“I mean, the only reason I even came out was because of [said sadly] Clexa, RIP! Fuck! Bleep that [laughter].”
“We’re actually dating in real life, and we met at a Hayley Kiyoko concert.”
Well, I’m hella gay. [Laughter from all].
– ClexaCon attendees
It’s mid-April, and I’m walking down the Las Vegas strip. I walk past the towering Hooters hotel and up to the Tropicana, my place of residence for the next three days. As I get closer to my destination, I begin to see some unusual sights. Several people are dressed as Captain Marvel (in her 1990s humanoid disguise), some seem to be dressed as sheriffs, and there are a few goth witches wandering around. As I enter the main hall, the full picture comes into focus. The room is filled with booths, and people milling about. Across the hall, someone is dressed as what I can only describe as a gay matador, and they shout some sort of war cry, which is then echoed several times across the room. In one corner, there is a television playing fan-videos, and people occasionally walk by and scream. On the other side of the room, there is a spindly wooden throne where people are posing for pictures. Although not everyone is dressed up as a character, everyone in attendance looks, well – gay.
The event that I have just described is ClexaCon, the annual media and entertainment convention for queer women. I attended ClexaCon in April of 2019 in order to conduct research for this project. While there, I interviewed attendees, attended panels, and generally observed the goings-on of the convention. ClexaCon, and the research I conducted there, served as the jumping-off point for this entire project.
The first ClexaCon took place from March 3rd to March 5th, 2017, in Las Vegas, Nevada. The convention was started in honor of a wildly popular lesbian couple on the CW series The 100 (2014-) who were known by the portmanteau (or ship name) “Clexa.” In March of 2016 (March 3rd, to be exact), one half of the couple, a character named Lexa, was killed off of the series in a manner that many fans found both insulting and deeply upsetting. (She was killed by a stray bullet moments after sleeping with Clarke for the first time, and after showrunner Jasen Rothenberg had released photos of her ostensibly alive and well in the season finale, convincing fans she would not be killed that season). Thus, the convention was founded as a space to mourn this loss, as a celebration of positive LGBTQ representation, and as a public show of support for the advocacy work being done to improve such representation. ClexaCon events now include various panels, workshops, a film festival, opportunities to meet convention guests, and a space for vendors to sell their work. Guests in 2019 included cast members from Carmilla (YouTube, 2014-2016), Legends of Tomorrow (The CW, 2016-), One Day at a Time (Netflix 2017-), Runaways (Hulu, 2017-2019) and Wynona Earp, (SyFy, 2016-).
I chose to conduct my research at ClexaCon because I see this convention as a turning point for both queer women’s community and fandom in general. While the concept of identity politics and identity-based movements and spaces have become more contentious in recent years, the creation of this convention indicates that identity-based communities are still meaningful, useful, and even necessary. Through this research, I was able to investigate the ways in which queer women and queer people have endeavored to carve out safe spaces in a media landscape where they are often excluded or fetishized. ClexaCon, I argue, represents a physical manifestation of what this space might look like, while simultaneously exemplifying a push to increase queer women’s cultural visibility in popular media and culture. Through my interviews and observations, I gained an understanding of how these queer women find community, solidarity, and safety in a society that continues to construct queer women as either invisible or exploited. In addition, through my research I was able to get a better understanding of how queer women, queer people, and fans conceptualize the meaning of a safe space and investigate how ClexaCon does and does not live up to the standards of that categorization.
In order to get at these complex issues, I begin this chapter with a series of questions I hope to answer here. These questions also reflect some of the things I asked those that I interviewed.
- First, I ask, what practices, attitudes, and feelings define ClexaCon?
- Second, is ClexaCon a safe space? If so, for whom? What makes it a safe space?
- Third, how does embodiment – ie. the function of physically being in the space rather than participating in online environments – function at ClexaCon? What does it mean that ClexaCon is a physical space?
- And lastly, do we still need safe spaces for queer women?
It is my intention that this chapter will work to answer these questions, or at the very least provide enough compelling arguments that we may continue to discuss them further.
Background: Safe Spaces and Fandom
Before we go on to the interview portion of this chapter, I would like to return to the discussion of space – namely, safe spaces – that I brought up in the introduction. As I noted there, the term “safe space” has a long and storied history. As The Roestone Collective (2014) highlights, the term primarily emerged during the feminist movement of the mid-to-late 20th century among activist circles, and in this usage “is associated with keeping marginalized groups free from violence and harassment” (1346). Naturally, however, this term has been utilized in varying ways, some of which are contradictory. One distinction we might make between different types of safe spaces are those that are “inclusive” and those that are “separatist”. Oftentimes spaces like ClexaCon or the women’s music festivals I discussed in Chapter 1 struggle to define themselves as either wholly inclusive or wholly separatist. This lack of distinction indicates the slippering meaning of the term, which can often be paradoxical in nature, and as the Roestone Collective puts it, can be “simultaneously safe and unsafe” (1355).
