GaymerX gives LGBTQIA gamers a safe space in an increasingly toxic world

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Towering over the forever restless Times Square, the Microsoft Technology Center holds frequent meetups and New York tech industry gatherings, though it played host to a rather different crowd last weekend. For two full days the corporate stronghold housed a group that brought its own rainbow costumes, erotic furry card games, and, above all, a zeal to dig into some of modern culture's most pressing concerns.

It was time for GaymerX East.

It's been five years since the first GaymerX, a Kickstarter-backed gaming convention specifically targeted at LGBTQIA gamers who felt unwelcome at mainstream shows like E3. In that time, organizers have put on eight separate shows, including two in Australia; this year's GaymerX East, the second to be held, was the organization's ninth show overall. They've also begun the GaymerX Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting game creators from marginalized communities.

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That ethos — a dedication to amplifying historically unheard voices — is what sets GaymerX apart from almost any other major event in the gaming community. This year's programming included panels and talks on practical ways to encourage more nonbinary characters in games; building interpersonal care networks and preventing emotional burnout; the status of women in professional gaming; and how games can positively or negatively impact mental health.

Even the games themselves (like exhibitor Naomi Clark's Consentacle, a card game for two players that gamifies enthusiastic consent and positive sexuality) contribute to the overall conversation about progressive values.

Tanya DePass, GaymerX's Programming Coordinator and dedicated Diversity Liaison, says if she wasn't helping run the show, she'd still be an attendee. "I've worked for so many [conventions] at this point, and it's easy to be a little jaded," she tells SYFY WIRE. "This is the only con where I work the convention but it's still fun."

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Although DePass's work has never been easy, recent political events have made it all the harder. "I think post-election, we've regressed in a lot of ways" in regards to diversity in pop culture, she says. That's not a surprise, considering the forces that swept Donald Trump into office — the power of the so-called 'alt-right' — gained much of their experience through the 2014 Gamergate debacle, when a host of antifeminist video game enthusiasts embarked on a massive harassment campaign under the guise of a consumer revolt.

Figureheads like Milo Yiannopolous and Mike Cernovich, who played large roles in galvanizing alt-right support for Trump online, were beloved to Gamergate, and built new political careers on its back. Toni Rocca, Head Chair of GaymerX, notes wryly that "all these people who said 'don't put politics in your video games' are now way more interested in their politics being everywhere."

But though Gamergate undeniably impacted the sociopolitical landscape, DePass doesn't want to give its participants too much credit. "It's affected my work in that sometimes it's made it difficult to have these conversations in good faith," she says, but "[p]eople always want to attach Gamergate to the work that I do and it has nothing to do with it."

Rocca agrees, explaining that Gamergate was simply the most recent and obvious flareup of a problem gaming has had for decades. "One of the misconceptions is that Gamergate was when people became sexist about games or racist about games," she says. "For those of us who are marginalized people in any fandom or community, we know that the hate is always there. Those people weren't born in 2014."

Now, the problem has metastasized into something greater than petty abuse over video games; the spirit of Gamergate is alive and well in government policies that specifically target LGBTQIA communities, like President Trump's attempted ban on transgender soldiers. In this context, spaces in which marginalized people who have been harmed can feel safe are more important than ever — a responsibility that Rocca takes very seriously. "I am everyone's mom when I'm here," she says, and means it literally: on the second day of the show, she carried a transgender girl who'd twisted her ankle to the day's trans and nonbinary meetup. "I want everything to go well, I want everyone to be happy, and if I'm not doing [that], then why am I even here?"

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Actions like those coupled with GaymerX’s horizontal — and, they hope, approachable — leadership have engendered a powerful respect in many of those who attend. Underground rapper Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo (whose work under the stage name Sammus builds bridges between nerd culture and black feminists) tells SYFY WIRE that she has a special place in her heart for GaymerX, both as a performer and an attendee.

"This is a very unique space, and it's made me be more open to pursuing other game spaces. I was very anxious about putting myself out there," she says, recalling her initial hesitance to even call herself Sammus because she feared backlash. "But being at a place like GaymerX, where you can ask questions and make mistakes and see folks building community around so many different things — I love that we start from the premise that this is a safe space," she says. "Going in, I'm already open and receptive to hearing things, sharing things, saying 'I don't know,' that’s so critical."

Of course, GaymerX isn't without its strife. The LGBTQIA umbrella is home to a vast diversity of opinion, and even a show that strives to welcome everyone in that spectrum can't please everybody. When disagreements arise (as they did this year over the inclusion of a talk by game developer and drag queen Kitty Powers), the rhetoric can become heated.

"I have a joke about being called a 'transphobic white gay man' every year, because it does happen every year, and it's because they don't know anything about me and they assume," says Rocca, who is a trans woman. "But at the same time, I don't take it personally because I know they're not mad at me, they're mad at every single gay guy who has forgotten that T was at the end of LGBT."

With five years behind them, GaymerX's organizers are looking solidly to the future and hoping to inspire others to add to their work. DePass says she'd like to see groups on other continents take the GaymerX model and make it their own, and Rocca hopes that smaller, accessible events take root in parts of America where support networks are scarce. But whatever the next five years hold for its organization, GaymerX will continue its slow march towards a more inclusive world. After all, says Rocca, "I'm not doing it because I'm getting paid. I'm doing it because it’s my community."