The Beating Hearts of Homos: ClexaCon 2017 recap
Note: obviously not everyone who identifies on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum(s) identifies as queer, but for the purposes of this post I'm using "queer" as an umbrella term.
On March 3, 2016, when Lexa was murdered on screen before thousands of people for whom she was a figurative and literal lifeline, I felt a kind of despair that I couldn't explain. I wrote about this feeling in my last post, and in my very first post. I had journeyed 30 years through life without once having seen any person, real or fictional, who was powerful, intelligent, strong, brave, ruthless, compassionate, unapologetic, loving, admired, complicated, and a lesbian, whose struggles had nothing at all to do with that last fact. I truly did not believe that queer people could have lives with as much depth as hers, that it was possible to be a full human person with a nuanced life journey and the ability to freely love, with every cell, another human of the same gender. Of course, if you had asked me if I thought this could be true, I would have said yes, but I had never seen it, and therefore couldn't fully trust it. That's what Lexa's story meant to me; her character made me feel hope for myself in a way I had never felt before her. I mourn for my younger self, whose self-hatred around this part of her identity blossomed into an ugly flesh-eating flower and robbed her of the self-assurance, self-compassion, and self-actualization that could have been. If I had seen Lexa as a teenager- as many, many people did- a lot of things might have been different. This sounds dramatic, because it is, but it doesn't mean my life isn't full of wonder, growth and joy, especially now. But when the Bury Your Gays trope was applied in a particularly uncreative and cruel way to this iconic character, after the showrunner himself and his entire marketing team specifically and repeatedly went into lesbian and queer spaces on the internet to sell her character and her relationship with the show's lead, Clarke, it makes sense that anguish and rage surfaced in the aftermath of her cliched demise. That initial response served to connect thousands of people who were deeply affected by this story, and for me personally, this spontaneous online community was the only place I felt like my feelings about Lexa were validated.
Just as I was never truly able to envision myself as a full, nuanced and powerful person until I saw someone outside myself, who was like me in important ways, embody these qualities, I also never predicted the existence of a space filled entirely with LGBTQIA+ people and allies who genuinely validated, understood, respected and loved each other. Yet this is what I experienced at ClexaCon. Everyone in the protective heart of that convention center was there specifically because we had been deeply affected by cultural marginalization and had seen ourselves being torn down and killed in almost every portrayal on screen and page.
The death of Lexa itself was really a straw the broke the camel's back when it comes to the frustration and anguish felt by queer people in a grossly heteronormative society in which pop and high culture alike only show us dying and depressed, never reflecting the possibility of a more positive outcome to our stories, a chance to live fulfilled lives. Since many of us have grown up in heteronormative, if not blatantly homo/bi/transphobic, households, neighborhoods, etc., cultural products like tv, movies, and books are the only places we have a chance to see queer people, to identify with someone; if a queer kid never sees that or only sees tragic queer stories, that shit gets internalized, and that kid will probably subconsciously believe that there is something wrong with them and/or that they will never be happy. While the internet makes reachable a much higher level of visibility and connection among largely invisible people, this was not always true. I talked to a several older lesbians whose queer networks were relatively small before the internet became so prevalent. And thanks to the internet and social media, however problematic parts of them may be, our strength in numbers is clear. This entire con was built on that strength. We share a sadness, an anger, a passion, a kinship, and a joy around seeing, being, and loving ourselves and each other. That's incredibly powerful.
One of the presentations I went to was about identity formation and mental health. The presenter, nurse Dina Proto, talked about identity formation beginning around age 4. She said that media shapes identity formation in profound ways, which makes sense when you think about the enormous amount of media kids are consuming basically since day one. Alexia Prichard, a documentary filmmaker, screened a trailer for her upcoming film Clexa is Ours: On the Need for Balanced Cultural Representation in Television, in which she interviewed health and media experts about exactly this topic. Proto had a stirring theory that if some form of identity crisis happens at a young age, it's impossible to move on from that crisis without revisiting it. I'm no psychologist and I certainly don't have broad enough knowledge to go into this comprehensively, but it makes perfect sense to me that kids shows with only hetero parents, queer-coded Disney villains, an almost complete lack of positive canonical queer characters, and the ongoing perpetuation of the Bury Your Gays trope, leave deep psychological wounds on the identity of queer people throughout our lives. (Btw, click through on all of those links, they're all worth the watch).
ClexaCon was so much more meaningful to me than I could have foreseen. I'd never been in a space that was 100% filled with queer and queer-allied humans and that in itself overwhelmed me almost to the point of tears. I seriously had never thought about what it would feel like to be surrounded by people who so understand and validate each others' intersectional queer identities, let alone one where all of these people think and care about culture as an entity and the importance of positive representation in the media. It made my heart swell up and my body relax. I felt safe and validated in a way I never have before. Even the mostly-straight celebrities and showrunners, who are overwhelmingly still the ones with the industry power to tell queer stories in the mainstream, were incredibly respectful, kind and present. The respect was mutual; attendees did not rush the celebrities for selfies, and they were not shuttled around behind closed doors but rather wandering the floor and bathrooms like the rest of us.
Often in my regular life, I hold back some of the parts of myself I still feel some level of shame or embarrassment about. I don't feel I can talk a lot about queer identity and representation because I often don't feel like the people around me understand it or feel it's important. This may or may not be true, but every person at ClexaCon understood how big the feelings around media and pop culture stories can be. There is a lot of stigma in the world surrounding the idea of fandom and the consumption of pop culture; it's not supposed to affect people so deeply, it's just entertainment, completely separate from "real life." But that's untrue. These stories are part of the cultural narrative, and are therefore part of society; they heavily influence the way "real life" people think and talk about so many aspects of what it means to be a person in the world. When the stories of people who aren't cisgender, heterosexual, and white get told, which is not nearly as often as the stories of those who do fit into those boxes, it has an even greater collective impact because of the historic erasure and marginalization of people who aren't what the cultural overlords (i.e. old white dudes) deem as acceptable or normal. (Not that many of the stories that have been told of cis-het white people are as nuanced or positive as they could or should be; they mostly just perpetuate sub-surface racism, misogyny, colonialism, all the bad things). There are a lot of ways in which this is changing (ClexaCon being proof of that), but there is a lot of work to do.
I'm still on a high from this past weekend and tbh I'm waiting with baited breath for the announcement of next year's con. I will be there with my siblings, ready to embrace each other once again in community, learning, and growth. So, as much as I'm still extremely salty about The 100, I'm thankful for all of the things Lexa's story has given me, including a smart, kind, and fun as hell homonormative community.
Links to some of the raddests rads on some of the panels I went to at the con: