Freaks, geeks, and queers

High school. Ahh, high school. For some, it holds the fondest memories. For others, high school was a complete nightmare. High school can be one of the most complicated and challenging social landscapes that exists in American society. And our ability to navigate that landscape depends largely on whether you can plug yourself into a social group.

Back in the day, when I was in high school, we had the jocks, the cheerleaders, the drama/chorus crowd, the “brains” (that was me), the deadbeats, the rich kids, the computer techies. Those of us who were able to find our people generally did okay. But there was no identifiable place for The Queers. Although there were quite a few gay and lesbian kids at my school, nobody was out. Nobody. And with good reason. I know one kid who got taunted and beat up regularly by some members of the football team – and he wasn’t even gay. He just fit the part – he sang, he was part of the drama group, he didn’t do sports, and he hung out with quirky, creative people. In my high school, unless you had that kind of winning personality that made you popular no matter what (and there were some people who were like that), if you were queer, you were doomed to be an outcast.

What’s amazing to me is that, despite the fact that gay and lesbian kids at my school were in Deep Closet mode (at least in public), they managed to find each other and form their own social group. There was no such thing as a Gay-Straight Alliance, at least not in any official sense. But The Queers found each other – and a high school subculture was born. And that seems to be at the core of human nature – find others who are like yourself and stick together, and you will be okay.

Besides being called “gay,” or “queer,” or “faggot,” or “dyke,” what’s the worst thing you could possibly be called in high school?





These are the kids who are socially awkward. They like really uncool things. They’re obsessed with computers and technology. They read science fiction, and they like gaming. Back when I was in high school and college, they would have played D&D; now it would probably be World of Warcraft. Their clothes are decidedly unfashionable. Nowadays, a lot of these kids get diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder, a syndrome that’s considered to be part of the autism spectrum. (With the publication of DSM-V, it looks like the diagnosis of Asperger’s disorder will disappear, and be subsumed under Autism Spectrum Disorder.) Regardless of whether or not these kids qualify for a psychiatric disorder (that’s a whole other discussion), being a geek also gets you ostracized, shunned, and potentially beat up. A worst-case scenario in high school.

As I’ve been reflecting on this, I’ve noted three interesting things:

Interesting thing #1:  Like queers, geeks have developed a “culture.” People now talk about “the geek lifestyle” and “geek culture,” and the word “geek” itself has been culturally reappropriated – reclaimed as a positive identifier, rather than used as a tool of verbal harassment. Geek fashion, with horn-rimmed glasses, high-water trousers, and collared button-down shirts, was a trend for a while there. But geek culture is more than a fashion trend – it’s a constellation of identifiers that allow geeks entry into a social network. Find the people who enjoy sci-fi and fantasy, computers and technology, comic books and Renaissance fairs – the common interests that bind people together – and you will get a glimpse of geek culture.

Interesting thing #2:  Almost no psychological research has been done on geek culture. Which, given the prevalence of the Asperger’s disorder diagnosis, and given the rates of victimization against geeks, is really surprising to me. There have been a few articles written in cultural studies journals about geek culture, and several general-audience books have addressed the subject, including Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People. UCLA’s Center for Mental Health in Schools has even developed a comprehensive fact sheet titled “About ‘Nerds’ and ‘Geeks’ as an Identified Subculture.” Although the list of references at the end of this fact sheet is extensive, almost none of those references come from the psychological empirical literature. If anyone in psychology wanted to study and learn more about a historically marginalized subculture, here’s a golden opportunity.

Interesting thing #3:  Geek culture and queer culture intersect at various points. Since I began conducting interviews for my upcoming book, Fringe: On the Edges of the Mainstream Gay Community, I have noticed this over. And over. And over again. Bisexuality and geek sometimes intersect. BDSM and geek sometimes intersect. Polyamory and geek often intersect – an anecdotal observation Janet Hardy talks about in her book, The Ethical Slut (and which she also brought up during our interview). A colleague of mine recently introduced me to the concept of object sexuality (where the target of one’s attractions is directed towards objects, rather than towards males and/or females) – noting that object sexuality (and other non-mainstream sexualities) is not uncommon among people who are on the autism spectrum. An interesting form of intersectionality, this combination of “queer” and “geek.”

