“Vegas is what would happen if Axe body spray became sentient.” – my lovely wife
She made this astute remark as we left Caesar’s Palace, where we enjoyed brunch at the aptly named Bacchanal Buffet, our last meal in Vegas before flying out from our trip to attend ClexaCon.
As it happens, the lobby at Caesar’s smells exactly like Axe Body spray. Just outside the hotel, you can see a garish, presidentially named tower looming over the Vegas strip. Although undeniably fun by just about any standards, Vegas exudes douchery out every crevice of every carefully maintained faux-marble facade. Seemingly an unlikely place for the one of the very first all-media, multi-fandom conventions for/by/about queer women and their allies, a space to focus attention on matters of inclusiveness and intersectionality in TV, comics, and beyond. And yet, that’s exactly what happened this past weekend. And it went swimmingly.
A year ago, I never would have imagined this con existing at all. A year ago, I was still reeling from Lexa’s death on CW TV’s now-dwindling show The 100.
If you’re reading this, you probably know the details, but in case you don’t, here’s a summary: a fan favorite was killed, but not just any favorite. She was a lesbian. Many young – and not-so-young – queer viewers looked up to her. For some folks who were closeted or just coming out, many just kids living in families or other environments where being LGBTQ isn’t accepted, she was an actual lifeline. The show’s executives had touted The 100 as progressive and cool, as worthy of the praise the show had received from the LGBTQ community for hinting that the main pairing would be a same-sex couple.
However, in truth, and regardless of what showrunner Jason Rothenberg might have claimed later, the show fell into the tired, decades-old “bury your gays” trope of killing off a queer character in a trite, vicious manner. In this case they did so just seconds of screen time after Lexa made love with female lead Clarke, after the show spent months building up the potential relationship. Fans reacted. In an unprecedented manner. Many more deaths of lesbian and bi women characters followed on other shows in 2016 – most notably Poussey on Orange is the New Black – and because of the noise fans made, the mainstream media noticed, continually, for months. Lexa became the poster girl for this publicity because of the initial furor her death sparked. LGBTQ fans’ legitimate concerns were validated by qualified TV experts and groups like GLAAD. A movement formed in the wake of Lexa’s death. ClexaCon developed out of this movement.
Through a strange series of events to be detailed in “My Very Queer Year, Part 2,” I was invited to appear on the program. A few more opportunities to contribute to the con came along, and the next thing I knew I would be on the “Ethics in Storytelling” panel, offering a so-called “master class” on the history of the “Bury Your Gays” trope and how we as fans can help subvert it, and then I was called on to help moderate two subsequent panels, “Why Representation Matters” and “Allies in the Media.” I also agreed to show up at a panelist lunch, which I later found out meant people were supposed to pay to eat lunch with me, a virtual nobody. As an academic who just survived the rigors of the tenure track, I have a hard time saying “no” to requests, so I said “yes” to all of this. Because why not? In the case of ClexaCon (CC), I have zero regrets.
In the initial planning stages, it seemed like CC would pan out as some kind of meet-up of maybe a few hundred Lexa fans. Yet when word got around that it would indeed become “a thing,” interest soared, and it blossomed from a single-fandom meet-up to a fully-fledged, multi-fandom media convention by, for, and about queer women (primarily, though all-gender/sexuality-inclusive), with a significant proportion of panels focusing on or prominently featuring discussion of important areas of intersectionality within the queer experience. Soon, headliner guests who have played lesbian or bisexual characters on television started to confirm. Do shows like Person of Interest, Wynonna Earp, All My Children, Carmilla, and Lost Girl ring a bell? I’ve never been much of a fangirl or autograph hound, but the idea of meeting other fans seemed fun, and I’m certainly not opposed to being in the same room with a bunch of beautiful stars.
As it turns out, CC proved to be more than just an extra-fun speaking gig, a chance to meet some of my Twitter peeps in real life, and to see my lovely Wynonna Earp ladies. Yes, all those things happened, but it was far bigger than that. So here are my impressions in more or less chronological order (and please note that this is non-exhaustive – sorry, I tried).
