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Jamie Wetherbe

Jamie Wetherbe

Posted: March 29, 2010 03:00 PM

SXSW Comes Out: The Annual Conference Gets More Gay Friendly

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As SXSW Interactive came to a close, critics said the conference has turned bloated and irrelevant. The tech was gone -- at least the truly innovative tech -- replaced by Sobe cocktails and Zone bars. And less access to panels and parties -- at least the really good ones -- kept techies from doing what we like most, networking while drinking for free. (Check out Jolie O'Dell post "Why SXSW Sucks")

No doubt that SXSWi has grown: Word is more than 12,000 people attended the Interactive portion with the number of badge-holders surpassing the Music side. As a SXSWi newbie, I was also irrelevant, spending much of my time waiting in lines: for panels, events and pricey coffees served in sad, small cups.

For better or for worse, SXSWi has become mainstream (Chevy and Monster Energy both had booths), but on the plus side, more minorities were added to the mix. Overall, I'd have to say that this year's SXSW, held March 12 to 21 in Austin, Texas, was pretty, well, gay.

On the film side, Bear Nation premiered at SXSW Film Festival. The documentary by Malcolm Ingram and Kevin Smith, featuring music icon Bob Mould, shows off the brawny life of this gay subculture.

SXSW music followed suit, with out-artist Melissa Ferrick playing several shows and serving as a panelist on songwriting. And GayBiGayGay, a music fest for gay bands and fans was held the last day of SXSW.

On the tech side, bisexual adult film star Nina Hartley ― who's spent 26 years in the business, "If you count stripping," she said ― hosted a panel about how the Internet has been a blessing and curse for the adult film industry (more accessibility, good; more free content, bad). And how Hartley has harnessed social media to reach fans. (I'm not sure if she had any real social networking insights, but, hey, porn did draw a crowd.)

Another tech thing of note: For the first time this year SXSWi held its first LGBT-dedicated panel, Engaging the Queer Community.

Panelists ranged form different areas of the digital world: Bil Browning, contributor for the Bilerico Project, an independent political news blog; Fausto Fernos of Feast of Fun, a Chicago-based podcast featuring "all things queer;" Sinclair Sexsmith, of Sugarbutch Chronicles, a personal blog about "the sex, gender and relationship issues of a kinky-queer-butch top;" and Trish Bendix, blog editor for AfterEllen.com, which offers lesbian spin on news and entertainment.

"There was nothing queer about SXSWi, despite many lesbians ― and other parts of the LGBT community ― being techies, geeks and the like," said Bendix who organized the panel. "There have been panels and talks about other minorities in the industry, but nothing specifically LGBT.... I was shocked to find out our panel was the first."

The panelists discussed how the media handles gender and sexuality issues, pen names for closeted bloggers, policies for outing people (none of them have done it) and how the Internet has changed activism. "It's the new phone tree," said Browning. "It's changing how we're talking to each other with in our community and with the straight community."

For example, said Browning, organizers for October's National Equality March drew as many as 500,000 people to Washington, D.C., to protest "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" by focusing on Facebook and Twitter outreach rather than a big budget campaign. Something that would've been impossible in pre-Web days.

As far as which stories get traction from the LGBT community, Browning joked, "We write entirely too much about Neil Patrick Harris."

As for AfterEllen.com's audience, "Something that's going to piss them off or something that's going to excited them, like Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning kissing in The Runaways," said Bendix. (The Runaways, a biopic of a groundbreaking all-girl rock band, was also the headlining film at SXSW.)

And the idea that there's queer in everything, "We'll be following (actress) Eliza Dushku till the end of the earth," Bendix added.

Browning and Sexsmith also do a little bait-and-switch, "Come for the smut," said Sexsmith. "Stay for the queer theory."

Embracing the interactive nature of SXSWi, Bendix planned a "Tweet-up" at an Austin gay bar, created a Facebook page and used the hashtag #sxswhomo so we gays could connect.

"Catering to, writing for, dealing with, marketing to the LGBT community is a specific niche and while not all queers attending SXSW are interested in that, I'm sure they can appreciate that the programmers are attempting to be inclusive on that level," said Bendix.

And for her efforts, Bendix was able to practice what many experts at SXSWi preach: engaging people online means creating a sense of community.