Grown Geeks: The Reality of Gay Geek Girls

Cover of Harley & Ivy #1

Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy: a classic queer lady ship! DC Comics

In the previous installments of my Grown Geeks series, I’ve talked with local geeks about nonmonogamy and asexuality within the geek community. This time around, I’m taking a look at the experiences of gay- and lesbian-identified women in the community. In addition to discussing two interviewees, I will also reflect upon some of my own experiences with being a gay geek woman.

Being a gay woman in any community can pose some challenges when it comes to things such as representation, safety, and socializing (especially dating). Those challenges become extra complex when they intersect with another aspect of one’s identity, as is the case with identifying as both gay and a geek. I spoke with two women, Liz and Kay, about their experiences with being gay and geeky, and the first topic we covered was the representation of gay women in geekdom.

Both interviewees cited Orphan Black as being a current favorite for gay/queer representation. Liz noted that she especially identifies with Cosima, and that it was wonderful to see a gay female character who was relatably nerdy. Other favorites mentioned were Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Young Avengers. Kay stated that despite the characters being problematic, finding queer representation in Young Avengers as well as in Batwoman when she was first coming into her sexuality and starting to come out was exciting, and she gravitated towards those comics. She went on to say that sci-fi and fantasy stories have an inherent sense of “otherness” that can resonate with those who live in the margins of what society deems acceptable and that also can transport marginalized folks out of a crappy reality and into other worlds.

In my own experience, I’ve found that representations of gay women in geek media as well as in general mainstream media tend to cast us in one of two tropes: frumpy butch or hypersexual fantasy object. We exist either as the butt of a joke or something superficial and sexy for male viewers, and that’s if we are represented at all. However, even when characters and representations are problematic, seeing any representation is usually exciting, as Kay’s experience with Batwoman and Young Avengers illustrates. As a young gay woman, I latched on to any examples of gay characters I could find. While I’m more choosy at this point in my life, it seems that as a person discovers aspects of their identity, representations of that aspect are invaluable, and a “visibility at any cost” approach is not uncommon as we crave to see our identities and mere existences acknowledged, for better or for worse. At this point in our social climate, however, visibility at any cost can have very detrimental effects on how gay women are perceived and how we need to navigate our lives and identities.

One reason Liz identified so much with Cosima was because her character is three dimensional: she’s more than just a gay woman. She’s a brilliant scientist, a clone, a sister of sorts, an aunt, and so on. She’s multifaceted and, as she says in one episode, her sexuality is the least interesting thing about her. Gay women are so much more than their sexualities, and at this time in social culture—now that we are starting to have more representation in the media—that representation needs to reflect this simple fact.

Promotional image for Orphan Black showing Cosima

Orphan Black’s Cosima Neihaus: clone, scientist, dream girl. BBC

Being underrepresented in media and pop culture can have a multitude of ill effects. When a community isn’t visible, or when the only portrayals of that community are negative, the real-life dangers members of that group face—such as hate crimes and sexual assault—are often unnoticed, invalidated, or undervalued. For example, statistics from the Center of Disease Control (CDC) have shown us that trans and bi women are at the highest risk for rape and other sexual violence, but in discourse surrounding sexual violence and rape, rarely if ever do bi or trans women’s stories (especially trans) get representation in mainstream media. Despite the increased rates of sexual violence towards LGBTQ/MOGAI people, 85 percent of victim advocates report having worked with an LGBTQ survivor who was turned away from other survivor resources because of their orientation or gender identity.

One factor in this situation is likely the representations of LGBTQ folks, especially representations of gay and queer women in geek media. As mentioned above, shows, comics, and other media frequently oversexualize these characters, implying that gay and queer women either exist for the pleasure of others or as a punchline. Kay elaborated on this, stating:

There’s a lot of fan service, oversexualized women, et cetera in geek culture that the feminist in me is appalled by and the lesbian in me . . . tries really hard to hate but comes up short. As such, the culture that can create makes consent hard to navigate on both sides. I’ve definitely felt pressured from queer geeks to go further than I’m ready for, especially if there’s any role-play involved that intersects our geek identities, and as the pursuer I’ve met girls who are really uncomfortable when I stop to ask for or talk about consent.

