When I first set out to work on this project, I had several questions in mind. First, I wanted to know how we might conceptualize the community I call “queer female fandom.” Where is this community located? What media texts does this fandom center on? How do we define this fandom in terms of space? In regard to this question of space, I was interested in exploring the different community formations and social interactions that occur in online spaces as well as physical ones. This is how I came up with the ideas for Chapters 2 and 3, which look at YouTube fandom and the fan convention ClexaCon, respectively. In addition, the thread I wanted to consider throughout all of this is how these phenomena have resonances across time. I wrote Chapter 1, which focuses on lesbian fandom and space throughout the 20th century, as a way to illustrate the connections and dissonances between queer female space and community from then to now. Throughout these chapters, I demonstrated where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we might be headed in the future. In this vein, I questioned the notion that spaces like ClexaCon are truly safe for everyone, and I challenge readers to continue this discussion about how we might work to more productively mobilize the concept of safe spaces in the future. 

Overview: What Did We Learn?

In Chapter 1, I discussed lesbian pulp novels, lesbian bars, feminist bookstores, and women’s music festivals. In this chapter, we learned about the importance of physicality in the creation of lesbian community. Even lesbian pulp novels, which were not specifically connected to physical spaces, gave lesbians the tools to find one another as they congregated at the lesbian-centric spaces described in the books. One of the reasons lesbians in the previous century found these spaces so significant and transformative was because of the ways in which they encouraged experiences of communal emotion. Importantly, these emotional experiences were often predicated on the centrality of media – in particular music and literature – in these spaces.  The importance of these media-focused feelings is one of the threads we can connect from queer women’s cultural practices of the 20th century to those of today. 

The lesbian-centric spaces I discuss in this chapter also connect to the issue of safe spaces I investigated in regards to ClexaCon. The safety of these 20th-century spaces was often seen to be predicated on their exclusivity, which had consequences in terms of inclusion, namely in regards to race and gender identity. Indeed, many early lesbian bars were segregated (both by class and race), and several women’s music festivals were embroiled in controversy over their trans-exclusionary policies. While queer female spaces inhabited by young people today are generally understood to be more open to gender and racial diversity, these issues are have not completely disappeared, as I illustrated in Chapter 3. With spaces that focus on a single aspect of identity – such as queerness – other facets of queer people’s identities sometimes get overlooked, ignored, or excluded entirely from the conversation. This can lead to an unfortunate situation where the needs of people of color, disabled people, and trans people are unattended to, as queerness (as it is defined apart rather than in conjunction with from these other identities) is centered within these spaces. These issues, which are both definitional and structural, have been present in queer communities of the past as well as those of today. 

In Chapter 2 I discussed queer female fandom on YouTube, specifically in relation to two prominent real-life lesbian couples on the site. In this chapter, I illustrated the importance of cultural literacy in the creation and maintenance of queer female fandom. By this I mean the idea that having a particular type of knowledge about media that is important to queer women will allow you to access and understand this community in ways that you likely not be able to without such knowledge. This idea highlights the fact that queer female fandom is often highly intertextual, meaning that it spans through and across various media objects. As such, the extent of this fandom is often invisible to those outside the community who do not have this type of cultural literacy. (See my “multifandom” music video about queer female fandom here). The “selective visibility” (Dym et. al) of this fandom allows fans to feel safe expressing whatever intense and/or intimate emotions this media brings up without (significant) fear of judgment. This is important in regards to the lesbian couples on YouTube that I discuss in this chapter, as their breakups elicited very intense, grief-filled reactions from fans, which thus illustrates the investment many fans had in their relationship. The communal experience of grief is also central to the emergence of ClexaCon, which was created as a response to the death of an extremely popular lesbian character named Lexa on the CW series The 100 (2014 – Present). 

In Chapter 3 I did an ethnography of the fan convention ClexaCon, focusing on how the event does and does not function as a safe space and investigating its place within a lineage of queer female cultural production. In this chapter I discussed the significance of ClexaCon as a physical space, and how for many attendees seeing this community embodied in “real life” produced powerful and emotional responses. I also investigated the generational resonances and dissonances that emerged within this convention, in particular focusing on a conversation I had with an older couple who explicitly compared ClexaCon to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I concluded this chapter with a discussion of some of the factors that go into producing a space such as ClexaCon as safe or not, such as the geographical/physical nature of the space, who is being catered to, the language that is used, and the particular media that is being highlighted. Many of these characteristics were brought up by people I interviewed, some of whom questioned whether or not ClexaCon was truly a safe space in an intersectional sense (ie. considering other factors in conjunction with queerness, such as race and ability). 

