Cause for Action Fans and artists channel their heir passion passion into activism BY SCOTT STIFFLER rom gamer, geek, and drag conventions to the political trenches to center stage on Broadway, LGBTQ fans as well as artists are using their abilities to advance progressive causes, shape the public conversation, and demand authentic depictions. “Activism has been going on since the start of fandom,” said Elana Levin, program director at New Media Mentors and host of the Graphic Policy Radio Podcast. Levin cited as a watershed moment when “forces came together to get ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ off the ground… It was a lot of women and LGBTQ fans demonstrating to the producers that there was an audience for the show, and that audience wanted to have female characters in more significant roles, and more diversity.” (That was 1987. Currently, “Star Trek: Discovery” has Wilson Cruz and Anthony Rapp as the first openly gay, partnered characters in franchise history.) Present day actions, Levin noted, have “become about more than improving what we see and read. It’s about using the creativity we see in fandom to invent our own activism projects and spaces.” Last year, Levin led “Fan Activists — Assemble! Using our Fabulous Powers to Win the Fight for Justice” at Flame Con, a comic convention that celebrates queer geekdom and LGBTQ contributions to pop culture. The training session, which challenged attendees to channel their cosplay, writing, drawing, and meme-making skills into activism, encouraged collaboration. “Rather than go it alone,” Levin reasoned, “there are a lot of nonprofit organizations who work on issues these fans are concerned with. So it’s good when they can partner. Fans bring creativity and community, and don’t necessarily have the same approaches of people in the nonprofit world. And nonprofits have experience running campaigns.” Recalling the development phase of a series adaptation of the “Iron Fist” comic, Levin cited an online petition from 18MillionRising.org, a community of South, Southeast, and East Asian diasporas, whose website notes their use of “digital-first advocacy tactics to elevate the voices of and mobilize our over 120,000 members to take action on issues that matter to them.” “Their current executive director is trans,” Levin said, of Cayden Mak, “and they were able to connect with The Nerds of Color,” whose website describes them as a “community of fans who love superheroes, sci-fi, fantasy, and video games but are not afraid to look at nerd/ geek fandom with a culturally critical eye.”
Bob The Drag Queen (at left) was part of “The Resistance” panel at RuPaul’s DragCon last year in New York.
COURTESY OF EL ANA LEVIN
Elana Levin will lead an activism workshop on April 26 at New York’s Organizing 2.0 Conference.
They had this idea, Levin said, of, “‘Let’s do a petition to Marvel Studios/ Netflix before the show is made that they should cast an Asian.’” A non-white Iron Fist, the petition argued, would “help remove some of the character’s more problematic elements such as Orientalism and cultural appropriation.” By its premiere in March 2017, with a Caucasian in the title role, Levin noted, fans “completely changed the media coverage of the show,” by having their dissatisfaction with the casting become part of the mainstream press’ narrative. At fan conventions, cosplaying attendees queer their interpretations of iconic comic, anime, and film characters (drag Wonder Women and trans Supergirls, for example), while panel discussions see content creators and pundits discussing LGBTQ inclusion and authenticity.
Having a public forum for such matters wasn’t always the case, nor was having more than enough to talk about in a single sitting. Charles Battersby, who has reported from Flame Con, Anime NYC, and Wigstock 2.HO for Gay City News, recalled, “About eight years ago, there was the occasional [LGBTQ-themed] panel at a gaming con. You’d have six people, and it would take you an hour to talk about every single gay storyline.” In 2012, at Boston’s PAX East expo, Battersby curated and led “Press XY.” “That was the first time,” they noted, “someone had done a panel just on trans themes.” By 2017, Battersby said, the situation advanced to where a New York Comic Con panel addressed “woman and non-binary persons of color with mental illness in cosply. That’s such a hyperspecific set of subgroups in the community. And the reason a panel like that gets greenlit is if you have tens of thousands of people coming to the Javits Center in one day, if even onetenth of a percent fall into that category, you’re going to have a room full of 50 people who are very excited about that issue.” The 2018 New York Comic Con had its firstever Queer Lounge, Battersby noted. Other cons, they said, “have a diversity lounge. And groups promoting race, disability, women’s and mental health issues might have a designated section that’s very prominently featured.” When this was first proposed a few years ago, “A lot of people on the far left were outraged,” Battersby recalled. “They thought it would be a ‘petting zoo,’ and it ended up begin a huge success, done with a great deal of enthusiasm and earnestness.”
➤ ART & ACTIVISM, continued on p.37 February 28 - March 13, 2019 | GayCityNews.nyc
February 28, 2019