Given the climate this year socially, I figure its only fair to share to the importance from my perspective of the value of safe and welcoming tables at conventions. And I do have pretty strong opinions about it. You see, I know the taste of gun metal. A lot of people might be surprised to hear that.
In my early teens, I was growing up with every advantage. I was born into and identified with the dominant gender. I was born into and accepted by the dominant religion of my area. I was born into the dominant ethnic group. I played football. My family had a decent income. I was bigger, stronger, and according to standardized testing, smarter than almost everyone I knew. By all measurable standards I was winning.
And yet all I wanted was to go. You know GO. And I tried…
Everything inside me was at odds with EVERYTHING I saw. A suffocating crush of wrongness from every time I watched a TV, read a magazine, or heard the leaders of my faith. Even as my exterior performance excelled, my interior dissonance was crumbling the inner walls of my world. And worse still, I fit in so perfectly no one could even see ANY of this. No one even knew to help or care. I was so desperate to “fit in” I matched expectations perfectly. Yet, I felt such an intense otherness the only logical thing seemed to be powering-down. Permanently.
Fortunately my biology didn’t agree. I survived and moreover, no one ever knew. I just went on with my strange existence feeling like I fallen out of my book into another where the author just didn’t know or care what to do with someone like me. “Fortunately” as a white male I could become an invisible part of the machine just by being quiet. But I was raised to be honest and soon even silence was like swimming in lies.
And then one summer of my early teens, I saw a flier for the local gaming convention. I had been playing off and on with relatives but had been having trouble maintaining a group long outside of summer vacations. I scraped together the admission fee with some chores and by skipping lunches at school to hoard a few more precious dollars. And I talked my brother into dropping me off. Being totally lost I missed the sign-in sheets and planning area entirely. I missed the organized play events. But I didn’t care. I was dazzled by the people. So many references on t-shirts, posters or costumes (nothing like today’s cosplayers) that I recognized.
I felt a strange resonance. A group was in front of me, in that community center basketball court, that I recognized–from the inside out. Excited, I burst through into the tables clearly marked “Open Gaming.” I of course assumed this meant bring whatever character you wanted. I looked over the tables and saw that most were full of cheering and hooting gamers. One table at the far side had just a few players sitting there. I went and just sat down. It was “Open” after all. They both stared at me a long moment. I can only imagine how I looked, bad new-waver haircut, mismatched dice and a little backpack chuck-full of rulebooks.
The gamers looked at me and glanced at each other. I nervously pulled out some character sheets. I usually GM’d and rarely got to play as a player. I shuffled them around a bit. Finally one of them said, “What’s your character?” It was the first time a stranger had ever cared (even a little) about something I had made up. I exploded into a complex backstory and annotated timeline with official products and where he would have been during those events. She smiled and listened appearing entertained. I must have seemed like a precocious little shit.
But these people. These people lit up. Asked follow-up questions, became curious enough to listen to me talk about something from inside. And it matched. They understood every word and were kind enough to listen. A bridge snapped into place. Gaming had been something to do when my family stuck me with my nephews and we were bored. But there in a loud community center basketball court, it immediately became a link to something I recognized outside of myself.
The GM was a no show and in an even greater act of kindness, one of the players piped up saying he could run. He even claimed to have something the right level for my character. In hindsight I am nearly positive he ad-lib’ed the whole thing. But for a few hours these amazing people made me feel entirely at home, entirely welcome and quite amazingly heroic. Normal. At peace.
The ocean of alien feelings and dissonance rolled back like a tide.
I can only imagine what might have happened if those people hadn’t chosen to accept me. If someone had told me that I was too young, too nerdy or wasn’t their type of people (whatever type that was). If that table hadn’t been the safest place I have ever sat. The difference between knowing I didn’t fit at all and knowing I only fit with a few was all I really needed. I am grateful beyond words for the connection that saved my life.
And when I go to conventions and see people of a thousand different stripes I try to remember that we can each be there for someone who might desperately need it. Because you don’t know who someone is on the inside, even the white dopey football player from the suburbs, until you do. Anyone you meet at a Con might be there looking for the way home and someone to travel it with for a few hours. And often they turn out to be pretty damn fun too.