LGBTQ+ Fans: We’re Here, Queer, and Remaking Fandom in Our Own Image

·6 min read

Fandom is incredibly queer. Its origins as a space for LGBTQ+ people are well-documented, and we see that today, too. Fandom is often an online-offline queer community, supporting fans who may or may not see themselves in actual source material, but who can gather together and feel seen by each other.

This month, we’re celebrating Pride by talking about queer histories and communities within different, largely English-language, fandoms and how these spaces have allowed us to be ourselves on main in a major way. The fandom podcast Fansplaining did a multi-fandom survey of over 17,000 fans on “shipping” back in 2019, in which they found that just under half of the respondents said they were bisexual, with thousands more identifying somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. This tracks with much of fandom’s established history. While there certainly must have been people in other spaces who wrote proto-fanfiction amongst themselves and shared it with people who were similarly interested in fictional characters kissing, online queer fandom in English traces back to Star Trek and, specifically, Kirk/Spock slash (a term that tends to refer to romantic or sexual relationships between male characters).

As Constance Penley pointed out in her 1997 book NASA/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America, the phenomena that would become one of the earliest slash shipping fandoms didn’t start from a single person in a single space. Around the world in the late sixties and early seventies, thousands of female Star Trek fans separately decided to look at their favorite series and read the relationships in it along very queer lines.

“Through seeing the episodes countless times in syndication and on their own taped copies,” Penley wrote, “these fans recognized that there was an erotic homosexual subtext there, or at least one that could easily be made to be there.” Fandom is all about creating something big and meaningful out of something small. In this case, the relationship that Kirk and Spock have shared across the decades is still held as a cornerstone upon which queer fandom legacies are built. Character archetypes like Military/Genius or Sarcastic/Broody or the visual markers of a blond-haired man and a dark-haired man (both always pale, usually white) as the “ideal” pairing in many fandoms can be traced back to what began with Kirk and Spock.

There’s also the unignorable impact of Xena the Warrior Princess on lesbian fandoms decades after it began airing. Kirk/Spock paved the way for these modern fandoms in many ways, but so did Xena and the relationship between the titular character and her beloved companion Gabrielle. Fans shipping femslash pairings like Adora/Catra in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Regina/Emma (SwanQueen) in Once Upon A Time, Kara/Lena (SuperCorp) in Supergirl, and Grace/Anissa (ThunderGrace) in Black Lightning are all following a legacy of femslash sparked by Xena and that very loud, very proud fandom.

While shipping is one of the most visible ways that we see different sexualities and gender identities in fandom, queerness in fandom goes beyond that. Online fandom has also often been a space for fans to find and bask in the representation they’re denied by different forms of media, as well as to find friends and acceptance that they may not have in their offline lives. When I was growing up and watching Smallville decades ago and pining over ships that would never be canon, I never thought that I’d get to see a bisexual Black actress like Javicia Leslie play a character like Batwoman. But here we are, and my Batwoman is someone extra accessible to me… but also to newer generations of queer fans who are seeing themselves in her for the first time and creating content and hype to match. How about the positive global response to the relationship between Viktor Nikiforov and Yuri Katsuki in Yuri!!! On ICE and how important that series has become to many queer fans? Many people couldn’t imagine how powerful that series would be for them as it played out.

Two years ago, I wrote about how getting invested in BTS and joining their fandom (ARMY) — where my direct fandom engagements were with other queer people of color — allowed me to experience a sense of powerful and positive pride in fandom. I’m still here, still surrounded by other queer people who largely “get it” and have come together to form different communities within this and other idol fandoms where we can be fully ourselves. “Harlings”, the fandom for openly gay idol Holland, have formed a positive and loving community that come together to support each other and their favorite idol as he navigates a very complicated celebrity existence. In other stan Twitter fandoms for celebrities across the world, queer fans take inspiration from celebrity fashion and their engagement with Gender to fuel their own self-expression. But they also talk about other things that matter to them. Some fans speak about how the parasocial relationships they develop with the idols help them grow as people and forge their own futures. Other queer fans look towards out queer celebrities like Halsey and Elliot Page as examples that inform what they want from their own lives.

Unfortunately, it’s not all rainbow flags and roses. Queer fandom does suffer from many of the same issues that other community spaces online and offline do. It’s important to note that online fandom spaces deal with things like transmisogyny from fellow fans in otherwise queer-friendly fandoms (for example, the fact that J.K. Rowling still has die-hard fans despite… all of that). Meanwhile, there can be a hyper-focus on queering white men (both performers and characters) at the direct expense of female characters and characters of color in their canons who get rewritten or erased. Plus, there’s an overall lack of interest in queer Black/brown fans, characters, and celebrities outside of shallow engagement. Preference — which is used in non-fandom queer communities to excuse bigoted responses or general non-interest in other marginalized identities — is used to similar effect in fandom spaces by queer fans. As queer fans creating our own spaces, we need to clock and reject our reliance on norms that cut out or erase many people who aren’t as visible or who are seen as less “preferred.”

That’s where we get to play our own role in determining the future of queer fandom. We get to continue the exciting legacy of generations of fans who have found solace in fandom, and I’m proud to have connected with so many different people who are using fandom to express themselves. We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re remaking media and fandom in our image.

Stitch will continue discussing the many layers of fandom in Fan Service, published every other week on Teen Vogue. You can follow their work on Stitch's Media Mix and on Twitter.

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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue