Queer In Marvel Heroes

My boyfriend and I have found a game into which we can settle for now: Marvel Heroes 2015. For me this is an amusing turn of events: it’s been within the last handful of years that I have become rather enamored with the Marvel Universe (having mostly stuck to indies and DC Vertigo before), and I did not really expect to be sucked into a free-to-play MMO of sorts. Part of how I snagged my boyfriend into the Marvel Universe (fairly easy considering the media saturation currently happening) was by reading Young Avengers and seeing queer representation in Wiccan and Hulkling. It then helped to see comics such as Ms. Marvel starring Kamala Khan, having Captain Marvel round up the wacky space hijinks, and She-Hulk to represent an amusing take on the legal profession (somehow we have found ourselves surrounded by a cabal of nerdy queer lawyer friends).

So, most days we at least log in to Marvel Heroes 2015, and at this point we’ve spent a fair bit of money in the game. In fact, two of the more significant purchases in my memory are for skins of existing characters: Scarlet Witch’s enhanced skin to turn her into Wiccan (a gay Jewish son of hers; it’s more complicated, but that’s comics) and All-New X-Men’s Iceman skin (he was recently outed by Jean Grey in the All-New X-Men run). Were they to release an Ultimate Colossus skin, I would likely also pick him up (he also being of the man-loving-man variety).

My Wiccan character standing next to the boyfriend's "Hawkguy" character.

My Wiccan character standing next to the boyfriend’s “Hawkguy” character.

Marvel Heroes 2015 is among that line of action RPGs that sticks to an isometric view and is heavy on its loot; these skins I have purchased are cosmetic (and in the case of Wiccan, have a completely different vocal track). Wiccan actually does reference Hulkling, his in-comic boyfriend, exclaiming that Teddy (Hulkling’s actual name) will never believe how easy Wiccan is finding it to fight as a real superhero. Iceman will hit on women, however. This makes sense, as the comics change outing his younger self pulled forward in time (again, comics) only occurred recently. While some would argue there have been hints historically, reading a text as queer is not new, and is not likely to go away any time soon, Supreme Court rulings only carrying so far in how far they can push change.

Today, as I was playing Iceman to farm some daily Shared Quests, Iceman in fact hit on Ms. Marvel, “Hey, is there a Mr. Marvel.” Wearing this young Iceman skin, the one who was recently outed, it struck me as odd to suddenly think of my character: here is someone trying so hard to hit on women that it is a bit overbearing, and probably even more telling considering how his sexuality is currently known to me.

This is odd.

The reason this is odd for myself is because I haven’t done much thinking of who my character inhabits in this universe of Marvel’s where the varying realities and alternate realities can comingle and all exist next to each other (good way to explain how you can have dozens of Scarlet Witches or Doctor Dooms running around on the same screen). This is a game whose primary focus is the game, the story serving seemingly as an also-ran of the typical comic book events. If you’ve played either the X-Men Legends or Marvel Ultimate Alliance games, you can pretty much hash out how that formula goes.

Bobby Drake, aka Iceman, in his All-New X-Men oufit.

Bobby Drake, aka Iceman, in his All-New X-Men oufit.

Which made me think in particular about the mutant metaphor that Marvel relies on: mutants are a minority among minorities (a point Chris Claremont makes in a forward to God Loves, Man Kills, which also made me raise an eyebrow). The idea is that the mutants are loathed and hated across the world: laws are set up to restrict them, they are lynched, and everyone seems invested in somehow controlling, subjugating, or ridding themselves of them as a species.

Games have not communicated this well; if anything, they have proven why people should be frightened of these super-powered heroes who are able to wreak havoc at a whim. Part of what seems to make the mutants, and the X-Men in particular, so appealing is their use of their powers and fighting a struggle that they always seem to surmount (not without casualties). This makes most games about them into a power fantasy, though the minority status is relegated to barks from enemies calling them less than human. Or to quote some Purifiers from Marvel Heroes 2015, “Human rights are for humans!

While at Wabash College, one of my later English courses was on the character of New York and how it not only has been depicted in varying forms of media over the ages, but how that character has shifted with its varying populations. Comics, naturally, became a talking point. The professor, with a mischievous look in his eyes, listened as I explained the mutant metaphor as a parallel to the struggle for queer rights in the 1970s, before he jokingly and tauntingly mentioned that the Jews had claimed the X-Men first.

