The Culture War at Defcon 17

by Roland Lindsey

For seventeen years, Defcon has been a home country to society’s misfits. Geeks, nerds and hackers of all stripes make their yearly pilgrimage to the Holy City of Las Vegas to reconnect with friends and family from all over the world, and for one weekend, they are the normal ones. The mundanes cautiously pace through the halls wondering what happened to the rest of the retirees and beautiful people. Once they realize that an Evil Hacker conference is commencing at the hotel of their choosing, they utter a prayer for mercy and have nightmares amidst restless sleep about the 5 character glyph “PWN3D” being carved upon their virtual faces.

But even though the hackers seek the company of each other as a means to feel connected to others, there are further divisions within the group. One black presenter offered one way to remember who he was: “I’m the black presenter at Defcon, lol.” And although attendance of women is noticeably up, the “sausagefest” jokes can be found on the Twitterstream with great regularity.

One group that has sought to provide a meetup for another segment of Defcon society runs “Queercon” every year. It is as brash and uninhibited as its name, and most find it to be the most delightful gathering of friendly, fun people. In fact, although there are many parties where dancing is available, Queercon is usually the only one where you can expect to see a roomful dance all night long.

Being gay and geek is not exactly the most harmonious combination in the hacker space. This is most evident in the de facto insult in geek circles, which is typically some variant of “gay” or “fag” (“g4y” or “f4g” if you prefer.) It is one thing to be an outcast because you are gay in a straight society. It is another thing to be an outcast because you are gay and a geek in a straight and mundane society, and because you are gay in geek society. Unless you are a hot lesbian, in which case you will be drooled over, ogled and patronized all at the same time.

This year, I was very much looking forward to Queercon. I strode down the hall confidently, knowing a night of fun and dancing awaited me. Ahead I saw the Rainbow flag, and I smiled, and then looked again. The Rainbow flag was draped over the American flag on a flagpole. Uh oh.

Some geeks tend towards encyclopedic knowledge; whenever they see something they don’t understand, they look it up and add it to their mental files. As I noticed the flag, I mentioned to my girlfriend: “I don’t think that is quite legal.” She amended that it was technically legal, but against US Code. I examined it further. Apparently, they had some difficulty figuring out how to fly the flag, and in desperation had affixed some wire to the top of the flag and attached it to the Rainbow flag.

I decided it was unseemly, but not unforgivable, and regardless would likely not offend anyone bound for that end of the hallway. I didn’t mention it to anyone at the party. I probably should have, because I was wrong about whether or not someone would take offense.

Another geek, himself a former member of the armed forces, arrived at the party and pulled down the Rainbow flag. He gave the flag to those near the door and stated, “I don’t appreciate this flag being hung over the US Flag. It’s not right.” As he walked out, someone from the back of the party yelled out, “Hater!”

The former soldier returned thirty seconds later. He asked, “Are you calling me a hater?” He claimed the other only had the right to have a Queercon because he had fought for those rights overseas. There was disagreement. The argument escalated. The other persisted with the ad hominem, perhaps thinking if he said it enough, his opponent would say, “You’re right, I do hate you!” Eventually, the former soldier gave up and left.

The mood at the party was temporarily broken. Dancers stopped their gyrations.

If there is anything the geek community has learned from life is that mainstream society tends to reject us, and we have had some hardship as a result. We are misunderstood, underappreciated, and abused. We agree that this is not a good thing.

And yet, for all of our enlightenment and lessons learned and struggle together, we do it to each other. But then again, we have always done it to each other. What remains to be seen is if we can change any better or faster than the mainstream society that fears, misunderstands, hates, ignores all of us.

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