Friday, May 17, 2024

ClexaCon can be a mostly positive queer experience

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*Author’s Note: This article was written directly after Clexacon 2019, several days before its publication. It is not a response to or an attempt to talk over the concerns of the vendors who have since come forward, or others who had a less positive experience.

This past weekend, Las Vegas played host to ClexaCon 2019. The wlw-focused fandom convention is now in its third year, and it continues to get not only bigger, but better. Queer women and allies come from all over the world to discuss media from a queer perspective and celebrate our representation. And, you know, to have a hell of a good time. It’s quite the experience, the kind of thing that can be a highlight of someone’s year. It is for me, though I never expected that when I first started going.

Despite being somewhat of a homebody, I’ve attended ClexaCon every year. Since you can probably find a wrap up of the events of ClexaCon 2019 anywhere on the internet, I’m going to share my experiences on a bit more of a personal level. Hopefully, I can do justice to why I enjoy this event so much when I usually avoid social functions like the plague. And maybe, just maybe convince someone who has never thought they’d enjoy it to give it a try.

So, confession time. I’m what you might call a ‘bad gay.’ I don’t usually enjoy hanging out with large groups of queer people because oftentimes the energy is quite negative and/or overly sexualized, at least to my tastes. (Also, I just hate crowds.) I guess I’m a bookstore lesbian. Or, craft store lesbian now, given all the time I’ve devoted to cosplaying recently. But I’m getting off-topic. My point is, an event being queer-themed is not enough to make me want to attend. A person being queer isn’t enough for me to be able to connect with them in any meaningful way. Honestly, I’d much rather socialize with straight people who enjoy the same things as I do than queer people I share no interests with.

However, there’s still a disconnect when discussing fandom with straight people. Recently I was with a group of (mostly) straight nerds who are fans of the She-Ra reboot, and I hit a snafu when I said Catra and Adora need to make out and they asked me if I meant ‘make up.’ Which, yes they do, that comes first and foremost (though I also stand by my original statement). But it was rather amusing to me, the difference discussing a show through a straight lens compared to interacting with gay Tumblr. And gay Tumblr can be great for connecting with fans who see things the same way you do, but it also tends to be fraught with negativity and shipping wars, and it’s not in-person.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned (or just old), but there’s something really special about coming together in the same space and celebrating fandom through a queer lens without shame or hesitation. That’s where ClexaCon comes in. It’s an in-person event that’s curated for the queer community but is not just about being queer. It’s about fandom as well, which gives us something else to connect over. Really, it’s a combination of the best parts of Pride and ComicCon without the drawbacks. We don’t feel marginalized and can ask questions and celebrate fandoms how we want without worrying about homophobic reactions. And just as importantly, it’s an extremely positive atmosphere, something I feel Pride events and queer spaces in general sometimes lack (though your mileage may vary).

Positivity and Inclusiveness

Let’s just say, ClexaCon is not Tumblr. Even when there is a bit of ship warring going on, it’s respectful and kind of tongue-in-cheek. The obvious example here is the playful trolling this year between two of the actresses shipped with Caity Lotz in the Arrowverse. First, Katrina Law ran on stage at the Avalance panel wearing a shirt that said “Nyssara 4 life,” then Jes McCallan returned the favor at the Nyssara panel while carrying a Death by Avalance sign. Vendors sold merchandise for competing ships without batting an eyelash, and the especially astute Glorious Weirdo were selling pins that read “make polyships not ship wars.”

Shipping aside, an atmosphere of kindness and respect dominates every year at ClexaCon. So many of the guests remarked on the positive energy in their panels and roundtable interviews with the media. Simply put, it’s just a fun place to be. Maybe getting out from behind our screens and seeing other people as people makes it harder to be cruel and easier to connect, or maybe we’re all just so happy to be there that we can’t possibly be in a bad mood. Either way, ClexaCon is a place where you can be open about who you are and what you like without fearing being dragged for it.

