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THE CARDBOARD CLOSET


Fantasy Flight Games Logo in rainbow colors; the "hand smacking face" emoji is displayed beneath a giant thumbs down emoji that covers the logo.

On June 4, 2019, Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) updated their Facebook page logo, replacing the familiar chrome-blue background for a rainbowing ombré. Corporations often change their logos during Pride Month, which takes place every June in honor of the Stonewall riots. This kind of corporate pandering should be familiar to anyone who's watched a Pride parade with sequined Bank of America and Capital One floats stuffed between the Dykes on Bikes and the Bears for Twinks. While dissonance defines late capitalism, it remains elusive what corporations that historically ravaged LGBQT communities have to do with displays of transgressive sexuality and identity.


The comments following FFG's rainbow change were largely negative, a fact that will be unsurprising to those who’ve paid attention to the tenacious ways homophobia has reinvented itself in the post-Obergefell era. I teach composition at a small liberal arts university, and we spend a week reading arguments about how masculinity and femininity are constructed. As one example of how the culture has become more tolerant, my students were emphatic that calling things "gay" as an insult had fallen out of style. The culture, my students claimed, had moved on. But as we kept talking, they revealed that "no homo" was still widely in use.


I asked them: "What's the difference between saying 'that's gay' and saying 'no homo'? They both seem to be assuring the audience that being gay is bad, and being straight is good."


My students were silent.


Finally, one said: "It's not like that, professor. 'No homo' doesn't mean anything bad."


"But does it mean anything good?"


Silence.


This kind of anti-gay rhetoric is like an Escher sketch of impossible architecture: the flaw in the work is also the source of its power and pleasures. You don't go to Escher looking for coherence, just as you don't ask someone who's absorbed our country's atmospheric homophobia why they hate gay people. They don't. And no homo, not that there's anything wrong with that.


I know this anti-gay rhetoric well, growing up gay among Catholics and evangelicals in Kentucky. My friend Patrick's mom would say vile things as she drove us around town, white-knuckling the wheel of her car, orating about the hell that awaited the gays, the whores, the unbelievers. She told me I was damned. Patrick was damned. Her husband was damned. Even she was damned. That was the precondition of existence: you got to live at the cost of never deserving it. All you had to do to fix this precondition, she said, was repent and accept Jesus.


Patrick's mom claimed the mother Mary had visited her twice in her home, at the end of a cul-de-sac in suburban Louisville. At sleepovers, I tried to keep Patrick awake through the night so we wouldn’t have to go to our respective beds; when that happened, Patrick would shut his room door, and I would have to cross the hall to the Mary Room, where Mary had appeared. The Mary Room: every inch of wall claimed by crucifixes and slinking rosaries in the gaps between the crucifixes, all that vertical agony, my eyes having to stare straight up to the ceiling, which was blank, to not stare at suffering. I never fell asleep. I thought Mary might appear at any moment, and it wasn’t a comfort.

It doesn’t take a belief in heaven to know that hell that can visit you on earth.


It doesn’t take a belief in heaven to know that hell that can visit you on earth.


Note: Names have been redacted to provide anonymity, but the color of the redactions represent the same poster.

The comments on the Fantasy Flight Games Facebook page are Rorschach's blots for all the ways homophobia is explained-away, under-the-rugged, reconstituted. If we ignore the irony that board gamers already represent a sliver of the population, we still have to account for the tribalism of the board gaming hobby, how the borders of this “harmless” fun are sketched, and who, in particular, the nerd is.

The Virtuous Utopian Nerd (VUN)

Many of the responders to FFG’s rainbow logo fall into the category I call the Virtuous Utopian Nerd. The VUN is so tired of politics, religion, sexual orientation, because utopia is already here—the problems of politics, religion, sexual orientation have already been solved, or they are on their way to being solved. The VUN doesn’t personally know of anyone who cares about these issues, especially when he sits down to play games. In fact, games are an escape from the present utopia, which is absent conflict, to a fictitious dystopia that provides what’s (thankfully!) missing from reality: friction, domination, colonization, conquest, suffering.

