In a culture obsessed with dragons, magic, and time travel, it might be hard to imagine how real-world gender issues could possibly come into play, but once you look closely, they're as present as ever—just wearing different costumes. From Conan's rippling muscles to Captain Kirk's parade of sexy space-ladies to Daenerys's apparent clothing allergy, it's clear that nerd subculture has all the same gender issues as the mainstream, just wrapped up in more chain mail and spandex.
Whether they're conventions, game tournaments, organized Meetups, or good old-fashioned parties, explicitly nerdy spaces (physical or virtual) represent a risk for anyone who doesn't fit squarely into their "proper" gendered box. What I've experienced as a cisgender woman is shocking, but it pales in comparison to what people face for openly being queer, trans, or gender fluid.
I spoke to a lot of nerds who are active in various communities, including women and genderqueer folks, and not a single one was willing to go on the record with personal stories, for fear of outing and harassment. That's how bad it is out there. But with a few details changed for their protection, here is a small sample of the experiences I've heard about:
• Arguing with an anonymous person about a video game online, and within minutes, having a Google Maps street view image of her house show up in her personal e-mail.
• Running her company's Twitter account for months, mentioning her obviously female name once, and being inundated immediately, at work, with explicit death and rape threats.
• Kissing his boyfriend while both dressed as anime characters and being physically ripped from each other by a fan who screamed he wouldn't stand for this character "doing that kind of faggot shit."
My own minor but innumerable examples include knowing how it sounds to be called a "stupid cunt" by a boy's voice that hasn't dropped yet. In some ways, nerd culture seems to take the worst parts of toxic masculinity and run with them, all the while convinced that nerds are so different, even better, than the mainstream. And that belief is, I think, the root of the problem.
There's a strong sense of being the underdogs of life for most nerds, probably best exemplified by Revenge of the Nerds. Nerds are picked on and physically unimposing, but they're also the smartest people in the room—and if they could prove it, everything would be different. This makes it difficult to discuss things like privilege—someone who feels ignored and belittled is likely to have a hard time imagining that his gender could afford him any advantages.
That's understandable. It's also, frankly, bullshit. The stereotypical nerd is awkward, gangly, socially stunted, and pretty much always male. Hell, the most prominent female character in Revenge of the Nerds is, essentially, the sexy prize one of the nerds wins for being the smartest. While that film gave male nerds a vision, however dubious, to aspire to—for the rest of us, it only reinforced our invisibility. By virtue of our chromosomes or what's in our pants, our options are decoration or interloper. That's a heartbreaking lesson to learn, especially when it's so intimately connected to something we're passionate about.
In middle and high school, I was terribly self-conscious, even ashamed, about being a nerd. There was no shortage of cultural messaging to suggest that this was the correct way to feel. So when I spied someone wearing a Triforce T-shirt or reading a George R.R. Martin book, there was an instant, desperate spark of hope. My tribe! I've found another one.
I've always been what was called a "tomboy" in childhood, which I'd now simply call unfeminine, or androgynous. As I began to be surrounded by peers who were happily experimenting with all the trappings of adult womanhood, I started frantically trying to smother the happy, daydreaming, T-shirt-wearing dork inside me. Nerdy interests might have been okay, discomfort with femininity might have been okay, but both? For a female teenager? That was a recipe for eternal shunning—or so I was unshakably convinced at the time.
I gravitated toward openly nerdy social groups, which tended to be heavily male-dominated. As a tomboy, I mostly fit in well. Here, my lack of femininity wasn't a social liability; in fact, it was like a badge of honor! I wasn't like most girls, with their fixation on makeup and jewelry, their vapid magazine reading, their shallow gossip. I was "one of the guys," the highest badge of honor I could hope for.
It's only in hindsight that it becomes obvious how much this environment shaped my development, how I never nurtured any remotely "feminine" part of myself. To this day, I have no idea how to apply makeup; a significant part of my identity is wrapped up in not caring how I look; I exert tremendous effort to avoid appearing overly emotional; I avoid romance novels despite my abiding love of lightweight, quick-reading literature. (I could go on, and on, and on.)
There was a period of time when I found it endlessly hilarious to tell other girls, especially my friends' girlfriends, to "make me a sandwich." The guys always got a big kick out of that one. Sometimes I actually got a sandwich out of it. Sometimes those same guys demanded that I make them a sandwich, and I laughed at that too. This wasn't a culture of overt, hostile misogyny; we all thought we were so much better than that, so it was perfectly fine to joke about it, to act it out with a wink and an inflated sense of our own cleverness.
But by trying to escape the pressures of "mainstream" culture, I just wound up finding a different box to force myself into. The only difference is that I got to pride myself on seeing through all the typical teenage drama and pat myself on the back for knowing better.
I think things are changing for the better, I really do. Slowly and painfully, but changing nonetheless. Even the bilious group tantrum known as Gamergate (google at your own risk) has ironically helped raise awareness of just how much change is needed within the video-game world in particular. Game companies are beginning to realize that there are audiences hungry for diverse representation. Many conventions are stepping up (and better enforcing) their antiharassment policies. Beloved nerd celebrities are speaking out against sexism and bigotry in unprecedented numbers. We have a very long way left to go, but the momentum is building, and I know I don't intend to stop trying to make the nerd world a welcoming place for every single person who wants to be here.