To avoid definitional confusion, I have come up with some expectations of what a safe space should be, based on my own research and many of the things participants in my study brought up. These guidelines will make it easier to determine how ClexaCon does or does not function as a safe space. The expectations are as follows.
- First, a safe space should be a space where individuals feel safe from harm, violence, and judgment.
- Second, a safe space should be a space where individuals are given the freedom to express themselves.
- And third, a safe space should be a space where inhabitants feel cared for and listened to.
In the next section, I will turn to the responses of my interviewees in order to evaluate if these expectations were met at ClexaCon.
Pop Culture & Fandom
For many queer fans – in particular those that attended ClexaCon –fandom can act as the type of safe space I just described above. In this vein, I contend with this project that popular media and popular culture have value not just industrially or aesthetically, but also personally, emotionally, and culturally. This is particularly true for those who have been marginalized in the public sphere. As Susan Driver puts it in her 2007 book Queer Girls and Popular Culture, “popular culture is […] a process through which queer girls creatively imagine possibilities, forge connections, make meanings, and articulate relations” (14). I have illustrated this point in Chapters 1 and 2, and I believe that the existence of ClexaCon proves this to be true even more clearly. While popular media may be important to individuals because of the particular nature or aesthetic of a media object, one’s relationship to pop culture often expands beyond the media object itself. As Kelsey Cameron (2017) writes in her piece about the origins of Autostraddle (one of the few sites dedicated to queer female media and culture), “TLW [The L Word], in other words, provided an opportunity: an initial rallying point that helped queer women find each other and jump-started conversation among them. The things these women build as a result—relationships, communities, Web spaces such as Autostraddle—are not, however, primarily about the show” (5.3). Indeed, many people I spoke to at ClexaCon told me that the primary reason they returned to the convention was not because of the media they were interested in, but the people they had met and were sure to meet again.
In a similar vein, oftentimes fandom is not simply about enjoying a particular media text, but about the community that is formed there. In their article about LGBTQ identity recovery work in fandom, Dym et. al (2019) establish the psychological and emotional benefits that queer people often gain through participation in fandom. They cite Judith Herman’s (2015) model of trauma recovery, which she conceptualizes as “taking place across three stages: (1) establishing safety, (2) reconstructing the story, and (3) restoring connections with others” (5). Dym et al. found that queer people’s involvement in fandom acted as a catalyst for trauma and identity recovery, providing them with benefits such as finding others like them, identity processing through role-play and fan fiction, the creation of community narratives, and resources and mentorship (19). The virtual or physical location of this fandom is significant, as Dym et. al note that “the activities that people can participate in and contribute to within this community are dependent on its position as a subversive online space that is both visible to those who need it and invisible to harmful outsiders” (19, emphasis mine).
While public involvement in queer or queer-adjacent fandom may involve elements of risk – as Camille Bacon-Smith explores in Enterprising Women (1992) – the “selective visibility” (24) of these fan communities can mitigate these risks and establish a particular fan space as reasonably safe from unwanted outsiders. This selective visibility was a significant element of ClexaCon as well, because although the convention took place in the bustling metropolis that is Las Vegas, even other residents of the hotel seemed unaware of our presence, and the ClexaCon badge meant nothing outside of the convention itself. (Of course, the presence of cosplayers likely indicated to other guests at the hotel that something was happening, though I’d imagine most of them remained ignorant of the specifics).
Indeed, the context of a fan space and its relationship to safety influences the social relations that define the space. Nicole Lamerichs (2014) writes that “the fan convention is an ‘affective space’”, which structures the convention in three ways: “first, as an imaginative space; second, as a social space; third, as a space of intimacy” (264). These qualities, Lamerichs argues, are produced by the convention’s “media-saturated environment, in which fiction is actualized and memorized, and its social and physical contexts” (270). In the case of ClexaCon, the physical and social context of Las Vegas is significant. The experience of both safe and unsafe spaces for queer people is acutely embodied in the hidden locality of ClexaCon in the heterosexual theme park that is Vegas. While the convention’s “selective visibility” produces a feeling of relative safety within the convention, this feeling is completely stripped away when one leaves the hotel (or even the convention space), as the Las Vegas strip exemplifies how unsafe the rest of the world can feel for queer people.
The unique (in)visibility of ClexaCon allows attendees to experience a sense of “shared intimacy” (Lamerichs 271), which is predicated upon a collective dedication to fiction, and in particular, romantic fiction. Writing about fandom and its relationship to socialization and space, Kaarina Nikunen (2014) suggests that “fan sites can be understood as social spaces that enlarge the local spaces of fandom and exceed the constraints of geography” (5). While ClexaCon is a physical space and does not literally exceed the constraints of geography, its complex relationship with Las Vegas and the distance that many attendees traveled to be there mean that its physical location is both structurally and affectively significant, while in some sense also being inconsequential.