I’ve met many people who feel like outcast in some regard who identify with the X-Men, and the mutant struggle. The frankly insulting comparison of Professor X and Magneto as analogues for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X is frankly so because it tries to simplify into a base comparison what a mutant struggle would be as compared to the black civil rights movements. It is not a good analogue to map it so squarely into real events in our history, even if we can see glimmers of it in varying struggles among different communities.

This makes me wonder what a game that tackles that would be like: it is the struggle of depicting privilege and having a feeling of not being able to control your fate as easily as a more privileged person might. That’s hard to convey in a game where you just beat people, beasts, and demons up while leveling and grabbing loot. Perhaps in a more story-focused game, which theoretically the announcement of the Telltale Games collaboration with Marvel could bring, this could be conveyed. However, the quest to constantly better myself along the exact same track as someone like Tony Stark or Thor (where I am to be an equal in that system in the name of game balance) makes those odd barks about my character’s inhumanity, or my noticing a slight discrepancy with a currently evolving storyline about adopting further minority stories, seem like it’s more of an, “Oh yeah, aren’t I supposed to be prosecuted by the public?” moment than an actual event in the game.

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Rewinding My Personality

This post will contain spoilers for the first episode of Dontnod Entertainment’s Life Is Strange. There are content warnings for violence and privacy intrusions.

I liked the first episode of Life Is Strange, though for a review I would recommend Maddy Myers over at Paste Magazine. Similarly, I was not surprised to see Todd Harper look at the rewind mechanic of the game. The protagonist, Max, gains the power to rewind time, and over the course of this first episode feels very much like a tutorial for how to use that, providing a sandbox in which to try it in various scenarios. Harper noted an interaction with drones that I completely missed, whereas I noted a few people completely walked by the fact that they could help a young teen woman not be hit by a football later in the episode.

Harper further elaborates on other games that have used the rewind mechanism, but what I find interesting is that in this game, it saves me the time of being a save scummer. Instead of saving right before a decision (not actually possible, as this auto-saves), making both decisions, and then sticking with one, I can easily just start rewinding time after a decision and see how it goes. This actually caused some waffling on my part: wanting to see how both options were presented before making a decision. Max does comment on this, never giving an indication as to which would be better.

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How does the player define better? I began to realize I was slowly learning more about Max the more I played with rewinding time. Here was a character who had just moved to a town in which she had lived before, is attending an elite school, and apparently has a great future as a photographer ahead of her. Oh, and one of her old best friends lives in the town. However, her need to be liked can be reflected in her ability to rewind time, as Harper notes. She doesn’t naturally have the answers to many of the questions her classmates pose her, which puts her in the position of being able to either walk away or use her ability to gain their good graces.

In particular, the achievements in the game seem to try and push for that narrative, as the majority are for taking photographs, a handful of which only occur when getting a certain rewind portion correct and then photographing the result (a football missing a student’s head leads to it hitting a window, which can then be photographed; or a bird whose life is saved by lifting a window allows for the same bird to be photographed again in a later scene).

Which leads to a feeling that to achieve the full intent of the game, and what is expected of Max (at least from the developers’ point of view), one has to use this device to do as much as possible, and to test the extent of these powers. Therefore, better seems to indicate use it whenever possible, but at the crux of important decisions where one has to go one way or another, and can’t rewind to come up with a third option, there is no definitive answer, or even one so basically broken down as paragon/renegade. Gather as much information as possible in order to make the decision you feel would be best.

In particular, in a later scene, Max’s former best friend, Chloe, is being harangued by her father-in-law. I had guided Max to hide in a closet and the decision came up whether or not to interrupt the scene. Having earlier gone to fix Max’s camera, I had snooped around the house, finding evidence that Max’s father-in-law was both the security guard who had been harassing Kate earlier, and that he was creepily surveying the entire campus with cameras. A teacher had earlier asked Max to sign a petition to stop this from occurring, though it appears to already be in effect anyway.

