I went to Pirate Camp and came back with all these O.P.I.N.I.O.N.S., or: Who Deserves a Place in “The Dream”?

Over the last weekend, rather than go to a local event where the Crown would be in attendance and I’d get to see most of my usual peeps, I went rogue. I had previously accepted an invitation from one of my students to camp with his pirate household at Seadog Nights, a non-SCA weekend-long “immersion” event. I’ll be honest, I went based on his promise of snacks and a kiddie pool. It was actually a really cool experience to go hang out with new people, and to get to leave my SCA reputation at the door and just see things through the eyes of an outsider. I did in fact eat epic snacks and spent the hottest part of the day totally submerged (and mostly naked) in a pool (there were no kids, just adults! just to clarify!) and it was amazing. I also bought an elf fanny pack. No shame.

While there, I naturally found myself comparing the experience to an SCA event. For example, not surprisingly the attendees trended much younger than the typical SCA crowd, and the clothing trended more toward fantasy (including steampunk) than historical. There were also some similarities, like the idea of households and the overall concept of creating an experience somehow outside of everyday modern life.

But these aren’t the comparisons I want to talk about. The comparisons I want to talk about are quite a bit heavier. Y’all, it’s time to unpack some privilege.

Within about the first hour of being on site, I had seen more people of color, “visibly queer” people, and trans and gender nonconforming people than I have seen in the last 15 years in the SCA combined.

I sat with that thought smoldering all weekend, and it ignited my activist nature.

Although I am a white person, I do not tend to spend my time in majority-white spaces. The SCA is by far the whitest part of my life, and that has never sat well with me. I am an anti-racist activist, and when I see that an organization I am a part of is not appealing to people of color, I notice that and figure out what I can do to change it. The fact that PoC are participating in something that is broadly similar to the SCA was a wake-up call to me: what are the pirates doing right that we aren’t? I’m not sure I have a good answer to that, and while I have a few ideas I don’t think I’m versed enough in “pirate culture” to be able to say for sure. It’s also hard for me to sort out what the SCA is doing “wrong” since my own white privilege prevents me from seeing our organizational blind spots. Because I am white, it is not appropriate for me to speak for the PoC experience; I can say that I have personally heard some really disheartening stories from PoC about the SCA and other historical reenactment groups. For me it’s enough to know that there are PoC who are drawn to things very much like the SCA, but who are not choosing the SCA; that’s worth fixing.

I suspect that the knee-jerk reaction to all that is to try to deny that we have a problem, or to find reasons to explain away the lack of PoC participation in the SCA; again, though, that perspective comes from a place of privilege — as white people, it’s too easy to for us to accept mostly white (or all white) spaces as normal and acceptable.

Similarly, it’s easy for straight and cisgender people to accept heteronormative institutions. And oh, the SCA has some deeply entrenched heteronormative and trans-exclusionary norms. I am queer, and a cisgender pro-trans activist. Queer and trans people are a normal part of the fabric of my social life. Again, while I can’t speak to the trans experience, I have personally observed trans-exclusionary attitudes on full display in the SCA. Our language as an organization is highly gendered — we are all lords or ladies — and our concepts of chivalry rely heavily on very specific gender expectations; all of this leads to an environment where trans, nonbinary, agender, and gender nonconforming people are left out.

I can definitely speak to what it feels like to be a queer person in the SCA. It took me much longer to come out in the SCA than in any other context, and I’m not even sure I can explain why, just that it felt a lot harder to be gay in the SCA than to be gay in the rest of my life. Those same institutionalized gender expectations and gendered language mentioned above also marginalize queer people. Just look at the fight over Inspirational Equality — that Corpora used gendered language from the get-go shows that at the founding of this organization, not one person considered a queer or trans perspective. We had to ask for a seat at the table after the fact. And then when we asked for the rules to be changed to allow us to participate as equals, we were met with bitter resistance. In spite of the fact we do not actually have any explicit requirement for historical accuracy and we state that we are about recreating history “as it should have been,” suddenly people got really riled up about “authenticity” as a reason to exclude same-gender consorts. Yet I’m pretty sure I can actually make a much better historical case for queer monarchs than for monarchs chosen by rattan-sword combat.

That leads nicely to what I see as the way forward: we can choose which aspects of history we celebrate and look to for inspiration, and it’s time for us to align to a more diverse image of the past. The truth is, we have always been here. History was not white, cisgender, and straight. Even if we maintain the Eurocentric focus of the SCA, black and brown people absolutely lived in Europe during the medieval and renaissance periods. Are our images of the Middle Ages based more in reality, or in 19th and 20th century fantasy? There are numerous accounts of queer sexuality during our time period of study, and of people whom we would probably now describe as trans. Are we celebrating these stories? Through what lenses are we interpreting the past, and what do those lenses prevent us from seeing? Are we recreating the past, or are we recreating an idealized “past” as imagined by (mostly or all white and straight) college kids in 1966?

