"Sure, I've been a geek and a nerd since I was a little kid," admits Jody Wheeler, vice-president of Bent-Con, the upcoming convention celebrating the wide cross-sections where LGBTQ and fanboy culture meet. "I had all the Star Wars figures," he explains, "and Princess Leia was inevitably the first casualty of every battle…because she stood in the way of Luke Skywalker's and Han Solo's undying love for each other. I'd put her in the hospital, so the two of them could be together."
Wheeler, along with Bent-Con founder and creator Sean Z. Maker, have watched their event swiftly grow from a one-day 500-person gathering of souls to a legit hotel convention — now in its fifth year and attended by more than 2,500 dedicated and wildly enthusiastic artists, writers, creators, publishers, directors, actors, producers and fans of all genders and stripes. This year's event unfolds for three days beginning Friday, Nov. 7, at the Marriott Burbank.
For Wheeler, director of the horror movie festival hit "In the Closet" as well as the soon-to-be-released mystery thriller "The Dark Place," Bent-Con is a way to give long overdue credit to both gay and gay-friendly creators in the comic book world. "So many people felt left out of other conventions," he says. "Only in the '90s did we get a panel at [San Diego] Comic-Con, but that was the only outpost."
Maker agrees: "I created this convention for everyone seemingly left out of every other celebration of geekiness and pop culture…and the LGBT community has been such a big driver of popular entertainment."
Indeed, many gay artists have played a leading role in genres they are seldom associated with, from "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein" director James Whale to original "Star Trek" writer David Gerrold (author of the classic episode "The Trouble with Tribbles") to X-Men director Bryan Singer. Bent-Con also celebrates those "ungays" — aka heterosexuals — who've been open to pushing the boundaries of tolerance. Among featured events this year are an appearance by Vampire-chronicler Anne Rice accompanying her son, noted gay author Christopher Rice, as well as a screening of "She Makes Comics," the untold story of female comic book creators and fans. It's a mishmash of anything in geekdom that is revolutionary gender-wise.
"We're not just about one or two subcultures," says Michelle Lagos, director of Bent-Con's programming and talent. "We want to see the rainbow of LGBT geeks and subcultures come together."
That's why the convention aims wide — everything from "Gay Board Gaymers" to "Gamer Girls Coming Out of the Gamer Closet," a gay dad web series called "Just Us Guys," traditional convention fare like Mistress Azrael's Sinema Screams, to more academic-sounding panels like "Psychology of Female Characters" and "Race and Class in Comics/Pop Culture," whose invitation expounds that queer comic book characters have finally started coming out of the closet, with some even getting married.
There will be many speakers, panels, DJs and performances, tabletop gaming, all-ages programs, karaoke, a pool party, and a plethora of screenings and premieres. New film shorts include "Glass Slipper Diaries", "Narcissist", and the must-see "I Wouldn't Wish the '80s on Anyone." There will also be several features, including "Angels with Tethered Wings," "Bite Marks" and "Out to Kill," a seemingly traditional Tampa-based detective-thriller, except for the gay private investigator lead. In fact, the sexual-orientation of many of the characters in these films seem like an afterthought. Characters may or may not be gay but what the movies are really about are monsters coming back from the dead, bloodthirsty vampires, trapped souls — that sort of thing.
Do some far-out fans show up at Bent-Con dressed to the hilt? You better believe it. There's a fashion show, a costume contest and a masquerade ball. The website warns would-be costumers, however, that "absolutely no fire, liquids, toxic substances, or anything that may cause danger for yourself or others (will be) allowed on stage. That includes all stage weapons, swords, guns, bows, etc."
Still, despite the multicolored capes and the plastic chain-mail, Wheeler points out that LGBTQ geekdom has evolved far past the constraints of camp. "That element of our convention gets talked about a lot, and we celebrate that. But there's a non-camp part of it, too. Years have gone by and now you see that we love to see horror and sci-fi films not for the camp elements, but because they're good. And it's a way of joining with our ungay friends and appreciating great art together."
Even in fantasy worlds like comic books and video games, sexual orientation is fast becoming incidental. "With a game like Dragon Age, for instance, you can choose your character in the story, the way you want that character to be," Wheeler explains. "You can pick the gender, even if it's somebody totally different than who you are. You can still defend castles from invasions, but instead of saving the princess you can save the prince."