Much of this can actually be skipped, but it meant that in that moment, knowing that this father-in-law was a surveillance fiend, I felt Max, whose questioning if anything she does is correct, would have chosen to remain out of the picture and not focus on her for now. She has an odd power set, is new-again in town, and has very few close friends. Chloe would later bemoan Max not getting involved, which seems out of character for her, considering she expressly stated that Max being caught there would have disastrous consequences for her (then again, we don’t know Chloe’s full story, and she had been getting stoned right before this).

This Telltale games style of adventure game seems to thrive on difficult decisions, and I much appreciate the fact that not only has Dontnod added a mechanic where I don’t feel even the urge to research my options beforehand, or needing to go look up what happens afterward, but embraced it within the framework of Max’s own confusion and willingness to be liked. It does inform about not only her own insecurities, but mimics what I felt my own reaction was in trying to figure out how I would even approach this particular run through the game. As I was getting to learn who Max was, she is learning what her limits are, and together it felt like we were both coming to terms with that before heading further into the story.

Posted in Character Analysis, Criticism, Dontnod Entertainment, Impressions, Life Is Strange | Tagged , , ,

Fumbling Through Wolfenstein

Content warning for discussions of genocide, extreme violence, and other atrocities associated with World War II. Spoiler warnings for Wolfenstein: The New Order.

I am very much a third culture kid. Despite being a dual-citizen of the US and Germany (and spending good portions of my life in both), in the US I am considered a German, and in Germany I am considered an American. And yet, I find both cultures to be fairly alien to me quite regularly (it is not uncommon to have friends express shock that I haven’t experienced this thing or another that everybody else apparently has), but can navigate both with a fair amount of ease (it helps that both of these cultures privilege being white). At the same time, since most of my schooling has been in the US, this means I have had to become very accustomed with World War II.

Being obsessed with wars was something that I saw many teen boys do as I was growing up. Having to listen to details about battles during the Civil War in front of small churches, or something akin, were a grand to-do around lunch time. I found myself interested in the social aspects of war, and because of the atrocities my country had committed against classes of people (Jews, Sinti and Romani, gay men), I had to constantly prove I wasn’t some German who was ignoring the past (because that’s apparently a thing some USians seem to think of Germans).

Therefore, I wanted to play through Wolfenstein: The New Order because I had heard it tackled topics like concentration camps and such. Recently, my maternal grandmother, who is German, had also passed, and there is some small amount of guilt there for never learning fully about her experiences growing up as a young girl during the Third Reich.

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And yet, playing through, I was left with some unease. Sure, there were depictions of horrible things, and there was acknowledgement of the horrors of the Third Reich, but going through the concentration camp felt fairly sparse. It was almost like walking through a village in Skyrim, or Lothering in Dragon Age: Origins. This may partially be because the true atrocities of concentration camps were the experience, which the protagonist, B.J., did not really have to go through. There is a scene where a machine tattoos his identification number on his arm (and a gruesome scene later where he cuts it off), but there was never really any sense that what I was experiencing was that bad.

B.J. is removed from a lot of what has happened. He is a blonde American with a square jaw, blue eyes, and a kick-ass attitude. He is the quintessential action star who is useful for killing Nazis.

I was also rather curious as to what it was like to live in a futuristic 1960 where Germany had won through the use of advanced technology (that they had stolen). Being among the rebels, however, there were only snippets here and there. A mother wanting to report her son for putting on lipstick, a letter detailing the story of a woman whose Sapphic desires would get her into trouble, and some audio files from B.J.’s love interest reading a diary about a woman who was murdering Nazis and had an abortion. Most of the context clues of the world lay in scattered newspapers printed in their original language (with translations available to the player).

There was an attempt at world building, but because of the verbs available to B.J., and the company he keeps, it became rather limited in what it could show me, the player: the German and American who grew up and has read through a culture that had to deal with its guilt following the end of the war, and those that see it as a triumph on the world stage at the exact same time.

One thing I did appreciate is that the Nazis were humanized. It may be strange to wish humanization for Nazis, but I feel it important in the fact that these were humans who committed these horrors and atrocities. We must not forget that all it takes is humans to be so cruel to each other. In fact, with the push into using machines, robots, and enhanced humans, there is the active decision to give part of their humanity up in order to achieve their goals. There is horror to be found in complacency with the status quo that robs others of their humanity.