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I was filled with nervous energy before the thing started. Even on the plane on the way there, Mrs. Prof (this is what Twitter has named her) had to calm me down several times. I couldn’t help smiling at the various women in fan gear as we ran into them in the Bally’s lobby when we finally got to the hotel.
The con registration party at The Phoenix was, as the kids say, “lit.” A bunch of my Twitter pals, many the age of my students or not much older, immediately recognized me thanks to my glasses and bow tie… and they all insisted on getting pictures with me, hugging me, and I got to talk to some of them. They were so sweet, it almost made me cry. And I’m not gonna lie here. I also felt a little like a rock star, getting recognized and all. The bar was wall to wall LGBTQ folks, mostly women, and I swear I hadn’t seen that many queer ladies gathered in one spot under one roof ever – except maaaaybe at an Indigo Girls concert, but that’s debatable. Even crammed into this packed space, it felt like home.
Finally on Friday, as the minutes ticked down to the con’s opening, the further you ventured down the hall into Bally’s convention area, the gayer it got. Excitement buzzed in the air. I talked to several people as we waited together. This feeling of, “Yeah, we get it too” stood between the lines of every interaction. I have that feeling at every fandom event I go to – fans just get other fans. But to be a queer fan among other queer fans is another level of “getting it” entirely, exponentially deeper, fractally more fundamental.
The tribute video at the Lexa’s Legacy panel nearly left me a blubbering mess, had it not been immediately followed by Alexia Prichard’s preview of her documentary Clexa is Ours. It will highlight, among other things, the very real grief and anxiety that marginalized communities experience due to negative or nonexistent representation onscreen.
My first panel, Ethics in Storytelling with Heather Hogan from Autostraddle and Gretchen Ellis from The Fandomentals, dealt with the responsibility that TV showrunners and writers have in terms of realistic, ethical representation of minority communities in their work. I was able to draw on some historical conceptions of “the artist” to talk about how TV is an inherently collaborative medium, which lends itself to a feminist, non-hierarchal approach to creating art, as opposed to the Renaissance-influenced, single-artist, heroic-divine “creator” mode in which many show runners appear to see themselves. We all agreed that Netflix’s wonderfully delightful, yet socially aware One Day at a Time update fully demonstrates the power of a diverse, collaborative writers’ room. (And if you’re reading this, Mike and Gloria, I stand by Mo Ryan’s insistence that you should come to the next ClexaCon and would like to add that we’d love to see Justina and Isabella there as well!)
The WayHaught panel featuring Wynonna Earp actresses Kat Barrell (Officer Nicole Haught), Dominique Provost-Chalkley (Waverly Earp), and EP/showrunner Emily Andras and moderated by TV Junkies Managing Editor Bridget Liszewski was a treat. We learned that Wynonna Earp’s first season will be released on Netflix in May, and we got a few tantalizing hints about the upcoming second season. It seems it will get “gayer,” and we’ll learn some of Nicole Haught’s backstory. Waverly will be “all over the place,” whatever that means. I’m scared. Don’t know about you.
Saturday for me was mostly nerves until I presented my class/workshop on the history of the Bury Your Gays trope, “Where Do We Go from Here?” I’m so happy that @Clexa_DK recorded it, so you can watch it here. Apparently I talk with my hands a lot and look incredibly gay(er than I realized, dang). I had a couple of tech failures and ended up speaking with no mic. But what is life as a prof without tech failures? I had backups for my backups in case that happened. I think it actually worked out better as a low-tech conversational style lecture. My favorite thing anybody said afterwards was at the club party Saturday night when an attendee came up to me and yelled over the music, “Your lecture today was dope, dude!” If only my own students thought I was halfway as “dope” as that attendee, my job would be so much easier.
