I had never heard the term “queer” – in a positive context, at least – until I was a freshman in college. I never saw Paris is Burning until the year after that. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit collected dust in the back of my bookshelf, lest my Catholic mother catch a glimpse of it and keel over in shock. My exposure to queer art and media as a teenager was limited, to say the least. Even with the endless resource that is the Mighty Internet, the sheer volume of information out there overwhelmed me.
However, being a giant nerd, I went to the next best thing: slash fiction.
A fantasy and science fiction fan since I was a kid, I’d been reading fan fiction since the fourth Harry Potter book. Slashfic, which features same-sex characters in romantic pairings, was only a click away.
On a cloudy evening in 2009, over twenty-five women, including myself, crowded into a cramped hotel room in Philadelphia. In their day-to-day lives, they were housewives, college students, archeologists, lawyers, nannies, and sign language interpreters, but that night, they were all the same thing: fan girls. Specifically, they were gathered for MiniMerlin 2009, the first unofficial fan convention for Merlin, a new Arthurian legend-inspired show on the BBC. Out of desperation to gain some semblance of order in the midst of this gaggle of chattering fans, someone popped in a DVD and shouted above the din, “The vid show is starting!”
Silence fell almost immediately. The ruckus subsided within seconds as everyone settled down, eyes glued to the small TV at the front of the room. For almost an hour hardly a word was said as they watched video after video – videos that were tributes, celebrations, parodies, critiques, love poems, and character studies – all using found footage from the same show.
It was fan fiction in visual form, and nearly all of it was slash.
Believe it or not, this geeky gathering was one of my first introductions into the queer community. Merlin, which features the timeless bromance between King Arthur and his favorite sorcerer, has a significant gay following. Far from a pride parade or even a high school GSA meeting, it was nevertheless one of the first times I was able to celebrate my queerness – to not just accept it, but flaunt it with joy.
(Merlin’s season one trailer. The slashfic writes itself.)
I was seventeen years old, and this was my first trip without “adult supervision.” I dragged Lex, a friend who’d proclaimed herself my Lesbian Mentor (she was fabulous; everyone should have one), along with me. I was bubbling with excitement at the thought of attending my first convention.
Yet what greeted us in that hotel in Philadelphia was less of a traditional “con” and more of a “let’s-get-a-bunch-of-lesbians-together-and-eat-pizza” hangout. We’d expected discussion panels and costume contests. Instead, we got thirty geeky girls squeezed into a hotel room meant for four, shouting over each other and giggling at pornographic fan art on their laptops.
Sleep proved difficult, as we shared a wall with the common room, where the sounds of revelry lasted late into the night. Around nine o’clock, we heard someone break out the tequila, and the rest was history.
Ever the go-getter, Lex declared our room an alcohol-free haven and invited the sober members of our company to watch the scheduled fan video screening. Before the first DVD was put in, I struck up a conversation with a kindly middle-aged woman who went by the nickname Physicist V.
“You know,” V informed me, “In the seventies, when this sort of thing wasn’t as accepted, especially in fandom, slash fans used to have codes for finding each other.”
I raised my eyebrows, picturing underground societies of gay nerds, complete with passwords and needlessly complicated secret handshakes. She went on to discuss the early Star Trek conventions.
“If you met up with someone you suspected had the same interests, you would ask, ‘Do you like Kirk and Spock?’ and they would say something like, ‘No, I like Spock and Kirk,’ and you knew it was safe to talk about slash.”
I imagined V as young as I was now, swapping clandestine VHS tapes of the earliest slash videos, exploring her own identity all the while. I looked at all the women around the room and realized that, silly as we might be, we were still a proud queer community, appreciating and producing art of our own.
(Here’s a particularly humorous one.)
And yes, I do believe that fan videos, in all their zany glory, do count as art. They are moving collages, bits and pieces of the pop culture we love reassembled to create a whole new meaning. Vids are fans taking what they need from their media, engaging with it and challenging it.
Though science fiction and fantasy have long been stereotyped as “masculine” genres, there is also a distinct and growing space within those genres for queer voices. I feel very fortunate to be one of them. I may not have grown up with classic queer films, but I made do with what I had.
After all, how much more classic can you get than Merlin and Arthur?