The Your Identity Isn’t Cause for Celebration Nerd (YIICCN)

The YIICCN doesn’t understand the cause for “celebration”, for “pride”. But the YIICCN is a bad student of history. Pride Parades weren’t, in the years following Stonewall, celebrations—they were protests, cries of fury, borne from oppressive, state-sanctioned violence. It took 50 years for the New York Police Department to apologize for the policing that led to the Stonewall Riots; on June 6, 2019, the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill finally apologized on behalf of the NYPD for their violent policing practices, which included frequent raids of gay bars, where they beat up and arrested LGBQT people. Do Americans know this history? That the FBI, in coordination with local police departments, kept lists of “known” homosexuals? For similar reasons, the African American community side-eyed the FBI tweeting their celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.[1], the same FBI who tapped King’s phone lines, the same FBI who once delivered an anonymous letter to King encouraging him to commit suicide[2]. You need this history to understand why police officers are still discouraged from wearing their uniforms in pride parades, if they’re invited at all.


But the YIICCN doesn’t know the history. Certainly, he knows some history, but he confuses the history of people who act and think and look like him as the History of Everyone.


The YIICCN can be perverted, however. He can become, if we’re not careful, a celebrator of an identity that is already celebrated every day. The righteous jeers that greeted the announcement that Boston would hold a Straight Pride Parade [3]don’t drown out the underlying aggrievedness of the parade’s organizers—there are certain circles within our culture that see Pride Month as an attempt to erase the identities of straight people. That these same circles are blind to the erasure of LGBQT folks from culture is deeply ironic: it took 22 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for Avengers: Endgame to have a gay character speak (credited as “Grieving Man”, by the way, and who has no superpowers; we may be heroic, but we’re not yet super).

The Marxist Secular Unpanderable Nerd (MSUN)

The MSUN has a point, and it’s a doozy: capitalism is so ill-prepared to solve the great moral concerns of our time. And we might do well to be wary of corporations taking a moral stand—the point of corporations is to make profit, after all, and profit has nothing to do with the moral thing. Consider: it was once profitable to use slaves as labor; to have children working in factories; and it’s still quite profitable to pay women less for the same work. Profit isn’t the same as the right thing, though it is the right thing for corporations to strive for. But the MSUN isn’t really a Marxist, and he isn’t really interested in the right thing; he is actually a Whatabout Ethicist, and his whataboutisms are obvious: Whatabout China? Whatabout child labor practices in cocoa farms in West Africa? Whatabout whatabout whatabout? The MSUN superficially makes the case that this particular social ill isn’t worth fixing when there are worse social ills elsewhere. The emptiness of Whatabout Ethics is particularly sinister because it allows the speaker to blind their audience from one form of suffering with another form of suffering. But we can see both forms of suffering and act on both. And my guess is that the MSUNs in the FFG thread aren’t divesting from China-made goods, their board games included, anytime soon; they are doing what the nerd often does: clearing the gaming table of anything that spoils his fun.

The Nerd is Male and Straight (and Probably White)

I spent all this time looking at sub domains of the nerd, but who is the ur-nerd? The nerd is male and straight (and probably white) until grandfathered in. To explain, we need to think about a couple of things:

  1. How ideas of masculinity inform who the ideal nerd is and isn’t

  2. How the nerd is socially constructed by both in-groups (aka “nerds”) and out-groups (aka “haha those nerds”)

  3. How like any socially constructed identity, the nerd is fictitious, but it’s the kind of fiction we desperately need to help make sense of our world

  4. How nerds talk about themselves, and how this identity intersects with other identities

Nerd entered the English lexicon in the 1950s, its origins unknown; geek came around earlier in the late 19th century, from German (“fool”) and Dutch (“mad”). None of the dictionaries I turned to label these words as “offensive” hate speech, though they can both be used pejoratively to diminish others and to reaffirm existing power structures like what sociologists refer to as hegemonic masculinity. Sociologist R.W. Connell defines hegemonic masculinity as “the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women.” [4] Hegemonic masculinity provides a template for the ideal man—strong, dominant, aggressive, etc.—that is definitionally unattainable; like pilgrims who will never arrive to their promised land, no men can live up to hegemonic masculinity, though they can still strive for it. The Rock is my shepherd, I shall not forget Legs Day. Key to understanding hegemonic masculinity is that it is relational, meaning it depends on the existence of other forms of masculinity (and femininity) to give it shape and definition. In other words, hegemonic masculinity wouldn’t be a possible framework for men to subordinate women if it also didn’t account for “failed” men, like homosexuals, who perform “failed” masculinities that don’t live up to the ideal.


The subordination of women and the dominant position of men is crucial to an understanding of how the nerd identity reconstitutes existing structures of inequity, especially given what nerds hold most sacred: STEM, video and board games, and comics, to name a few of the sacred cows. To resist the idea that these cultural domains are male-dominated would be to resist reality: it took Marvel 21 movies to make a woman superhero the lead; Princess Peach is still being saved in 2020 by her plumber prince; and the STEM field is nowhere near representing demographically the population as a whole. This isn’t to dismiss movements to diversify these cultural domains, or to ignore the success stories—instead, I want to make the point that the nerd is typically male-identifying, and therefore typically performing some kind of masculinity. To be sure, women nerds exist, but they often invoke the same stories of women in other male-dominated fields, from business to politics, of having to be “one of the boys” to succeed. The peril for women trying to be “one of the boys”, however, is that hegemonic masculinity definitionally provides no networks for women to succeed, while simultaneously punishing women for failing to live up to ideas of femininity (women, in this sense, are doomed to be second-class boys if they do, and certainly doomed to be second-class people, aka women, if they don’t). Women who try to exercise power in traditionally male-dominated spaces are often criticized for being “boner killers”, for their vocal-fry, for being “bossy”. The endless discussion of the 2020 Democratic candidates’ electability isillustrative of the ways hegemonic masculinity operates, with thinkpiece after thinkpiece telling us Joe Biden was the most likely to beat Trump. But ideas of electability are socially constructed too, as the feminist philosopher Kate Manne recently put it: “If we knew for sure that a candidate couldn’t beat Trump, that would be reason not to support them. But electability isn’t a static social fact; it’s a social fact we’re constructing. Part of what will make someone unelectable is people give up on them in a way that would be premature, rather than going to the mat for them.”[5] National Review published an absurd essay[6] about how Elizabeth Warren is “trying too hard”; trying is for the bros, so try something else, ladies.


Trying is for the bros, so try something else, ladies.

The nerd is also socially fluid, inscribed by both in-group and out-group members, by both the boys and the boy-adjacents. “Nerd” has been used as an in-group term of “endearment” (“I’m such a nerd!!”) that is socially binding. For example, people “nerd out” over the latest Star Wars trailer, and they form communities of mutual interest (comics, superheroes, board games, etc.). As an out-group term, “nerd” is a label typically assigned by others to communicate a failure to live up to the ideals of hegemonic masculinity. The stereotypical image of the nerd—glasses, sclerotic, asthmatic—reveals many of the superficial traits hegemonic masculinity holds sacred. The tricky thing here is that male nerds, while they fail from the out-group perspective of hegemonic masculinity, still perform and police other nerds from the perspective of hegemonic masculinity: women nerds and LGBQT+ nerds are necessarily secondary, other, less than. This kind of vertical, top-to-bottom policing shouldn’t be so hard to understand: bullies are often, themselves, the victims of bullying.


That the nerd has largely become socially accepted and economically powerful shouldn’t be dismissed either. The Marvel movie franchise is the most financially successful movie franchise of all time, bringing in over $21 billion dollars in the last decade. Though nerds might still be shoved into their lockers by the football team, their earning potential in STEM is far higher and likelier than Quarterback Bobby going pro. And the increasing capital—both economic and social—of nerds might actually coincide with subtle but important shifts in hegemonic masculinity. As one example, the #MeToo movement has turned conversations around consent and dating on their heads; in a recent article in The Atlantic about the delay of sexual activity among younger generations, also known as the "Resexion”, teens describe how approaching a stranger at the bar to flirt would be awkward and strange; the initial stages of flirting among younger generations now happen on apps, which may well reduce the incidence of physical assault (while opening whole other cans of worms like revenge pornography). This is all to say that as ideas of masculinity change in the broader culture, and as the cultural domains of nerds become more economically successful, ideas of the nerd will change too.