Honestly, everything that wasn’t my talk on Saturday is a real blur. My schedule was so packed. We had breakfast at a place called Eggslut in the Cosmopolitan with Kate Kulzick and Noel Kirkpatrick from The Televerse podcast. Then I worked on some panel prep. The next thing I knew it was time for the “Meet the Panelists” lunch. I only got one taker even after I promised Twitter they’d get a lap dance. I mean, to be honest, paying to eat lunch with me? They should get something for that. Honestly, I would probably buy lunch for anyone who wanted it, for no reason. Dear, sweet, Teresa, my one lunch taker, declined the lap dance. We had a nice conversation instead.
After all the panels and things, I went to the Cocktails for Change event, a charity party where I got to meet some of the fancies. Namely, I got to meet Dominique and Kat from Wynonna Earp and Sarah Shahi from Person of Interest. I know everybody says this when they meet stars, but they were surprisingly so normal. Just really nice, smart people who were incredibly easy to talk to. I only talked to Sarah briefly. She introduced herself (as if!), just saying, “Hi, I’m Sarah.” We chatted for a few minutes. Kat Barrell was just lovely. I spoke with her for about five minutes. I told her about how much I appreciated her performance on the show, how she brought the right amount of bravado to Officer Haught, without ever playing her as overbearing or intrusive. We chatted a little about how she developed the character. I somehow didn’t pass out. She’s very tall, in my short-person estimation.
Okay, and again, I swear I’ve never “fangirled” in my life, but Dominique Provost-Chalkley deserves her own paragraph. I actually considered myself slightly more of a fan of Haught than Waverly, but I also wanted to tell Dominique how much I appreciated the sensitively portrayed self-discovery arc she brought to the table over the course of the season. What ensued was some kind of magical, charmed interaction in which she hypnotized me… or something. She’s the sort of person who looks deeply into your eyes when she talks to you, listens very carefully, like you’re the only person in the room. She smiles a lot, touches you when she’s talking to you. It’s exactly like flirting. I heard from others who had a similar experience. But when you’re the one talking to her, you feel singularly appreciated, listened-to, spoken-to. She’s also very insightful and smart. She talked about how getting to play Waverly and getting to connect to the LGBTQ community has been such a gift for her. At one point she looked like she might get a little choked up. And then I thought I might. She has some kind of magical powers. So basically for those several minutes I legit, 100% fell in love with her. She touched my elbow. Holy crap I felt like I was on drugs. My friend told me I looked weirdly flushed afterwards. I had confess it all to my wife later. Mrs. Prof laughed at me, and her only remark was, “You know what side your bread is buttered on.”
The club party in the Havana Room at the Tropicana will go down as one of the best, if not the best, club party I have ever had the privilege of attending. And I spent a good chunk of time in Berlin in my 20s and went to my share of queer girl parties there, so I know that of which I speak. It was all queer-spectrum folks, mostly women, as far as the eye could see. Tall vaulted ceilings, go-go dancers, a woman on stilts, a few Vegas style show girls, two large bars, multiple levels of tables and booths, a sizable dance floor, a stage, glittering white and glass décor, and a towering DJ booth. Everybody dressed in black and white. Mrs. Prof got a sequined dress for the occasion. I got extra dressed-up too. We hadn’t danced since our wedding. The atmosphere was one of complete safety and fun, no prying homophobic eyes, no potential harassing comments, no one to try and steal our power or our joy. Getting to show public affection to the woman I adore, without self-consciousness or the tiniest niggling fear of anybody’s nastiness or judgment getting in the way was, bar none, one of the happiest moments of my life. I couldn’t even throw decorum to the wind like that at my own wedding. Thank you, ClexaCon.
Since we stayed out until after 3:00 on Saturday, Sunday proved to be a bit of a blur as well. I moderated two panels, “Allies in the Media” with my Televerse friends and Bridget from TV Junkies, and “Why Representation Matters” with Mey Rude from Autostraddle, Alex Berg from HuffPo, and Jessica Kath from LGBT Fans Deserve Better. Both were productive, lively discussions that moved so quickly. It was fascinating for me even from just a meta-perspective because it felt like something between an academic conference panel and teaching a class where everyone was actually prepared. So easy, so much fun. I had never run a con panel before, and I have to say I’d be happy to do it again.
