It is often painted as the space for the rebels, the outcasts, the ones who live in their own world; the nerds, the losers, the unpopular kids, the weirdos, the freaks. But beyond that, geek culture is pretty queer, revealing in its characters, stories, and real-world communities a number of themes we as QTPoC are all too familiar with.
We often use “geek” to discern those in “non-mainstream” culture. From its origins, the word was used to describe those who were lower than or less than for taking an interest in aspects of society not funded by mainstream opinions. Geek culture is unique to the social atmosphere; a collective community made of individual experiences and knowledge towards any field.
Once we start looking into geek culture, we recognize how it can function as a mirror or lens on society. We can find in this mirror effect society’s views on people of color, on LGBTQ+ identifying individuals, on women in general.
How do queer identities fit into geek culture?
At first glance, they don’t. We often see queer culture functioning as the negative storyline and/or downfall of stories featured in geek culture, or at least society’s response to it. From the views of women as simply sexualized love interests, to the shaming of women, down to hidden sexualities based off of fear of public rejection, queerness is often the joke, the revelation, the inspiration for systematic reinforcement of internalized homophobia.
Even when queer identities have been worked into geek media, queer characters in movies are erased or portrayed without their queer identity (see movies from Marvel and DC in the comic movie genre).
Adding race to it, and we see Black and dark-skinned characters as the villains simply because their melanin has been connotated with negativity. This feeds into internalized racism. Where are the Black protagonists? Where are the Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx heroes? Not the side characters or the extras, but significant characters with interesting stories fighting crime and living authentically? It’s not enough to make us one line characters, sidekicks, and the first to die as a lesson to move the white, cis, hetero male forward in movies and shows.
And this despite that we easily see ourselves in so much of geek culture. “Comics are so often seen as the province of white geeky nerds. But, more broadly, comics are the literature of outcasts, of pariahs, of Jews, of gays, of blacks. It's really no mistake that we saw ourselves in Doom, Magneto or Rogue,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2010.
And yet, much like the word queer, many of us were taught to use “geek” negatively. Queer and Geek were bad words tainted with an otherizing lens that tore them to the core of individualistic counter-culture. I was taught not to be queer or a geek (which wasn’t hard given that mixed-race, non-conforming heroes were almost impossible to come by), yet I now very much identify with both queer and geek identities.
But geek is now mainstream. We see geeks as those with knowledge and power in society, those with a reclaimed title of new endearment. Subtle forms of reassociation are contributing to the rise of geek culture as a trend. Geeks who have had their heads buried for longer than they can imagine, ashamed and hiding from their passion, are now able to take pride in critically analyzing mainstream media.
This growing level of consciousness is helping to frame the way we tell stories and shape characters with better accuracy. We can comment on the queerbaiting tendencies of Marvel or the transphobia in video games that is still much too prevalent.
Geek culture, and specifically the participation of QTPoC in geek culture, has never been subtle, just silenced. Geeks have always taken pride in the escapist aspects of geek related media that provide ways of self-discovery. We have always seen ourselves in the stories, the painful biographies, the struggles and journeys, in the few yet growing number of characters and storylines that reflect our reality, or help us escape our painful realities. But geek culture is still very much dominated by the heteronormative androcentrism, by a white mainstream view that dominates all other aspects of society.
And that is the lesson. The further we see representation, the easier it is for us to guide our love for comics, books, movies, and video games to an identity rather than a shameful hobby. It means we can see ourselves clearly and overtly, not just in allegory and metaphor. The aspects about geek culture that impact us the most are the ones that we can find parts of ourselves in. Whether that be personality, skin color, sexuality, class, ability, or even speech patterns, geek media can offer something that mainstream media generally can’t:
Luis Xavier De Peña is a co-admin on the LatinxNerd twitter account. With the handle @comosedicenerd (that is, “cómo se dice ‘nerd’?”), the space is “focused on promoting Latinx artists and talking about a lot of issues ranging from politics (in the US, and Latin countries), representation in nerd culture, and commentary on our lives and how we see the world around us.”
LatinxNerd focuses on giving Latinx voices a platform with which to showcase their individuality. With intersections ranging from video games, comics, and character voices, they address their followers as amigxs to ensure that all genders feel included as they promote the intersections of various Latinx and geek identities.