The Cardboard Closet

But we need to hear how nerds talk about themselves, and how they actively construct the nerd identity.


The Victory Points podcast released an episode on May 28, 2019, three days before Pride Month, titled “Coming Out of the Geek Closet”. The conversation gets interesting when Kellen Laker, the guest, explains why he used to go by “Kallen” to avoid discovery from his co-workers. He explains: “I think for me, I’ve always tried to be a closet nerd. You want to be cool in high school, and I know this is dumb, […] I might be watching anime at home with my brothers and sisters, but I’m not gonna tell anyone. I might be playing Settlers of Catan, but I’m, you know, cool at school. […] I was living in Manhattan and sort of going to board game nite but not telling any of my coworkers that’s what I was doing, and it sort of felt not in lock-step with the world that I worked in.”


Laker’s anxieties are largely economic: he seems deeply concerned that “outing” himself as a nerd will lead to economic loss—to lost wages, to possible unemployment. He uses the term “closet nerd” to describe these anxieties, borrowing from the more popular usage of the term, which is to describe LGBQT people who hide their sexuality. I don’t mean to dismiss Laker’s anxieties, because of course they have something to do with survival under capitalism. But Laker’s identity as a nerd, and the anxieties that attend that identity, aren’t rooted in a deep history of policing and violence in the way the identities of LGBQT people are.


I want to honor Laker’s anxiety—that it exists, and that it affects the quality of his life—while at the same time interrogating whether or not reality confirms his anxiety. What are the consequences of being “outed” as a nerd in 2020? Where are the FBI lists of “known” nerds? How often are the board game nites at the VFW raided by police? Is nerd listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders by the American Psychiatric Association as homosexuality was (until 1973)? These questions might seem ridiculous, but they point to the structural and institutional violence that LGBQT folks faced and still face, and that the nerd rarely has to contend with.


Much of Laker’s anxiety comes from, I think, anxieties tied with performing hegemonic masculinity. That he struggles to articulate these anxieties isn’t surprising, because hegemonic masculinity creates a system of barriers, deflections, and fail-switches to discourage men from talking about their emotions. It also shouldn't be surprising that Laker understands there’s something inherently violent and unfair about all of this: why does he have to hide an important aspect of himself to be successful in mainstream culture? LGBQT folks ask the same question, but their ideas of “success” aren’t only economic—they’re often much more fundamentally mortal. Laker’s problem isn’t that he’s made the analogy of his experience as a “closet” nerd to LGBQT folks coming out of their own closets; Laker’s problem is that he has dropped the distancing “like”. For Laker, it isn’t like coming out of the closet; it is coming out of the closet.


Laker’s problem isn’t that he’s made the analogy of his experience as a “closet” nerd to LGBQT folks coming out of their own closets; Laker’s problem is that he has dropped the distancing “like”. For Laker, it isn’t like coming out of the closet; it is coming out of the closet.

Laker goes on to explain why he feels wary of “outing” himself in a high-paid advertising firm in New York City, saying, “If the people I work with, if the people I know know that I do this incredibly nerdy thing on the side, then there isn’t acceptance there. Which is sad, which is deeply sad. […] Someone at work the other day just found out about the podcast, and were like, ‘Is this you? What is going on?’ […] I’ve just tried to be more forward, more open, you just have to accept yourself.”


The host of the podcast, Becca Scott, doesn’t materially challenge the comparison Laker is making here of his struggle to be accepted by his coworkers as a nerd to the struggles of LGBQT folks to quite literally survive in America. Scott gently points out to Laker that nerds are celebrated in society today, and Laker pushes back: “I think you guys are celebrating something that we’re still—we’re right on the razor’s edge of.”


