On Joining the LGBTQ+ Fandom Later in Life
From my obvious interest in media that tells LGBTQ+ stories and subsequent frustration when it is handled poorly, some might infer that I’ve been in this fandom for years, not months. But I’m actually quite a newborn when it comes to engagement with LGBTQ+ fandoms.
I was raised in a conservative Evangelical Christian home just dysfunctional enough to not provide me with the proper vocabulary for coping with my attraction to women. Add onto that layers of abuse, trauma, and mental illness and you have a very, shall we say, interesting mental cocktail. Coping with my attraction to women was far down on my brain’s list of Shit To Deal With for a long time. I didn’t recognize it for decades; quite honestly, until Steven Universe and the Clexa ship smacked me in the face (and after I’d developed healthier coping mechanisms for the other aspects of my headspace). Lexa’s death made me so viscerally upset that I had to recognize that it was personal for me.
Anyway, here I am, a thirty year old woman just discovering she’s bisexual and faced with decades worth of LGBTQ+ fandoms, discourse, fic, and communities to navigate. What’s a newborn bi woman to do but throw herself into it with abandon? I don’t do my fandoms by halvesies. I’m all or nothing.
Every experience of LGBTQ+ fandom is valid, whether you enter it at twelve or fifty-two. No matter your age, don’t be afraid to jump in. To quote my favorite TV mentor/mom Cat Grant, “In order to live, we must keep daring, keep diving.” If you’re afraid to stick your toe in the LGBTQ+ fandom waters, I’ve been there. I’m here to tell you it’s worth it.
Diving In When You’re Different
Coming into any fandom this late has pros and cons, but the LGBTQ+ fandom has unique challenges and rewards for a late bloomer. The most obvious example is fanfic. Unlike my first exposure to femslash when I was a teenager—which left me excited, confused and ashamed (see, Raised In Conservative Home and Unaware of Own Attraction to Women)—I know my tastes better now. I know what I want out of a fic and skip the rest. The benefit being I’m less likely to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of available femslash fics and pairings.
The downside is that I might be more likely to miss out on a real gem of a popular fic in the fandom if it doesn’t sound like it fits my tastes. This, in turn, can make it harder to engage with the fandom at times, because I’m interested in different things. This need not be negative, however. Sometimes it means I learn to expand my tastes by reading a fic I might not otherwise. 9.9/10 I’m happy I did. I, in turn, can recommend less popular fics that are more to my natural tastes and get other people engaged in talking about them. It’s a win-win for everyone.
Language and communication style can be a barrier, though, as many of the new femslash fandom communities are driven mostly by people half my age. They and I not only have different tastes, but also different patterns of speaking and interacting. I’m pretty good at adapting my speech patterns to fit my listener, especially when it is written language, but I just can’t ‘fake’ my age. Nor would I want to. And, let’s be honest, they wouldn’t want me to either.
In my past life, I was an academic linguist, so I worry about coming off as overly stuffy or pedantic with the younger generation of fans. I have a fairly archaic vocabulary and my typing habits have been ingrained in me since I was in middle school and don’t change easily. Without too much effort, I can sound like I’m twice my age. I want to engage and be approachable, but I know my style of speaking can put people off. So I’ve adapted. It’s worth it for me to do the work, but it can feel a bit exhausting sometimes.
I end up in this weird limbo, caught between generations. My innate vocabulary and typing patterns are adult, but my excitability and interest are more on par with those teenagers that are just discovering their sexuality. In a way, I’m having a second puberty, but one where I also have this entire history of experience with other fandoms behind me to offer me a different perspective. Not better, mind you, just different. I’ve seen problematic discourse in fandoms before and know what battles I’m willing to pick based on what I’ve seen elsewhere. I’m less jaded than some of my contemporaries because I did not have to live through some of the LGBTQ+ fandoms’ darkest days with regard to media representation, but also more picky with what I consume. I want the best media has to offer because I don’t have time for nonsense or bullshit storytelling.
I’ve seen it in the other fandoms I’ve been involved in. Coming into the fandoms during the Spring Slaughter opened my eyes very quickly to the worst that our media had to offer, and I’ve already had my fill thank you very much.
