A small but unpleasant thing happened at a con recently which brought to my attention several issues that, in my naivety, reclusiveness and small-scale social paddling pool of carefully vetted beautiful-hearted human beings I had not been aware of.
But before I talk about the little incident and the road forward from there, I need to make it clear that I am speaking and writing and feeling from a situation of immense privilege. For anyone who doesn’t already know, I am half Rromani. Over the generations the parents and grandparents of my family have done all they could to merge with mainstream British culture to the point that all the children of my generation (and now my children’s generation) can live without the stigma associated with being labelled with the racist term ‘gypsy.’
That means they totally (publicly) abandoned their names, culture, religion, traditions, language, dress, beliefs… so that we could have full access to jobs, education, a social life and all the other aspects of life which they had been denied because of their ethnicity. Being Rromani was dangerous, it still is for many, and so my family hid – becoming invisible in plain sight.
Because of their sacrifice, I am able to choose to stand shoulder to shoulder with any other middle class British person, blissfully unaffected by racial issues of disadvantage or prejudice. So when I choose to reclaim, explore or celebrate aspects of my cultural heritage I am exercising that right from a position of safety and privilege ; I am able to choose to opt in or out, to reveal or to hide.
Often I choose to opt in because I feel that, if I don’t, all the beautiful and terrible things that are becoming lost will be lost forever. All the stories will pass away. I feel that the efforts of my elders will have been wasted if I don’t stand in the place their sacrifice has put me and wave their flag for them. Opre Roma? Well, here we are! And although I have endured the odd idiotic remark, that is by no means comparable to the atrocious suffering undergone by many Rromani people, both historically and today.
So when my husband and I Steampunk we always draw inspiration from Rromani history and culture (real Rromani history and culture, not this, frankly insulting, ‘steampunk gypsy’ aesthetic that can be seen wafting around the internet) and, probably because we always Steampunk small-scale with friends and family, this has never been an issue.
But this year we went to something big and I’m sad to say that we received some rather idiotic remarks from a few other Steampunks about our overtly Rromani costumes not being ‘Proper Steampunk.’ Thankfully our children didn’t hear and obviously we didn’t run off to blub in the toilets but just got on with the day and had a marvellous time. But it has lead my husband to say that perhaps we shouldn’t dress like that anymore (in case it happens again and the children do hear and get upset), that we should just wear top hats, goggles and lots of high tech gadgetry to try and fit in more rather than stand out as something outside the norm, perhaps we’re ruining it for the mainstream and they don’t want people to stray from the approved aesthetic? Or perhaps they just don’t understand and it’s not worth trying to educate them.
Well I thought about it long and hard – at first I have to say I was shell shocked because I’d always assumed that my small but very diverse circle of educated, enlightened, all-accepting and utterly beautiful friends was reflective of the entire Steampunk Community. I did some snooping, hoping to discover that my first impressions had been correct and that what we experienced was a one off… sadly I found lots of folks had had similar experiences … but happily I also found that lots of folks like us were trying to put their own cultural stamp on Steampunk and THAT I felt was something to dwell on, to pay attention to, to celebrate and to encourage.
I need to respond to what happened, because it left such a nasty taste in my mouth, and fortunately I am in a position that enables me to choose to respond by ignoring those trolls and instead drawing attention to as many fabulous folks as I can find who are doing good things and helping to make our community diverse, interesting, welcoming, representative, inclusive and fun for everyone who wants to be a part of it – because I think that for the most part it is!
So I stand very awkwardly, very humbly, and very nervously before you all today, in the shadow of those far better and wiser than me, on the shoulders of those far stronger and more deserving, hoping to spend some time celebrating the diversity that already exists within our wonderful Steampunk world by bringing together some fantastic writers, artists, musicians and creators who are actively shaping the genre into a really splendid scene to be a part of. (rather than an exclusive, fusty old gentleman’s club stuck up it’s own rear end).
So that is what will be happening here over the next few months ( I mean, hopefully it sort of inadvertently happens already!)
Nimue Brown spoke recently about creating types of sacred space, the more we all work together to try and create sacred spaces where we can celebrate and explore our own histories and cultures side by side through the medium of punk fiction, the more the trolls will be pushed to the sidelines where they belong.
(Thankyou for humouring me. Apologies for the interruption to the usual schedule of frivolity and mayhem, normal tea service will resume as soon as octopoidly possible…)
😉 – Penny