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Probably the most fun of anything, beyond what was printed on the schedule, was that I got to meet so many folks I’ve only known from online before. I’m terrible at names, so I ended up calling some of you your Twitter handles or display names all weekend (Sorry!). The important thing is that I got to meet so many of you, and I tried to actually hang out with as many of you as I could. Several times, young women came up to me and wanted to take selfies or photos with me. They all called me “Professor.” That is my fandom name, “Professor.” I have a fandom name. I got a lot of hugs and gave a lot of hugs. It was incredible. I treasured every one.
Being an academic is lonely sometimes. No news is usually good news, and you rarely get positive feedback. You develop closer relationships with relatively few students along the way, your majors or advisees usually, but even those connections are rarely in-depth and personal. My involvement with the fandom has allowed me to touch people’s lives in a way I rarely have through my everyday work. Every time someone came up to me and said, “Your blogposts helped me cope,” I almost cried.
One young lady said that our wedding photos on Twitter gave her hope that she’d find a happy ending someday. I did have to go off in private and cry a minute or two after that one. That’s the reason I put our pictures up, after all, not to be like “look at our awesome wedding” (okay maybe, “look at how well I married,” but that’s not the point here…), but to show my younger followers that the tragic shit they see on TV where the queer women die and their partners are left bereft isn’t the truth. The truth is, we do get happy endings in real life. And we deserve them. I want you to know that. You absolutely deserve a healthy, happy relationship. You deserve all the love in the world.
My biggest takeaway from CC wasn’t the brushes with fame – though I must add here that Sara Ramirez of Gray’s Anatomy did indeed attend the “Why Representation Matters” panel I moderated and, I am told, laughed at a couple of my signature dumb jokes. Instead, what I’m most left with after this weekend is the solidity of this thing we built together. Every organizer, every member of the staff, every panelist, every speaker, every headliner, every attendee, every vendor, every Bally’s employee who helped make it all happen for us – every one of these people contributed. We built a home where we could well and truly be ourselves, not in spite of or against the backdrop of homophobia, transphobia, racism, and all the other forms of prejudice and discrimination we face in our everyday lives. Not against anything, in fact. We created a space where we just got to exist on our own terms, an alternate reality that was, for once, built just for “our people” and included all of us.
I saw friends helping friends with disabilities get around or get the help they needed. I saw friends who had only ever met on Twitter or Tumblr, never in person – friends of all different races, ethnicities, ages, geographic locations – all hanging out like old pals. I saw people making efforts to introduce lone attendees to new folks. I saw a lot of laughter, positivity, and fun. Stars could walk around with no fear of being bothered by obnoxious fawning. I also heard and participated in some necessary conversations about how to keep intersectionality at the forefront of our concerns as we move forward in our efforts to get and keep realistic, fully-faceted queer stories on the screen. What I never heard the entire weekend was anything maudlin or petty.
The space we created together at ClexaCon was, as I have insisted about this movement from the outset, unique and unprecedented. Yes, we share the experience of being nerdy weirdos together, but far beyond that, we share the experience of living as fellow travelers in a world fundamentally not built for us. A world that, more often than not, doesn’t really want us.
We find our niches in a mediascape that, in the larger scheme, has proven time and again it could do without us. We share scars, battle wounds in the daily fight to be seen, to be heard, to be loved, to love, to exist. And we adore the same characters and stories who help us cope with that fight. It’s an instant bond that goes before the need for words.
Together, we created a space where we, with all our little disparate media niches, can merge and expand, grow louder, grow stronger, make bigger cracks, break down walls, nourish each other to fight another day. And fight we will. And we will win.
We know we’ll get there. We’ll get there together. Not someday, not maybe. We’re already headed there today.
Never be discouraged. Never give in.