Play it Loud—Series Conspectus
A Look at Queerness in Fandom
Fandoms haven’t always been the most welcoming to outsiders, ironically enough—given their history in Americana. Join us on an exploratory tour of this inter-sectional paradox, through the various demographics and their respective welcome (or lack thereof) to the LGBTQ community, through the eyes of one who traverses both worlds. From board and tabletop gaming, to pop culture and new media, this exposition strives to be comprehensive, yet digestible.
Hello, and welcome to a brand-new series for The Unconventional! Play It Loud will discuss the connection, importance, and intersection of Nerd and Queer Culture. The use of the word Queer is something we should probably address before getting too deep into this article. See, Queer is a very contentious term for a lot of people in the LGBTQ community. While some believe it’s ours to reclaim, myself included, it’s still a word with a lot of power [ 1 ]. Some believe the previously mentioned acronym stands for Questioning while others believe it stands for Queer.
The word Queer has a long and complex history. So, it’s kind of a big question to answer, and one that this article can’t really answer definitively because of the very nature of the word and the community. I will say, up front, that I use the word Queer a lot as shorthand for LGBTQ. If this bothers you, I apologize, and hope you can still stick with us to the end! However, it is important to know that many now use the word Queer in an affirming or positive way, and not loaded with the anti-gay rhetoric that it had when we were younger and it was used purely as an insult[ 2 ]. It’s still used as an insult, but it is a word with history and complexity that I feel is worth reclaiming and using.
As for the article series itself, this is a topic that means the world to me. This kind of nerd culture has always resonated with me. Video games, Dungeons & Dragons, cosplay, anime, cartoons, webcomics, comic books—it all has been a huge part of shaping me as a person. As for the Queerness… well, at about age 15 I identified as bisexual, knowing I was interested in more than just women. It’s been a bit of a trip since then, with me coming out to friends and family several years later, with a tragic, awful-ex stopover (I’ll just skip that part). Suffice to say, most of my family knew I was bisexual, part of the 7.1 percent of Millennials who identify as some flavor of Queer, and all of them know I’m a huge nerd [ 3 ]. If you asked me about myself even a year ago, I’d have said I was bi and that would have been the end of it. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna make things that simple! So, this is my official coming out.
My name is Juno Delphi. I’m a transgender female person. What that means is that I identify as female (she/her). I thought for a while I might be more comfortable being masculine once I was out and comfortable in my skin, but one day I realized I was female. You know what? All of that is okay! Because gender is freaking confusing and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise [ 4 ]. But I’ll always have my friends who love me and that’s the true beauty of the LGBTQ community, if nothing else. Many of my friends love me all the same and I love them and their journeys, as they love me and mine. My path was not an easy one and I can tell you right now, it’s very likely not done.
This is not something I touch upon lightly. I have been questioning my gender for the better part of five years now. Though this hasn’t painted my experiences as a nerd growing up when I presented as a cis man, it paints my perceptions now in new and interesting ways. Most of them are more than a little terrifying, but that’s just life as a trans person, sadly [ 5 ]. We are, unfortunately, a much-maligned and hated group for the simple sin of existing in a world that thinks we should be what we’re dictated at birth. Because of suddenly being on the opposite side, a lot of my views and ideas have changed drastically with the new context of not being a boy slapped on there. To say my views have changed radically would be untrue. I’m just as opinionated on a lot of the same matters, but now it’s a lot more self-preservation than compassion.
A lot of jokes that were once merely distasteful are now downright scary, as their target is no longer someone I love, but someone that person loves. Likewise, characters mean more to me, as do certain ideas and head canons and character creations have much more meaning to them [ 6 ]. A fun snippet of a microcosm of my life: several trans friends of mine admitted they had an inkling of a suspicion when I was a bit too true to life when creating a non-binary RPG character. Turns out I outed myself! Whoops! But my nerd and Queer identities have been interlinked for years. Decades, even. I’d like to take you on a journey through fandom and nerdiness to, perhaps, explain why the Queer community has latched onto the media and ideas that it did. Or why it didn’t, in some cases.
