Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Queer for Me, not Gay for You: Alexis Hall's LOOKING FOR GROUP

Last week, I attended a panel at MIT on "The Turn to Tween," a panel discussion about the roots of the word, its connection to consumerism and marketing, and the way "tweens" are depicted in popular culture. During the Q & A period after the discussion, the issue of tweens and social media came up. One of the speakers, Tyler Bickford of the University of Pittsburgh, mentioned that most academic studies of kids' use of of social media indicate that they are typically not using these new technologies to meet and interact with strangers, but far more often with people they already know.

Even as I found myself shaking my head, wanting to disagree, or at least qualify, Bickford's statement, a student sitting beside me said the same thing that I was thinking: "That's not true for queer kids."

My doubt arose not from personal experience, but from having recently read Alexis Hall's loving tribute to online gamers and queerness, Looking for Group. As Hall himself notes on his blog, Group is a far cry from his RITA-award winning erotic romance For Real; no kink, not much sex, and lots of gaming jokes. Its narrator, college student Drew, is an avid player of the MMO (massively multiplayer online) game Heroes of Legend (loosely based on Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft). He's a bit burnt out though, both with his "guild," or group with whom he typically plays, and with the style of his own playing—methodical, aggressive, competitive, and, increasingly, joyless. And so after a major disagreement with his guild ("he pretty much admitted he ragequit his last guild over loot drama" [Kindle Loc 103]), Drew decides to apply for membership in a different one.

The book opens, in fact, with the post that draws Drew's attention:

<Same Crit Different Day> is Recruiting

SCDD is a tight-knit raiding guild (heroic and normal difficulty), currently looking for a main tank to join our mature, dedicated, and frankly fabulous team. Founded in 2011 by a group of friends with no fecking clue how to run a Heroes of Legend guild, but definite ideas about the right way to treat people—fairly, without harassment, and with equal opportunity to participate—SCDD roared past the traditional guild life expectancy of six months and has been getting awesomer ever since.

Following this post, the members of SCDD debate (online, of course) Drew's application, and ultimately decide to accept him and his game persona, Orcarella (Dread Knight tank) into the guild. During the days and nights of game play that follows, Drew finds himself increasingly drawn to the unusual ways of SCDD, "the most progressed casual guild on the server" (150). Not only do his fellow members praise him, and one another ("in Anni he'd only ever been told when he screwed up, and he wasn't sure how to handle having someone say he'd done well" [971]), but they also tackle their fights in entirely different ways than he is used to, making what was once routine for Drew into a challenge.

And Drew finds himself increasingly drawn to one member of the guild in particular: Solace, a healer elf who not only enjoys the fighting aspects of the game, but also loves wandering into unseen corners of the world just to see what they look and feel like. As Drew (as Orcarella) and Solace start hanging out in the game together, separate from the rest of the guild, they end up talking, not just about the game, but about where they go to school and what they hope to do with their lives after uni. And Drew begins to wonder: is Solace a girl in real life? Or is she, like he, female online but male offline?

Drew's upset when he finds out the answer. His fellow uni mates, Sanee and Tinuviel, have very different takes on Drew's response:

     "Man," sighed Sanee. "I know I totally told you this was going to happen, but I'm really sorry for you."
     Tinuviel pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them. "Well, yes and no. I mean, I think what you need to ask yourself is how much this changes things."
     Drew gaped at her. "Um, it completely changes things?"
     Sanee sat forward on the chair. "T, are you being deliberately dense?"
     'That's a very strange question. The way I see it, Drew's met somebody he likes. He's clearly sad at the thought of losing him. So the question is: why should he?"
     "How about: because he's not gay?"
     "Well, neither am I, but I've still had sexual relationships with people who defined as female."
     "Yes, but you're a girl."
     "Tinuviel sighed deeply. "If our friend wasn't in the middle of a crisis, I'd be quite cross with you now." (1905)

Cisgender heterosexual male Sanee thinks of gender and sexuality in a binary way: you are either a girl or a boy, and you're either attracted to members of the same sex, or to those of the opposite sex. Tinuviel, who identifies as female and pansexual, has a very different take on what is possible, both sexually and romantically, and tries to encourage Drew to think about the situation in a radically different way:

"Maybe I'm wrong, but your problem doesn't seem to be that you're not interested in this person, but that you still are."
     While Drew was sorting through that, Sanee steepled his fingers like a supervillain. "Dude, are you gay?" There was a pause. "Like, it's okay if you are."
     Drew glared at him. "I think I'd have noticed."
     Tinuviel raised a hand. "I suspect you'll think this is a weird question, but what would you have noticed?"
     "Well...." Drew hated it when T did this. She'd ask you something to which the answer was so screamingly obvious that you'd immediately start second-guessing yourself. And, right now, that was the last thing he needed. "Fancying guys for a start?"
     "Maybe you just haven't met any guys you fancy. I mean, I'm pretty sure you're not attracted to Sanee..."
     Sanee made a valiant attempt not to look horrified. "You're not, right?"
     Drew made no such attempt. "I'm really not."
     "Okay," Tinuviel went on. "And you don't fancy me either."
     "Jesus, just because I don't fancy every girl I meet, that doesn't make me gay."
     She looked smug. "And by the same argument, not fancying every boy you meet doesn't make you straight."
     There was a really long silence.
     "Holy shit," gasped Sanee. "That's a really scary thought."
     "I can imagine it would be to a lot of people, but actually there's nothing scary about rejecting heteronormative notions of binary sexuality."
     "So you're saying," said Drew slowly, "I could be gay and not know it? Because that sort of sounds like bollocks."
     Tinuviel pushed her hair out of her eyes. "No, I'm not saying that, Andrew. I'm saying that, for many people, sexuality is more fluid and less clear-cut than they're taught to assume. You might, in fact, be completely straight, but it's also possible that you're not. And, even if you aren't, you might have gone your whole life completely happy an not caring and not knowing. And that's fine. But it seems to me that right now you have an opportunity to have something with somebody, and it might work or it might not, but if your only reason for not trying is that you're scared of the idea of being gay, then that's probably quite silly and a little bit sad." (1956)

