Queer people have been producing their own print media as far back as 1950, when the Mattachine Society, one of the first queer activist organizations, began distributing pamphlets calling for revolt and demanding human rights. Most major cities in Canada and the U.S. have groups that publish and distribute small run “weeklies” or zines on queer issues and activism – usually available for free at queer-friendly businesses or alongside alternative weeklies such as Exclaim!, NOW Magazine, or Vue Weekly. These magazines usually report on local matters, music, popular culture and live entertainment, and include magazine-style features and articles.
Queer people have also been successful in creating queer-themed magazines and Canada can boast a large number with varying print runs and levels of popularity. Xtra!, fab, abOUT, Fugues, and Wayves are some of the more popular Canadian publications.
Comic books are also a popular medium with queer youth and adults and many feature queer characters – although with varying degrees of positivity. Early on, many comics could not openly tackle queer issues because of the censorship imposed by the Comics Code Authority which dominated content rules until the 1990s when the direct sales market began to make it irrelevant. That said, during this period many queer artists and writers produced their own independent comic strips and books. The most important of these was probably Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For which was one of the first regularly occurring pop-cultural representations of lesbian women. Bechdel’s strip ran from1983 to 2008 and is famous for its elaboration of the “Bechdel test”: a minimum standard by which to judge feminine representations in pop-culture.
In the late 1980s through the 1990s more mainstream comics and strips began dealing seriously with queer identities, although these early attempts at inclusion were often inelegant and poorly written. One of the first popular characters to be portrayed as gay was Northstar from Marvel Comics’ Alpha Flight series. While Northstar’s initial coming out was clumsy at best (the revelation came prepackaged with what could be interpreted as an admonition that queer people should be as innocuous as possible in terms of their ‘outness’), and he fell into obscurity for quite some time after the coming out story, this is still considered a watershed moment for queer people and comic books.
Marvel Comics has come a long way in recent years, with Peter David’s insistence that two male characters from the series X-Factor be depicted in a relationship together. David’s gay subplot, which began in 2009, culminated in a 2011 GLAAD Media Award.
A major stumbling block to including queer characters in comics has been the perception that comic books are a medium for children coupled with an insistence that children should not be exposed to the reality that queer people exist. At the same time, these comics frequently feature hyper-sexualized female characters and a great deal of heterosexual content, highlighting a continued double standard that exists in society. Moreover, this line of thinking ignores the fact that queer youth exist and, just like their heterosexual counterparts, look to see themselves reflected in the media they consume. The conceit that heterosexual children must be “protected” from exposure to the knowledge that queerness exists creates a hierarchy in which the perceived needs of one group of youth are considered more valuable than those of another.
The 1990s saw a major split within the comics industry when many comic book creators broke off from the two major comics publishing houses, Marvel Comics and DC Comics. In the wake of proprietary disputes between creators and the publishing houses, many of Marvel’s “stars” resigned from the company in order to create their own publishing company and retain greater creative control of their work. Image Comics was founded in 1992 and its success led to a larger number of independent comic book publishers gaining legitimacy within the industry. These new publishing houses were no longer beholden to Marvel and DC’s overly restrictive censorship and many independent comics were dealing with queer issues both for good and for ill. In 1993, DC Comics created a second publishing house, Vertigo, which would publish more mature works. It was under this label that the critically-acclaimed series The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman was published. Gaiman’s writing is characterized by its sensitivity when dealing with issues of gender and sexuality. His books feature a wide variety of characters of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Gaiman’s comic books, which are often intertextual with the works of singer Tori Amos, have received a wide following within the queer community.
Despite the many hurdles to inclusivity, the success of various independent works which deal with issues of sexual difference have influenced the more mainstream publishing companies to explore queer themes within their works. Many queer people promote their inclusion in comic books by supporting queer-friendly writers and artists and getting involved in online communities such as http://prismcomics.org/.
Blogs have become the zines of the digital age. Existing for any number of purposes, many queer people have found blogs to be excellent tools for forging communities, developing identities and mobilizing themselves and their peers. In discussing her film, media, and performance blog, The Feminist Spectator, Jill Dolan has said that a major reason for writing online as opposed to in print is that she has greater creative control over her work. Many print media require relatively short word counts, especially for arts writing. Moreover, mainstream publications that deal in media reviews have broken the question down to a simple black or white “Is it good?” Blogs allow a different approach, one that is rooted more deeply in critical thinking and which permits authors to delve into complex concepts. As Dolan notes: “My primary interests in [performances] focus on what they tell us about gender, sexuality, race, class, and other forms of identity” and a blog facilitates this. In addition, many writers and activists have turned to blogging as an opportunity to produce an alternative form of media in which ideas flow back and forth. This can be seen in aggregating blogs where multiple correspondents produce and disseminate content. The Bilerico Project is probably the largest such blog for queer people and their allies.
