For me, one of the most valuable aspects of LeakyCon was the way it provided a supportive, generative environment for adolescent identity development. LeakyCon’s oft-repeated message to attendees is that they should “feel free to be themselves,” but the authentic self of the LeakyCon attendee is clearly not meant to be a fixed or singular entity. Multiple fandoms allow for multiple, changing sites of identification, and fans are likewise encouraged to explore and perform various aspects of their selves that they largely cannot at home. At an “LGBT”-defined “meet-up,” for example, fans testified eloquently about how LeakyCon’s fandom community (and the Tumblr fan community at large) have provided accepting, inclusive spaces for them to develop and affirm their non-normative gender and sexual identities. These fans also emphasized, more surprisingly, the critical importance of fan communities as sites for thinking through the limitations of dominant cultural formations regarding sex and gender, as well as providing invaluable opportunities for them to be perceived as something other, and more complex, than their gender/sexual affiliation.
Attending the LGBT meet-up seemed especially important at this moment of national change, and I was struck by the way in which these particular LGBT youth represented a generation in transition regarding this identity category. Indeed, the very term “LGBT” was often either qualified by attendees (“I’m bisexual, but I don’t believe in the gender binary”) or explicitly rejected; many attendees preferred to identify themselves by a term I was unfamiliar with, “GSM” (“Gender/Sexual Minority”), because they felt it was both more inclusive and less fixed. These attendees described fan communities as supportive, progressive spaces for renegotiating their identities and developing alternative concepts of sexual difference. Fan-focused social media sites were their primary informational sources and Tumblr, specifically, was repeatedly cited by fans as providing the vital space for in-depth, supportive discussions on the topic of their own sexual and gender identities. As one attendee explained, “I got into the fandoms [on Tumblr] and I started to meet people who said that you don’t have to be L,G,B, or T, you can be anything in between—and I really liked that idea because I didn’t feel like I belonged to any of them.”
There was also clearly a desire among many fans for the larger cultural focus on adolescent gender/sexual identity to broaden and include other aspects of their identities they viewed as equally important. Fans spoke about having parents who were so intent on being supportive of their potential sexual non-normativity (“I think [my dad] really wanted me to be a lesbian because he’s a feminist,” noted one) that they felt pressured to declare themselves early; one adolescent was embarrassed when her sexual identity changed twice during her formative years and felt she couldn’t “come out again” anywhere but on Tumblr and at LeakyCon. Another attendee strongly valued her identity as a Ravenclaw, the Harry Potter “house” defined by intellectual work and creativity, but noted that since she has come out to her friends, “it’s kind of become the only thing I am, just that ‘bi-girl’.” Her voice rose as she continued, tearing-up: “That’s why I like LeakyCon so much, because I’m not just bisexual. Yes, I am bisexual, but I’m also a Ravenclaw and I’m a Whovian! I’m a Pokemaster! A Starkid! And so my name is —— and I’m a FANGIRL! And I am bisexual.” Like Harry Potter, the boy who lived to become something more than only that, LGBT and GSM attendees at Leakycon have the opportunity to develop multiple aspects of their identities-in-process and to be valued for all of them.
Addendum: It is impossible to know how Tumblr’s recent purchase by Yahoo may threaten the very culture I’m discussing here, although recent structural changes regarding “adult content” are cause for concern, and they drive home how much these kinds of thoughtful, nuanced conversations about sex/sexuality are currently dependent on technological and industrial infrastructure. As someone who regularly teaches classes in the history of sex, my experience at LeakyCon reinforced the importance of social media as an informational and exploratory tool for young people, especially in the United States, where access to the most basic sex education remains uneven at best.
For more on LeakyCon 2013, read:
– Part one (“Where the Fangirls Are“)
– Part two (“On Wearing Two Badges“)
– Part three (“Fans and Stars and Starkids“)
– Part five (“Inspiring Fans at LeakyCon Portland“)
– Part six (“Redefining the Performance of Masculinity“)
– Part seven (“Embracing Fan Creativity in Transmedia Storytelling“)