Though there are going to be some dark and foreboding discussions about incredibly harmful and depressing things, I want to make clear that this series will not be all doom and gloom and terrifyingly real statistics about real life! There will be lots of fun! Talking about folks like the McElroy Brothers, comics like Homestuck, and movies and video games of all kinds! So, that being said, let’s get into that, shall we?
Literature, Games, Books, and Tabletop
The first topic of the articles is one that’s near and dear to many people’s hearts. Tabletop games, card games, board games, the Renaissance of intimate game nights and gatherings of friends in a safe and friendly environment, and the people we love so dearly who make content that hurts so badly. Of course, we are talking about the Queer Community and Dungeons & Dragons. We’re gonna talk about the likes of Critical Role and The Adventure Zone. The McElroys might seem like a strange topic to talk about, as all three of them are straight cisgender men. At least with Critical Role, Taliesin Jaffe is a bisexual man, so he’s relevant to this discussion [ 7 ]! But, what about the Boys? Well, that’s a bit trickier.
The McElroy brothers—Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy—are all, as mentioned, straight cisgender men. But they’re incredibly popular within the LGBTQ community both before and after The Adventure Zone, their popular tabletop gaming podcast [ 8 ]. How did the Boys become such beloved allies whom the LGBTQ community adores [ 9 ]? We’ll touch on that, but long story short: it involves actual apologies, heartfelt apologies and acknowledging one’s mistakes and faults. You know, difficult concepts.
Critical Role, meanwhile, has a cast of characters across all sorts of sexualities and genders. And though the game has killed off one of its Queer characters, the unscripted and generally off-the-cuff nature makes it a lot more complex [ 10 ]. We’re gonna take an article to discuss these games and their players, as well as Dungeons & Dragons as a whole, to explore how we came from a time when being gay was considered something you just didn’t discuss in the game itself, to a game’s lead developer modeling characters in an adventure after his husband and nephew [ 11 ].
Of course, there’s more to tabletop and board gaming than Dungeons & Dragons! We also will be talking about board and card games. One such big name on the scene of card games is Magic: The Gathering, which recently introduced a trans character, complete with her own backstory and army [ 12 ]. This kind of inclusion, with new characters who are more than just cheap pops for representation while still having their identity and gender matter to the character, is becoming increasingly more common in a field mostly dominated by straight cisgender people, especially men. Well, not necessarily dominated anymore, thanks to Autumn Burchett, the transgender, non-binary mythic world champion of the collectible card game [ 12 ].
Magic: The Gathering isn’t the only game in town, either. In fact, there are other games, literally and figuratively. And while Cards Against Humanity doesn’t quite scratch the same itch, it does a great deal of good for the community as a whole, so of course we have to discuss them and their “creative” methods of striking back at politicians legislating hate [ 13 ][ 14 ].
But—and I can’t believe I’m gonna say this—there’s more to life than tabletop gaming and card games. Like movies, books, and TV, of course! Our next segue will take us into forms of media that almost everyone is familiar with. My mother can understand the appeal of movies and books, whereas I’d have a hard time describing the appeal of Cards Against Humanity to, well, maybe not my mother, but you get the idea. These are some of the juggernauts of entertainment. We’ll focus a lot on the erasure of Queer people from the media as well as from history and how prevalent it is even today in a society that is a lot more accepting of Queer people [ 15 ].
Speaking of societies’ acceptance of Queer people, we’re gonna look at fan fiction, a form of media and self-expression that has been accepting of the Queer community for a while now, even if sometimes the ally-ship can get a bit performative and oftentimes creepy. Since you can’t talk about fan fiction without mentioning Slash, we’ll explore the origins of the term and the idea, with Star Trek leading us where lots of men have gone before, even if historians like to say otherwise [ 16 ]. Yes, Star Trek is responsible for most fandom and quite a bit of fan fiction as well, as many are aware. We will delve into the ideas beyond the Queer community finding a place in fan fiction for a series based on a Utopian concept where nobody is hated for who they love, in a time when the very notion of two people of different skin tones kissing was still considered “racy” for many.
We will also have to discuss the more sinister nature of humanity. The side that reminds us that, while not everyone wants to hurt you, sometimes it doesn’t matter who you are. The fact that you’re playing in their space is enough to raise their ire [ 17 ]. The nature of fan fiction is to be something of a taboo in society and life. Though it doesn’t carry quite the same stigma as marrying someone of your own gender or deciding your gender is a lot less set in stone, writing fan fiction is still regarded pretty negatively. Authors like the late Ann Rice not only decry writers for their hard work and passion but actively sued them to keep these brand-new ideas from forming.
And for the final leg of our trip, we’ll talk about things near and dear to my heart: the internet, the communities it’s formed and bonds it’s forged, the content that has been created, and a certain webcomic.
Skip Act V to meet the Brothers
It should go without saying that the internet has done a lot of good for the LGBTQ community. It’s allowed us several places to meet, both specific and generalized, with a great deal of safety and intimacy. Jokes about the internet being a barren, lawless hellscape where anything goes aside, it has been an amazing and useful resource for finding a family and a place to call home. It’s also allowed the bigots to be just as loud, hateful, and awful to deal with, of course, but thankfully we’ve got a lot of allies out there to help us. If you think this is another segue to talk about the McElroy brothers and their content in these articles, well, you’re right. Truth be told, they put out a lot of content in general and their overall attitude and sense of humor has made them darlings in the LGBTQ community. Their tabletop gaming podcast, The Adventure Zone, stars the three brothers and their father playing a cast of characters, including a main character playing an openly bisexual woman named Aubrey Little [ 18 ].
The McElroys have endeared themselves with an earnest sense of respect and kindness for others, especially in the Queer community. This kindness echoes throughout their social media and even into their live shows, where the Brothers themselves have declared themselves something of a guardian of their Queer and questioning following [ 19 ]. This is not solely the realm of the McElroys, of course, but one such effort that has gone into making the world at large a more Queer-friendly space has been adding one’s pronouns into their profile and bio on social media [ 20 ]. This seems so silly and small and minor; it kind of is, but it normalizes asking for pronouns. It normalizes the idea that you can’t just look at someone and say, “that’s a man,” or “that’s a woman,” or “they’re non-binary.”
We will wrap up this series with something near and dear to my heart: I talk a lot about Homestuck and joke about it, but truth be told, that comic has done a great deal in giving me the friends that I have today, which in part inspired me to come out as trans female. So of course, the finale is going to talk a lot about that one webcomic in particular and how it’s shaped me. And with an author who, although cisgender and heterosexual, has made it quite clear his intentions with the comic itself [ 21 ].
Fandom has more or less intertwined itself with the Queer community, one hand washing the other. Although it’s unclear who came to whom first, my money is on the Queer community simply finding shelter in fandoms of series about utopian worlds of understanding. Just like how comics spoke to the downtrodden of their time, worlds full of aliens and friends and magic gave us a safe haven from the harsh truths of our lives. So join me in this series, where we hope to explore the greater purpose and meaning in Queerness in fandom.
- “As much of gay representation began in fan fiction, it’s hardly surprising that Star Trek’s Kirk and Spock became a regular feature in the budding ‘slash fiction’ scene.” Source: https://www.inverse.com/article/16203-on-star-trek-sherlock-holmes-and-the-origins-of-slash-fiction
- “The late Anne Rice, a complex figure, was both a frontrunner of queer identification in pop culture, and an adversary given her litigious views on fan fiction. As someone who invokes deeply conflicting feelings in much of her following, she is a perfect exemplar of pop culture’s relationship with the LGBTQ.” Source: https://www.latimes.com/obituaries/story/2021-12-12/anne-rice-author-of-interview-with-the-vampire-dies-at-80
A cosplayer who’s worked with Nerd Caliber and Cosplay Court Case, Juno Rebecca Delphi combines an academic approach to otherwise “flippant” subjects with significant attention to detail. In addition to her love of gaming, Juno’s an accomplished fiction writer, performer, and nerdy historian, but is most passionate when it comes to social justice and queer culture. Originally joining Steam-Funk Studios in 2014, Juno’s personal journey has been revelatory, as she continues to evolve.
