who came to the con to work security all the way from New Hampshire. One solution for this problem suggested by GaymerX attendees was to hire more aware moderators who would shut kids down for spewing slurs.
“It’s the responsibility of these gaming companies to have moderators,” said GaymerX co-creator Kayce Brown. “[Homophobic bullying] is happening. It shouldn’t be allowed.” She added that gamers need to police themselves. “Boundaries need to be set. It’s not OK. The more we make these [bullying actions] allowable, you are allowing things to happen. It’s like a bad relationship.”
Kayce and Matt are cautiously optimistic. Kayce told me that “both EA and BioWare have promised to step in terms of moderation and making sure that they would include more gay characters.” Matt hopes that this will make the younger LGBT geeks feel less alone. “I’m doing this convention for the 14-year-old me,” he said. “I think about how much it sucks to be growing up and not feeling able to come out, not having anyone to relate to.”
Gina Tron is the features editor for Ladygunn Magazine and the creative director for Williamsburg Fashion Weekend. She is currently in the process of completing a book. Follow her on Twitter: @_GinaTron
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