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Queercon: Education, inclusion, connection at grassroots comics convention

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WWU Queer Writers Club at WWU Queercon 2017 — Courtesy photo
WWU Queer Writers Club at WWU Queercon 2017 — Courtesy photo

On Saturday, April 27, QueerCon, the Pacific Northwest's premier LGBTQ comics convention, will return to the main Bellingham campus of Western Washington University (WWU). Running from noon to 5 p.m., the event will feature Queer artists, vendors, clubs, and more, plus an after-hours drag show by the college's Royal Gambit club and "Queer Star Stories" in the virtual planetarium.

Con-going Queer people might be accustomed to the weekend-spanning titans of Emerald City Comic Con, PAX West, SakuraCon, and others. But those same people would also be well acquainted with big crowds and high ticket prices.

By contrast, QueerCon is short, sweet, and about as grassroots as they come. It's organized and staffed by volunteers, most of them students and faculty, and it's funded largely by donations and sponsorships from local businesses and organizations.

Tickets range from free to $10, depending on one's age and student status. Organizers said that admission for independent vendors and artists is usually free — far more affordable than, say, a table in Emerald City Comic Con's artist alley, which can cost north of $400 according to some sources (to say nothing of the cost of travel).

While the organizers can't require attendees to wear medical masks, they are "strongly encouraged," since they're a crucial safety measure for people who are immunocompromised, whether they're attending or not.

Accessibility and inclusivity
Accessibility and inclusivity are part of the "ethos of QueerCon," said Matthew, a WWU graduate and co-director of the event.

"A lot of other cons are a lot more corporate and capitalistic," he said. "QueerCon has always been a lot smaller... so there's been that ability to really focus on the needs of everyone as much as possible, as opposed to pushing for something bigger... which does eventually limit accessibility."

GIM, the co-director for the college's brand-new Institute for Critical Disability Studies, has been with QueerCon since it began back in 2016.

"We are a community event, but we're centered in Bellingham and ... at Western Washington University," they said. "We've evolved to fit the interests of the students in the local community, and the interests of people organizing the event."

A panel at WWU Queercon 2017 — Courtesy photo  

Regarding those interests, QueerCon is a golden opportunity. Many panels at larger conventions are educational, especially the ones that discuss LGBTQ issues. But WWU is an institution dedicated specifically to educating, and it's full of people who are there to learn.

As a result, many of the talks and panels have an agenda beyond entertainment. They're an outlet for Queer students and faculty alike to apply their expertise in ways they otherwise might not, and enrich others' perspectives in the process.

For example, "Melynda Husky — the vice president for enrollment and student services... [and] a scholar in Queer issues — is going to be giving a talk about early fan fiction," GIM said. "Like 1980s, pre—World Wide Web."

Making connections
Free from the noise and jostle of the crowds that mill through larger conventions, attendees and vendors alike also have more space to form lasting connections.

"There's a lot of community building that goes on behind the scenes," Matthew said. "We'll have artists who happen to be tabled close to each other [one] year, and then next year they're working together, or they're tabling together."

GIM added, "The humans are the most important part of this."

"Every year, there are some folks — particularly students, but even [other] community members — for whom this is their very first time tabling as a vendor, showing off their work," they added.

Even the sponsors are "people that we've known a long time," Matthew said, such as Back Door, a Gay bar that was established the year after QueerCon started.

GIM said that in one kind of fundraiser, "the bartenders take names that the QueerCon student leaders have brainstormed and turn them into mocktails and cocktails.... Then people vote for them with their dollars, and the winner gets to be the official QueerCon cocktail that year."

"Major shout-out to Comics Place in particular," they added. "They've been with us every year since we started out."

QueerCon's greatest strengths also present some of its greatest challenges. Students and faculty both lead busy lives — and that's without volunteer work. Many of QueerCon's most experienced staff move away and get even busier once they graduate, and that kind of turnover demands extra recruitment and training year-round.

But volunteers are bound to be passionate, and many do return. Each year is "kind of like a family reunion," Matthew said.

"With my background, I don't have a lot of Queer elders," he said. "I discovered my queerness not very long ago. And so to see an emphasis through QueerCon [on working] on connecting the generations, connecting all those different parts of the Queer community, is really cool to see."

You can purchase tickets and find out more about WWU QueerCon at https://wp.wwu.edu/wwuqueercon