In particular, the second nemesis B.J. faces is Frau Engel, a woman who runs the concentration camp that B.J. visits. Her first encounter with B.J. is on a train onto which he has smuggled, where she tests whether he is an undesirable by playing a game where the player has to choose a card that best illustrates a word or concept she throws out (sexy, etc.). The trick is that he can’t be an undesirable, because otherwise he would attempt to take the gun that was laying on the table and shoot her (the conceit being that undesirables have no hope, and that they would be pushed to desperation).

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Later, in the concentration camp, it is possible to overhear her talking with her effete male lover that she gets to have her fun now: she raised her children for the empire. Her selfishness fits in well with the sadistic character who shows people old vacation and war photos to see if they crack under the strain of her eye that can ferret out impurities. In fact, her lover, Bubi, seems to have a certain effete affectation to contrast with her more domineering attitude. I could never quite tell if the game what the game wanted me to think of him, where his lover, Engel, was clearly supposed to be an antagonist. She is far more present, and far more a danger to B.J., coming back even after having her lower face crushed by one of the robots she uses to control the concentration camp.

Then, in between chapters, B.J. returns to the rebels’ base. For the most part, these characters are distinct for the fact that they are outcasts in some fashion or another, banded against the system that would likely be rid of them anyway. One of these rebels is J, who seems to be this alternate timeline’s Jimi Hendrix: a black man who plays guitar left-handed and infuses the game and B.J’s reality with some psychedelics.

When B.J. asks why J doesn’t fight, J points out that the US was not much better. That the America B.J. fought for, the freedom he thinks he stands for, is all based on his privilege. Were he black, he would not likely have the same views.

This aligns well with the fact that Deathshead, the main antagonist, accuses BJ of just slaughtering Germans indiscriminately, and not being any better than the injustice against which is supposedly fighting. This argument does not work as well for me, as the Germans are not quite characters in and of themselves; the sense of a family life is hinted at, but almost every interaction is with a soldier, who yells out the same barks in German, and who must ultimately be seen as nothing more than an obstacle. Still, it does bring to light the fact that there is no black and white in this particular version of the world either.

It therefore makes sense that B.J. ends up sacrificing himself at the end: given that he is an American who woke up to this world after being stuck in his body for many years, and never truly inhabited this world, he is not one who can affect change in it. He did not live under the yolk of oppression that the Nazis had placed on the world. Plus, as J put its, he is complicit with ‘The Man,’ the big US institution that fought for freedom while not exercising those rights on its own soil. He is a man of action, who is useful during the verbs that require me to kill and destroy. During understanding cultures who have seen horrors he cannot quite fathom, he would be worthless.

However, even though I grew to appreciate the glimpses that were being taken, I realized that this was not a piece of media I would have discussed as a thought exercise with my grandmother. I could gladly discuss Draußen vor der Tür or Die Blechtrommel, this one had more for me to think about as someone who bridges that gap between (and often feels estranged from) both US and German cultures.

Posted in Character Analysis, Criticism, Informal Review | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Gaming Made Me: How I Learned to Stop Fearing and Love Decisions

As a child, I was deemed a born diplomat. The easiest anecdote to relate was when my parents would ask whom I loved more, and I would respond both, giving a compliment to each. As is often the case with a certain people, I found my teen years full of throwing everything away and then doing the opposite of what would please everyone. After graduating college? That all became muddled, and only recently have I found myself more confident in my ability to make decisions for myself.

Part of this was due to economic stability, but another was learning who I was outside of the environment provided by school. This is the type of environment where I was always on; I was always playing a role. To varying degrees, I still do this, but I am much more aware of it all and much more in control of that image based on whom I may be around at any given time.

Which is why I found games to be an essential playground for that discovery. Playing games where I could make choices, no matter how superfluous they were to actually changing the plot, made me realize things about myself. It was a chance to be on stage again, essentially. This also meant arguing with myself and considering the decision I had made.

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It occurred to me over this past weekend, as I played Walking Dead: Season Two, that I was making decisions with a very firm idea in mind. Part of the impetus was that I only had a limited amount of time to make a decision (not really, since I play in windowed mode, I can click outside the window and stall, but I have been purposely avoiding this tactic). Therefore, I found my Clementine tired of everyone’s immature bullshit. Here I was, a small girl, leading a group because they were too incapable of functioning. Granted, this is largely because everyone has varying degrees of mental health issues, considering the environment in which they find themselves.

