While Western pop culture still has ways to go in terms of queer representation, no one can deny the boom of queer characters and figures that have come out in the last few years. Pop culture is a signifier of how a society examines and expresses itself, so a diverse depiction of queer people indicates a healthy view of real queer people. Thus, the NYTimesOUT Presents Gay Geek Culture panel added important discussion to New York Comic Con 2015. Moderated by New York Times journalist Jude Biersdorfer and attended by novelist Damon Suede, writer Sam Maggs, Broadway performer Paul McGill, actor Andy Mientus, and photographer Judy Stevens, the panel explored a topics across a wide range of media. (Please note that there are certain moments in this write-up that are NSFW)
The first question was directed to Mientus, who played the villain Pied Piper in CW’s The Flash. Biersdorfer wanted to know if he brought any personal experience to the role. Mientus responds that there is some backstory indicated in the Piper’s appearances regarding his coming out. In regards to some criticism of why there isn’t a gay hero instead of a gay villain, Mientus feels that the Pied Piper is a role model in that the character is “a genius and a badass.” And that the character is more than just a two-dimensional villain because, “Spoiler alert: he wants more than world domination.” However, Mientus does not know if the character will return to the show.
Biensdorfer then asked McGill if he was a geek before his Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark Roles. McGill played several roles during the show’s run, including Spider-Man, Electro, and Green Goblin. McGill admitted that he was not and that he had to learn a lot during production; he also said that he took the roles “very seriously.”
Damon Suede received the next question. He wrote scripts before turning to romance novels. Biensdorfer inquires the reason why he made that jump. Suede responds that a female friend told him that “if you don’t write erotic romance, you are the laziest asshole. Gay romance is really in right now.” Indeed, soon after Suede published his first novel, it leaped to #1 on the Amazon sales charts in that genre. Most of Suede’s fans are women, but he has met the most unlikely of fans, including a department of firemen that sent him their suit in order for him to understand how it functions. His most memorable visitor, however, was a very Texan lieutenant who came up to his table and said, “My wife read your book and licked my butt and it saved our marriage.”
Maggs, sitting to Suede’s left, cackled at that last part for the rest of the panel. So did I.
Biersdorfer asked Maggs through her laughter if she was able to play any video games featuring LGBT characters. “The company that does diversity best is Bioware,” Maggs said. She goes on to explain how you can design female characters with Adam’s Apples or play characters as different orientations. She stated that Dragon Age Inquisiton showed that you can have popular, high-selling games with LGBT representation.
It was after this point that Judy Stevens entered the room. Biersdorfer took that chance to ask the entire panel how they feel that technology has impacted diversity in geek spaces.
Maggs pointed out that now fans can be so loud about lack of representation that when companies ignore the outcry, they look “like assholes.” As for fans who create their own media, the internet provides an area that doesn’t have any obstacles.
“Before Gutenberg, the way you controlled people was through information,” Suede said. Now kids are able to reach out to people of all kinds. He thinks that ability to reach out to other queer youth has been a significant preventative of queer youth suicide.
Biersdorfer turned to Stevens next and asked her about working for Marvel with her photography. Stevens discussed the connection you feel with fans that cosplay the Marvel characters. For her cosplay cover project, she said she reached out to cosplayers of different sizes and aesthetics. She wanted to show physical diversity, not just societal standards of beauty.
The panel is then asked what they are working on currently.
Mientus, who currently starring in Spring Awakening, talked how he’s working with Deaf West, a company that works to create Broadway productions with deaf actors accessible to deaf audiences. The show runs through January 24th of next year. Deaf West has starred the first person in a wheelchair on Broadway.
“Dudes in heels is kind of what I do right now,” said McGill, who currently works on Georgia McBride. He previously worked on the production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which closed in September.
Suede has a steampunk novel in the works. He described it as “about post-Civil War politics with kink.”