Over the past ten years, perceptions of video games as a niche pastime have shifted considerably. According to a 2010 study by the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, 47 per cent of households own one of the current generation of video game console systems; 30 per cent of Canadians game every day; and 76 per cent of gamers play online. In addition to the increased popularity of this pastime, the games themselves have never been more immersive, complex, and social.
Yet despite all the great things about gaming, it can also be considered the final frontier for queer acceptance. Although gaming has been adopted by a wide cross section of the population, the industry continues to be dominated by developers and producers who are overwhelmingly White, masculine, and heterosexual meaning that the ideological framework under which the vast majority of games are produced is also one that privileges White masculine heterosexuality.
Issues Within The Gaming Industry
According to a 2005 report by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), 88.5 per cent of all game developers are male. Moreover, only 5 per cent of women employed in the video games industry are directly involved in actual game content creation. Women were also found to make on average $9,000 less annually than their male counterparts.
Queer people make up about 5 per cent of the gaming industry’s workforce, with an even split between those who identify as being gay or lesbian and bisexual. The survey conducted by the IGDA, however, noted particularly strong reactions to the question relating to sexual orientation. Responses such as: “Some of your questions are very questionable. You coming on to me?” or “…who cares about sexual preference…” were quite common. The surveyors also met with highly offensive e-mails and refusals to participate in the survey on the grounds that this question was even being asked. These responses are important because they suggest that despite queer people making up about 5 per cent of the gaming industry (roughly the same as numbers of people worldwide who self-identify as queer in various surveys), a large number of game developers appear blind – and even hostile – to queer issues, queer identification and queer identity. The report identified a strong split between queer people and heterosexuals when it came to the importance of diversity within the work environment, with queer respondents more likely to feel that diversity was important to the successful development of a game and to express a desire that their next project be more diverse.
In general, the video game industry has improved over the years in including queer people as employees, players, and (albeit to a much lesser extent) game characters, but fostering diversity and inclusion in the video-gaming industry has been a tug-of-war.
In 2009, Microsoft was sued by an Xbox 360 game designer who, after spending two years being called “Fag Boy Jim” by his coworkers, was told by human resources that nothing could be done to stop this until new policies were drafted. And there more positive examples, such as when games publisher Electronic Arts participated in the 2010 anti-bullying campaign “It Gets Better” by supporting queer-identified employees who created an outreach video. The California-based company has also spearheaded a forum on homophobia in online games to combat not only representation of queer people in video games, but also harassment in online interactions with other players. Canadian game company Ubisoft is particularly progressive, having gone so far as to appoint one of its designers as the “official guard dog against homophobia”. In addition, the annual Game Developers Conference, which is the largest and most important professional gathering of video game developers, now boasts an LGBT round table discussion at its events.
The issue of queer professionals within the gaming industry is important because while sexuality features prominently in most video games, it is invariably a rigidly defined version of heterosexuality. There are few queer characters in mainstream video games and those that exist (Alfred Horner, Dracula Unleashed; Blazing Dragons; Alfred Ashford of Resident Evil) tend to be weak caricatures that either provide comic relief or are not permitted to express any true desires. Queer representation within games has had its fair share of controversy. Recently, the Canadian game studio Bioware came under fire when players began discussing the possibility of same-sex relationships in the upcoming MMOG Star Wars: The Old Republic (after the studio announced that heterosexual relationships would exist as a mechanic within the game world). Problems began in 2009 when players discovered they couldn’t even discuss this in the game’s forums because Bioware had set these up to auto-censor the terms “gay”, “lesbian” and “homosexual” as profanity. As players began to challenge this, the forum’s Community Manager infamously remarked that “these terms do not exist in Star Wars” and then locked down any further discussion on homosexuality. The incident was widely reported in the gaming community and much outrage was leveled at the Edmonton-based company for its apparent homophobia. Fans of Bioware’s games were particularly shocked because it had previously featured queer characters games such as: Mass Effect, Jade Empire, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. One game in particular – Dragon Age: Origins – permitted same-sex trysts depending on how players interacted with certain non-player characters. More recently, the company even went so far as to come down solidly in favor of providing same-sex options in Dragon Age 2 (2011), unapologetically putting their foot down when a player complained that heterosexual players were not being adequately catered to by virtue of the fact that same-sex options existed within the game. The Star Wars: The Old Republic incident appears to be particularly out of character for the company especially in light of a more recent statement by Bioware lead-writer David Gaiter: “The romances in the game are not for «the straight male gamer». They’re for everyone. We have a lot of fans, many of whom are neither straight nor male, and they deserve no less attention…The «rights» of anyone with regards to a game are murky at best, but anyone who takes that stance must apply it equally to both the minority as well as the majority. The majority has no inherent «right» to get more options than anyone else.” The game company made the same mistake a second time in 2010 when it began censoring and locking threads asking why the company had allowed heterosexual or female-female relationships in Mass Effect 2, but not male-male romance. Certainly, this sends mixed signals to queer players who wish to see some of their own experiences reflected in the characters they play. These two seemingly oppositional viewpoints coming from the same company must be examined in the context of how the industry functions. The game company itself is not a single entity, but is comprised of various separate and secluded groups each working on their own projects. Thus, while the leader of the Star Wars team isn’t the same person as the leader of the Dragon Age team, but both do speak with the authority of being a company representative which illustrates the need for game companies (and any company) to establish parameters and an official position on such issues.
