Connections and Camaraderie at GaymerX

Kevin VanOrd spent the weekend in San Francisco's Japantown exploring the joys of GaymerX, a gaming convention focused on LGBT culture.


This weekend, I witnessed something special. After serenading the audience with a stirring rendition of the famous Portal theme Still Alive, actress and singer Ellen McLain (the voice of GlaDOS) announced that new lyrics had been unearthed--but that she needed someone from the audience to help her perform them. She asked if anyone was from Belgium, and a young man raised his hand. McLain called the man up to the stage and sang the tune, accompanied by her husband and fellow voice actor John Patrick Lowrie on the banjo, but there was electricity in the air. Not only did the lyrics feature such lines as "We'll be married and you're still alive," but McLain was clearly getting choked up. Something magical was happening.

A moment later, another man appeared, grasping a portal gun. He dropped to his knees and asked the beaming Belgian to make him the happiest man on Earth. A heartfelt and tearful "I will" rung out through the room, and the audience erupted in applause and sobs. Two lives were changed in front of my very eyes. Two men committed to a lifetime of happiness.

This incredible moment happened at a convention called GaymerX, which I attended this weekend in my own city of San Francisco. GaymerX is billed as "the first gaming convention with a focus on queer geek culture," and true to a first-year con, it was smaller in scale than a major event like E3 or Comic-Con. But it was hardly tiny. Thousands of LGBT game players and allies browsed the halls of Hotel Kabuki and lined up to hear people like McLain and BioWare writer David Gaider speak. I, too, was one of those speakers. On Sunday, along with IGN's Chuck Osborn and panel organizer Rob Galbreath, I shared my experience as a gay games writer with a packed house, shocked that people had to be turned away from the room because it couldn't hold any more.

I'm often asked why the LGBT community "needs" a convention just for them. GaymerX isn't just for LGBT people, but for everyone, and many attendees are straight. But it does focus on LGBT gaming culture, allowing us to view games through a particular lens. This weekend, I didn't feel like an outsider. The atmosphere was warm and pleasant. The world around me is one in which not everyone thinks of me as "normal;" at GaymerX, it was safe to be wholly me: a gay person who is really into video games. It was a place you could ask your boyfriend to marry you without fear of negative repercussions.

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Why else do we need a convention created with the LGBT community in mind? I suspect that glancing at the comments section below will help answer that question. For people like me, the real world can be trying. The Internet, where anonymity allows human beings to unload the most disgusting corners of their minds without facing the consequences of hurting others, is downright toxic. A friendly, healthy place where LGBT people can share their stories and experiences is valuable, if not absolutely vital.

On Saturday, I attended three different panels after perusing the public spaces, where games like RuPaul's Drag Race: Dragopolis were on display, and various visual artists plied their wares. The most memorable was "Voice Acting 101," where McLain and Lowrie discussed the ins and outs of getting into the voiceover business. Their most important piece of advice: get a demo reel. You'll need to make a personal investment, maybe around $500-$750, but doors can be opened, even if you feel your voice isn't the marketable type. Lowrie warned the crowd against thinking that they sounded "too gay" to get into voice acting, though given his deep made-for-radio baritone, it sounded like an easy thing for him to say. But there's no shame in a certain amount of typecasting, he said.

The information and anecdotes that McLain and Lowrie shared were illuminating, but the couple's connection to us in the audience wasn't built around the how-to's of voiceover, but on the sisterhood and brotherhood we join as game players and human beings. When McLain launched into her rendition of Still Alive, the majority of the audience sang the lyrics with her. Later, we sat rapt as the pair told us the romantic story of their courtship. The two of them were both in Europe participating in a tour of the musical Show Boat, where a simple guitar lesson ultimately turned into what Lowrie referred to as a 27-year honeymoon. How amazing that the two of them were instrumental in the evolution of another romance.

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Another panel I attended was equally entertaining but in a far different way. It featured noted drag artist Pandora Boxx, most famous for her role on Logo TV's RuPaul's Drag Race. Pandora has several connections to video games, the most prominent being her win of Spicy Horse Games' Alice costume contest. Pandora's appearance as American McGee's Alice is properly demented, though she appeared at the panel in Harley Quinn drag. Much of Pandora's panel was too bawdy to quote here; with a name like Pandora Boxx, the double entendres are bound to pour forth. But even the most cringe-worthy sexual quips came across as charming rather than obnoxious, thanks to Pandora's clipped nasal giggle.

Pandora is clearly not much of a gamer, as evidenced by her deflection when asked, for example, what her favorite character in Dragon Age: Origins is. She did seem to know her Zelda and Mario, however, and had some snide words to share regarding Skyward Sword, which had the audience chuckling in agreement. But Pandora's most interesting story related to her participation in the mobile game RuPaul's Drag Race: Dragopolis. Rather than appear in a studio or record at home using a high-end digital microphone, Pandora recorded her flamboyant lines on an iPhone. In her closet. Please insert gay-themed "closet" humor here.