Picking Fandom Battles
It’s harder to enter spaces dominated by people who neither speak nor relate to the world as you do. I can pick up on slang, emojis both ironic and honest, and grammatical constructions, but at heart we have different perspectives. My frustrations are different than theirs. I’m passionate about changing media to better represent LGBTQ+ persons, but I understand how powerful the structures within the system are better now than I did when I as younger.
I prefer to think in terms of incremental change, which can make some of my younger fandom friends angry. I sympathize more strongly with my older fandom friends who have been here for years, the ones who say, “we need to appreciate what we’ve accomplished” or “at least things are better than they were”. Joining my new fandom voice to theirs can sound like I don’t care enough or that I’m policing other people’s anger. It’s not my intent, and I understand the reaction. It’s just a different kind of discussion with different priorities.
I happen to think we need both voices working together to accomplish our goals as a community, which is a separate article in and of itself. For my part, I try to engage with those who are frustrated by my reactions. It isn’t always easy. There can be a lot of misunderstanding and hurtful engagement before an accord is reached. It’s a normal part of being online and joining a community, especially one that has been hurt and shunted aside by our broader society. I don’t always say things in the appropriate way because I honestly don’t know the language I’m supposed to use. I’m at a disadvantage because I don’t have the right terminology and don’t always know what words or experiences are problematic for my audience. I’m willing to put in the work, don’t get me wrong. I just wish I could wear a badge around online that said, “I’m new, here! I don’t know what I’m doing; help me communicate with you better!”
Having lived through other rigorous fandom discussions, shall we say, I’m less likely to engage with community wide fandom discourse unless I feel very passionately about it. When I see intra-community fighting, my tendency is to hide away in my own corner of fandom and pretend I don’t see it. I stay in my own lane. It isn’t because I don’t care, though I’m sure it can seem that way. It’s really that I don’t have the emotional energy. I have plenty of Problematic Discourse in my waking life. When I see it online in my LGBTQ+ fandoms, I want to curl up and hide, or write fluff fic.
Now this may have more to do with personality than age. I know plenty of other women my age who seem to enjoy Discourse. Every woman’s experience in every fandom will be different, LGBTQ+ fandoms included. Only for me, because I’ve been unaware of my sexuality for so long, I want to celebrate it, and I turn to fandoms to do that because they’re safe for me.
In short, I use LGBTQ+ fandoms as a way to celebrate a part of me that I haven’t and don’t get to celebrate much in my everyday life. I’m still in the closet to most of my family and friends, most of whom would not embrace my sexuality if they knew. I entered the LGBTQ+ fandom with a specific need and seek out ways to fulfill it. I came looking for ways to celebrate, affirm, validate my experience as well as learn as much as I can about how to talk with other people about it because my vocabulary for my experience is woefully inadequate.
It isn’t that I won’t engage with important conversations, or defend people being ganged up on. I’ve lived long enough in the closet to desperately want to protect my young fandom friends from suffering as I have. I feel the anger that other people do about certain shows and situations, believe me. I’ve talked about it at length on this very website. That being said, my primary draw to the LGBTQ+ fandom was to know that I have a place where I fit, where I could be myself without judgment. So if I sometimes seem more quiet online, it’s either because I don’t know what to say, I’m too worn out from my daily life to know how to engage, or I’m in need of some self care and joy.
At times, engaging with the fandom can feel like a popularity cult. Not that LGBTQ+ fandoms are unique in this way, it happens everywhere online. You have a handful of influential people who determine the course of the discourse on social media. Everything flows from those sources. It can make it a bit lonely for people like me who are trying to break in, especially if those influential people don’t take notice of you. I had to accept that since I wasn’t a part of the inner circle, I was probably going to be screaming into the social media void for a while before people started to pay attention. Again, I accept it as a natural part of being online, but it can feel lonely on the margins, especially on the margins of an already marginalized community.
In many ways, I feel like I’m entering a new culture and that I’ve missed out on key formative experiences and media. People assume I’ve watched Legend of Korra or The L Word, and I haven’t, nor do I have time to drop everything and catch up on the media I’ve missed in the decades I was so far in the closet I might as well have existed in Narnia. I ask questions and listen patiently when people explain things to me, but it can get frustrating to always feel behind or that I need to watch certain shows to be a ‘real’ LGBTQ+ fan.
