Geeks OUT empowers LGBTQ+ geeks at Flame Con and beyond

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Jun 24, 2017, 7:12 PM EDT (Updated)

In 2010, Joey Stern and Josh Siegel attended the only gay panel at New York Comic Con. The panel was so packed there was standing room only. Seeing such enthusiasm to attend the panel made it clear to Stern that there was a desire for a way to connect with this kind of content.

“I, at the time, was mostly planning on never addressing that and just sort of talking with Josh, but in the morning, he sent me a link and was like ‘Hey, I bought a web domain for the thing we talked about. Let’s do it!’ From there we wound up doing like six months of fundraising to buy a table at New York Comic Con for the next year and create what we at the time conceived as the queerest space any comic con had ever seen,” Stern told SYFY WIRE. “We achieved that, and it turned out throwing monthly events for people to gather and talk about things they like in a space that was beyond just safe but welcoming would be our organization’s cornerstone.”

That organization became Geeks OUT, a group that tries to empower and support the queer geek community in various ways. Nicole Gitau, Geeks OUT vice president, remembers seeing that first table at New York Comic Con.

“I can confirm it was the queerest space. I ran up to the table and was like, ‘This is exactly what I’ve been looking for!’ Then I started volunteering,” she said.

To Stern, current president of Geeks OUT, so much of what the group has become exists because of people seeing their tables and then coming on board. He said it’s the best experience on a long con day to speak with people who come up to the booth and say, “This is the thing I wanted and it’s here!” When they first started out their goal was just New York Comic Con, but then that first year they were asked by those who stopped by their booth if they would be at other conventions, too. Realizing this existing need and desire, Geeks OUT has expanded to also attend C2E2, PAX South, PAX East, PAX West, HeroesCon, GaymerX, Boston Comic Con and Awesome Con, where earlier this month they partnered with the convention to create a Pride Alley that Stern called “sort of a mini-Flame Con within the walls of the larger convention.”

Flame Con is a convention started by Geeks OUT in 2014 that takes place in New York City and will return this year on August 19 and 20. One of the things it grew from was the group wondering about doing something more than a booth.

“What’s more than that? A convention itself. This year it’s like, how can we make a space that again isn’t just safe, it’s not just for you. It welcomes you. It encourages you. It invites you in,” Stern said.

This year there’s even more for fans to look forward to happening at Flame Con. Stern told SYFY WIRE there’s some new programming, including a how-to-draw kissing demo and an expanded after-party Saturday that will include a dinner component for VIP members, with a camp theme and merit badges for people to win, along with burlesque and cosplay performances. Speed friending has also been added to the convention. Stern said they’re calling it that since it is gender non-normative and everyone will meet everybody.

“Maybe you want to date some of them and maybe you’re going to be friends, but we’ve had that request since last year for people to have an opportunity to interact with one another. It’s going to be a very wild and exciting weird way of making new acquaintances,” he said.

Among the guests, creators and vendors attending this year will be Cecil Baldwin from Welcome to Night Vale, who will have a choose-your-own-adventure-style panel that will have the audience participate and help him navigate a series of possible adventures. On Tuesday, it was also announced that Gotham’s Robin Lord Taylor would be attending as a special celebrity panelist this year, taking part in a Q&A panel as well as photo-ops and signings.

"I am so excited to geek out with my LGTBQIA New York neighbors at Flame Con!” Taylor said in a statement. “When you grow up geek it is easy to feel like an outsider. At Flame Con, you belong."

Sunday will once again be Youth Day at Flame Con, where those under the age of 20 can attend for free, thanks to a sponsorship from the Ali Forney Center, a shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth in New York City. Gitau has also been working hard on the first SparQ Fund. According to a statement, the fund will offer selected LGBTQ+ artists “the opportunity to create meaningful, provocative art that reflects their experience” and “then have a chance to share their work in an affirming, accessible community space, regardless of age, race, wealth, gender identity or expression.”

According to Gitau, the original energy of people being excited to see a Geeks OUT table at conventions is carried forward into Flame Con.

“The thing that we’ve heard consistently is people saying Flame Con is so nice, it’s the community that I always wanted. It’s like those little parts of other conventions where you see one or two people that you know, but everyone is in a room together,” she told SYFY WIRE.

The non-profit does more than travel to conventions and run Flame Con, though. They ran a successful Kickstarter earlier this year to create Serving Pride: The Handbook for Your Queer History Dinner Party and released the beta of the book this month, with the print version expected in October. They also hold different events, such as a comic book reading club in Washington D.C. and an upcoming comic book event in New York City’s Central Park, where Stern said they encourage people to bring items besides books as well, like games, and hang out for a few hours. In October, there will also be the return of their large queer dance party, Snikt, for the Saturday night of New York Comic Con. They try their best to vary the events, according to Stern.

“One of the challenges of being an organization that started very dude-focused, in a lot of ways unintentionally, is as you do events it’s really easy to throw them in a bar every month,” he explained. “We’re trying to expand that and really put a lot of energy into figuring out ways of doing events that are as diverse as the people that we want to encourage to come, so it’s not always we’re in a bar doing karaoke, then a bar doing meetings.”

Learning and growing along the way can be challenging. Gitau said the goals they’ve set for this year and the next few years are to have steady, smart growth where they see where they’re at each year and get feedback from those who attend their events. Stern said they try to figure out from that where the opportunities for improvement are.

“You want to make sure you’re building something that is truly inclusive. That is really welcoming and exciting for everybody, and that means a lot of times examining your own choices, which is really important and challenging,” Stern said. “[Flame Con is] the largest queer comic convention in the world of its kind. If you look at other conventions there’s a lot of times where they’re like, ‘We’re not sure if we’re going to do this next year, we don’t know.’ And at this point, we know we are. We’ve got this set up, and we know that we can do this for years. The trick is not becoming complacent and not being like, ‘Flame Con is a thing we make and we just check seven boxes and now that’s a Flame Con.’ We want to make sure every year is special and good and builds for the people we want to be there.”

Thanks to the work of Geeks OUT, Flame Con and many others, geek culture has been changing over the years. Stern thinks conventions have improved and become a more inclusive, safer environment, though there’s still work to be done. He credits con runners for the changes, as well as the fandom for being vocal about their needs and what they want. When looking to the future, Gitau looks forward to LGBTQ content not being considered niche, with the great storytellers and artists that are going to be a part of Flame Con able to find success not just at such a focused convention. Stern has hope for this due to successful podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale and Alice Isn’t Dead, which follow queer characters in ways that are organic to the stories and it’s not just about them being queer.

“I’m looking forward to that stuff becoming more mainstream in that way, like in Black Lightning his daughter Thunder on the new TV show is confirmed to be a lesbian, as she was in the comics, and that’s the kind of stuff that is the fans demanding it,” Stern said. “It’s honestly people who want characters to feel like they’re part of the world that they live in. On the flip side, movies are continually surprising me in the way that they’re falling behind.”

As examples, Stern pointed to Wonder Woman barely acknowledging lesbians and how it seems to be more acceptable for Captain America to kiss the granddaughter of his former love interest than Bucky, his longtime friend.

“That to me is the weird component of straightness that you can wind up seeing. In comparison, you have American Gods on Starz, where it’s like, ‘Nope, this is just happening, and you’re going to see anything you want and it’s here and we’re acknowledging that many different kinds of people exist.’ But in the Marvel universe a man can fly and you can see a robot gain powers from a crystal, but if anyone’s kissing a boy that’s weird. 'We’re not doing that, too far,'” Stern said. “I think that kind of stuff is still, for me, the challenge that I see ahead. On the ground level, comics and TV are getting on board with understanding the sense and scope of the acknowledgment of queer fandom and the way in which that story can be integrated without having to become its own secret separate thing, and large-scale movies barely just discovered the existence of women, so I don’t know how long it’s going to be until they find out some of those women are lesbians.”

Gitau believes the community will continue to demand what they want, and that will eventually roll up to films. And Stern agrees that it comes down to fans saying these things need to happen.

“That just needs to be a louder and louder voice, and as they see these other shows becoming successful, movies are going to have to follow suit at some point,” he said.

Through Flame Con and its other efforts, Geeks OUT will thankfully be among those voices as it continues to provide ways for the community and its allies to connect, be heard and show their pride at being geeky and queer.