Microsoft has probably had the greatest amount of blowback regarding its censorship of queerness in its games and policies. In order to combat anti-gay controversy and homophobic talk, the company applied a blanket ban on using the words “gay”, “lesbian”, “queer” and other related terms in its online gaming environments. Although this ban was well-intentioned, critics argued that it was not the words themselves that are offensive, but the way some players apply them, and that Microsoft’s policies unfairly punished the victims of harassment by making them invisible instead of addressing the inappropriate behaviours of those players who were harassing others. (For example, in 2009, a woman who identified herself as a lesbian in her gamer profile in the Xbox Live community became the subject of harassment and abuse from both parents and young people. When she complained to Xbox Live (which is owned by Microsoft) her account was banned on the grounds that the other players found her sexual orientation to be offensive. The company was so overzealous in its application of this measure that people were banned for having names that contained the word “gay” in them and a player was even banned because his hometown was listed as “Fort Gay, WV”. In March of 2010, after much criticism from players and queer-rights groups, Microsoft finally lifted its ban on the use of various queer-related terms as neutral descriptors.
Despite what are often draconian measures against open discussions of queerness and queer issues, many game companies manage to work queer characters into their games with varying degrees of tastefulness. Fallout: New Vegas (2010) permits players to select the traits “Confirmed Bachelor” (male) or “Cherchez la Femme” (female) for their characters. The trait effectively makes the character homosexual, modifying in-game non-player character reactions relating to seduction and romance. Despite its problems with Xbox, Microsoft has permitted players to choose homosexuality as a character trait in its Fable franchise since the series started in 2004. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game (2010) features multiple queer characters as both allies and villains. Rockstar Games permitted same-sex kissing in their game Bully (2006) and followed up with an entire game featuring a major gay character in Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony (2009). Despite the efforts made by some game designers, though, inclusion of queer content in any video game continues to be controversial across the spectrum. This alone indicates that there isn’t enough queer representation in video games, as the mere inclusion of queer people wouldn’t produce so many blog posts, articles, podcasts and other reactions if it weren’t so rare. And despite advances, many game companies still use homosexuality or transgenderism as a gag for heterosexual players. In S2 Games’ Heroes of Newerth, for example, players can customize their character’s dialogue in such a way that it accompanies rainbow text, becomes loaded with sexual innuendo, and modifies the voice to a high pitched exaggeration of stereotyped gay speech attributes.
The online aspect of many video games has opened up new challenges for queer gamers, with the social aspect of these games often a source of hurt and frustration. At the most basic level, many heterosexual players use gay slurs as catch-all terms of disparagement. Things are even worse if the players in question can identify a queer player (whether by a gamer tag or through conversation). In response to concerns about harassment and the industry’s slowness in developing queer characters or games, many queer people who game (“gaymers”) have organized themselves into online communities of their own. These communities seek not only to create queer-friendly spaces within multiplayer online games, but also to increase the visibility of their community to drive home the point to manufacturers of the significant numbers of people they alienate when they engage in negative stereotyping and anti-queer practices and policies. While progress for gaymers is slow, they are making inroads.
Diversity in Media Toolbox
The Diversity and Media Toolbox is a comprehensive suite of resources that explores issues relating to stereotyping, bias and hate in mainstream media and on the Internet. The program includes professional development tutorials, lesson plans, interactive student modules and background articles.