Drew spends hours going round and round in his head after Sanee and Tinuviel leave him to sleep away his sorrows, and really wishes he had someone else to talk to about it all. Someone like Solace. And once he realizes that the only thing he isn't confused about is that he really misses her (or him), Drew knows what he has to do.

And it turns out that gender and sexuality aren't really the issue, not once Drew and Solace meet in person. What does turn out to be a problem is the issue with which this post started: are the relationships you have with people online somehow different from, or lesser than, those with people you know and interact with in person? Are online gamers, who are often different in age from you, and may even live in different countries, somehow not really your friends? Should the people with whom you interact in person matter more than the ones you interact with online?

And if you're gay, or bi, or pan, or genderqueer, and looking for your own "group," do the answers to those questions matter more?

Illustration credits;
World of Warcraft orc: MMO Champion Forum
Dark Elf: DeviantArt Vmbui

Looking for Group
Riptide, 2016


  1. To me at least my online friends mean a lot to me. They do live in different countries and I will likely never meet them in real life. However we share things about our lives and our interests online and I find that it's a part of my life that I wouldn't miss for the world. For me its about finding people with a similar background as I was raised in a pretty strict religious household and there are places online where people share their experiences with that. It's not a subject that everyone understands or relates to and so these places are basically a feast of recognition and I'm glad they exist.

    1. Melody: Love your phrase "a feast of recognition"! That's exactly what this book is about, I think--finding people who are like you, when you wouldn't have had the opportunity to do that in real life, because of where you live or because your identities are not as common as the average Joe's. Thanks for stopping by and adding your thoughts.

  2. I enjoyed this article. As a lesbian and lesbian romance writer, lesbianism has always been important to me. I grew up in the 90s when it was badge of honor to be gay and out. I literally wore my sexual orientation on my sleeve (and book bag and leather jacket) as a teenager, and now I wear it in my [probably] age-inappropriate faux-hawk.

    But I'm also an English professor, and I'm curious about and delighted by my students who seem to have much more fluid experiences of sexual orientation and gender. I was recently called on to organize a panel of queer students. It was a last minute thing so I just put an SOS out to the kids I knew. I got a panel of eight people, and only one identified as simply "gay." Everyone else identified in a non-binary way.

    I'll have to check out LOOKING FOR GROUP and see how Hall handles these issues. I'm also curious about the question of connection with online friends. I know it's important, and I'm also curious about those relationships. When I was growing up we had "friendship books" and pen pals. Doesn't that feel like a lifetime ago?

    1. Karelia: Thanks for stopping by, and sharing your thoughts. Yes, I, too am so delighted by and curious about how fluid many young people's attitudes toward gender are, as compared to my own growing-up years. Since LOOKING FOR GROUP is set at college, where (at least in my experience) a lot of conversations about big ideas (like gender) get discussed in mind-blowing ways, it definitely includes its share of thoughtful thinking about different approaches to doing gender.

    2. I remember those conversations, talking late into the night about big ideas. It's an exciting time.

  3. I've had some of my online friends longer than I have friends in real life. And probably spend more time with them. It's kind of the nature of the beast. In real life you are limited by proximity. You can only make friends as you encounter them. They may or may not be "perfect" friends. You may not be able to find enough in common with them. Whereas online, you can meet people by interest. You can develop more intimate (emotionally) relationships because you are not distracted by all the physical reactions. The timing is different. If I were to tell someone in real life something about me that is intimate, their reaction is immediate. Whereas a friend online has time to digest and create a response that is more suitable. It may or may not be positive but it's a more real response. I don't know if that makes any sense.

    1. Sara:

      It completely makes sense. Tinuviel and "Solace" say things quite similar, when Drew and others cast doubt on how "real" peoples' online relationships are/can be. Hall's book is all about validating such relationships, which scholars and parents often downplay or even worry over.

  4. Just to clarify, I don't think it's correct to say that Drew is female online. He does seem to prefer to play female characters, but he's not adopting a female persona and everyone he plays with know he's male. It's an important distinction to me because some men do like to play female online just to mess with people.

    1. Thanks, Willaful, for the clarification. I definitely mis-wrote when I implied that Solace or Drew presented as a woman online. Solace's online character presents as female, but Solace, who chats primarily via text rather than via voice, does not present as a particular gender in those texts. And Drew, who does speak as well as chat via text, does not pretend to be female in real life.