Indeed, rather than being steeped in structure or tradition (in part because it is so new), ClexaCon produces and is produced by the raw emotion and passion of its attendees. In this sense, ClexaCon falls within Hernandez’ (2012) understanding of communitas fandom, which as Yamato (2018) describes, is based on shared experiences and emotions, rather than the ritualist, hierarchical function of structural fandom. Because of ClexaCon’s newness, its contradictory location in Las Vegas, and its emphasis on feelings – both joy and grief – the convention functions on an instinctual and emotional level, rather than a structural one (perhaps to the detriment of its own functionality, as I will discuss later).
In Anne Gilbert’s (2017) chapter on industry presence and marketing at San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC), she writes about how mainstream industry promotion structures events and expectations. Gilbert writes that “this [exclusivity, anticipation] is how fandom is structured at SDCC, conscripting attendees into the promotion of media enterprises, thus implicating them into systems of hype and interpellating fans into an understanding of loyalty as a marketing strategy” (321). In addition, she notes that “at SDCC, fans are hailed as collaborators in efforts to reinforce the value of celebrity and media content” (328). At ClexaCon, fan devotion and the value of media content is measured in a slightly different way. ClexaCon attendees often illustrate their devotion through fan-creations (fan fiction, fan art, fan vids, etc.) rather than through means of mainstream consumption. In addition, rather than screening exclusive, never-before-seen content at panels, each panel began with a fan-made video of the series, film, or relationship that the panel focused on.
Because ClexaCon is likely not seen as a hugely profitable location for mainstream industrial marketing (perhaps erroneously), mainstream industry presence at ClexaCon was minimal. The few production companies that attended the convention, such as Tello films, make and market content specifically for queer women, trans, and non-binary people. Additionally, ClexaCon also hosts a film festival where independent filmmakers can show their films, further distancing the convention from the mainstream television and film industries. However, although these independent artists had a presence at ClexaCon, most people I spoke to exclusively expressed excitement about the mainstream content being celebrated at the convention, rather than expressing a desire to celebrate or discover new, independent content. This is a thread I will begin to unravel later on as I investigate the ways in which ClexaCon does and does not function as a safe space.
“Is Anyone Gay Here?”: Interviews and Observations
ClexaCon: An Overview
Before I dig into the interviews I conducted, I want to provide a brief description of how ClexaCon 2019 functioned. As I mentioned above, the convention took place in the Tropicana Hotel, in a series of rooms and halls near the back of the building. There were a number of people dressed in cosplay at the event, though the majority of attendees were not in cosplay. Despite the convention’s name, I only saw two people dressed as Lexa over the course of three days. According to an attendee I spoke to who had gone all three years, Lexa was the most popular cosplay character the first year, followed by “WayHaught” (a lesbian couple on the series) from Wynonna Earp the second year. By my estimation, the most popular cosplay characters in 2019 seemed to be Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers from the film Captain Marvel (2019), Nicole from Wynona Earp, and Nico (and sometimes Karolina) from Runaways.
The location where I conducted interviews seemed to function as a sort of relaxation space, as people used the couches there to take a break in between panels or other events. In addition, the TV playing fan videos attracted many passersby, as people would see a fan video of their favorite couple or series playing and at times scream in delight (or despair). (See my bonus piece on this phenomenon here). This corner was in the main hall of the convention, which housed the fan-vendors selling or promoting their creative work, as well as the meet-and-greet area for ClexaCon guests.
The largest panel room, where the most popular panels were held, was directly across from the main hall. The other rooms were either around the corner or up an escalator from the main hall. Upstairs there was a gaming room, a quiet room, rooms where photo sessions took place, and, the film festival screening room. There was very minimal security, which struck me and some of the attendees as odd – one attendee told me there were bag checks at last years’ convention. Nonetheless, there didn’t seem to be any interlopers at the convention, and most attendees I spoke to noted that the convention felt very separate from the “outside world.” Many ClexaCon attendees came in pairs or with their significant others, some came with larger groups, some came alone, and some came to meet up with friends from across the country that they’d met through fandom. The hall was at all times filled with noise and energy, as the audio recordings of my interviews can attest, and there was a sense of excitement and joy that permeated throughout the convention. This energy, I believe, is one of the things that caused attendees to be so enthusiastic about speaking to me about my project. It is to these moments of engaging conversation that I will now turn.
