August 6, 2013

Icon“Too many lesbian stories”? Tori Truslow on queer geeks and Nine Worlds

Lesbian and bisexual women have a somewhat paradoxical relationship with geek culture. The realms of science fiction, fantasy, comics and gaming are typically associated with a particular kind of reclusive heterosexual man. However, many LGBT people proudly describe themselves as geeks.

Does this mean that geeky stereotypes are simply untrue, or are there issues with queer representation at the heart of geek culture?

LGBT fandom is being put in the spotlight at the inaugural Nine Worlds Geekfest, which takes place in London from 9th to 11th August. The organisers – who include Lesbilicious contributor Ludi Valentine – hope that their convention will eventually be as “massive” and “cool” as well-known American events such as ComicCon and DragonCon, but also hope to draw upon intersectional feminist ideas of representation and inclusivity.

Hoping to understand more about the contradictions and challenges for lesbian and bisexual women in geek culture, I interviewed author Tori Truslow, who is organising the Queer Fandom strand for Nine Worlds.

Tori Truslow

Ruth: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Tori: I’m a writer of fantasy and sci-fi, editor of the experimental art/lit zine Verse Kraken, freelance creative writing tutor and event organiser, and big geek. I’m bi and genderqueer, which informs a lot of my work, from my short stories and poetry to the projects I get involved with.

R: How did you get involved with running the queer stream at Nine Worlds?

T: The organisers got in touch with me around the end of last year, with this amazing plan for a new convention, and said they were looking for someone who could put a programme of geeky queer-focused content together and that my name had come up. I’ve always wanted to see more content aimed at LGBT audiences at sci-fi events so I jumped at the chance.

R: Why have a queer stream at Nine Worlds? Do you feel that there is a dearth of LGBT content at sci-fi conventions and other “geek culture” events?

T: I wouldn’t say a dearth – there are often panels that discuss gender and sexuality at existing conventions, but I think there is room for a lot more. There is a huge queer audience for geek media in the UK, and we show up in force for events like the national sci-fi convention Eastercon, so why not dedicate an entire programming track to that audience? That way we can go beyond Sexuality in Sci-Fi 101, and delve into all sorts of subjects that interest us.

R: That makes sense – it’s great to have the opportunity to explore such things in more depth! It’s interesting that you highlight the large queer audience for geek media though – why do you think this is? And is it just a UK thing?

T: I don’t think it’s just a UK thing – it’s similar in the US, as evidenced by the fact that they have an annual feminist SF convention (Wiscon) that also has a high amount of content looking at LGBT and race issues.

I think there are a number of things going on – geek audiences are just very diverse anyway, despite the perception that being a geek is a boy thing. There are also obvious ways that I think science fiction appeals to a lot of us – particularly the utopian element in imagining future worlds where society might treat gender and sexuality differently. And then there are subsets of geek culture, like online fanfiction communities, that are increasingly populated by queer women and offer a way to take popular narratives from mainstream media and turn them into platforms for telling our own stories.

R: Can you give a couple of examples of interesting fictional worlds where gender and/or sexuality is treated differently?

T: There are some classic sci-fi novels, like Samuel Delaney’s Stars In My Pockets Like Grains Of Sand, where there are alien planets with a number of biological sexes, and where definitions of gender in human societies varies wildly from planet to planet – or Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, set on a planet where everyone is the same sex. In Iain Banks’s Culture novels, advanced genetic technology means that physical sexual characteristics can be reversibly changed.

On the TV side of things, you’ve also got the Doctor Who universe, where our favourite bisexual time-travelling action hero Captain Jack is from the 51st century, where it’s implied that bisexuality is much more the norm.

However, there’s a disparity between the potential for such worlds to be written and the frequency with which they actually are. The examples I’ve given are often held up as ‘the’ queer-positive fictional worlds, when they aren’t perfect and were mostly written decades ago. There are some new writers who are producing really interesting queer sci-fi, my favourite example being Benjanun Sriduangkaew, but it isn’t written or published as much as it should. I’ve put a panel called ‘Why is the Future so Binary?’ on the Nine Worlds programme to address just that issue.

Heiresses of RussR: How well do you feel queer women are represented in science fiction and fantasy?

T: In popular SFF, not nearly as well represented as queer men. We had Willow and Tara, but Buffy ended ten years ago, and where have the story-centric lesbian relationships been since then? Doctor Who has lesbian characters but they don’t get a spin-off show like Jack did. Even in fan fiction and fanart there’s less representation – and these are stories largely being written by women. Which isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of women writing queer female characters, but it tends to get noticed less.

There are wonderful editors publishing fiction by and about queer women though, and anthology series such as Heiresses of Russ, which showcases the year’s best lesbian SFF, and the Steampowered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories books.

R: On the subject of fan media – do you think queer representation within geek culture is more likely to come about through fans “queering” existing characters, rather than through authors creating new queer characters and queer worlds?

T: I’d say it’s both, and not always mutually exclusively. There are wonderful writers creating new queer characters and stories – to name some who’ll be at Nine Worlds: Roz Kaveney, Hal Duncan, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Alex Dally MacFarlane, and Zen Cho – and also fan writers who write queer narratives for their favourite characters. For better or worse, a lot of writers, filmmakers and showrunners have noticed this, and that does seem to have led to a greater awareness of queer audiences who want to see queer characters, but also to the rise of queer-baiting, with queer subtext heavily implied or used as a punchline, to keep queer audiences hanging on without putting off homophobic viewers.

How many is "too many"?R: Why do you think it is that fiction written by women with lesbian/bisexual/queer characters is less likely to get noticed?

T: It often gets pigeonholed as ‘lesbian fiction’, rather than ‘science fiction with lesbian/bi/queer characters’. In the sci-fi short fiction market, magazines that publish the occasional story featuring queer women sometimes get accused of publishing “too many lesbian stories”, which begs the question how many is too many, and why no one seems to be complaining about too many straight stories?

R: Why do you think it’s important to have queer women in sci-fi?

T: It’s partly about having characters to identify with, but not wholly. Science fiction is about many things, but for me, at heart, it’s about the awesomeness of the universe, and what it means to be human. If there isn’t a place for all identities and experiences in a genre that explores fundamental questions of possibility and identity, what’s the point in having it at all?

R: You’ve said that you feel that being bi and genderqueer has informed your own work as a writer – is this because your personal experiences give you a unique perspective from which to explore the awesomeness of the universe?

T: That’s an excellent way to put it, haha! I suppose you could say that. I want to write stories where gender is as individual a part of characters’ lives as their personalities. I also want to do it because it’s a challenge. We consume a lot of heteronormative media, and it can be hard to break out of the tropes it teaches us, even when we want to. I actually decided to run a workshop on writing queer perspectives at Nine Worlds, because it’s something I’ve struggled with myself.

R: So, a final question – what event at Nine Worlds are you looking forward to most?

T: Ooh. There’s so much on – and one of the things that makes me proudest to be working for them is the across-the-board diversity policy, which for one means that it’s not just the Queer Stream that will have LGBT content: the Video Gaming, Literature, Game of Thrones, Geek Feminism, Academia and Vampire tracks (there are a lot of tracks!) all have great stuff about sexuality lined up. So it’s hard to choose. But if you pushed me it would probably be the Queer Cabaret and Disco on the Saturday night, which will be headlined by the awesome Lashings of Ginger Beer Time, and (can I pick two? please?) the roundtable and signing event we’re hosting for the anthology Queers Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the LGBTQ Fans Who Love It.

 You can find out more about Nine Worlds on their website, and about the Queer Fandom strand on their tumblr page.

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Ruth Pearce

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