In many ways, this isn’t surprising, the overlap between geek culture and queer culture. Even the words “geek” and “queer” bear similarity to one another. “I’m a geek,” said Dany Atkins, a writer who also identifies as bisexual, kinky, polyamorous, and genderqueer, during our interview. “And I’m queer. I was queer before the LGBT community took the word ‘queer.’ I’m ‘queer’ in the sense that I’m weird, different, not like everybody else.”

And yet, Dany has survived by finding her people, both within geek culture as well as in queer circles. Janet Hardy has found her people as well. (If you’re looking for other polyamorous people, it obviously helps if you write what many consider to be the Bible of polyamory.) Whatever you are, no matter how marginalized you are, it helps immensely if you can find your people. We look for allies and bind together. And we find ways of empowering ourselves in order to disarm those who hold power over us.

Even in high school.


Filed under anti-gay bullying, BDSM, bisexuality, gender nonconformity, homophobia, intersectionality, LGBTQ, mental health, psychological research, relationships, Uncategorized, violence

4 responses to “Freaks, geeks, and queers

  1. I have one word for you:


    Great post! I hope someone does do the research you mention. It would be an interesting read for many of us queer geeks.

  2. To ‘Thing #1’, I agree that geek culture has been reappropriated as a positive identifier disarming those who would wish to denigrate, but I would suggest that is a characteristic of the post-collegiate crowd/20 somethings that have found the skin that they are comfortable in and have had positive reinforcement from the workforce and their support system. Having a kid in middle school and close to high school, I think being labeled a geek is still a point of trauma and one these kids would not embrace – even for those that endeavor ‘geek style’ jobs like computer engineers. There may be exceptions or little pockets in one particular geographic area or one school but I would doubt, in high school culture that an individual would feel comfortable being identified as a geek at the expense of any chance of popularity.

    Though you would know better, I would imagine this is the same with the LGBT community. It is likely that more kids are out now, then when we were in high school (full disclosure to the readers here: I went to high school with Gayle) but I can’t imagine it would be a positive experience. Sure there are exceptions in some high schools or like the one internet story going around about the 7 year old who is out and proud, but I think for the most part that high school culture, despite as individuals and as a nation we have become more sensitive and aware (though not as fast as most sane thinking people would want), is about being popular and not veering too far from what they collectively have unconsciously deemed ‘normal’.

    As popular and rich as ‘geeks’ have become in the business world, they still have trouble being accepted in high school as such. I would find it hard to imagine with the idiot thinking of some politicians and parents, that LGBT group would find it much easier navigating the school halls.

    And while it will be nice when it does happen, high school culture is such that they will find a new target – maybe football players.

    • Thanks, Marc, for reading! I agree that “geek,” just like “gay” or “lesbian” or “queer,” is still a point of trauma for a lot of kids – and, just like LGBTQ kids, geek kids might have to hold onto the idea that “it gets better” once they’re out of high school. I think that’s especially true in middle school – I have yet to meet someone who says that they LOVED middle school.

      That said, at least in my little geographic pocket, I’m seeing some change. I’m seeing LGBTQ students who had a positive and affirming experience in high school (usually because there was an active Gay-Straight Alliance at their school). I’m also seeing students who actively identify as “geek,” claiming that term in the early high school years and using it to find others like themselves. Part of it could be because I live in California, which, despite the Prop 8 disaster, is one of the more LGBTQ-affirming states in which to live, and where, given the possibility of a lucrative Silicon Valley career, geekdom can potentially be something to aspire to. I’d like to think that the tide will turn at some point for kids who live in other states.

      What I’d really love to see is the cultivation of a high school environment where there isn’t a need to step on somebody else in order to feel okay. LGBTQ kids don’t need to be stepped on. Geeks don’t need to be stepped on. And football players don’t need to be stepped on either (although I think they can hold their own pretty well. :-))

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