Happy Pride week! While we usually celebrate Pride all month in June, this particular Pride Month has been quite fraught and politically difficult. For the last several weeks, many LGBTQ+ people have postponed their month-long celebrations of Pride to make room for other marginalized voices, namely Black Lives Matter. I think that’s important and I stand by this stance myself. So now it’s time for us to join our voices with the national conversation.
Disclaimer: For this story I am speaking from my own experience as an LGBTQ+ LEGO fan that has risen to a bit of prominence in the LEGO world due to being on LEGO Masters. I don’t claim to speak for the LGBTQ+ community as a whole or even for the whole LGBTQ+ LEGO community. All I know is what I have experienced, heard and observed in my time with this hobby and this is what I share with you now.
Overall I have been fortunate enough (one might even say privileged enough) to have very rarely been on the receiving end of homophobia in the LEGO community. When my husband of ten years and I joined the hobby 5 years ago, we were welcomed with open arms both in our LEGO club (BayLUG) and our local convention, Bricks By The Bay. Subsequent trips to Bricks LA were met with the same openness, and it all culminated in a spectacular experience at Bricks Cascade earlier this year, fueled by our appearance on LEGO Masters. What struck me the most about the Bricks Cascade experience is that not only were we there as “LEGO celebrities,” we were there as an openly gay, married couple and people still waited in long lines to see us, shake our hands and give us hugs. It was the kind of reception I could have only dreamed of as a young, gay man in the 90’s during the heart of the AIDS crisis.
I have to give a lot of credit to LEGO, Fox Television, Tuesday’s Child, and the whole production team of LEGO Masters for their work in creating a diverse cast of various races, colors and creeds. From the minute we all met, we were instantly bonded and the subsequent days and weeks brought us even closer. While I applauded the inclusiveness and celebrated great joy with my new LEGO family, I couldn’t help feeling terrified in the pit of my stomach. Once filming was completed I had a lot of anxiety surrounding what it was going to be like when the show finally made it to air. Would we be the subject of homophobic remarks on the internet? Would these people target us? Thankfully none of those things happened, although I will admit to not searching too far for these sorts of things. There was the CBN (Christian Broadcast Network) article provocatively titled “Innocence Stolen: Fox pushes LGBT agenda on LEGO show” wherein the writer opined about how he would explain to his young children that two men were married and (gasp!) on TV for the world to see! I let it roll off my back with a shaking of my head, although to be honest, it did needle me a bit. All this was dispelled a day later when I received a wonderful message from a Christian mother who had read the CBN article. She wanted to let me know that I should ignore those people and that what they said was not valid in her mind. She was a Christian mother of two who loves God, and that Richard and I showed the kind of values that she wanted her children to learn and emulate. It meant the world to me.
A few weeks later, as we prepared to leave for Bricks Cascade, I found myself in the same place again. I wondered what the reception for us would be. LEGO Masters had been on for several weeks and we were certainly already known as being the gay couple on the show. How would people react? Would there be open hostility? Would people just ignore us? Fortunately, none of those things came to pass and the positivity and love from the convention goers and the public were overwhelming. If we had any lingering doubts about the welcome we would get, they were erased immediately. Family after family would come up and tell us how much they loved us on the show and how much they appreciated our love and support of each other. Not only did they love our builds (the “Clockwork Man” being the most popular), they loved our relationship.
Working on a TV show like LEGO Masters is a little like working in a vacuum. You don’t really know what kind of impact you are having on people, if any. One of the things that affected me most was the number of LGBTQ+ people that came up to us or wrote us saying how excited they were to see us on the show. They said they loved that we were out there representing and showing people what a loving gay couple was like. I was so touched by these stories because while it wasn’t our intention to go on TV and make a statement, we had apparently made one just by showing up and being ourselves. And it meant something to people — so much so that the GayFOLS online Facebook community presented myself, Richard, and fellow cast member Samuel Hatmaker, with visibility awards. To know that we had made that kind of impact on people was humbling and a great honor.
Taking the bad with the good
While my personal experience in the LEGO Community has been positive, it is not so for many others. I have witnessed rampant homophobia in online LEGO groups, particularly on Facebook. It is natural that, in groups that number in the thousands with only a love of LEGO to join us together, there will be differing opinions on many subjects. But the vehemence, homophobia and ugliness that I see arise from the most innocent of posts is quite alarming. Sadly, this is nothing new. Back in the early 2000’s I started a video game website aimed at LGBTQ+ players. We faced a considerable amount of blowback and really terrible comments from all over. This was to be expected as the video game world is known to be a hotbed of toxicity. I certainly never expected that type of behavior from AFOLS. Interestingly, when I saw the reactions to these LGBTQ+ LEGO posts from some in the community, it felt like I was reading the same script from my video game days, just with the names changed.
The script generally goes like this: A person posts an innocent LEGO build that contains a rainbow flag, or mentions pride or maybe mentions their same-sex partner. Suddenly, everything explodes and the homophobes come out of the woodwork to state their rage. As it was back in the gaming days, the questions/responses are invariably the same. I’m going to address the three that always seem to be the go-to for these types of exchanges.