- Pearlman, Merrill. “How the Word ‘Queer’ Was Adopted by the LGBTQ Community.” Columbia Journalism Review, 22 Jan. 2019, cjr.org/language_corner/queer.php.
- “Isn’t ‘Queer’ a Bad Word?” The Safe Zone Project, 3 Aug. 2018, thesafezoneproject.com/faq/isnt-queer-a-bad-word.
- Salam, Maya. “If You’re Asking, ‘Am I Gay? Lesbian? Bi? Trans? Queer?’ Here’s a Start.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 May 2017, nytimes.com/2017/05/17/smarter-living/gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender.html.
- “Understanding Gender Gender Spectrum.” Gender Spectrum, 16 Apr. 2020, genderspectrum.org/quick-links/understanding-gender.
- Campaign, Human Rights. “Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2019.” Human Rights Campaign, hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2019.
- “Headcanon.” Fanlore.Org, fanlore.org/wiki/Headcanon.
- “Geek and Sundry: The Wednesday Club.” Twitch, clips.twitch.tv/AthleticHonorableKittenChefFrank.
- Zone, Adventure. “The Adventure Zone.” Maximum Fun, 4 Nov. 2020, maximumfun.org/podcasts/adventure-zone/.
- Hutton, Christopher. “What We Learn from the McElroy Brothers, No Bummers, and ‘the Adventure Zone.’” The Wrangler, 15 June 2020, thewrangler.org/2020/06/15/the-adventure-zone-mcelroy-brothers/.
- Mercer, Matt. “D&D Beyond.” Twitch, clips.twitch.tv/BovineAssiduousPenguinFailFish.
- D’Anastasio, Cecilia. “Dungeons & Dragons Promises To Make Its Adventures More Queer.” Kotaku, 24 Aug. 2017, kotaku.com/dungeons-dragons-promises-to-make-the-game-more-queer-1798401117.
- Dadoly, Liza. “Why It Matters That Magic: The Gathering Now Has a Transgender Character.” Bitch Media, 9 Feb. 2015, bitchmedia.org/post/why-it-matters-that-magic-the-gathering-has-a-transgender-character.
- Weinberger, Matt. “The Creators of ‘Cards Against Humanity’ Explain the Secret of Staying Funny Even after the ‘Punk Rock Authenticity’ Is Gone.” Business Insider, businessinsider.com/cards-against-humanity-max-temkin-and-ben-hantoot-interview-2017-2.
- “How We Spent Your Money.” Cards Against Humanity, cardsagainsthumanity.com/sunlight.
- Bowen, Daniel. “Da Vinci, Lincoln and Liberace: Why ‘Straight-Washing’ Homosexuality In The Media Needs To Stop.” WhatCulture, whatculture.com/tv/da-vinci-lincoln-and-liberace-why-straight-washing-homosexuality-in-the-media-needs-to-stop.
- “CyberDreams.” Short History of Kirk/Spock Slash | CyberDreams, 15 Oct. 2013, beyonddreamspress.com/history.htm.
- Bryant, Carroll. “When Anne Rice Attacks.” The Looking Glass, 21 Feb. 2015, thelookingglassofcarrollbryant.blogspot.com/2015/02/when-anne-rice-attacks.html.
- McElroy Family. “The Adventure Zone Zone: Experiments Post-Mortem.” The Adventure Zone Transcripts, docs.google.com/document/d/e/2PACX-1vTPko39vpFltUfCRen2u2cOAKhCezPIR4GLzbRhusX7XbYEWa-n1xgqmgM_tplt4cLtGMb9zlqR37-a/pub.
- The McElroy Family. “MBMBaM 402: Face 2 Face: That Good Hot Dog Syrup.” YouTube, 25 Nov. 2018, youtube.com/watch?v=MERNSSHHiZs&feature=youtu.be&t=2925.
- “Matthew Mercer (@matthewmercer).” Twitter, twitter.com/matthewmercer.
- Gooddogbestfriend. “Two Tweets from Andrew Hussie.” These People, These People, They’re People First, 23 Apr. 2015, gooddogbestfriend.tumblr.com/post/117138898515/image-description-two-tweets-from-andrewhussie.