In order to get a sense of how ClexaCon attendees thought about queer female fandom, community, space, and the convention itself, I conducted interviews over the course of the three-day event. Almost all of the interviews I conducted were spontaneous, with the exception of two interviewees who I messaged with beforehand on Facebook or Tumblr. My strategy for conducting interviews was born out of my intention to be considerate of attendees’ time and space. Instead of walking up to individuals at the convention and asking for interviews, I chose to stand at a stationary location and hold up a sign indicating my intention to conduct interviews. My sign simply read “Researching queer women – Come talk to me!” I stood with this sign in the corner of the main hall, near the couches, the television playing fan videos, and the blow-up unicorns. Rather than approaching people at the convention who may have been uncomfortable talking to me or tired from the days’ events and needing a quiet break to relax, holding up my sign meant that only people willing to talk to strangers and/or interested in being involved in my research would be asked for an interview. Generally, people would see my sign, come up and ask me about my research, and then I would ask them if they would like to be interviewed. Almost everyone I asked for an interview in this manner said yes.
The questions I asked mainly revolved around the individual’s relationship to ClexaCon, queer female fandom, community, and space in general, and if they thought of ClexaCon specifically as a safe space. Though I had a list of specific questions to begin with, these questions sometimes varied depending on how each conversation went. The interviews generally lasted about five minutes, (the longest of them clocking in at about 16), and were recorded, with the interviewees’ consent, on my phone. The interviews were anonymous, and as such, I did not ask for names, sexual or gender identity, or pronouns. My intention with this decision was to make sure interviewees did not feel pressured to disclose any personal information that they did not wish to disclose to a stranger. However, many interviewees offered up this information without my prompting. As such, if an interviewee disclosed their pronouns to me, I will use that pronoun here, and if not, I will use the pronoun “they” to describe them. From the personal information that was disclosed to me, I can surmise that my interviewees existed along the spectrum of sexuality and gender, including those that identified as lesbian, bisexual, queer, trans, and cis. The only demographic information I did ask for was age, as I was interested in learning more about how different generations viewed these issues of queerness, fandom, and space. As far as I could surmise visually, the majority of my interviewees were white, though some specifically identified themselves to me as people of color. In total, I interviewed 32 people over the course of 21 different interviews. All quotations from people I interviewed are highlighted in red.
Why did you come to ClexaCon?
The first question I asked most people was why did you come to ClexaCon? Many people’s answers to this were similar, though some were very intimate and personal. The most popular answer to this question was that people came to ClexaCon to find or return to community, and/or to celebrate the importance of fandom in their own lives, particularly as it relates to their own queerness. Below are some responses that represent some common sentiments among interviewees.
A: “Well, I’m hella gay” (2A).
A: “I kept coming back because of community” (4A).
A: “For my people!” (17A)
A: “Um, for starters my friend Alyssa invited me – we met at a Hayley Kiyoko concert” (20A).
A: [About going the first year] “I mean there was a lot of shows a lot of lesbian characters died during that spring so it felt like there was a need to like gather together with community […] I was like ‘okay I need to go and be around these people in person and have these conversations’” (21A).
As these responses illustrate, though the particular media objects present at ClexaCon are important to many attendees, it is the relationships and community built around this media that prompted many to attend the convention in the first place. As interviewee 21A describes, this need for community came to a head in 2016 and 2017 when awareness about the Bury Your Gays trope was at its height, spurring the first ClexaCon in 2017.
In addition, some attendees also had very personal relationships with particular media which in turn inspired them to attend ClexaCon. As interviewee 14A, who was a vendor at Clexacon describes:
“So last year was my first year I was an attendee. Um, and it was my, I was only maybe out for a few months, so it was just like kind of an impromptu decision. I loved Supergirl and I knew Chyler Leigh was going, Sanvers was like probably the main reason I came out because their storyline really just like helped me accept myself um, so I thought I just sort of needed this mental break to be surrounded in a like queer safe space, um, and ClexaCon was that for me. And I had such a great time last year that I decided to come back as an artist and vendor” (14A).
As this attendee notes, it was both their relationship with Supergirl and Sanvers (a lesbian couple on the show) and their need for queer community that prompted them to attend, and then return to ClexaCon. Indeed, for many queer people, the connections between community, media, and identity are very strong. We might call this process of community building and self-discovery that interviewee 14A describes as a type of “identity work.” As Dym et. al illustrate, “the process of constructing community narratives, either through writing or other creative works, can be seen as a kind of identity work — that is, a process through which people engage in “forming, repairing, maintaining, or strengthening… their identities ” (4). In this sense, a passion for popular media and fandom, as well as a focus on creativity and community building, makes ClexaCon a uniquely useful space for this type of identity recovery work. The powerful personal and emotional effect of such community-driven spaces may point to one reason why so many people have traveled many miles and spent hundreds of dollars to attend an event like ClexaCon.
Is ClexaCon a Safe Space For Queer Women?
