Five Lessons From Clexacon 2019
Clexacon is a unique event: a fan convention in which fans get to encounter and hear from actresses in queer roles, a meet-up for thousands of queer women, a space to discuss queer female and transgender representation on screen and real life social issues, and an opportunity for content creators to network and develop their projects. Although Clexacon focuses almost exclusively on American (and to a lesser extent Canadian) representation—an unfortunate Anglo bias reflecting the disparity in representation globally—there is no other event in the world like it, and it is an event that the queer community desperately needs, both for our own sakes and to show the global entertainment industry the size and potential of LGBT viewers. Put another way, the event is intended directly to celebrate the queer community, but indirectly to influence heterosexual producers and executives to provide more queer content.
As would one expect from a convention dedicated to queer representation on the big and small screen, many of the discussions at Clexacon involve interesting and thought-provoking ideas about what is needed for more representation. Here are five big take-aways from Clexacon this year:
1. We have to continue to create our own queer content and not rely on the entertainment industry to give it to us because the entertainment industry remains largely closed to minority stories and characters.
Per former “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” actress Amber Benson, Hollywood is still actively rejecting and resisting minority stories (whether race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.). In her experience pitching and writing content for channels such as Hallmark and Lifetime, she has seen Hollywood either operate on an implicit quota system, in which minorities are allotted only a tiny amount of screen time, or outright excluded. LL Passion notes this is likely to be even more true of the entertainment industries of other countries, where there are additional social and religious prohibitions on depictions of homosexuality. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “The Walking Dead” actress Briana Venskus suggested that one reason Hollywood continues to ignore minority stories is that it doesn’t view the queer community as a financially lucrative market. Why develop content for a demographic base that will not return a profit?
Although Benson expressed frustration that the pace of change toward more representation in Hollywood has been glacial, Clexacon’s panelists almost universally agreed that there has been tangible, significant improvement in minority representation in the last few years. Although there may not be as many characters and storylines as the queer community would like, there has been a great change in Hollywood in the last decade. This likely has been in part driven by the inclusion of more women and minorities in the writer’s room and in executive positions. Per “Wynonna Earp” showrunner Emily Andras, in her experience, networks are beginning to see diverse stories as a way to tell new and untold stories. Despite greater inclusivity on American TV, to achieve the amount of content that the queer community wants both on TV and in movies, we have to create it ourselves and not wait for Hollywood to slowly catch up. Moreover, Hollywood will never produce as much as we want, so we must supplement it ourselves. This need for internally-produced content is even more true outside the US and England, where queer content is almost nonexistent. If we want it, no one will produce it but us.
2. The queer community needs to be more financially supportive of queer content.
Many of the panelists brought up the same point: it takes money to make queer content, so if viewers want that content, they have to pay for it. Although it’s fair to demand that major networks, whose content is free, include queer content, in the absence of that content, we have to monetize the content producers who do include it. In their panel on “Vida,” actors Ser Anzoategui and Mishal Prada noted that the best thing fans could do to support their show is subscribe to Starz, the premium network on which “Vida” airs. Even subscribing to a single month (at the cost of $8) contributes to the viewer count and demonstrates to the network the presence of a (paying) viewership for the show. Although “Vida” has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is critically acclaimed, it is not guaranteed a third season. Starz will only renew a profitable show, so queer viewers have to help make it profitable.
Producer and actress Crystal Chappell related during her panel that season six of her webseries “Venice: The Series,” which was funded by an indiegogo fundraising campaign, cost approximately $185,000, and that she personally paid $20,000 out of pocket to fill the gap between the fundraised amount and the total production cost. Similarly, tello Films used its presence at Clexacon to publicize its indiegogo campaign to finance a Hallmark-style holiday queer romantic comedy movie. Prior to the convention, its fundraising goal was only halfway met, with only days remaining until the campaign expired. For every fundraising success story, there are tens of other stories of failure. Even small amounts, when given by a large number of individuals, can go a long way toward the creation of more queer content.
3. Queer fans have a deeply personal stake in representation, unlike straight fans who are not minorities. Their emotional connection to queer characters and representation fosters a sense of found family and community that is less pronounced in straight fandoms, and creates an inclusive environment that rewards actresses in queer roles on an emotional and professional level.
For some queer viewers, a LGBT character on screen might be the first other queer person they’ve ever seen, particularly if they live in socially repressive areas. For others, a queer character’s story arc speaks to their own life experiences and struggles in a way that straight characters’ never will. The queer experience is often isolating and emotionally fraught, but its representation on screen is reassuring, normalizing, and uplifting. As many panelists, from actresses to writers, noted, queer content has the ability to literally save lives, as individuals who were otherwise contemplating suicide find hope for the future.
Fandoms in general—both queer and straight—are characterized by their sense of community. Viewership, to fandoms, is a shared experience that begets conversation and friendship. Queer viewers, however, have the additional layer of a shared life experience, which tends to bind them emotionally on a deeper level and create a “found family.” Connecting with other members of a queer fandom often means finding new friends who have faced similar instances of rejection, prejudice, and repression, leading to emotionally supportive relationships. The “Earpers” (fans of Syfy’s “Wynonna Earp”), for example, are renowned for their boisterous engagement with the show’s cast and crew, but also for their high degree of community and supportiveness.
This difference between how straight and queer fans engage with storylines and characters is tangible. Per “Legends of Tomorrow” actress Jes Macallan, queer fans are much more likely to share personal stories with her about how her character changed their lives than straight fans. The interaction she has with queer fans is therefore more interpersonal: an exchange of stories and a sharing of experiences that leaves both parties emotionally affected. Benson, too, reflected on how the queer community had become her found family, to which she feels very emotionally connected.
4. Queer viewers need to mobilize, en masse, to support ALL forms of representation, not just femme, white, queer characters played by straight actresses.
Per Anzoategui, the queer community needs to marshal its support for queer content the way some communities mobilize for a voting campaign: plan, organize, coordinate, and carry out fan campaigns. Because the queer viewer demographic has traditionally been ignored, the queer community must act en masse in order to have its voice heard. Anything less risks further marginalization. More than that, the queer community needs to demand more diversity in queer representation. Whereas traditional queer representation on TV has focused on femme white women, the queer community must demand representation in the form of more queer people of color, masculine-of-center characters, disabled characters, transgender characters, etc. We are not a monolithic community, and our representation shouldn’t be one-dimensional either. This requires that individuals support representation everyone, including people who may be different from themselves. In short, we must be a rising tide that raises all boats, not just some of them.
Additionally, we need to do better at supporting queer actors. Venskus rightly pointed out that the queer actors panel was very under-attended compared to panels featuring straight actresses in queer roles. The community has generally lagged in its support of queer actors, a trend that needs to change. It is unfair to support queer fictional characters, but not queer people in real life.
5. Self-care is important for everyone.
Anzoategui works with a therapist to handle the stress of filming emotionally taxing scenes. Macallan takes planned time away from social media to recharge and re-focus on the important things in her life. “Legends of Tomorrow” actress Caity Lotz knits to keep off social media. In multiple panels, panelists discussed the need for individuals to find ways to take care of themselves mentally and not be consumed by either the addictive pull of social media or the toxicity present in society. As the world becomes faster and the feedback from social media creates instantaneous effects, both positive and negative, it’s important to maintain mental equilibrium, in whatever way works. This is especially true for people who are already feeling stressed by other factors in their lives. From yoga to meditation, reading to dancing, we must all find the things in life that bring us joy and serenity and create a designated time and space in our lives to do those things.