My final panel of the day was called "Meet Bioware!" There, Dragon Age writer David Gaider and Bioware community manager Jessica Merizan told of the negatives and positives of making games inclusive of the LGBT community. The two discussed in earnest--and with warm humor--the realities of facing an unkind Internet. If you haven't heard Gaider's name before, you may not know of his now-famous response to a player angered that BioWare "neglected" the straight male gamer in Dragon Age II. Dragon Age II, like many of Bioware's games, allows you to participate in same-sex romances if you so desire, but the fantasy RPG sequel marked the first time that any romanceable character could be romanced by a player character of either gender.

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Gaider and Merizan have both been the victims of vitriol based on Bioware's inclusion of same-sex relationships in their games, though Gaider fondly recalled one message on his blog that had this to say about gay people: "F*** them all." Gaider's response? "Very ambitious goal, but good luck!" Not all of us are so quick-witted, of course, and Gaider impressed upon the audience that Bioware will continue to represent the underrepresented, and that even companies as risk-averse as Electronic Arts see value in acknowledging and marketing to the LGBT community when they may not have even a few years back.

After Saturday's panels, my night was filled with fellowship. I met a teacher from Houston, a programmer from Irrational Games, a couple from Orlando, and several others in the bar at Hotel Kabuki, where most of the convention was occurring. We drank sake and talked games for hours, enthusing about Dark Souls, discussing the ups and downs of BioShock Infinite, and debating whether classic games are always best played on their original systems. My tipsy group made its way to Mel's Drive-In for some unspectacular diner food before the out-of-towners hobbled back to their hotel rooms and I stumbled back to my own place. Lucky for me, my place is only a 10-minute walk from Japantown.

It was tough to rouse myself Sunday morning, but I forced my groggy body to obey my brain's commands. I was due to speak at 2PM at a panel called "Journalism 101 with IGN and GameSpot," but I didn't know exactly what I would be speaking about or who was joining me. This was my first time speaking on a con panel, so the lack of detailed communication was giving me the jitters, though the butterflies in my belly were at least calmed by the brisk walk to the hotel.

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As it turns out, I didn't have much to worry about. After taking the stage with Chuck and Rob, the audience began to file in. Yet I wasn't nervous anymore. The faces in front of me were smiling. They were there because they thought my fellow writers and I would have something of value to offer. And once we began to speak, the words flowed. And the first anecdote I shared was one that I hope can communicate why I think it's important that LGBT gamers have voices speaking out for them.

It was 2002, and the latest copy of PC Gamer arrived in the mail. At this point, I wasn't in the industry--I was just passionate about games, and PC games in particular. I eagerly awaited the magazine each month, anxious to see what great writers like Greg Vederman would have to say. It was Chuck Osborn I most looked up to, however. He wrote the mag's monthly first-person shooters column, and I eventually developed a crush on him. And one month, Chuck wrote an article about game nude mods, referring to a Max Payne nude mod as appealing to the ladies out there, as well as 10 percent of the guys.

This was the first time I'd ever seen that 10 percent acknowledged by a games publication, or even by anyone I knew who was into games. It was a defining moment for me--that moment when I realized that there might be other gay men that also liked playing video games. And so I wrote an e-mail to Chuck, thanking him for the column and telling him that there were also a number of great nude mods for The Sims out there too. (Not that, you know, I would ever have downloaded such a mod myself! Ahem.) I never imagined I'd get a reply, yet the following day I had a response from Chuck, thanking me for the email, and in the process, referring to his own male partner.

Not only did a magazine refer to people like me, but my favorite PC Gamer personality was also gay. Maybe I could follow my dream to be a games writer after all. Maybe there was a place for someone like me.

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I shared my story with Chuck seated directly next to me. I've met Chuck before. I'd told him the short version of the story before this. But I don't think he truly knew how instrumental his e-mail to me was in driving me to pursue my passion. After I shared my experience with the crowd, he leaned over and hugged me, and my eyes became wet. How grateful I was, and am, that I get to do what I do, and that I had a gay role model in games writing to look up to when I needed it. The rest of the panel was a blur, the three of us commenting on the path to games writing, the cruel comments we so often have to endure, and our personal responsibilities to make our voices heard.

I finished the weekend both exhausted and energized. Being an out gay man writing for a mainstream games publication can be trying. I have received death threats and faced concerted efforts from people seeking to hurt and discredit me simply because I am gay, and that vitriol is only a fraction of what some of my LGBT colleagues see on a daily basis. Thank God for GaymerX, then, for reminding me that there are so many people of all ages out there that are like me. I hope that in my own small way I can show aspiring LGBT writers and developers that there's a place for them in the games industry, just as Chuck did for me. And I hope that GaymerX can continue to give us a public venue for sharing stories while authoring new ones for the future.


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