Both Liz and Kay explained their thoughts on consent, and how the lack of consent representation in media contributes to a difficulty in negotiating safe sex in queer relationships. Kay continued:

I definitely think the absence of consent in geek media messes things up. That being said, many of us are geeks because we’re really smart and like media that deconstructs fairly advanced concepts. Language and communication [are] a strong suit of mine, so I’m usually able to overcome all of that, but I definitely think that culture of “objectify now and ask later” does make it a challenge.

Liz expressed similar thoughts:

They try to “sexy up” queer sex a bunch in the media, like in a fetish way or in a[n] “Ooh, exotic” [way] but never showing how women actually interact with each other before sex or leading up per se. . . . You don’t see consent represented very often for queer sex I think. More often than not, you see people just going at it suddenly but never see the consent part of the process.

Kay’s and Liz’s responses resonated with me, as I’ve felt similar tensions come up around queer sex in real life and representations in geeky media. When it comes to geeky queer sex, I’ve personally noticed an attitude of assumption, as if folks having sex together will just each know what the other wants and intuition is a perfectly fine guiding source. From my experience, this leads to very bad sex, and it can even result in rape. (When you have sexual contact with someone who doesn’t consent, despite your intuition telling you they do . . . well, folks, that’s called rape.)

Not only do poor representations contribute to rocky sexual negotiations for gay and queer women, they also contribute to harmful stereotypes in general. Both interview participants mentioned the butch queer stereotype—the idea that a woman who is gay will adhere to some socially contrived measure of masculinity, otherwise she’s not “really” gay. This is the same notion that is operating when a femme queer is told she’s “too pretty to be gay” and similar sentiments. It’s offensive because it implies that our identities are defined by our gender presentation and simultaneously implies that no “real” gay women are “pretty” (read: feminine).

One example of harmfully stereotypical queer-girl representation is Ramona Flowers of the Scott Pilgrim series. It pains me to say it, because both the comics and the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World movie adaptation are such favorites of mine, and Ramona gets me fangirling like nobody’s business, but her bisexuality is so undermined in this series it is maddening. The remarks she makes about “I didn’t think it counted” or “It was just a phase” and the way the comics treat her make-out session with Roxy while she is still dating Scott all perpetuate this idea that bisexuality isn’t legitimate, and that female sexuality in general isn’t worth taking seriously unless it is in relation to a man. These are stereotypes that gay, bi, and queer women have to work against all the time in relationships, dating, and even our platonic and family relationships because of how we are perceived.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona Flowers from the 2010 film, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World , she has purple hair, aviator goggles resting atop her head, and a blue hoodie under a khaki pea coat.

Ramona Flowers: bad-ass, subspace superstar, but maybe a little more than ignorant when it comes to sexuality. Universal Pictures

Aside from being offensive, these conceptions can actually be downright dangerous. As Kay put it, “Some male friends will get crushes on me, and then get mad that I’m still queer as hell in spite of my eye shadow.” And as many women made clear during the massive success of hashtag discourse #YesAllWomen and other discussions, it is dangerous to be a woman in the position of turning down a man’s advances.

Clearly geeky gay women deal with more than their fair share of shit when navigating these intersecting identities. However, that isn’t to say there has not been progress. The Feminist Phone Intervention, a phone number women can give out to men they don’t feel safe turning down and will text back with a quote from feminist writer bell hooks, addresses the dangers of turning down a guy’s advances while also satisfying our geeky feminist side. Geeky media like Lumberjanes, Steven Universe, The Legend of Korra, and others have centered queerness and queer characters (and here’s a lovely compilation of geeky media that acknowledges queer kids too).

A still from Steven Universe showing Steven and the gems

Steven Universe is so much queer awesome in one show that it cannot be summed up by just one of the characters. Go forth and watch now. Cartoon Network

As more stories of navigating consent and queer female representation are shared, a discourse about consent in queer relationships is building, and education about the importance of consent in safe sex is finally getting the attention it so desperately needs. The intersections of identities, be they sexual identity and geekdom or any other aspects of identity, are always going to be complex. These intersections have nuanced challenges that can only be addressed by speaking about them and sharing our stories. Thank you to those who have done so with Grown Geeks and those who do so elsewhere.

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