Biersdorfer then asks Maggs how she connects her Masters degree in Victorian Literature to what she does now. Maggs replied that she studied specifically “sensation fiction”, a genre mostly set in the 1860s that focused on “sensational” female characters. She connected her work with her degree in that both sensation fiction and comics are serialized forms. They also have similar reputations in that larger society referred to them as lesser media and trash while both types of media contain sincere, quality stories. Suede pointed out that the classics we read now were once pop culture and, during their times, criticized.
Mientus is then asked if heroes or villains appeal more to him. He said he liked how the Pied Piper’s evil was “weirdly justified” because nobody is pure good or evil. Maggs said, “For me, it’s all about the female anti-hero because we only ever see the dude anti-hero.” McGill said he likes the sidekicks. Suede said he liked the “seducer-destroyers” and doesn’t think he can make any character non-romantic. “Evil changes and breaks and destroys,” he said, “that’s how progress happens.” Stevens, while cosplaying villain characters, likes to play mean.
“Did you decide you were a geek before you were gay or the other way around and which was harder to explain to your family?” Biersdorfer asked as the final question.
Suede said he came out as a geek first because his mother was a lesbian and, he joked, couldn’t understand why he would ever want to have sex with men.
“My geekdom came from my queerdom,” Mientus said. Most of his kindergarten friends turned out gay; he found his people before he even knew.
McGill agrees that geekdom and queerdom are synonymous. “My parents don’t really believe that I’m a geek.” He later said that he was obsessed with Sailor Moon as a small child, so his parents should have suspected that he was gay earlier on.
Maggs, in contrast, was raised by “crazy, super geeks.” She only came out a year ago so being on a queer panel like this one is new to her. The room applauded. She went on to say that she came to an understanding with herself via webcomics made by bi women creators like Kate Leth. She said she felt like she owed it to her audience to do for them what those creators did for her and wipes away a happy tear.
Stevens came to understand herself through the cosplay community. Her parents still don’t entirely understand, but get very excited when they see her online.
The panel is then opened for questions. The first questioner asks if GamerGate has exposed other prejudices in the geek community along with its widely reported sexism.
Suede said he feels that appropriation is the “dragon in the closet that nobody wants to face.” And that there is fake efforts for diversity. He refers to Sex & and the City as an example—he called it a drag show with gay men dressing up as women when women should have wrote that show. “Appropriation is the pus that has to be squeezed out of the zit for us to move forward.”
Maggi said that the comics industry is currently facing this issue. While there is an increase of female-led titles, many of these titles are given to all-male, all-white creative teams.
The second questioner asked, “How do I avoid appropriation in my own stories?”
Suede said, “Write like your life depends on it.” You can’t appropriate because as you write, you will go out and learn those people.
Maggi said that even if you do something wrong, people will understand. She referenced the issue with the current Batgirl creative team and their offensive depiction of a trans character. They made amends and edited the appropriate pages.
Mientus worried about people getting angry when others get the language wrong. For instance, many news reporters reporting on Deaf West used the term “hearing impaired” instead of “deaf”, thinking that the latter was offensive. In fact, it’s the other way around with “hearing impaired” being the offensive term. Instead of getting outraged, Deaf West received this with understanding.
The third question from the audience asked, “How do we get more people behind the scenes like us?”
Suede said, “BUY. STORIES. Force the market to follow you. Our wallet is one of the most powerful things on the market.” Stevens confirmed that this is the truth at Marvel and that she has seen more shirts created for female fans because of people speaking out.
The fourth questioner stated that a reader of one of his stories accused him of having a feminist agenda.
Maggs shook her head in annoyance. She said she asked such people, “Do you think diversity is a phase?”
The last questioner asked Mientus what he has learned about others while working on Broadway.
Mientus said he learned a lot about the deaf community, including how larger society is unwelcoming to them.
McGill said that what creators all do is become immersed in different worlds; it is our job to learn and be respectful.