The next question I usually asked interviewees was Is ClexaCon a safe space for queer women? The most common answer to this question was an emphatic yes, with no qualifications. Below are some examples of these answers:
A: “I have never felt safer in my life” (5B)
A: “It’s like you walk through the world and you have to wear a mask to breathe because the air was made for straight white men, and you know you come here and you can take off the mask and you can breathe the air because we’re all – you know” (15A)
A: “It’s cool to be in an area where I feel safe, 100% safe, walking around, holding her hand, just being myself.” (2B)
A: “Yeah we can’t do this at home. Yeah we get, even here we’ve gotten extreme dirty looks”. (2A) “Yeah like at other casinos.” (2B)
Many people I interviewed highlighted how ClexaCon felt like a space that was completely free from judgment because everyone in attendance was assumed to be queer. As interviewee 15A notes, they felt a sense of extreme relief – that of being able to breathe freely for the first time – because of the exclusively queer atmosphere created at ClexaCon. Indeed, the differences between ClexaCon and the “outside world” were made even more striking because of its location on The Strip. A number of couples at ClexaCon told me they did not feel comfortable holding hands outside of the convention, and as interviewees 2A and 2B note, even at other casinos nearby they did not feel safe. This dichotomy between inside/outside was very apparent to me as well, as the experience of leaving the convention and entering Las Vegas – wearing the ClexaCon badge and what may potentially be read as “gay” clothing – remained an alarming encounter each time. For many attendees, myself included, this polarity further emphasized the ways in which ClexaCon felt like a safe space.
Despite these emphatically positive answers, not everyone I spoke to answered this question without qualifications. Those that answered this question with more reservations often highlighted critiques about the ClexaCon’s relationship to other matrices of identity such as race, gender, and ability. I have highlighted some of these answers below.
A: “I would conceptualize it as a safer space” (4A)
A: “Yes in the sense that, you know, we are surrounded by people who have something in common with us, but um, it is a little different for queer women of color, um. And you know, sometimes you’re not always um, the person that is catered to.” (10A)
A: “Queer women, collectively, yes, I feel like there are some problems of inclusivity that are a factor in terms of other intersections of identity as they align with queerness like the issue with it taking so long to have a disability, accessibility policy”, (17A)
A: “Um, I think that people who are queer and might want to feel welcome within the space when it describes itself as queer women and allies that kind of leaves things like trans and non-binary people in sort of an odd space within that.” (17A)
A: [Queer women of color might feel isolated being that Clexacon] “tends to celebrate I think someone said ‘the hot white femme ladies’” (17A)
As these individuals highlight, while ClexaCon is often understood as a safe space for queer women as a broad category, once you get more specific about, as interviewee 17A put it, “other intersections of identity as they align with queerness,” this categorization becomes more complex. Many of these issues are structural. As interviewee 17A notes, there was some delay/confusion about the disability and accessibility policy, and the description of ClexaCon as a space for “LGBTQ women and allies” may leave trans or non-binary people feeling left out. In addition, many of the television series celebrated at ClexaCon star white actors, which further solidifies the association between queerness and whiteness, rather than highlighting the experiences and interests of QPOC. (Of course, this particular problem is much bigger than ClexaCon itself, and is an issue with queer female fandom more broadly, as well as the mainstream television and film industries).
While only a few people brought up these critiques with me personally, further critiques were lobbied at ClexaCon on Twitter, using the hashtag #Clexapoclypse. Many of the critiques discussed using this hashtag were about issues that vendors had – specifically about how the artist alley (where they sold their work) was not properly advertised, how they were not able to make enough money to cover the cost of their tables, as well as a general critique of how they were treated by convention staff. This was not an issue that came up in my interviews, likely because most of the people I interviewed were not vendors themselves. In addition, some critiques made using this hashtag focused on a need for more inclusivity regarding people of color, trans and non-binary people, and disabled people. Some of these critiques focused on the diversity (or lack thereof) of ClexaCon guests, which illustrates the point that interviewee 10A made about who the convention caters to.
Part of this issue with diversity and inclusivity may be a result of ClexaCon’s focus on mainstream, rather than independent content. While there was a film festival and spaces for independent creators to showcase their content, almost everyone I spoke to (apart from the people there specifically to show their own films) expressed a nearly exclusive interest in the most popular fandoms celebrated at the convention. This focus on mainstream content also means that the media celebrated at ClexaCon is predominantly white and cisgender – reflecting the norms of the broader television industry. Perhaps, a more concerted effort to highlight more independent content would be a way to begin to tackle this issue of diversity. While this type of representation may not be an issue of physical safety for ClexaCon attendees, it is an issue of inclusion, which affects the emotional, personal, and interpersonal experience QPOC might have at the convention.
Have you found other spaces that feel safe for queer women?