Taken together, these chapters reveal some interesting characteristics of queer female fandom, community, and the complexities of safe spaces that I believe warrant continued discussion. All of these chapters illustrated the importance of safety for queer women not only in terms of physical safety, but also as it affects one’s ability to safely express emotions. In the 1970s lesbians felt this safety expressing their musical or literary passions at a women’s music festival or a feminist bookstore, while in the 2010s some queer women express their queer feelings in the comments section of lesbian YouTube videos. At ClexaCon, many people spoke to me about the freedom they felt in being able to express themselves fully, with all of the uninhibited enthusiasm and emotionality that entails. Indeed, I have illustrated with this project the importance of intense feelings – both joy and grief – in the production and maintenance of queer female fandom, and I hope we can continue to think of ways we might mobilize these emotions in productive/disruptive ways in the future. (I’m thinking here of the activism done in the wake of Lexa’s death and the discussion surrounding the Bury Your Gays Trope). 

I have engaged with the idea of cultural literacy throughout this project by illustrating the importance of a shared vocabulary among queer women across time and space. While the world (or at least the United States) is generally understood (rightly or wrongly) to be safer for LGBTQ people now than it has been before, this shared language and cultural literacy is essential as a means for safely making connections with other queer people, both in online and offline spaces. Indeed, one of the most unique aspects of queer female fandom is its intertextuality and the numerous media texts that comprise this language of queerness in pop culture. This expansiveness is often not captured or understood by society at large, which is one of the reasons why queer female fandom continues to feel like an intimate and niche space, but also why we often feel left out of the conversation. This project then serves as a means to give these cultural forms the time and space that they deserve. 

Discussions for the Future: Disappearance, Inclusion, Visibility

One of the concepts I discussed in this project that I believe deserves further consideration is the notion of disappearance. Oftentimes, the narrative of lesbian space is centered around this concept. This may be factually correct in terms of the dwindling number of lesbian or female-centric spaces, but I also want to consider some of the troubling connections that are sometimes made between this notion of disappearance and that of an increased inclusivity within queer spaces. Some have argued (I’m thinking here of Bonnie J. Morris in her book The Disappearing L (2016), which I discuss in Chapter 1) that the disappearance of lesbian space is largely caused by the expansion of the notion of queerness, namely as it relates to the inclusion of trans women and trans people within these spaces. I wholeheartedly reject this argument, and I hope that we can continue to discuss the need for safe spaces without vilifying the groups who have (very rightly) criticized the exclusivity of such spaces. Indeed, I think there is a way we can continue to center lesbians, bisexual and queer women, and trans & non-binary people in our constructions of space and community without losing sight of what makes these spaces unique in the first place. (Here we might think of the dating app Lex, which centers queer women and trans & non-binary people in its historicized construction). 

In addition, there is a seemingly contradictory progression of the disappearance of lesbian space with a simultaneous increase in lesbian visibility within pop culture. While the wildly popular series The L Word (Showtime, 2004-2009) was rebooted in 2019 because of its continued popularity and supposed relevance, the cultural spaces that the characters inhabited in the original series for the most part no longer exist. (In fact, this disappearance became a plot point in the reboot). Perhaps these divergent trajectories exist because this (slightly) increased lesbian visibility has caused people to think lesbian spaces are no longer needed. However, this logic falls apart when you consider that the increasing visibility of gay men in media has not decreased the popularity of gay male spaces, and in fact has done the exact opposite. (Though of course, this trend comes with its own issues of commercialization and fetishization). Indeed, an increase in visibility does not necessarily mean that queer people are more likely to be accepted by their family and friends, or less likely to experience violence, homelessness, or poverty. As the popularity of spaces such as ClexaCon indicates, these safe spaces are still needed and desired by queer people and exist both despite and because of this increased media visibility. 

I hope this project will continue to encourage discussion about these questions of space, inclusion and pop culture, for which there are no clear-cut answers. The concept of “safe spaces” remains a complex and contested topic, and this project investigated some of these complexities throughout. With this thesis I illuminated these issues as they exist across time and space, drawing attention to the histories that often elicit both commemoration and critique. As such, it is my desire that the discussions I evoked in this project will not end here, but instead will continue to spark questions, considerations, and celebrations. As José Esteban Muñoz writes in his book Cruising Utopia, “queerness should and could be about a desire for another way of being in both the world and time, a desire that resists mandates to accept that which is not enough” (96). It is my hope that while remembering and keeping alive the past, we can also resist the complacency of which Muñoz speaks and create the safe and expansive futures that we know can exist.