Pins available for sale at ClexaCon 2019: make polyships not ship wars, mostly gay

This extends beyond belonging to the queer community or liking unpopular ships. Something I really appreciate about ClexaCon is how there is room for all kinds of queer people with various sexual orientations and gender identities. Not only are bisexual and trans people welcome, there’s room for people who don’t fit nicely into the categories of bi vs. gay or cis vs. trans. The vendors village/artist alley had merchandise representing lesser-known gender identities, and I found a pin at the Butch and Sissy booth that says “mostly gay.” That one shocked me, in a very good way. I’m so used to navigating lesbian purity culture, and oftentimes in queer spaces I don’t feel comfortable admitting that I’m sometimes attracted to men too.

There has historically been a stigma around sexual fluidity in queer women. It’s understandable, given the cultural narratives about lesbians and bisexual women that we have to fight, but it’s caused significant fracturing within our community. ClexaCon felt like a safe space for me to be open about these things. Overall the atmosphere felt very non-judgmental, and several panels included discussions about sexual fluidity. There was even a panel to open the weekend about the dangers of gatekeeping, as well as one discussing the history and current usage of the term ‘lesbian’ and whether the specificity of the label also makes it inherently exclusionary.

I am so happy that we as a community are having these discussions, and that ClexaCon works so hard to be an inclusive space. There were panels dedicated to bisexual and trans representation. Intersectionality is not forgotten either, as there were multiple panels about the experiences and representation of queer people of color, as well as one about being disabled and LGBT. Last year, a group of writers from this site hosted a panel about neurodiversity. These panels seemed to be very well received by attendees, which is obviously just as important as the con approving them. We can’t improve if we don’t make an effort to understand each other.

A very astute point made in one of the panels was that the queer community is unlike other minority communities in that we always seem to be fighting each other because we have so many subgroups with different priorities, perspectives, and experiences. One thing ClexaCon does well is facilitate conversations within the queer community, giving different subgroups opportunities to share their stories with each other and improve our understanding and awareness of each other.

You Had to be There

One of the most valuable things you take home from the ClexaCon experience is the collection of genuine, priceless moments shared with the guests and your peer group. You know, those moments where you just had to be there. This makes the panels feel really intimate, even when there’s over 1000 people in attendance. The Arrowverse actresses trolling each other was amazing, of course. One of the funnier panel goofs was when Nafessa Williams was answering a question about food and said she loves Asian, could eat Asian every day. (For anyone who doesn’t know, her and Chantal Thuy’s characters are in a relationship in Black Lightning.) Needless to say, the audience was in stitches. She then dug herself a bigger hole by adding that she loves seafood, which got exactly the kind of reaction you’d expect.

In the Wynonna Earp panel, Kat Barrell was talking about a new project she’s working on and accidentally used the word “embryo,” and that may have prompted a thousand fics about pregnant Nicole. She and (her onscreen love interest) Dominique Provost-Chalkley and showrunner Emily Andras then worked together to make a prompt about Wayhaught in a row boat, where one of them has amnesia and there is bad seafood involved. Look out for those seemingly random fics on the AO3 in the coming weeks. But if you were there, you get it, and there’s a special satisfaction in knowing you were there when that thing started.

Perhaps the highlight of the weekend was Amber Benson’s panel about the ongoing legacy of her character Tara Maclay from Buffy, who was one of the first victims of the Bury Your Gays trope (at least in terms of beloved, established television characters). How closely Lexa’s death in The 100 mirrored it nearly two decades later was part of why the community found it so traumatic. However, the panel was anything but traumatic. It included an unexpected singalong to “I’m Under Your Spell” and (happy) tears on Benson’s part whenever fans told her how much Tara meant to them. Also, she threw her hat into a longstanding debate about Twillow when she said Tara was the top. Yes, that happened.

Kassandra (Assassin's Creed: Odyssey), Alex Danvers (Supergirl), and Xena (Xena: Warrior Princess) cosplayers at ClexaCon 2019

All in all, ClexaCon is a great place to make connections. Artist Alley is full of vendors who love talking about their work and the fandoms that inspire them, and I know from helping run our site’s table last year that the vendors’ tables are some of the best places to meet people who love the same things you do. This year, I met several people through our shared love of cosplay who then turned out to have other commonalities with me. Some fandoms have scheduled meetups too, where one can meet like-minded people and maybe unexpectedly run into an online friend or two. ClexaCon is also an excellent event for networking. In 2017 I met Gretchen and that’s how I started writing for this cool little website called The Fandomentals. Having a support system of other queer people is extremely helpful, and ClexaCon makes it easy to build one.

Room for (Even More) Improvement

As I said earlier, ClexaCon has gotten better every year. The organizers have listened to specific feedback and made attempts to improve the experience for everyone. This year the badge pickup party got moved to the same location as the con and was combined with a pool party, making something that had been a hassle in previous years more convenient and fun. They also changed the floor layout to cut down on lines obstructing doors and vendor booths. In 2018, water was made more easily accessible after there were complaints of its scarcity in the first year. More importantly, that year the con introduced a scholarship fund to help members of the community attend who otherwise wouldn’t be able to due to the costs of flights and lodging and tickets.

The scholarship fund was at least partly prompted by people who had money to spare wanting to help others out, which was so nice to see as someone who has always been one of the have-nots. I appreciate how the organizers have set up this program to make ClexaCon more accessible to people of lower incomes, not only for practical reasons, but because it makes us feel seen and valued. (I was given a partial scholarship these last two years and I am very grateful!) However, there is still room for improvement in this area. While the film festival, pool party, and fun run are free, other special events are really expensive and therefore inaccessible or at the very least bank-breaking for a significant number of the attendees.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about the Cocktails for Change event, because on one hand it’s a charitable event for a good cause, but on the other hand it’s a pay-to-play event where one can pay what equates to a week’s wages for some people to get special access to the guests. The breakfast meet-and-greets carry the same steep price, though they don’t have the same class connotations as a cocktail party. Meanwhile, the afterparty Ascension (which is touted as the highlight of the weekend) is an expensive event with very expensive drinks, where one can pay an exorbitant amount of money for a bottle of wine if they want to get past the bouncers and gain access to the VIP section and party with the guests.

Again, I understand that we have to make money to make ClexaCon viable and get the guests there in the first place. But it’s not great feeling like you’re restricted at an event supposedly made for you when other people have more opportunities based on their socioeconomic status. This is a form of intersectionality that unfortunately often gets overlooked. The fact that they have the scholarship fund makes the con itself more accessible, but it has always felt a bit like a two-tiered event to me, for the rich attendees versus the poor attendees. I have a big beef with the fact that the token queer character on a show is usually from an upper-middle class background, so this grates on me particularly hard.

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to this problem, since ClexaCon needs to make money to continue existing and people are more than willing to spend it, it’s just something I feel needs to be said so the organizers are aware that some attendees feel this way. Starting a dialogue is the first step to finding a solution, and I hope we can come up with something together to make attending special events more feasible for those with limited funds, and therefore make the con feel less inherently classist.

Going back to the subject of the afterparty, can we talk about how so many social events in queer spaces revolve around alcohol and how that might not be entirely positive or inclusive? This is not a problem with ClexaCon itself, but Kori and I agree it would be great in future years to have a dry, more low-key event for people who want the socializing without the club atmosphere. It would make the con feel more welcoming to those who can’t attend the afterparty because they’re in recovery, or for religious reasons, or because they’re simply not into the club scene. Also, some people have health issues or other conditions that make clubbing not exactly ideal. For instance, I’m on the autism spectrum and I only survived a couple hours of the afterparty by wearing my noise-cancelling headphones for most of it.

All that to say, it would have been cool if there was an alternative for after-hours socialization on Saturday, and I hope that’s something they consider adding to the programming for 2020. Currently, the only option is to try to find other people who want to go somewhere other than Ascension, but not everyone has the connections to do that for themselves. Having an official alternative event would be an excellent step forward for the con.

As I said above, ClexaCon’s organizers are fantastic people who seem to want to keep making their con better, so I have no doubt this will continue to be the event for queer women for years to come. If you’ve been thinking about going but have never quite gotten off the fence, just do it. The experience is worth it. I was waffling but went on a whim the first year, and have never looked back. If you give it a try, I don’t think you will either.

Header image courtesy of ClexaCon

*Editor’s Note: Several of the staff members of ClexaCon have since resigned following the event, and vendors have expressed their displeasure with the Artist’s Alley this year. There have also been public accounts of criticisms regarding intersectional spaces for non-binary and transgender persons, as well as PoC, and those with accessibility issues.

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