When Joshua Meadows moved to Sydney from the bright lights of New York City, the only person he knew was his partner who moved over with him. Joshua, a gamer, craved a social circle he could call his own, and right after his residency visa cleared, Joshua joined a group for gay, lesbian and transgender games called Sydney Gaymers. Little did he know, he'd just joined a community that he would go on to lead as it grew exponentially in its membership in the next 12 months. Now, on the precipice of its first anniversary, the group has over 400 loyal members and is preparing to march as the first group of gamers in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, with a float sponsored by gaming heavyweights like Valve, Sony and NCSoft.
Sydney Gaymers was forged out of a desire to create a safe space for the city's (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and queer and intersex (LGBTQI) community). Somewhere they could come together, away from the derogatory trash talk and insults of typical gaming communities and into a welcoming environment. The environment they created was so safe that members have joined who are still "in the closet" to their friends and family. This is the story of the Sydney Gaymers, who bonded over video games with a dream to take it to Mardi Gras.
Sydney Gaymers was founded less than a year ago by a then-17 year old who wanted to play Magic: The Gathering at a pub with a few friends. The original founder is no longer at the head of the organisation, but he comes to meetings and still loves every minute. The organisation is now steered by four "admins" who try to get everyone together around twice per month for a hugely diverse gaming session. One of those admins is Joshua, the very same gaymer that joined the group in a search for likeminded friends he could play games with.
"Everyone has a really diverse set of interests. We have a Nintendo DS group who play together, MMO fans, console gamers and people who just like board games. We try at every meet to cater to the diversity of interests in our group. We have consoles available and we even set up some tabletop games so that people can experiment with different games they haven't played before," Joshua explains.
All of the equipment used at the meetings is provided by admins, members and friends of the Sydney Gaymers to make the meetings as diverse as possible. The community was founded as a way for LGBT gamers to feel safe with like-minded people in a way that they might not have felt safe doing before with others.
"I don't think anyone would disagree with the fact that the worldwide gaming community does...enable some pretty nasty harassment," Joshua tells me. Even though he's on the phone at the other end of a city, I nod my head in agreement. All you need to do is log onto Call of Duty multiplayer to find that gay isn't considered as a lifestyle to some gamers, it's an insult.
Joshua explains that some in the LGBT community put down their controllers, card decks and cosplay outfits years ago because they didn't want to go near the venom of the greater gaming community for fear of reprisals about their sexual orientation.
"There would be [more LGBT] people interested in gaming if they weren't turned off by a hostile environment," he explains. "They're not willing to experiment with games because they know they will be subject to language they don't want to be subjected to just for playing a game."
Despite the homophobic trash talk thrown around team chat, however, Joshua explains that women actually cop the most abuse in gaming from online misogynists.
"So many women I know are uncomfortable playing Call Of Duty because they get comments about 'going back to the kitchen', along with unwanted sexual advances, so it's not just something the LGBT community has to deal with. It's far-reaching.
"I know people get amped up playing these games, and trash talk is totally going to happen. It's only natural, but when that crosses the line to harassment and derogatory comments about someone's gender or sexual orientation, that's what discourages new people from picking up controllers to join in," Joshua explains.
My nodding is reaching fever pitch now. This is why Sydney Gaymers is so important.
"There are people in our group who aren't even out to their families, and this is the only place they can be comfortable without fearing reprisal. That's such a great thing for young people to have."
And he's absolutely right. These communities are so important, especially when the suicide rate of people in the LGBT community is reaching epidemic proportions.
Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler, said in 2011 that "the LGBTI community reports higher levels of depression, anxiety and other mental health problems with evidence suggesting they are 3.5 to 14 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general community", announcing a raft of new mental health and suicide prevention programs for the LGBT community.
Sydney Gaymers represents more than just a group of folks who want to play games. It's about safety. Safety in numbers, safety with like-minded people, and a safe space to live your life without fear of reprisals.
"We represent a safe space for people to meet new like-minded people, and now we want to make our existence known to everyone we can," Joshua tells me.
In September last year, Sydney Gaymers led by its four group admins decided it was time to reach out to the greater LGBT community to show them what the group was about. They decided that it was the best time to join the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras 2013 parade as a way of reaching out to more people who need a community of their own.
"The admins decided that the big objective here was to grow the group. It was important to have a presence in the parade for us. At the moment [our float] is primarily funded through raising donations within the group and new members and from some corporate sponsors."
Serious sponsors on board with the Sydney Gaymers include heavyweights like Valve. Other sponsors include Sony Online Entertainment and NCSoft/ArenaNet.
Valve is by far one of the most impressive sponsors of the Sydney Gaymers float, donating the last replica Portal gun signed by the dev team and Valve kingpin, Gabe Newell. The Valve merch and the Portal gun were delivered along with a card that read simply: "Dear Joshua, Valve Loves You".
Joshua honestly didn't expect this level of support.
"These companies have have donated, very generously, several boxes of items that they allow us to raffle off and give away to encourage people to show up to events. When Valve donated one of the lifesize Portal guns — of which only 5000 were made worldwide — I was blown away because I expected just a box of t-shirts or something. I was astonished.
"All of those companies have gone above and beyond what we even asked for. We're happy to have their names on our organisation and our float as having given donations. Some companies shy away from things like that for fear of attracting complaints, so I was happy they sponsored us," Joshua said beaming.
On top of awesome sponsor efforts, Sydney Gaymers recently took to setting up a stall at the Fair Day festival and raffling off other sweet gaming merch.
The Sydney Gaymers' float will feature around 100 members of the community — about one quarter of them all up — with a float that is designed to look like someone's bedroom. Everyone is busy paper maché-ing the float so it's ready for parade night.
When the float sets sail for the parade, a few people will be sit atop the float playing video games on mounted TVs to promote the community and attract more members. Only a few people will be on the float itself, but the rest will be girting dressed in video game cosplay and Sydney Gaymers shirts as they traverse the parade route.
Despite the fact that only 100 members can march, hundreds more are coming to watch and support their community.
"It's inspiring to see how many people can actually march with us. We have people all over New South Wales and it's inspiring how many people commute out from places like Woolongong (x km away) [to join us]. They travel for the camaraderie we share."
Sydney Gaymers is holding an event to raise money for its Mardi Gras float, with a limited-edition Portal gun set to be raffled off as a prize. To find out more, head to their website.
Images: Sydney Gaymers/Joshua Meadows