1. Why do you have to bring sexuality into LEGO?
If you look at LEGO sets, sexuality has been baked in. There are LEGO couples with babies who are obviously meant to be viewed as married. Sexuality is right there, front and center. What these people are really asking is: Why are you bringing YOUR sexuality into LEGO? This same question also seems to arise when anyone mentions a same-sex partner. How many times have you seen a straight person mention “My wife bought this set for me!” or “My husband thought I would like this!” and then be the subject of hateful commentary? I can’t think of any. The same cannot be said for LGBTQ+ people. By merely mentioning our partners, we’ve suddenly offended people to the point that they feel they must say something. Being able to post something about your life without fear of retribution is a privilege many people seem to take for granted.
Once a situation like this blows up on one of these LEGO groups on Facebook (and it always does), a kind soul will come into the fray and offer a safe place for these affected builders to come and share their work, like the excellent LGBTQ+ Facebook group, GayFOLS. After each one of these incidents, the GayFOLs group suddenly expands by 30-50 members. Every time. This inevitably leads to the next common question…
2. Why do you have to self-segregate yourselves? Why can’t you just be part of this group? We all just like LEGO!
This question is always applied to groups of marginalized people such as people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ people. If the results of posting a build that expresses yourself suddenly explodes into a flame war and then the comments have to be turned off (again, almost every time) would you feel comfortable being in that group? Right there is the answer to this question; it practically answers itself. I will also note that these types of questions are never posed to other “self-segregated” groups like train aficionados, lovers of castles, or a group that is made up of veterans.
3. I don’t care if you’re gay or straight! Can’t you just stop talking about it? Let’s just have fun!
This one is so fraught. If you really don’t care, then why bother saying anything about it? And no, we’re not going to just stop talking about it. Would you stop talking about your wife/husband and kids? Probably not. Why should we have to self-censor to make you more comfortable?
As LGBTQ people, we are always self-censoring. Constantly, every day. Here’s a great example. When my husband and I were interviewed by Beyond the Brick about our Treasure of the Snake Queen model, I was asked “Who did you work on this with?” In the few seconds it took me to answer, my brain was moving a mile a minute. “This is going to be on YouTube and a lot of people will see it! What if someone gets offended? What if this gets a ton of hateful comments? What if a kid sees this and their parents get upset? I better not say husband!” Finally I said “My friend and I…” and I immediately regretted it. I felt guilt and fear and even a little anger. Nobody should have to go through those kinds of mental gymnastics just to be able to mention their husband on a YouTube video.
None of this is to say that all LEGO fans feel or act this way. Clearly they don’t! Just seeing all the convention attendees and all the families and kids who visited with us at Bricks Cascade and the fan mail we receive telling us how much people appreciated the way we supported each other on LEGO Masters more than proves this point. The large majority of AFOLs are kind, loving, and generous people who would do anything to help out a fellow builder — from providing emergency bricks at a convention to sharing interesting building techniques.
Looking to LEGO
To understand the impact of LGBTQ+ people on the hobby, you needn’t look further than LEGO itself. The LEGO Group released their first public nod to the community last year with the “Everyone is Awesome” ad campaign during Pride Month. I know many would agree with me that it was gratifying to feel seen and included. LEGO has also recognized us in other more subtle ways, like the release of the bride and groom BrickHeadz. They could have very easily released them as a pair, as they have done with some other sets, but they chose to package them separately so people could make the kind of couple that would emulate themselves. This may have not been obvious to the average consumer, but it spoke the message of inclusion loud and clear to those who needed to hear it.
LEGO has a remarkably diverse and wonderful staff of talented artists, designers, and their managers, some of whom just so happen to be LGBTQ+ people themselves. Many of the best LEGO sets have been conceived of and designed by these same people. As a matter of fact, I would venture to say that any given set likely had a member of the LGBTQ+ community working on it somewhere along the line. This also extends to LEGOLAND where community members have designed whole parks, rides and have overseen the building of vast Minilands all over the world. Simply put, we are everywhere and a part of the fabric of your everyday life whether you know it or not.
To the Brothers Brick… and beyond!
When I started writing for The Brothers Brick a year and a half ago, I could have never imagined that I would become an editor and a set reviewer, nor did I think I would end up on national TV somehow, building LEGO with my husband. And I certainly didn’t expect I would be writing an article about my experience as a gay man in the hobby. My time here has been incredible and I am so proud to be a part of this smart, funny, crazy, diverse and loving group. A group that stands up for what matters and isn’t afraid to touch on subjects that go beyond the scope of just building. As artists, we pour everything we have into our creations. There is a part of our collected personal experience in everything we make, some obvious, some less so. It’s an expression of who and what we are at our core and that is an experience that we should be able to share without fear of consequences, whether it be a rainbow flag or a WWII tank.
In 2021, Richard and I will be showing our work at the LEGO House in Billund, and I believe we may even be the first gay couple to do so. It’s a huge honor and the culmination of everything we’ve done in the hobby for the past five years. And all those experiences are inextricably intertwined with our lives as a married couple. So thank you for accepting us for who we are, despite whatever differences might be present in our lives. It’s those differences that make us all unique and able to produce art that speaks to people all over the world. Thank you to LEGO, The Brothers Brick and all the readers and LEGO Masters fans out there for making us feel welcome and a part of our big global family.