Luis, like many, didn’t see the representation that they’d hoped for growing up with geek culture.
“When I was growing up geek culture was not a cool thing yet and it was mostly a white only thing. There weren’t heroes that looked or sounded like me and there wasn’t a push to have those heroes exist.” They remember how “geek culture was not a cool thing yet, and it was a mostly white only thing”.
With lacking queer and Latinx representation in geek culture, Luis helped build a successful space that is accessible to those who may need it. Spaces like these are growing, and providing QTPoC geeks with the knowledge, perspectives, and news relevant to our communities.
Kayla Sutton is an admin of Black Girl Nerds. With the twitter handle @BlackGirlNerds, the space “is an online community for Black women and women of color to embrace their nerd and geek identity”. BGN prides themselves in their lens of geek and nerd media through a Black feminist lens. The space was originally founded by Jamie Broadnax in 2012.
Kayla comments that geek culture is a flourishing community, But comments further that “it has become very mainstream as of late”.
Upon discussion of QTPoC representation, Kayla saw a gap in it as well. They commented that “we are often used to further a plot and then killed off (bury your gays), and it’s frustrating”. But in order to fix that, we’d have to be actively part of the conversations. We’d have to actively be part of the movie making process, the TV show filming and casting, the writing of the shows. But even in the counterculture of geeks, LGBTQ+ identifying individuals are left out of the conversation.
Marginalization isn’t a choice but is reflective of homophobia and transphobia in the minds of writers. You don’t have to be actively anti-LGBTQ+ to be homophobic. Silence is sometimes worse than the counter, and the lack of pro-LGBTQ+ identities shows more about internalized phobias than the queer community’s relevance.
QTPoC representation in geek culture isn’t just lacking, it’s also silent. Kayla mentioned due to the rise of social media and new media, that the gap seems to be on its way to a close. “Outlets like Black Girl Nerds that are calling for more representation, there has been a rise, however there is still more to be done. Especially when you get into QTPoC representation. There shouldn’t be a monolith.” Indeed, we are not all the same, and one character of color doesn’t represent us all.
Adel Khelifi is a gay, Tunisian admin of the twitter account Nerdy POC. Under the handle @NerdyPOC, the space is dedicated to raising the voices of POC who enjoy the nerd and geek culture. Sharing news and content from other spaces like Black Girl Nerds, as well as contributing quality content themselves, Nerdy POC is a space for all PoC to dip into their own brand of geek culture.
Adel says that, to him, “Geek culture ranges from an individual experience of enjoying certain types of media (video games, comics, movies, etc.) to connecting with other people who share those interests. [Though] usually we associate geek culture with genres like Sci-Fi or Fantasy.”
That is, our individual experiences matter most, and the way we interact helps shape the culture into a community rather than a label. To expand on Adel’s point further, our sexual and racial identities influence the way we view and navigate the genre and experience the escapism of this space.
Geek culture has a long way to go to make us feel represented, welcomed, and part of the community we have for so long seen as sources of reflection, inspiration, and momentary relief from life. There are hearts that need to be warmed and screens that need to be lit up with the same representation of the audiences that reach toward these movies, television shows, video games, and other media outlets.
Growing up, I often identified with the comic realm, loving anything comic book related and wishing to have powers. However, as a queer identifying, mixed race person (my father is of Black and Native descent, my mother born in the Philippines) there was a part of me missing when I couldn’t find a middle sexuality femme PoC characters in the comics other than Storm from the X-Men. I found part of me missing when I couldn’t find a gender non-conforming femme character in video games to pick and customize.
Yet at the same time I found that when I wanted to I could be Zoom from X-Men with the ferocity of Wonder Woman and the willpower of Batman; the escapist aspect of geek culture has shaped how I interpret stories and vice versa, how I tell them.
As the years have passed, I’ve found more representation for those like me, and geek culture has became geek community. That’s what home should feel like, a place to comfortably discover rather than conform and divide.
While geek culture isn’t perfect, especially for QTPoC, it’s still something I take pride in being part of. I enjoy learning new perspectives and discovering new identities, while also learning more about my peers. Geek culture being what it is has helped me piece together parts of myself that I couldn’t seem to find for myself.
This is a community I’m part of, and all QTPoC can find community here; we can find a space here, too, just like we always have.
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