Then again, balancing between Clementine and my own projection of her reactions, I just figured as a leader, I had to start making some harsh decisions considering the survival of the group. Sure, this led to some questioning of my motives and tactics as regards other characters in the game, but that’s what makes this more interesting to me than just killing demons over and over again in Diablo 3 (though there is a certain joy in that as well).

This was further reiterated in my recent replay of the Dragon Age series. In Origins I found myself playing a politically machinating noblewoman who married Alistair for the chance to place herself and her line back in good standing, more than actual love of him. Whereas in Dragon Age II, I found myself playing a character who was trying to constantly be the big sister to everyone. This led to good mix of responses that were incredibly brunt, diplomatic, and snarky in good measure. Breaking away from the paragon/renegade system meant I felt more free not to game the system, so to speak.

Which is relatively new to me: not gaming the system. I can spend hours theorycrafting over various card games, RPGs, etc. Yet there is a certain thrill at abandoning this when it comes to storytelling, and that is the chance to become what I believe an actual human being would be in these situations.

So, games have more recently given me a more measured reaction to situations. I feel more confident in my ability to analyse a situation and be okay if I don’t make the 100% perfect decision anymore. Not having to game the system has moved me away from the same analysis paralysis I would often face in real life, worried about how others would perceive my actions. It’s a common lesson to learn, but in my case, games helped me grasp on to that concept once again after a tumultuous past few years.

Posted in BioWare, Design, Dragon Age: Origins, Impressions, Mass Effect | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Choice Effect

Potential spoilers: Dragon Age, The Witcher.

Despite donning a different role in the various games I play, I find that when faced with the option of subjugating someone, or siding with those who hold systemic power, I always pause. Recently replaying the recent BioWare RPGs and The Witcher series, it struck me how I could not side against the Scoia’tael in the latter, nor could I find myself wanting to side against the mages in one of the former. Something in me innately wants to rebel against the notion of further subjugation, regardless of whether it would be part of my character or not.

Rebellious

What seems like a fairly simple observation began when I started comparing The Witcher to Dragon Age, as I have seen many do. There are arguments about better combat systems, a character with whom to identify, a better world, and more powerful decision making. The arguments go back and forth both ways, though that last point struck me as interesting, because there is systemic racism that is apparent in both games. Yet, when I looked at my import from the first Witcher to its sequel, my decisions barely had any consequence. Then I recalled the end of Dragon Age II and realized why that was.

A story that a game metes out is a system in and of itself. The world that has been built is tied into that story (as well as the mechanics for progression; it so happens that in these two franchises, violence is rampant), and the only true way to have any effect is to change that story itself. Importing decisions means that any decision I make in a game will be of limited scope. I can side with the Scoia’tael all I want, but that won’t change the fact of their oppression, or the plight of the various elves and dwarves found wandering that world. In Dragon Age II, it is Anders’s reckless act of blowing up the Chantry in Kirkwall that allows BioWare’s writers to move the circumstances surrounding the oppression of mages forward, nothing that my Grey Warden did in Origins, nor any decisions I made in the sequel.

What strikes me about this is that it is an interesting parallel for effecting social change in real life: until the narrative changes in some significant way, all the work is merely a build up toward it. Of course, in these games, these acts happen no matter what, meaning my choice of whether to be for or against such large-scale changes colors which side I am on and how I would perceive such. Looking at the US right now, depending on how one feels about same-sex marriage, all of the seeming progress that is occurring right now means there are a range of reactions and emotions, based on peoples’ own actions and efforts in that struggle.

Which is to say, my hesitance in siding with the humans against the Scoia’tael has a clear impact in that the Geralt I play would clearly have a role in my mind, and would clearly have a mindset on how to approach decisions (granted, this one is alien to me, which is why I have not gone that route yet, despite some arguments that ‘both sides are just as bad,’ which is an argument at which I reflexively roll my eyes).

These are games that are built on decisions, and people seem disappointed when the decisions do not lend themselves to larger changes that carry over from game to game, or even from decision to decision in the same game sometimes. But, if we allow ourselves to inhabit the characters that would make such a decision, it does allow for a narrative to be constructed. These types of games are a collaboration of the players’ imaginations and reasons with the story being told.

