The Phoenix Gaymers is a Valley non-profit that teams with organizations like Fierce Friends and One-N-Ten in an effort to raise awareness about LGBT resources.
But its roots are much more humble. The group started out as a group of of friends who just wanted to play games in an Apache Junction living room.
Shane Cooper-Blissett, co-chairman of the Gaymers, started a LGBT gaming group in Apache Junction, in 2005, where folks gathered to play games every month.
“Initially, it was just a social night,” Cooper-Blissett said. “We started to grow; our game nights were anywhere from 70 or 80 people — and that was at my apartment at the time.”
After marching in a Phoenix Pride parade a few years ago, the group then decided to become involved in the area’s larger LGBTQ community.
“We wanted to do more than just get together and play games. We wanted to have an impact on the community,” Cooper-Blissett said.
Joe Erickson sits down to play Super Smash Bros at First Union Church in Phoenix on April 20, 2019. (Photo: Meg Potter/Special to The Republic)
Phoenix Gaymers: A place to be yourself
Julie Coburn, promotions manager for the Phoenix Gaymers, joined the group in 2015 and became a board member the following year. Coburn has been interested in games since she was a kid, “ever since the original Nintendo.” After making the move from Ohio to Phoenix, she browsed meetup.com looking for free events in her area.
“I think that half of my friends here I’ve met through Gaymers, because it’s an easier setting to meet people than going out to bars all the time, which can be kind of superficial,” Coburn said. “Unfortunately, in the gay community, everything seems to revolve around bars because we don’t have any gay-owned coffee shops or (other spaces) like that.”
Eric Fischer, who has been an active member of the Phoenix Gaymers since 2005, feels similarly.
The group “is one of the few places for LGBT people to be with others that’s not a bar scene. So much of the gay scene is hung up around bars or clubs,” Fischer said. “There’s a lot of people (like) your average nerd or geek who tends to have social anxiety, so when you add that to the mix of being queer as well, there are few places to go that you really feel comfortable to be yourself.”
Cooper-Blissett put it in a historical context.
“Our history is largely centered on bars; it always has been,” Cooper-Bissett said. “Stonewall started 50 years ago in a bar. For decades, that’s the only place we could go. Over the years, with organizations coming up like Phoenix Gaymers, Phoenix Pride, one n ten, there are more avenues for people to be social other than bars.”
Coburn said that the priority for the Gaymers is “providing a fun, safe space for people.”
Fischer’s experiences with the Gaymers attests to the success of the group.
“It was more a place where I could feel at home with other nerds who were also gay. It (is) a place where you can be yourself and not feel like you had to go out and party to make friends,” Fischer said. Through their partnerships with One-N-Ten, Fierce Friends and Rebel & Divine, the Gaymers successfully create a space for not only gay people, but also for women, people of color and trans people, despite the sometimes hostile gaming community.
“(The gaming community) is still getting there,” Coburn said. “You still hear people complain all the time, and people leave the industry because it’s still sexist. Or you’ll hear people complain when (gaming companies) make a diversified game. They say, ’Oh I don’t want to be a woman. Why are all the characters women?’ But it’s like, ‘Why are all the characters always straight white guys?'”
Diversity lounge at Phoenix Fan Fusion
The diversity lounge is a space at the Phoenix Fan Fusion that the Phoenix Gaymers have hosted for the past few years. The goal of the diversity lounge is to create a space during the convention where attendees can relax and not worry about being the “other,” according to Coburn.
“Everyone is welcome, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, faith and visible or non-visible needs,” Cooper-Blissett said.
People of all backgrounds use this space provided by the Phoenix Gaymers to step away from the commotion of the convention and find peace and quiet. This space has been used by mothers to breast-feed their children, Muslims who needed a place to pray and LGBT folks who needed additional resources.
“A couple years ago, we had a young person come in and they had just come out as transgender to their family and then kicked out that day. They found the diversity lounge, and we found them a place to stay that night,” Cooper-Blissett said.
Coburn also has seen the impact of the diversity lounge.
“One of my favorite (was) when one of the sisters from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence was at a booth we had, and kids who you could tell were still questioning themselves or figuring out what their sexuality was were having fun and taking photos with the sisters,” Coburn said.
Moments like this are special because it shows the impact that visibility has on young LGBT people.
“A lot of parents bring their kids by who are questioning or feel like they don’t quite fit in, and they have a great time,” Coburn said.
The diversity lounge’s popularity among Phoenix Fan Fusion goers has increased. In 2018 — 2,200 people visited the diversity lounge; in 2019, the number rose to 4,100 visitors.
The Phoenix Gaymers are coming up on their 14th anniversary, and seeing their transformation from a small group of friends to a non-profit group involved in the local LGBT community has been an amazing journey, Cooper-Blissett said.
“The best part of the Phoenix Gaymers, and I know this sounds somewhat cliche, is doing something that makes a difference,” Fischer said. “So many people want to do something in life that they feel makes a difference toward others. It’s about finding something that you feel you can be passionate about and enjoy doing.”
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