On the positive side, I didn’t have to live through the absolute dearth of LGBTQ+ media from the past few decades, and the shitty representation that was present, if it existed at all. Other people have waded through the crap for me. By now, there are places I can go to get a meticulous, well crafted list of recs for fic, TV, and films. I can engage with just the good things and ignore the rest if that’s what I prefer.
Some might call that a kind of privilege, and I understand where they’re coming from. I’m learning to embrace that privilege though, as it also applies to my young LGBTQ+ friends as well. We don’t have to have lived through the harrowing years of little to no representation to understand how important representation is. The very lack of representation is part of why it took me so long to figure my orientation out. I just didn’t see myself in any of the media characters I engaged with.
I’m well aware that I’m lacking in experience of LGBTQ+ media. It’s part of why I’m engaging with it as vociferously as I am now. When I love something, I want to devour everything I can get my hands on related to that thing. My rec list is as long as my arm and getting longer every day. If I could drop everything to read, watch, and listen to all the LGBTQ+ content I’ve missed over the years, I would. But I can’t. I have other interests and things to do—work, my business, writing my sci-fi novel, writing for Fandom Following—that prevent me from dropping everything to get caught up to a place where I can speak about LGBTQ+ media with the legitimacy of someone who has been here for years.
Not that I think people believe I’m not legitimate. Except, to be honest, sometimes it feels that way, like I’m too new to have a voice. I haven’t suffered enough or experienced enough homophobia to really know what it’s like. Thankfully, only a few people online have made me feel this way (and that’s what the block function is for), but still. I’m scared sometimes that if people find out I’m a newcomer, I’ll be shamed or silenced. That I’ll be told I’m not a legitimate member of this community because it hasn’t impacted my life the way it has others. Being a bi woman married to a man only enhances the fear, as there are segments of the LGBTQ+ community who believe that someone like me does not belong.
All that to say that this is a complicated world I’m navigating, and I’m doing my best. I ‘eavesdrop’ on conversations on social media and try to really listen before I engage. I ask questions when I need to; I ask for recs when I’m feeling swamped by too many choices. I ship what I ship and write fic when I’m inspired. I don’t let people police my involvement, investment, or interests. I let it be alright that I’m on the fringes in certain communities because for me being involved and learning to better love and enjoy myself matters more to me than having the best or last words in a conversation. I keep diving, keep daring. Why? Because despite the complications, LGBTQ+ fandoms can be some of the most beautiful, joyful, life-giving communities online. I’m happy here, and I’ve made some amazing friends that I would never have made elsewhere.
A New Purpose
I’ve learned a lot in the past year, and I had a tough learning curve. I was thrown in head first after Lexa’s death, which is what pulled me in deep enough that I’m going to be a panelist at a ClexaCon on the Ethics of Storytelling for LGBTQ+ stories. I have engagements to speak to two different groups in my area about the importance of LGBTQ+ representation in media, as well as how I came to be critiquing media in general and writing about LGBTQ+ media specifically. I’m writing a sci-fi novel with a lesbian protagonist and one of my goals is to publish sci-fi and fantasy with LGBTQ+ protagonists. My first fanfic in literally years is a Supergirl femslash, and I’ve already gotten a request to translate it into Italian. Somehow, this ‘fandom’ thing got to be my life, and I love it.
I want to make space for stories I would have wanted/needed as a young person to more fully understand myself. Like Supergirl, I don’t want others to struggle the way I have. I did not have to wrestle with my identity as a teen or twenty-something. My challenge was in not even knowing myself for who I really was. It’s a shocking experience and sometimes an alienating one, and I don’t want anyone to suffer that way. That’s why I’m here and why I’m staying. For all its challenges, I’m thankful for LGBTQ+ fandoms I belong to because they’ve given me myself and a purpose. I wouldn’t change that for the world.
This article is a reprint (with minor modification) of an article originally published by Gretchen on TheFandomentals.