Perhaps you think I shouldn’t bring “modern politics” or “political correctness” into your dress up game. For marginalized groups, the personal is inherently political. White, cisgender, and heterosexual are not apolitical default options. If the idea of doing some work to make sure everyone feels welcome in our game bothers you, I would like to encourage you to sit with that discomfort and really examine it before reacting. The reality is, we make choices in reenactment; we pick and choose which parts of the past we will bring into the present. It’s time for us to choose inclusion. We say that we are rooted in “The Dream” — but whose dream is it, and who gets to take part?

As a Laurel, one of my responsibilities is to promote research and authenticity. I see now that I can use that as a pathway toward strengthening the Dream. I commit to seek out information about people of color, queer people, and trans people in medieval and renaissance Europe (ignoring for now the bigger problem of Eurocentrism) and to find ways to celebrate and publicize these stories. If you take only one thing from this rambling post, let it be this: queer, trans, black, and brown people lived in the same past that we say we are recreating — if ANYONE tries to use “authenticity” to justify bigotry or exclusion, you have my permission to say, as loudly as you can: ACTUALLY, THAT’S A COMMON MISCONCEPTION! You don’t have to be a Tumblr-discourse-certified SJW to be an ally, you actually just have to be a history lover.

I would like to issue a challenge to everyone who reads this: if you would like to help me build a better SCA, pick some part of this and take action. Here are some ideas:

  • Use gender-neutral language. “Good gentle” as opposed to “My lord / my lady,” “the Coronets” instead of “Baron and Baroness”, etc.
  • Include people of color in whatever images you create (metaphorically or literally) of history; you remember my favorite tumblr, right? MedievalPOC on Tumblr
  • Unpack your own privilege; there are lots of resources online to help you do this.

Do you have other ideas for how to make the SCA more inclusive for marginalized groups, either those described here or others? I have totally overlooked the disability perspective, for example. I would love to hear your ideas in the comments. (Comments are moderated, by the way.)

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Author: eulalia

I'm a foodie, medievalist, crafter, and gardener living in beautiful Portland, Oregon.

18 thoughts on “I went to Pirate Camp and came back with all these O.P.I.N.I.O.N.S., or: Who Deserves a Place in “The Dream”?”

  1. BRAVA!! I was watching Dr. Who the other night and they visited 19th century London. “It’s a while lot blacker here than in the movies!” exclaimed a very surprised Bill (the Doctor’s companion – she’s black and a lesbian). I LOVED THAT. I’m going to include more Roman images of PoC in my stuff!

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  2. This is spot on.
    When I was a Chatelaine I did as much as I was able to try to have recruitment include more than just white, middle-aged middle-agers. It was difficult.
    I can count most of the PoC I was able to recruit on one hand.
    I had this issue with Amtgard, as well; but being a pie-rat…. I don’t know if it is the media-savvy draw (ever see a black knight aside from Martin Lawrence?), or the fact that there are more popular media, or if it’s just that survival is far more important than Recreation when you live in an urban hell, but…
    This Is A Problem.
    Let’s fix it!

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  3. Well, ratz! Now I wish I had gone to Seadogs. (except someone had to stay home to feed and reassure the catzen) It would have been a blast, and no doubt educational, to talk with you about this!

    My real world household has put me in contact with, and given me good insight, about the gay, trans, SBD, and all sorts of genderally and sexually different folks. You know what? I find them mostly pretty accepting of a straight, cis person wandering around cluelessly in their mileu. It’s nice. I can learn stuff! Actually, I started this journey with a mutual SCA friend or two, a Mercedes Lackey trilogy, and camping with Clan Bluefeather. (The latter gave hubby brain cramp, but he got over it.) Then some folks came to live with me who are part of the sex-positive community. I’ve been learning a lot from them!

    I think I understand how the pie-rat camping thing came to be more accepting of whatever style of human shows up, so long as they respect others. The pirate folks I know are part of the sex-positive, gender-and-sexual-preference-variable community. I *think* pirate events are, to some extent, an alternate to the SCA because of this acceptance. NOT the only reason, by far. (Some people view the SCA as having become generally too stodgy, and less fun than it used to be.)

    Anyway, I hear you. I don’t have good ideas about what to do about it, except to show up with brain engaged, and mouth at half-cock. But that would mean I’d have to show up, and I haven’t figured out how to “re-matriculate” yet.