As a follow-up to my previous question about safe spaces, I wanted to know if attendees had found other spaces that felt safe for them as queer women or queer people. As I discussed in Chapter 1, there is a common perception that lesbian or queer female spaces have gone extinct, and I was interested to see if ClexaCon attendees had experienced this themselves. As I suspected, the most common answer to this question was fairly simple – no. However, some people qualified this answer by discussing spaces that were not necessarily queer-only spaces, but that felt safe nonetheless. Several interviewees discussed other conventions that acted as safe spaces for them, such as DragonCon and TGIFemslash. Others noted particular online fan communities or group chats they were in with fans from across the world. Interviewee 32A noted that there are “pockets” of Twitter and Tumblr can feel like safe spaces, but also qualified this by saying that these spaces can be difficult to define because “there’s not like a main flagship location that is like ‘this one place! go here!’ that is a safe place.” This same interviewee also discussed AfterEllen as somewhere that used to be a safe space, as well as Autostraddle, which now remains one of the only (inclusive) sites for queer women’s entertainment. In this vein, one person I spoke to, interviewee 5D, told me: “I would say ClexaCon is like the real-life version of what I have online.” Thus, instead of acting as a nebulous, potentially safe space with no borders or stability – as interviewee 32A described – ClexaCon is (for the time being) a permanent, physical, well-defined space where the relationships and communities that have flourished online are strengthened and revisited in a new environment.
There were a few other answers to this question – one interviewee suggested college as a place that felt momentarily safe for them, while another brought up lesbian musician Brandi Carlile’s music festival (perhaps a throwback to the festivals I discuss in Chapter 1). Indeed, the continuing importance of music among queer women came up several times in interviews, and it is something I have continued to think about as I work on this project. Speaking to several people in line for the Runaways panel one morning, we all noted that the only other place we had felt safe in this way was at a Hayley Kiyoko concert (which of course, we had all attended at some point). In fact, several people I spoke to at ClexaCon said they had initially met at a Hayley Kiyoko concert, including one pair I met who were now dating. Thus, while women’s music festivals do not exist on the scale they once did, there are a small number of queer female musicians – namely Kiyoko and King Princess – who make space at their concerts for the type of freedom that many ClexaCon attendees felt. (Read my bonus piece about Hayley Kiyoko’s Expectations here).
Nonetheless, most people I spoke to noted that spaces that are safe for queer women were few and far between, and no one I spoke to mentioned lesbian bars or feminist bookstores as places that might serve this function. Indeed, on interviewee – who was only there to support her wife and didn’t even have a badge – got so emotional when I asked her about safe spaces that she started crying while speaking about how she rarely feels completely safe at home or at her workplace. While being at ClexaCon was an exciting and joyful experience for many, it also became an emotional space because of the ways in which it so starkly revealed the lack of freedom or safety attendees felt elsewhere. In this sense, we can conceptualize safety as both a structural and an emotional construct, though of course the two frames influence one another.
Why have so many queer women found community through fandom? What is unique about queer female fandom?
As indicated above, many attendees at ClexaCon suggested to me that fandom, and specifically fandom that centered on queer women, was one of the only places where they were able to find a sense of safety and community. Thus, I was interested to hear from attendees about why they believe this to be the case, and what about queer female fandom they felt was unique. In regards to this first question, interviewees had many very insightful answers. Below are some such responses.
A: “So we just sort of form little groups where we tell each other our stories, and that’s sort of very affirming and important” (11B).
A: “Fandom’s like kind of this weird bubble of people that sort of understand that a character isn’t just a character, it’s like representative of your own experiences and um, how you feel” (14A).
A: “I think it’s a shorthand to talk to each other” (20A).
As several attendees I spoke to mentioned, fandom often gives queer people a sense of affirmation and comfort, both because of the stories being told in media and the ways in which fandom celebrates the importance of such media. In addition, as interviewee 20A notes, fandom can act as “shorthand” and be a conversation starter for queer women, a particularly important function given the prevalence of social anxiety within the queer community. Indeed, participation in fandom or a shared familiarity with media can not only act as a common language, but also as a potentially safe(r) entry point for discussing queerness. For example, two women might come to an understanding that they are both queer by discovering that they have both watched Wynona Earp or, more obviously, The L Word. These qualities – comfort, affirmation, and the emergence of a shared language – are the aspects of fandom that the ClexaCon attendees I spoke to found most essential.
In regards to the second question, what is unique about queer female fandom, many people I spoke to had similar answers. The most common answer to this question was that because media depicting queer women can be difficult to find, fans are very dedicated to their chosen media once they have found it. Indeed, as several interviewees told me, because queer women have to so often fight to be heard in online spaces, there is a particular type of intensity that comes with these fandoms. Below are several answers that represent some common sentiments among fans that I spoke to.
A: “I would say the ferocity of it is pretty intense. I would equate it to like football and like how intense people get, and like how intense people get with their sports” (13A).
A: “We hang onto it harder” (15A).
A: “I think we’re very migratory” (17A).
A: “I feel the thing that makes these fandoms different is that we don’t get spotlights the same way” (6A).
