"I'm a little overwhelmed because I didn't think so many people would come up to our booth," says E. Salvador Hernandez near the end of a sunny afternoon at Los Angeles Pride, "but they have been."
Hernandez is the art director for Bent-Con, the city's premiere LGBT pop culture convention. He's wearing a Groovie Ghoulies t-shirt, referencing a punk group who took its name from a 1970s cartoon series. Throughout the afternoon, other members of the convention team have been wandering in and out of the booth. There's Bellz, whose bright orange hair is pulled back with the sort of cat ear hairband you typically see at anime conventions, and Jenna Pitman, dressed in a gothic black corset.
Zach Phoenix, who cosplayed Doctor Who's eleventh Doctor earlier this morning, still kind of is that character. In the afternoon heat, he took off the shirt, replaced with pants with shorts, but left the bow tie, suspenders and fez in place. There are others milling around the booth as well, a guy dressed in all black, another guy in a Star Wars t-shirt. Behind them is a wall full of comic book-styled art, along with Bent-Con pamphlets and assorted geeky odds and ends. If this wasn't the sort of crowd you were expecting to see in West Hollywood during Pride weekend, maybe you weren't alone.
"A lot of fringe queers have been coming to our booth and saying, 'Oh my God, I didn't know you guys were here,'" says Hernandez.
Hernandez hasn't been to L.A. Pride in about a decade. The last time he showed up at the event, it was because there were a few queer punk bands on the bill. This year, he's in West Hollywood to help promote Bent-Con. Earlier in the day, the group participated in a parade down Santa Monica Boulevard. It was a costumed affair, with friends of the convention dressed as characters from sci-fi shows, comic books and animated series. Wonder Woman sat perched on top of their car. Sean Z. Maker, who heads the convention, wore a glittering unicorn costume. They stood out from the crowd in the best way possible.
Over the course of three shows, Bent-Con has challenged perceptions of the geek world. As conventions have become increasingly more mainstream, they've provided an independent voice, one that champions the stories of LGBT characters and creators. Now, with their fourth show scheduled this November, they have infiltrated Pride. Team Bent-Con is here not just to promote their own event, but to show that you don't have to be, as Hernandez says, "West Hollywood clones" to find acceptance.
"We want to show people that it's not just about bars and clubs and going to the gym," he says.
L.A. Pride is massive, running down Santa Monica Boulevard throughout the bulk of West Hollywood. The line to get into the festival portion of Pride, held at West Hollywood Park, was long enough to rival those at San Diego Comic-Con. Parties spilled out onto the street from the neighborhood bars and nightclubs. Restaurants were packed. People partied on nearby apartment balconies while the parade headed down the boulevard. There was a real sense of community here, and a diverse one at that. There were the groups that have become staples of L.A. Pride events, like Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and West Hollywood Cheerleaders. There were a number of businesses and gay-friendly religious groups who had representatives marching in the parade. There were LGBT associations representing a number of ethnic groups. Now, the nerds have a face at Pride too.
Finding your fellow nerds at Pride can be a challenge. Maybe that's simply because bold displays of your passion for comic books and sci-fi are a relatively recent phenomenon that isn't as visible within the LGBT community. Maybe there is some level of stereotyping involved, where those who would rather read Superman are left out of the party atmosphere at Pride.
But just as there's not one type of geek, there's no one specific type of gay man or lesbian or bisexual person or transgendered person.
"That's kind of why we're here," says Bellz, who runs late night programming at Bent-Con, "to let our community know that it's our community."
Inside Pride's festival, there were signs of comic book appreciation dotting the campus. Mostly, that came in the form of t-shirts -- lots of Batman and Robin, some Superman, some Captain America -- and other accessories. Bellz says that's reflective of trends in the U.S. right now. Comic book movies are a big deal, hence comic book t-shirts are all over the place. However, he makes a strong point when he adds that comic book heroes are "symbols of power."
"It makes people feel stronger to wear those symbols," he explains. At Pride, where the enduring strength of the LGBT community is central to the event, the fashion choice makes sense.
Bellz acknowledged that Bent-Con's booth has been busy all weekend, particularly on Saturday. They've met artists who want to work with the convention and people who want to attend. They've also had the chance to reach out to LGBT youth, an important mission accomplished considering that Bent-Con is adding a day of youth-oriented programming this year. "These kids can come and be themselves and not have to worry about things," he says.
It's the attention from young Pride-goers that intrigued Hernandez. He mentioned his own experience growing up as a kid who was more interested in punk music and politics as well as art and entertainment. "The things that interested me as a queer kid growing up are still relevant," he says. Those interests are sometimes overlooked at Pride.
Inside the festival on Sunday, I walked through a small museum that documented LGBT politics, as well as political art. It was tucked away indoors, away from the boisterous parties outside. There were only a few handfuls of people inside the venue when I toured it. Elsewhere, in an 18+ restricted area, there was art on display, but it was largely erotic in nature. That's fine, but it's not necessarily the route that every artist wants to pursue. Hernandez indicates that part of what was attracting younger attendees to the booth was Bent-Con's art and the notion LGBT art doesn't necessarily have to be erotic art.
Writer Jenna Pitman is working on bringing more women into the Bent-Con family. She mentions that, even though cons have become increasingly popular, there's still a lack of awareness about them. "There are a lot of people who are really into pop culture and really into geeky things and aren't aware that there is a place where they can go and not only be open and out, but be out about being a geek," she says.
Certainly, she isn't the first person to associate the words "out" and "geek." Nerdy interests are still things that many people don't like to discuss at social gatherings. Maybe it's because they don't want to explain to their friends why it's such a big deal that a certain writer is now working on a certain comic book series. Maybe they fear the inevitable jokes that coming along with saying they're really into anime. Inside this small space at Pride, though, you could find someone who shares your interest in Doctor Who or other topics that might come across as awkward on a dance floor.
Hernandez notes that, in its early days, Bent-Con accepted him, a self-described "queer punk " who had done nonprofit work, but knew more about fine art than the comic book world. This weekend, he's spreading that message of acceptance. "You can be a big, furry bear or somebody with bright pink hair and genderqueer as fuck and you're just as welcome as everyone else in the community of Bent-Con," he says. "We're showing people that it's okay to fly your freak flag and be proud of it."
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