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  4. Here’s a suggestion for your list of ways to take action: campaign with your local group and kingdom to make sure that event sites have gender-neutral bathroom and shower facilities available.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I suppose I have been lucky. My experiences in my kingdom have been fairly positive regarding queer, trans and PIC. The silly argument is “we’re the Outlands, we do what we want.”
    The truth of it is, we are such a diverse kingdom that I have never seen the problem you have mentioned. Right from the start of my joining, everyone has been supportive and understanding of my trans identity. I have a whole kingdom at my back should shit go down.
    However I do agree with your statement. The middle ages was anything but distended straight white, and we should, as a society, work to fix that.

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  6. “Perhaps you think I shouldn’t bring “modern politics” or “political correctness” into your dress up game.”

    Yes! Around the time when the SCA officially decided to allow same-sex consorts, I was learning about concepts like co-ruling and the Tetrarchy in the Roman Empire. People were saying that same-sex rulers were ahistorical, when in reality the “king and queen” system seems to be even less historical based on the sheer volume of succession methods and types of rule that were present just in Medieval Europe, let alone in the rest of the world.

    I always get bothered when people make this accusation of “political correctness.” It’s not some weird concept that people insist on applying to everyday life. It’s a way of bringing the rest of us IN, not leaving all y’all white, cis men OUT. Come join the party, non-minorities. Just realize that it’s not all about you.

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  7. I am a trans-woman in AEthelmearc. Our populace is pretty accepting of us LGBT folks, thanks to a large contingent of Clan Bluefeather and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. We need to work at getting more PoC to events. I only know of a few and the only time I see them is at Pennsic.

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  8. Excellent post! I was sent here from a regular of the Seadog Nations events. I went to Tortuga some time ago, and one thing I noticed, apart from the much larger proportion of especially queer folks (unfortunately i didn’t notice the POC representation, which is clearly my own privilege), was a lot more people who were not able-bodied as well. I talked to them, and the general sense I got was the Seadog Nations community was open to all, and they lived by that idea. This is something I’ve been working to create and instill in the SCA. Our branch in the south of An Tir has a large proportion of gender non-conforming and queer people, much of which is based on being as inclusive as possible, using Good Gentle as an honorary/trying to avoid gendered titles, etc. For some of these reasons we also have a much more balanced 50% ratio or so of female fighters.

    Your post has inspired me to look at create a class, talking about POC and queer history in Europe. I’d love any resources you might have!

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  9. I am firmly of the opinion that as long as we have an explicitly European focus, that will read as code for racism to many people. It’s inaccurate, as Europe wasn’t entirely white in our period, but if we want to grow as a society and attract people who are interested in research, the European focus needs to go. We have a broad time range; there’s no reason not to broaden the geographic and cultural range as well. More to learn means more to do.

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  10. This is an AWESOME POST! My partner is trans and is on a facebook group for trans people in the sca. I’ll see if she wants to repost this there; I think you’d get a lot of great suggestions from that group.

    Her personal experience has been that she doesn’t tell many people she’s trans in the SCA because she doesn’t want to deal with any bullshit that might result; but she’s not closeted, and the people who know or find out have universally been accepting. So far.

    I myself would like to see more classes on the construction of gender & sexuality in the middle ages. I haven’t seen many out there although there’s a growing body of work on the topic, for example http://www.medievalists.net/2011/07/same-sex-relations-in-the-middle-ages/. I’ve seen a couple of classes on PoC in the middle ages, but not as many.

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  11. And this has been on my mind as a parent and former youth officer- do you know where the most people of color appear at any given event? The Youth activities. Our children that we bring to events need to see representations of themselves in both the materials we use to teach and in the SCA at large.

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  12. Thank you for putting this into words. I’m trying to figure out how to be genderqueer in the SCA, because I would like to be more of myself than “just” a Viking Shieldmaiden. I have a few trans friends here in the East. And we definitely need to include more non white folks!

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  13. Thank you. I am a queer, NB, and disabled person. I used to be very active in the SCA, but had to take an extended break. I am just now trying to break back in to my local barony (new location, all new people) and am finding certain things difficult. People insist on using the term “Lady” to refer to me, and that kinda makes me flinch. I am also trying to find a way to get back into the combat arts (sword & board was very important to me and my “identity” in my previous SCA experience) I don’t see a way that I can get back into sword-work, but archery is a possibility. The problem with archery is that the location of practices are about 22 minutes normal walking speed from the local bus lines (urban area) and on top of a mesa. Very difficult to get to and by the time I arrive I am too worn out from the journey to participate. It does leave me with the feeling that with my physical disadvantages, my only places in the SCA are in A&S, bardic, or service. I am still looking for a way to adapt, and I am sure I will, but it would be nice if the SCA would meet me partway.

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  14. i noticed the overtly whiteness of the populace when i played in the SCA, and when i switched out to mostly Steampunk events, i was happy to find more people of color and trans folks. as the mother of a trans man, its something i am aware of. Ive considered re connecting with my local SCA crowd…

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