A: “Sometimes you’ll watch something because it’s good, and sometimes you’ll just watch something because its gay” (18A).
These responses illustrate the ways in which the emotional, and as one fan put it seemingly “aggressive” nature of queer female fandom is tied up in the continued scarcity of queer representation in popular media. As a result of this, as interviewee 17A put it, queer female fans are often “migratory,” hopping from one media object to the next not because of any shared generic or textual conventions between the media, but for the promise of at least a moment of queer intimacy on screen. (As interviewee 18A notes, the quality of such media is not always guaranteed). These practices make queer female fandom a unique community of people, comprised of fans looking for not only entertainment, but for representation, catharsis, community, and safety.
The last topic I want to focus on is not a specific question I asked interviewees, but rather a theme I hoped to tease out among my interviews and observations, and among each of these chapters. One of the things I am most interested in exploring with this project is the perceived or actual differences among generations of queer women, particularly in relation to community, space, and fandom. Luckily for me (and to my surprise), there were a number of women in attendance who were several decades my senior who were willing to speak to me about this topic. The most valuable resource I found were two women in their 60s and 70s, who had been together for 40 years. In our 16-minute long interview (which included very little talking on my part), we discussed how ClexaCon is both different and similar to the spaces they had in the 70s and 80s, and how they view queer culture today. Below are some excerpts from that interview. (You can find the full interview here).
A: “Well, we were saying that, um, there seems to be a difference in the cohesiveness of the queer community now as opposed to what it was back when we were coming out” (7A).
A: “And actually, we actually described to friends that when we’re going to ClexaCon, we said it’s kind of like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival without the music. You know, so this is kind of taken a place because we don’t have that as much anymore” (7B).
A: “Every generation has to find its own identifying charms and just define for themselves what they think is most important. There’s just a lot of things that just don’t resonate the same way because we have different experiences, you know” (7B).
I was particularly amazed by their comparison between ClexaCon and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, a connection I was thinking about as I began this project but had not yet put into words. Throughout our interview, I sensed no resentment from them about what had been lost, but instead found they had an interest in younger queer women, and even a sense of pride of how queer women today have found their own ways to create community. Indeed, these women specifically told me how impressed they were by the organizing that followed Lexa’s death, as they implicitly knew the importance of media representation, noting that one of the few lesbian films they had for many years was The Children’s Hour (1961), which includes the oft-repeated theme of women being punished for their lesbianism. As Lexa’s death was the original impetus for the convention’s formation, this understanding about media representation was shared among everyone I spoke to.
Despite the lack of communication between generations, the older women I spoke to noted that they still saw connections among what they had gone through as young people and what young queer people are experiencing today. One woman I spoke to, a 52-year old lesbian who had attended ClexaCon on her own, articulated her thoughts about these connections in this way:
A: “When it happened to Tara, there’s people like in my generation that are like, WTF? and then like now it’s like, this is happening again. And then like, I think that created generations, bonds across generations, because for a lot of the younger folks, it’s like, this is the first time, they know about what happened with Tara, but they weren’t there when it happened right? And so it’s like, it’s happening to them, and we’re like ‘oh yeah, we know about that’” (8A).
Indeed, Tara – a lesbian character on Buffy The Vampire Slayer who was killed in a manner eerily similar to Lexa – remains an important figure within queer female fandom that connects women across generations. In fact, the most multigenerational panel I attended was the Amber Benson panel (Amber Benson is the actress who played Tara). At one point the panel moderator Dana Piccoli asked the audience, how many people in this room have had their lives affected by Buffy? Everyone in the room raised their hands. Next, she asked how many people first saw themselves in Tara? Again, every person in the room raised their hands. (It was at this point in the panel that Amber started to cry for at least the second time).
This moment illustrates how the content that was so important to older generations – like Buffy and Xena: Warrior Princess – is still important and a part of the cultural lexicon today, which means there are still interests we share among generations. While much of the initial work surrounding Lexa’s death was done by young people, the grief that spurred this action is in no way foreign to older queer people, who experienced moments like these before the internet was what it is today. Indeed, we might even consider the ways in which affect and emotion can travel across and through generations of queer people, despite the distance we often perceive between us.
Conclusion: Safety, Community, and History
I began this chapter with a discussion of safe spaces – the relevant literature on the topic, their historical resonances, and how this concept functions in a place like ClexaCon. Now is the time we might reflect on what we’ve learned from this discussion. First, let’s consider the question I asked throughout this chapter: is this is a safe space? While this question elicited passionate, thoughtful, and nuanced responses from my interviewees, perhaps a different question might better uncover the complexities of this topic. What if, instead of asking is this is a safe space, we asked for whom is this space safe? This way, the answer to this question is not simply “yes” or “no,” and instead encourages reflection on the part of the respondent. Indeed, the answer to this question may be affected by numerous characteristics of the space – the physical space itself, organizational strategies, infrastructure, services, inhabitants/attendees, among other aspects.
Of course, I did not ask my interviewees this more nuanced (but also slightly leading) question and instead asked them the “simpler” one. As I illustrated above, the majority of respondents answered this question emphatically in the affirmative. Nonetheless, many respondents also answered this question with important disclaimers – yes but, almost, sometimes. The relative safety of ClexaCon for its attendees is influenced by several factors, such as:
- Who is being catered to? (White women, queer women, trans & non-binary people, etc.)
- How do event organizers respond to feedback/criticism? (Regarding things like the disability policy or other issues of access. Here we might again look at the critiques leveled through the #Clexapoclypse conversation)
- What language is being used? (The description of the event “for LGBTQ women and allies” structures a sense of who belongs at the convention)
- What media content is highlighted? (As I mentioned earlier, many people come to ClexaCon for the mainstream media content, which is more likely to feature white, feminine, and cisgender characters than independent queer content is).
Additionally, some characteristics that factor into this sense of safety are more ephemeral than structural. As Dym et al. illustrate in their work, identity-focused spaces such as ClexaCon allow attendees to safely inhabit their identities, find mentorship and friendship, create community bonds, and process their identity-based traumas. The sense of safety these processes generate are primarily influenced by the inhabitants of a space rather than it’s structure. Nonetheless, all of these characteristics of a space, whether they be structural or circumstantial, affect the experience of being in a space and whether or not it feels safe for each inhabitant. At ClexaCon, each individual’s sense of safety within the space was influenced by their unique needs, perspective, and experience in the so-called “outside” world.
In addition to safe spaces, my other topic of inquiry within this chapter is the current state of queer female fandom, media, community, and the connections therein. I gained several significant insights into this topic. One of the things that came up again and again in this project was the importance of intense emotion within the creation and maintenance of fandom and community. Moreover, it is not simply the existence of strong emotion that is a significant aspect of community building, but rather the moment(s) of experiencing emotion communally that produce such bonds. This process exists across time and space – at the women’s musical festivals of the 1970s, within the lesbian fandoms on YouTube, and of course, at ClexaCon.
For many queer women involved in fandom, these intense, communal emotions are often tinged with grief or sadness. Indeed, it was the death of a beloved fictional lesbian, Lexa, that led to the creation of ClexaCon. Lexa’s death, and the death of other characters like her, continue to haunt queer female media and fandom today, as the threat of queer death or disappearance continues to shadow queer representations. This is one of the reasons why, as one of my interviewees put it, queer female fans are often very “migratory,” jumping from one media object to the next, hunting for media that will not eventually end in disappointment. This detail illustrates one of the characteristics of queer female fandom that I have been highlighting throughout – that this fandom is less invested in a singular media object, and more invested in an identity, a sensibility, and a community. As many of my respondents suggested, involvement in this fandom not only gives them enjoyment, but also a sense of safety, affirmation, and a shorthand with which to talk to one another.
These experiences are not unique to young queer women, of course. As two of my interviewees noted, in some ways ClexaCon is today’s version of women’s music festivals, which no longer exist in the same ways they used to. Indeed, it seems that an intense, emotional orientation towards something is a characteristic of queer female community that has existed across time. This something is very often media, albeit in different forms and in very different contexts. In addition, some media objects – such as Xena, Buffy, Bound (1996), or Desert Hearts (1986) – have remained central to queer female fandom and community, illustrating that such objects give meaning to fans of all ages, perhaps creating a common language across generations. As my research has illustrated, there may be more connections between ostensibly disparate generations of queer women than we might think.
ClexaCon also harkens back to queer and lesbian spaces of the past in that it is a physical, rather than an exclusively online space. This produces a different experience of being in the space than what I described of YouTube fandoms in Chapter 2. For ClexaCon attendees, seeing that these people and communities that they have only interacted with online are truly real is an invigorating encounter, and one that affirms one’s sense of identity and the spaces they can occupy in the world. Indeed, harkening back to my previous point about communal emotions, the experience of attending ClexaCon rather than experiencing or watching media “together” in an online context is an intensely emotional experience that reveals the depth of our connection to this media and to one another.
While it would be difficult to argue that ClexaCon is an entirely safe space – perhaps because no space truly is – I hope this chapter can give us a sense of how we might think and talk about issues of safety, community, and space. Indeed, I hope this chapter can start a conversation about the reasons we still need spaces that are safe and affirming for queer people and queer women in particular, but also some of the traps we fall into when structuring that safety – namely the marginality or exclusion that trans and non-binary people, people of color, and disabled people often experience in these spaces. ClexaCon, as a unique physical space for queer women, makes visible precisely these issues, and will likely continue to instigate the conversations about community, identity, and inclusion that have been circulating for decades.