Every time I see a straight couple holding hands, or kissing, or hugging in public, it’s a little painful.
I'm Liam Esler and I'm gay. I’ve been with my partner for the past eight and a half years, and I don’t feel comfortable doing any of those things. Not necessarily because someone would say something, or do something, but because we become a spectacle for people to react to. I can’t hold hands with my partner walking down the road without being judged for it. And it’s all well and good to say, “Well, just ignore it,” but why should I have to? Shouldn’t it be okay for me and my partner to express even a small amount of affection in public and not be judged for it?
Earlier this year Joshua Meadows and I got together with GaymerX in the United States to organise the first ever queer gaming convention here in Australia. GX Australia is a space where diverse people, women, queer people, trans* people, people of colour and of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds are actively welcome. Where we can talk about the issues that affect us and hang out with people who are like us. And we want you to be there, whoever you are, because we think you’re awesome, that that you deserve to be acknowledged, and we hope that you can support us.
When I was growing up, games were an escape and an outlet: a place I could be myself without fear of ridicule, anger, or disgust. Sometimes it was an adventure, saving the world with Jak & Daxter. Sometimes it was a puzzle, finding solutions in Myst and Riven. Sometimes it was just fun, a place where everyone was equal and we could all just hang out, like with Crash Team Racing.
Games were always a place where I didn’t have to worry about the real world. That was pretty important to me growing up a gay kid in a small country town near Adelaide, South Australia.
I know that I’m not alone in this. For many people gaming is an outlet where they can be themselves in a world they feel doesn’t accept them. Where it’s okay to be a man or a woman or non-binary, and explore what that means to you in a safe space. Where you can love whomever you want to, and not worry about the expectations of society. Where you can explore your identity, who you truly are, without worrying about what others will think of you.
My parents realised pretty early on that I was different, that I wouldn’t fit in at a normal school. They moved out of the city and to the small, close-knit community of Willunga, an hour south of Adelaide, where I went to a Steiner school. The Steiner curriculum is very arts-focused and fit me perfectly, but I was still the only queer kid. This was the right thing to do, but moving me to somewhere with fewer people meant it was harder to find find people like myself who I could relate too. My parents did a wonderful job making me feel accepted within our family and our community at large, but for a long time, I was one of the only queer people I knew.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know I was different. I was always the weird kid, even at a “weird school.” I never had more than a few friends until high school, when I learned to be funny.
Games and their online communities became my refuge. I met many amazing people: straight, queer, trans*, and everything in between- and slowly began to realise that it was okay to be myself, even though I was different. I learned that different didn’t mean I was bad or unworthy. Different was just that — different — and there were a whole lot of other people like me. I wasn’t alone any more and it felt amazing.
I had found my people and we were all over the world. I often wished I could meet my online friends in person, and some I did, but the tyranny of distance is mighty indeed. Even today I still stay in touch with many of the people I met online when I was a teenager. They watched me grow up and taught me many things I needed to know about acceptance and friendship and how to love people who are different from you. They’re as much a part of me as my genetic family.
This is why fifteen year old me could have really used an event like GX Australia. I know that these spaces are important because of my own experiences and also from having countless conversations with others about how important their communities were to them.
It’s true that we have several fantastic gaming conventions in Australia, particularly PAX Australia, which we mention in the GX Australia Kickstarter video. PAX Australia has done some absolutely brilliant things for diversity, and has worked incredibly hard to ensure their event is welcoming to and accepting of diverse people. I’m constantly in awe of the work they do in this field, in their panels, their support of the Diversity Lounge, the creation of the AFK Room, and many other initiatives.
With all this in mind, you might ask (understandably): Why do we need a queer convention? Why do we need to divide, or otherwise compartmentalise the gaming community?
There are lots of answers to this. For me, the core is this: most gaming events, including PAX, are primarily targeted at people who aren’t me. And that’s totally okay! I’m not in the majority, and I don’t expect all things to be targeted towards me. Gaming events are usually targeted at guys of the heterosexual bent, often considered to be the ‘core’ gaming audience. Events like PAX are doing awesome things to broaden their attendee base and make all people feel welcome, but that doesn’t change the fact that those events aren’t for me specifically. And while that’s totally fine, it would be awesome to have an event that is for me.
Over 50% of the population are women and we still have a long way to go to reduce discrimination against gender. Australia, as a whole, still has issues. Homophobia and transphobia are still very common, despite the fact that Australia is considered progressive in these areas. We want to create an event that recognises this, where we can talk about the issues that concern queer, trans* and other minorities that might not concern the broader gaming audience. Where we can hang out with people like us, who are different.
I want a place where, even if it’s only for a weekend, I don’t have to worry. Where I can hang out and enjoy the games I love, talk about them from my own perspective, and hear the perspectives of others who are different too. Because everything around me, down to the pop-culture I consume, tells me that who I am isn’t normal, that I don’t fit the mold of societal expectations. And for the most part, I’m okay with that. I know I’m not the norm. I know I’m different, and I’m okay with that. I think I’m pretty rad, actually, but it’s taken me a long time to get to that point. And many people never do.
I don’t want the world to change everything that it does just for me. All I want is a couple of games I can play, people I can talk to, and events I can go to that actively say, “Hey. You’re awesome, you’re welcome here, let’s hang out."