What razor’s edge is Laker speaking of? Is it the loss of wages when his bosses discover he likes trading sheep for wood in the privacy of his own home? But Laker’s concerns aren’t just economic; they’re also social, and they have to do with socially constructed ideas of what’s cool and what isn’t cool. Laker is afraid that board games aren’t cool. They aren’t cool in the mainstream culture that Laker also wants access to, they aren’t cool according to the mainstream ideas of cool inscribed by, you guessed it, hegemonic masculinity. Maybe the quickest test for what’s cool, from the perspective of hegemonic masculinity, is popularity—the men’s World Cup might be the most-watched event in all of humanity when it rolls around every four years, and sports, I think it’s safe to say, are not the comfiest domain of the nerd (esports deserve a wider consideration here as they become more popular, and of course the world of esports has been rife with stories of abuse; sports seem to bring out the best and worst in us). Only in sports do you find the fans of the winning team rioting and destroying the world in celebration: underneath hegemonic masculinity, it’s not enough to have your cake and be able to eat it; you have to be able to smear pieces of it wherever you like too. (And no, the women’s World Cup isn’t treated the same way as the men’s World Cup, if you even had to ask; 2019's prize money for women totals $30 million, compared to the $400 million for men in 2018.)[7]


Laker probably won’t be fired for being an asshole at Catan (whereas only 21 states protect against sexuality and gender identity discrimination), but he might not get invited to drink microbrews after work at the new entomophagy Welsh-Chilean gastropub in Brooklyn. The razor’s edge, in Laker’s case, is really about expanding his privilege, getting wider access to what he already has access to, increasing his material and social capital, and shoring up his personal economies. He wants to be cool from the perspective of hegemonic masculinity and continue to do what he loves. As I said, the masculine pilgrim never arrives to his holy site.


Did I mention Laker is white? Presumably straight (no LGBQT people I know use the “closet” metaphor to describe anything besides coming out of the LGBQT closet, and the horrible pain, both psychological and potentially physical, that so often attends that passage)? A man?


To even question Laker’s use of the closet metaphor on the Reddit Board Gaming thread, r/boardgames, was immediate cause for downvotes:

Why interrogate anything in a hobby that is, essentially, about giving up interrogation (unless it’s a mechanic, in-game), about easing into the warm stupidity of play?


“Easy there killer.”


Which brings me back to the most chilling aspect of the FFG logo comments: the thumbs-ups and laughing emojis of those who agree with the aggrieved nerds mentioned above but don’t have anything to add besides their thumbs, their laughs. You already said it perfect, man. And they are overwhelmingly men. Look:



Men are leading the attacks on FFG’s Facebook Page. Is that so surprising? The board gaming hobby is predominantly male, heterosexual, and white. In her excellent study “Assessing Gender and Racial Representation in the Board Game Industry[8]”, Tanya Pobuda reveals a number of eye-opening statistics about this male-dominated hobby. Of the top 200 Board Game Geek designers, for example, 2.4% are white women, 93.5% white men:


When Pobuda looks at the artwork of games, the results aren’t much more diverse:




Non-human animals appear more frequently (20.1%) than women (19.2%) on the covers of board games. Put another way: games have more cowbell than women.

But to even begin to address the gender imbalance in board gaming, much less LGBQT representation, is to invite cries from nerds that we've lost our minds. That we’re being too serious. That we’re killing the fun. That we’re pandering for profit. That the utopia is already here. That there’s worse suffering elsewhere.


There are real, legitimate concerns that we should address among the so-called “nerds” of board gaming, who use the term as self-identification or have been labeled that by others. From mental differences that include autism, to depression and anxiety that limit social opportunities, this much is clear: many male board gamers need our attention. We ought to care about them. We can care about more than one thing at a time, about all people who suffer—LGBQT people who are suffering in the many ways that LGBQT people suffer, and so-called “nerds” who might be suffering in other ways.


Intersectionality actually gives us the tools to think about how complex our identities are, and how we can suffer from intersecting structural problems concerning race, sexuality, gender identity, orientation, economics, and so on. Sports and play condition us to believe that our enemies are right in front of us, across the table, the court, the field. We might do more to build coalitions if we consider the larger forces at play that make play feel like something more, like life or death.


But we might do more to build coalitions if we consider the larger forces at play that make play feel like something more, like life or death.

But the controversy surrounding the FFG logo shows we’re not quite ready to build those coalitions, not by a mile: we’re all the same nerds at heart, and the nerd heart has no difference, it is one heart, you nerd, so roll those fucking dice.


The Story of the Cardboard Closet


You may have noticed that the events described in this piece on FFG's Facebook page took place in 2019. This essay was originally intended to be published that same year.


For a time in 2019, I took an unpaid gig writing essays and criticism for a website devoted to board games. I liked the work, and I liked having a platform to share my ideas. I was the only queer-identifying person in the staff at the time, and I was interested in doing a series of essays that explored board games from minority perspectives. The FFG logo controversy caught my attention, and I set to work.


Generally speaking, editorial oversight was slim to non-existent. We worked for free, after all, with some vague promises of monetary compensation should our numbers ever get big enough to support advertisements. I was accustomed to writing my articles, queueing them for publication, and being done with it.


When I wrote the first version of "The Cardboard Closet", that didn't happen. Two editors immediately stepped in to pause the publication. They began by saying it was too long. I proposed we split it up over multiple days. Their responses shifted. I was told by one editor that I would need to reframe the piece by writing to an audience that was, presumably, heterosexual. I noted that I wasn't being paid, and that other staff never received notes on their work. I wanted to know: what was different about this piece? It became clear that the first editor was concerned that the piece might end in a toxic response from the board game community: doxing came up, as well as stories of other minority folks in the community being threatened.


While I noted this editor's concern, I said I was fine with the piece as it was, even if that meant I might become a target for threats. If they didn't want to publish the essay, I would withdraw it from consideration. Next, the editor in chief stepped in to say I was being "narcissistic" and "arrogant". I was told that "identity does not fit into the equation" of whether or not they moved to publish. I was called, at one point, a "psychic vampire", which sounds like a horny villain in some anime series we should all be watching. I announced my resignation from the staff in the forums, and this editor ”published” my essay as proof to our readership that it did not meet editorial standards. After I said that I did not wish for my work to be published under these conditions, especially with the framing that the piece was unsuccessful, and after I noted that my work outed me in a way I had never done before online, the piece was removed.


I received a final note from this editor about why they hadn’t published (and then published to prove I wasn't worth publishing), and again the reasoning had changed: "I would likely run the article if I felt like it was daring and progressive and important. But with all the love in my heart I can tell you that this article needs work, it needs focus, and it needs something that our readers- of any description or identification- can get beside and take away with them into the larger gaming world.”


I'll leave the reader to decide the takeaway.


I mention these details not merely as gossip—though the role gossip plays in queer communities, as a subterranean network to communicate important information regarding abuse, violence, intimidation, etc. when the surface networks, be they police, journalists, politicians, and others in power, so often fail us—but to give an idea of both the structural and individual barriers that await people who try to push at the system from the inside. We have a lot of work to do.



[1]https://thegrapevine.theroot.com/fbi-conspired-against-martin-luther-king-jr-49-years-1794010925

[2]https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/federal-bureau-investigation-fbi [3]https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2019/06/04/its-lgbt-pride-month-three-guys-boston-want-permit-straight-pride-parade/ [4]Connell, R. W. 1995. Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press. [5]https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/4/23/18512016/elizabeth-warren-electability-amy-klobuchar-2020-primary-female-candidates [6]https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/02/elizabeth-warrens-2020-candidate-senator-tracy-flick/ [7]https://www.fastcompany.com/90360375/womens-world-cup-soccer-gender-pay-gap-women-salaries-vs-men [8]http://analoggamestudies.org/2018/12/assessing-gender-and-racial-representation-in-top-rated-boardgamegeek-games/



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