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2013 Into 2014

I’m not writing as much as I once did. This is partly because 2013 has been a transitional year for me (having a job that pays well and has regular hours, many different circles of friends, and a boyfriend), and I’ve found I am less satisfied with the same-old. Therefore, it’s not wholly surprising to find most of the writing of which I am proud this year can be found in little odd side projects.

1380330_577566111186_81956165_nTake, for instance, my work with re/Action this year. I wrote about the question of historicism (heavily influenced by my professor Dr. Rhoades) about what are the stories that are passed on to us in games, and how much can we trust them in terms of their authenticity. Who is telling us this story, and what stock do we place in this? For the most part, so far, we’ve been able to trust our narrators (the exceptions burning a brand in our mind, the likes of which we blazon on t-shirts, blog posts, and memes).

The second instance hits more close to home, as I explain being an ethical slut and and explaining how I am in an open relationship and how I am disappointed at what being a slut in games typically means. At a certain point I stopped counting the number with whom I slept. When I went in for a recent STI screening, I answered, “More than 100 and less than 500″ in the number of people with whom I slept with last year. I take my precautions, and they have worked for me so far. More importantly, the people with whom I’ve slept have been people, not just another notch in my masculinity, straight-acting or otherwise.

There was also my contribution to Five Out of Ten, which served to highlight my thoughts on gender and how I explored games in their earlier days (for me, in the late ’80s and early ’90s).

Further, in Memory Insufficient I discuss how the idea of families in a heteronormative context can fit for some queer ideals, but when introducing queer characters, brings up the idea of non-heteronormative methods of passing on culture and tradition. This was raised in part by the successful funding and acceptance of the Massive Chalice Kickstarter (which I did back).

Lastly, I contributed to Ghosts In The Machine, which was a collaborative creative exercise exploring what questions the digital game space opens us up to in terms of larger questions. My own was the ethics of forced-upon violent rhetorics: whom they serve, and what they seek to enterprise out of the audience to whom they speak. I’m not sure whether or not I was successful, but it does beg the question of further exploration among game-like themes.

Surprisingly, for the first time in many years, I played a number of newer releases, about which I would love to share further thoughts, but rest assured I am currently working on a further explication of Gone Home (which I named my GOTY for Sparky Clarkson), and another short story. Whether or not I am ever as prolific as I was before (however sparse that may have been), I hope to still be around and offering.

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HRC’s Branding Attempts

Right after the recession hit the media in a big way, the company for whom I was working shrunk the design department with which I was working. Taking the opportunity to pursue something about which I was passionate, I decided to try out my hand at canvassing, and one of our clients was the HRC. This was right around the time of Prop 8, and the issue at hand was marriage equality. Not for Prop 8, but the issue as a larger whole.

One day while out at the University of Chicago campus, one of my fellow canvassers was accosted by some activists, demanding to know why the HRC would demand money for LGBT causes considering they were abandoning the T in that group? While my coworker sputtered, flabbergasted, I watched on, having known this, but realizing I could not continue with this work, for this particular organization. I did not go back the next day.

I am torn about today.

My Facebook feed (moreso than my Twitter feed) is awash in red equal signs, the branding that the HRC uses going under a color switch in order for people to signal their support of marriage equality as it is being heard in the Supreme Court. I do support marriage equality. I do not support the HRC. When I mentioned this on Twitter, an exchange occurred whereby Courtney Stanton brought up this article explaining the issues the trans community has with the HRC (and with much of what happens in the gay and lesbian movement overall). I won’t rehash the article because it is worth your full attention and a full reading.

I also find it hard to argue for the HRC’s branding in this issue considering they were against the ruling taking place in the first place. To my cynical mind, this reads as a way to pursue more brand awareness, thereby increasing their ability to fundraise in the future. I see no reason not to be cynical with the HRC. This could very well be their gamble to make the best of what they consider a bad situation, but it one where I find using their branding rather counterintuitive for promoting queer issues overall.

What people do with this information is up to them, and I am not trying to create a ‘queerer-than-thou’ hierarchy, but feel people should be informed.

Posted in Inclusiveness, LGBT | Tagged , ,