Gays in Space: How an Archive of Star Wars Fanzines Helped this Queer Woman Live Her Best Life
In 2016, I drove nine hours from Tennessee to Iowa during my spring break to research homoerotic Star Wars fanzines from the 1970s–1990s. “But why?” asked many of my peers. Well, I went through a bit of a crisis in the last months of my master’s program. Not knowing whether I would ever be in academia again, I ambitiously decided to take a deep dive into some queer history and fan studies — far different from my focus on youth activism of the Civil Rights Movement. Since I came out as a queer woman in graduate school, I think I felt guilty for never attempting to study the history of my own community. So, for one week, I immersed myself in the special collections at the University of Iowa to piece together the political, social, and cultural connections between the rise of the Religious Right in the United States and the suppression of homosexuality in fan-produced Star Wars magazines. It became a much more personal and emotional adventure than I ever could have imagined.
The paper I wrote using this archival research sucked. My thesis was a mess, and my evidence seemed disjointed. But this project was never about the paper, or the grade, or the class. I wanted to learn about myself, and where I came from. I wanted to feel like I mattered. At the time, for me, holding a fanzine filled with homosexual art, stories, and discussions now housed in a prestigious archive designated my queerness as something that mattered. It was important enough to be cared for by trained professionals, so that present and future generations could appreciate and learn from the pages of these texts.
I never once learned about the range of human sexuality in a history class, or any other class. Like many queer people, I grew up discovering I was not straight through popular culture. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer made me realize it was okay for girls to wanna kiss girls. Still, I kept that part of me hidden until I was an adult. Internet fan culture was the one space where I was able to explore that part of myself. I spent too many hours in my teenage years devouring fan fiction and fan art on sites like LiveJournal. In my naivety, I thought fandom was new, a product of the internet, but it actually has an extensive past.
Fandom activities like fan fiction have existed as long as there have been stories. Fanzines centered on media, such as television and film, began with the series Star Trek, which debuted in 1966 and had its first zine, Spockanalia, by September 1967. Star Wars fanzines, first published soon after the release of the original film in 1977, contained works of fiction, poetry, art, sometimes games like crossword puzzles, and almost all of them had letter sections filled with lengthy, intense debates on the characters and storylines created by George Lucas.
Before the internet was commonplace, these fanzines were mailed to subscribers or bought at fan conventions, while some of the more homoerotic material was passed through underground networks. Due to the community archiving practices of people like Mariellen (Ming) Wathne, some of these fanzines have been preserved and placed in university repositories.
In mid-March 2016, Monday through Friday, I woke up early every morning in the basement of a stranger’s house in Iowa City (Airbnb has its problems, but it does provide affordable housing for research trips) and trekked to the Special Collections to dig through their fanzine archives with the gracious help of curator Peter Balestrieri. It was a quiet week. Most days I was the only researcher there. I often stayed until closing time, and only took breaks to eat lunch. I took hundreds of photographs and wrote countless pages of notes. I cursed the short hours in a day because I found myself caught between being a researcher and being a fangirl. I tried skimming for evidence, but when it came to zines like Elusive Lover, filled with queer stories about Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, how could I not read the whole darn thing right there in the archive like it was 1996 again?
Not all Star Wars fanzines explored themes of sex and sexuality, but the ones that did caused the most tension with Lucasfilm. In August 1981, the production company sent the first wave of cease-and-desist letters asking fanzine publishers to not accept stories featuring sexually explicit material. Maureen Garrett, director of the Official Star Wars Fan Club, explained that Lucasfilm’s main concern was preserving the “wholesome” nature of the Star Wars universe, which seemed hypocritical to some fans considering the violent themes in the films.1 The fandom’s reaction split between those who supported George Lucas’ right to set publishing standards and those who felt he was censoring their freedom of expression. Some people even directly blamed the rise of the Moral Majority for Lucasfilm’s policy.2
Those fans and fanzine publishers that wanted to continue writing sexually explicit and queer material did so through more secretive networks. In the 1990s, wider use of the internet made it easier to create and share queer fan fiction and art. Since then, major companies like Lucasfilm have looked the other way when it comes to not-for-profit fandom activities because the internet has made it much harder to control.
Knowing this intense and oppressive history made it all the more emotional to research these fanzines in the archive. I loved reading the stories and exploring the romantic art in Elusive Lover and Organia, which were two of the most prominent slash Star Wars fanzines in this particular archival collection.3 It is typically difficult to imagine yourself living in the past, but I tried to get a sense of how much time and money and the steps it took to acquire a single copy of Organia when it was published in 1982.
Today, I can find and read queer fan fiction on my phone within seconds. I can also easily build relationships with others who are interested in similar stories through an abundance of social media platforms. Would I have been as involved in queer fandom activities in the early 1980s as I am now? I started to appreciate the time in which grew up and my relative ability to live more freely than the queer people before me.
There is also something to be said about the power behind the sense of touch. Before my trip to Iowa, all of the queer fan fiction I read was online. But these fanzines were pieced together by hand, with the help of machines, and bound as tangible objects. They were not readily accessible to the wider public. Instead, these zines were the product of a small, passionate community. Kind of a secret. Kind of like how I kept my queerness close to my heart. As I turned the pages of these historic texts, I felt at peace. I had physically touched the foundations of the online fandom in which I safely and unabashedly explored my sexuality. For the first time, I felt connected to a queer community, and, later that year, I felt comfortable enough to start wearing rainbows and openly expressing my queerness.
And that’s why my spring break in grey, snowy Iowa was the best spring break of my life.
- Letter from Maureen Garrett, October 7, 1981, Comlink no. 4, December 1, 1981, page 8, in the Maggie Nowakowska Collection of Star Wars Fan Material, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, Iowa. Return to text.
- Letter from Elizabeth Gootjes, Jundland Wastes no. 5/6, November 1981, page 11, in the Maggie Nowakowska Collection of Star Wars Fan Material, the University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, Iowa. Return to text.
- Slash is a fandom term for queer or same-sex relationships because they are often indicated using the slash symbol on a keyboard, i.e. Han/Luke. Return to text.
Sarah Calise earned her M.A. in public history from Middle Tennessee State University in May 2016. She is the Political and Regional Collections Archivist at the Albert Gore Research Center. Her current research interests focus on student activism in the United States, and the issues of access and ethics in digital and social media archiving. You can join her in passionate discussions about professional wrestling, pop music, and Stucky (Bucky Barnes/Steve Rogers) fan fiction on Twitter at @SarahCalise.