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.)